Jan 052010

(Above – my Sourdough French Bread)

I’ve been working on this post for a while.  Months really.  Started and stopped.  Thought about it.  Documented.  Researched.  Went back over notes from my baking escapades using sourdough over the past few years.

And wanted to share.

The Definitive Guide to Sourdough . . . according to me.
Sourdough Do’s and Don’ts.
Tips and Tricks.

And that, “According to me” part?  That’s my disclaimer. Who am I?  A home baker.  A mama –  of two boys and a jar (okay, two nope, three) of sourdough starter.  A sourdough mama who likes to read professional cookbooks and better baker blogs than me, and then tries to relate them to real life and real kitchens who use cups and Tablespoons and not grams and ounces (though I did just get a nice kitchen scale for Christmas . . . ). I don’t grind my own grain, but I am particular about my flour.  I don’t have Diastatic Malt in my cupboards, nor Excel spreadsheets for hydration on my computer, but do have honey and eggs and leftover oatmeal.  I’m a home baker who happens to have good luck with sourdough. I’m not a professional baker.  I don’t use it everyday.  But I do use it.  I love it.  I learn from it.  And I want to share some of my successes, tips, tricks and favorite sourdough bloggers for inspiration.

If you’re a new reader of this blog please note: I’m a pretty relaxed Mama.  Both in terms of my boys, and my sourdough.  You will not find “rules” here.  I hope this encourages you that you too can use sourdough.  Good luck!

  • First, don’t forget to feed your starter. How do you make a sourdough starter?  I blogged about making my rye sourdough, and this is the method I used for my wheat liquid levain and I used Daniel Leader’s recipe for making a firm levain from his book, Local Breads. But you can just as easily set out a bowl of equal parts flour and water, feeding it little bits of equal parts flour and water for a few days until you start to see some bubbles. Once you have a good one you’re happy with, you hopefully won’t have to make another one.
  • How often do you feed your sourdough starter? It depends on how often you bake.  If you bake once a week, I’d probably feed it twice a week, including a hearty feeding the day before you plan to use your starter.  If you bake/use your starter (for pancakes, crackers, etc.) a few times a week I’d probably just keep it on the counter and feed it daily.  For me?  I’m not baking once a week any more and I have been known to keep my starter inert for weeks (weeks!) in the fridge with no food.  Poor sourdough baby.  But when I know I’m going to bake again, I take it out and feed it and coddle it for a few days to nurse it back to hearty health.
  • I feed mine a 1:1 ratio of flour to water, by volume, not weight. Which means, in layman terms, I take whatever measuring cup I’m using (a dry measuring cup – even worse to those weight-mongers!) and fill it with flour, add it to my starter, then fill it with water, add it to my starter, and stir until well combined.  That’s my strategy and it works.
  • Always make sure that you try to find the recipe you’re going to use a day or two before you’re going to bake. Why?  Because many all-sourdough recipes (i.e. ones that do not use any commercial yeast to help in the baking) call for a large quantity of starter.  I’ve had much better luck with the recipes that call for more starter than less.  If you need 2-3 cups of starter just to begin baking, you’re going to need to know this a day or two in advance to make sure you feed it enough to ensure that you have enough starter to both make the bread and leave some for later to feed and keep.  Plus, many recipes call for making a sponge the night before, which, in effect, creates the quantity of starter you’ll need for your recipe, but sometimes you can find a recipe that you can make in a few hours without a sponge and it’ll be important to have enough starter from the get-go.  (Phew!  That was a long explanation, wasn’t it?!)
  • Don’t worry about stirring your sourdough starter with metal. I know some of the original sourdough purists say to not use a metal spoon or knife to stir your starter, but I believe that was originally from a time when many metallic kitchen instruments were made out of tin, or copper.  Sourdough is acidic.  It can dissolve some metals.  I wouldn’t use a tin spoon to stir it, or store it in metal (I prefer glass or ceramic as it is inert) but don’t worry yourself about stirring it with a stainless steel spoon or allowing your dough to rise in a stainless steel bowl for a few hours.
  • Don’t buy special water to feed your starter. I just use the kind out of my tap and it has always worked fine.  If your water smells highly chlorinated, I probably wouldn’t use it, or would pour it through a water filter pitcher first, but otherwise, don’t worry about it.  If you don’t feed your children or your dog special water, don’t feed your starter special water.
  • Do toss the greyish liquid that puddles on top after sitting for a few days. I know, I know, some (a lot) of people say to stir it back in. But here’s my thought process. Sourdough is a living organism. I fed it flour and water. Living organisms eat, and then expel what they’ve digested. I figure that, it will take in what it wants to take in. And, if after several days and this stuff is still on top? The sourdough doesn’t want it. Get rid of it, move on and add more food and water.

