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Naturally leavened Panettone

Panettone is a wonderful thing, and any keen amateur baker is likely to want to try making it at some point. But before they dive in, they might like to consider the response of a famous baker, when he was asked to recommend a recipe for Panettone. “Leave it to the experts”, he said. I can understand where he was coming from; Panettone is neither quick nor easy to make and there is no guarantee that the end result will be superior to something you might buy.

All that is even more true when you make a naturally leavened version, using a sourdough starter. My first attempt at this took nearly 3 days from start to finish and ended up a little on the sour side. The second version took a little less time but was perfectly sweet – someone declared it was the best Panettone they had ever eaten… It also won the prize at Hobbs House Bakery’s King of the Sourdough competition. (See bottom of this post.)

So why make Panettone? Well, if, like me, you relish a baking challenge, you enjoy the processes of baking as much as the end results, and find it rewarding to know that you have produced something impressive and delicious, why not give it a go? All you have to lose is 60 hours or so of your life!

I have written a yeasted version of this recipe which can be made in one day as opposed to three.

Equipment You Will Need

  • 2 750g paper Panettone cases, approximately 15.5cm across and 11cm high.
  • OR 2 similarly sized tins, like these from Lakeland, greased with butter.
  • If using the paper cases, 2 sandwich tins to stand them on. This will help you move them around without squashing the air out of the dough.
  • A mixer with dough hook is advantageous.

Naturally leavened Panettone


Makes 2 750g loaves.

I have translated and adapted this recipe from a classic and much revered one in “Pane e Roba Dolce” by the Simili Sisters, who occupy a position rather like twin Mary Berrys in Italy.

Their recipe includes a detailed timetable for its various stages. However, this did not work too well for me, as my final rise was extremely slow and my loaves were still not ready to go into the oven late on Sunday evening. I had to decide whether to bake them too soon or stay up very late; I chose the former! The next time I made it, I adapted the time table to ensure that I would definitely be baking during the day on Sunday. This is the timetable I have given below. It is a suggestion only, for it is, I will admit, only for the very dedicated… or slightly mad.

First Refresh (Thursday 21:30)

  • 50g sourdough starter
  • 100g strong white flour
  • 50g warm water

It doesn’t matter what kind of sourdough starter you use, as long as it is active.

Mix together the ingredients and knead until smooth and elastic. Form into a ball and make two deep cuts in the top in the form of cross.  Place in a small bowl, cover with cling film, and leave in a warm place (26-28C) for 4 hours (In fact, I gave this refresh more time so as to fit my schedule).

Second Refresh (Friday 07:00)

  • 100g of the first refresh
  • 100g strong white flour
  • 50g warm water

Mix together the ingredients and knead until smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a fat sausage about 10cm long, wrap it closely in a double layer of muslin (or similar), tie the ends like a cracker with string and bind it around a few times along its length as well.

Panettone Sausage

The second refresh bound up like a sausage

Place in a small dish, cover with cling film and leave in warm place for 10 hours or so. The dough will expand and cause its covering to become very tight. Some of the dough may even squeeze out through the fabric and the outer part may dry out. For the next stage use the inner part of the dough, which will still be moist.

Third Refresh (Friday 18:00)

  • 50g of the second refresh
  • 100g strong white flour
  • 50g warm water

Proceed as for the first refresh.

Fourth Refresh (Friday 22:00)

  • 100g of the third refresh
  • 100g strong white flour
  • 50g warm water

Proceed as for the first refresh.

Fifth Refresh (Saturday 02:00)

  • 100g of the fourth refresh
  • 100g strong white flour
  • 50g warm water

Proceed as for the first refresh.

First Dough (Saturday 06:00)

  • 80g egg yolks (from about 4 eggs)
  • 145g warm water
  • 320g strong white flour
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 130g of the fifth refresh (discard the rest)
  • 80g soft unsalted butter

In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and water together. Add the flour, sugar and 130g of the fifth refresh. Mix well, then knead for about 15 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Mix in the butter and continue kneading for another 10 minutes or until you can stretch the dough out as thin as tissue paper.

Stretching Panettone tissue paper thin

Stretching Panettone dough tissue paper thin

Cover the dough in the bowl with cling film and leave to rise at room temperature (21C) until it has tripled or quadrupled in size. This could take 12-14 hours.

Second Dough (Saturday 20:00)

  • 200g sultanas
  • 45ml (3 tablespoons) Cointreau or similar
  • 50g warm water
  • 15g powdered milk
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 60g egg yolks (from about 3 eggs)
  • 6g honey
  • 6g malt syrup
  • 6g fine sea salt
  • 1½ teaspoons (7.5ml) vanilla paste
  • ¾ teaspoon (3.75ml) Aroma Panettone
  • 160g strong white flour
  • 85g soft unsalted butter
  • The first dough (all of it)
  • 75g diced candied orange peel
  • 75g diced candied citron peel

At least 2 hours before the first dough has finished rising, mix the sultanas with the Cointreau in a small bowl, cover with cling film and leave to soak.