Plus I’ve found that the sourdough gets a bit too sour when you stir that liquid back in. I like the natural sour flavor that develops over a few days after actual dough preparation (such as using a sponge, starting it the night before, keeping the dough in the fridge for two or three days before baking, etc.) but I don’t really like the flavor of the bread when using a too sour sourdough starter. I hope that makes sense in terms of the differentiation . . .

  • If it’s been a while since you’ve used your starter, get it healthy again by nursing it back to health with regular small “meals” several times a day for a few days.  Two Tablespoons of flour with equal amounts of water, three times a day for a few days and you ought to be back to strong starter.  (This is great technique I credit to Nancy Silverton.)
  • Don’t expect sourdough bread to take the same amount of time to rise as commercial yeast bread. It will take a LOT longer, normally 4 to 6 hours for the first rise, longer if your starter isn’t too strong, or if the room is cool, or if the starter to flour ratio is small, or if you didn’t use a sponge . . . sourdough is ALIVE. it can be tempermental. A little bit of patience when making bread is in order and even after you’ve been making it successfully for a while, a rare batch of dough will sink you every once in a while. (those are best for croutons or bread crumbs!)
  • Don’t feel guilty about using a white, unbleached All-Purpose flour fed starter. I’ve made and kept both a whole wheat starter and a white-fed starter for the past few years.  The Whole Wheat starter (or, say, a rye-based starter) is DIFFICULT to deal with.  It takes a lot longer to get bubbly and happy after feeding (hours/days longer.)  It takes a lot longer to rise a batch of bread (hours/days longer.)  It doesn’t rise as much nor produce as tender of crumb as a “white flour” fed starter.  You can use a white flour fed starter in an otherwise whole grain bread (with whole wheat flour, etc.) and still get an almost completely whole grain bread.  And that whole wheat/grain starter dies faster.  In the fridge.  Because you get tired of using this finicky starter and just want to make tasty bread so use the white starter to make whole wheat bread.  Like I said, don’t feel guilty about it.  It works.  It’s well-soaked.  You’ll be fine.
  • Don’t be afraid to try different flours! I prefer organic and stone ground, but use what I can find, what’s on sale and works with my grocery budget that week.  I’ve used King Arthur, Bob’s Red Mill, Hodgson’s Mill as well as grocery-store Gold.  I just discovered bread flour this year.  (I know, I know, it was kind of a “duh!” moment)  I’ve been baking bread for a while, but using either whole wheat or unbleached All Purpose.  When I finally picked up  and tried a bag of bread flour for baking bread, WOW!  I haven’t looked back.   If I count,  I think I have seven varieties of flour in my home (Unbleached All Purpose, Bread Flour, White Whole Wheat, Stoneground Whole Wheat, Pastry, Buckwheat and Cornmeal).  Shhhh . . . don’t tell my husband!  I still have room for rye, sprouted wheats, spelt and semolina . . . if I can only find the time!
  • Oh, and one more thing about flour – don’t add too much when you’re kneading! I’ve found that a wetter dough is better, it creates a softer bread and a better rise.  This has been a difficult habit to break for me, so I’m passing on my hard-won knowledge to you!
  • The fridge can be your friend. Not only will it keep your sourdough inert for weeks (weeks!) at a time, but a properly made sourdough bread can become BETTER by a day or two or three in the fridge.  I had my first successful sourdough boule with gorgeous holey crumb from stashing it in the fridge for a day or two before immediately tossing it into a hot, hot oven and getting amazing oven rise.  The fridge will also make for a longer “soaking” period which will not only make the bread more healthy to eat, but will make it more tender.
  • Moving from the fridge to the oven – ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS preheat the oven. For a good long while.  And if you’re using a baking stone (highly recommended, by the way), for a bit longer.  Throw in a few potatoes for dinner while it’s preheating.  Make up a batch of muffins first, if you don’t want to waste the energy, but always make sure that you use a hot, hot oven to bake.
  • Note that sourdough won’t always react like a commercial yeast bread. In other words, it will rarely double in size when rising, specifically when making a whole grain bread.  Look for a 1.5x rise to be successful.  Nor will it rise in a prescribed amount of time.  Depending on the strength of your starter, the density of your recipe (all whole grain?  No “softening” agents like egg or honey?  Might take longer) and the temperature of your kitchen, it might take hours longer to rise.  Just be patient.  If you have to go to bed, just put a cover on your bowl, put it in your fridge and restart it again in the morning.  It’ll be fine.
  • And speaking of commercial yeast, you don’t ALWAYS have to be a sourdough purist.  I admit, I have a certain amount of pride that occurs when I successfully make an amazing batch of bread only using my sourdough starter as the rising agent.  But I have made amazing bread with using a little bit of commercial yeast mixed in.  Peter Reinhart does this a lot (and I HAVE been known to add more starter to NOT use commercial yeast when using some of his recipes.  Just to be a purist, aka obnoxious/making it harder on myself for no apparent reason) Most of the recipes on my blog are starter only.  But my newest favorite bread recipe?  A mix of both.  And I love it like any of my other successful recipes.
  • Don’t throw away your starter. I know some people take some of their starter out and toss it when they feed it.  I don’t.  I feel it’s wasteful and kind of sad, frankly, since I’ve been nurturing it along all this time.  Instead, I either keep it inert in the fridge and feed it up to the quantity that I need for a big bread recipe, or I use it in smaller quantities for little, easy recipes, like pancakes or waffles, crackers or biscuits.   I’ve even heard it can be used for a snail deterrant if it’s summertime and you’re a gardener.  Just don’t toss it.  It’s sad.
  • Finally, don’t give up. Sourdough starter takes a while to mature into a strong starter that will rise bread efficiently and effectively.  Most of us aren’t that experienced with it nor grew up in a household where it was used regularly.  Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t expect your first loaf to be perfect.  And if it is, lucky you, watch out for your second or third.   If you have a dud, just chalk it up to experience and make croutons or bread crumbs.