In another bowl, whisk together the water and milk powder. Then add the sugar, egg yolks, honey, malt, salt, vanilla paste and Aroma Panettone and whisk again. Add the flour and mix well. Mix this dough into the first one, and knead until thoroughly smooth and elastic. Add the butter and mix and knead until you can stretch the dough out tissue paper thin.

Now add the sultanas and candied peels and mix well.

Have some soft butter to hand. Grease an area of your worktop about 60 x 60cm with this. Scrape the dough out and divide into two pieces of about 800g. Butter your hands and form each piece into a rough ball. Leave to rest for 20 minutes, covered loosely with cling film if your kitchen is at all chilly.

If using paper Panettone cases, stand them in the sandwich tins. If using Panettone tins, grease them well with butter.

Once the 20 minutes is up, butter your hands again and form each piece of dough into a neat ball by dragging it repeatedly across the buttered work surface. For an idea of how to do this, see this video from Weekend Bakery , starting at 0:45.

When starting their final rise, the loaves come only a little way up the tins

When starting their final rise, the loaves come only a little way up the tins

Place the balls in the cases or tins. Don’t worry that they only come a short way up the cases; they will rise to the top. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place (26-28C) until the outer edge of the dough is level with the top of the case or tin. This could take 12 hours or more.

Panettone just about ready to go into the oven

Panettone just about ready to go into the oven

Bake (Sunday 08:00)

Preheat the oven to 175C fan.

Just before baking, cut a shallow cross in the top of the loaves and place small slivers of butter in them. I find it is easiest to make these cuts with kitchen scissors, holding them close to the dough at a shallow angle and making continuous small snips to form a shallow furrow.

If you want, you can use a razor blade to lift up flaps of dough around the cross, then fold these outwards.

"Flaps" on top of Panettone about to go into oven

“Flaps” folded back on top of Panettone before going into oven

Be sure to put the loaves on a shelf in the oven that will allow them to expand without hitting or coming too close to the top elements. Bake for 30 minutes at 175C, then reduce the temperature to 150C and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes. They are ready when the internal temperature is 93C (use a probe thermometer) or a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

These loaves tend to brown too quickly on top, so check them after 15-20 minutes and cover them with foil “hats” if necessary. It’s also a good idea to move them around so they brown evenly.

Foil "hats"

Foil “hats”

The loaves need to be cooled upside down as otherwise they may collapse. To do this, insert two long skewers through the loaves, 1 to 2 cm from the bottom, then support these on some sort of framework, like a clothes airer or between two chairs.

Panettone hanging upside down to cool

Panettone hanging upside down to cool

This Panettone is best eaten quite fresh, but it does freeze well and will defrost in about 4 hours.


I think the idea behind the multiple preferments, which are all quite stiff and kept at a warm temperature, is primarily to sweeten them. The tying up like a sausage seemed bizarre and unnecessary to me, and I skipped it the first time I made this recipe. The resulting Panettone was a little sour. The second time, I did as instructed, and the Panettone was perfectly sweet. So it seems that somehow this process does work some magic.

Panettone requires a lot of kneading! For both the first and second dough, you need to keep going until you can stretch the dough to tissue paper thinness. To do this, rub a little flavourless vegetable oil or butter onto your fingers before grabbing an edge of the dough and stretching it out as thin as you can.

I am a huge fan of hand kneading, but even I use my mixer for this recipe. I use the dough hook and run the machine mostly at minimum speed to 1, sometimes giving it a burst of 2 to get things going. Frequent scraping down of the bowl and dough hook is required, and sometimes I have to get the mixing started with the spatula.

I topped my egg yolks up to the required weight with some of the egg white. You will have a lot of egg whites going spare! I freeze them in batches of 2 or 3 in little plastic containers.

If you can find whole candied peel to chop up yourself, all the better. Bakery Bits sell jars of good quality chopped candied orange and citron peel. If you have to use supermarket chopped mixed peel it won’t be a disaster.

Aroma Panettone is a blend of essential oils of bergamot, orange, lemon and tangerine with vanilla extract. It smells just like Panettone in a bottle and gives you the characteristic Panettone flavour. It is very strong and I use only half the quantity recommended on the bottle. The Simili Sisters’ recipe does not include any of the Aroma, and the first time I made it I found the loaf a little lacking in flavour. So I added some. I also soaked the sultanas in Cointreau to add another little boost to the flavour.

I took one of these loaves as my entry the final of the King of the Sourdough competition organised by the lovely folks at Hobbs House Bakery. I didn’t expect to win with what I had dubbed “The Joker in the Pack”, but to my surprise and delight I did!


Revealing the inside of my naturally leavened Panettone

Revealing the inside of my naturally leavened Panettone.

King of the Sourdough 15 10 30 (7).bmp

The King of the Sourdough finalists with Tom Herbert at Hobbs House Bakery

With thanks to Trevor Herbert for the photos of the King of Sourdough day.