Some basic baking tips (that relate to both sourdough and commercial-yeast based bread recipes)

  • The more ingredients with fat or sugar, the softer the bread will be.  If your bread recipe calls for egg, honey, butter, oil, milk . . . these will be a softer bread than ones that only have starter, flour, salt and water.
  • It is best to add salt in after the first knead and a little bit of a rest (about twenty to thirty minutes.)  In bread making speak this is called the “autolyse.” Salt kills yeast so if you give your yeast or starter a little bit of a chance to start eating and growing from the sugars naturally present in the dough, it will have a much better chance of growing and rising better than if you added the salt in at the beginning.
  • The wetter/slacker the dough, the bigger the holes will be in the baked bread.  You don’t always want big holes in bread (like if you’re going to use it to make a sandwich.  Holes don’t hold in sandwich fillings) but if you’re looking for a great, holey sourdough boule, make sure that you use a wet counter and wet hands to knead it rather than flour-covered counter and flour-covered hands.  Some of my holiest bread you almost have to pour into pans, it’s so wet.  Just a touch more than a thick batter.
  • An egg-white wash makes the shiniest crust I’ve made.  Beats out a whole egg, milk-based or ice water wash any day of the week.

Some of my favorite Sourdough cookbooks include:

(good for things like pancakes and rolls, not recommended for Artisanal, Rustic breads, but I learned a lot about the chemistry of sourdough from this book)

Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads

I also love the forums on

and find great inspiration from these bloggers:

A Final Note
The thing about sourdough baking is, like any other endeavor, to get good at it, you have to practice.  There have been many, many loaves and recipes that didn’t get photographed or shared on this blog.  I’ve learned only by challenging myself, by reading cookbooks, blogs and forums who write in baking-speak that I had a hard time understanding at first, but am slowly starting to decipher.  By trying out recipes.  My journey started when I wanted to find a good recipe for a soft, whole grain sandwich loaf to replace the loaves I was buying at the store every week.  Then later, I wanted to make a sourdough boule.  And in between, I tried to figure out ways to use the discarded starter and went into cracker and pancake and muffin and biscuit forays. I also am on the quest for bread recipes that take only one day to begin and bake (like my focaccia, sourdough pizza crust and french bread) to round out dinner.  I normally looked at several recipes before choosing one or merging a few together.  I frequently find a commercial yeast based recipe that looks yummy, look over my notes and cookbooks for sourdough, and then try to adapt it.  Some are great, others are a learning experience.
I’ve linked to a few of my sourdough recipes here and there throughout this post, but for all of them, click here or check out my full recipe index.

On my list of future sourdough adventures?  English muffins, a dark black or rye bread, challah, pretzels (for Lent) and croissants.

Happy Baking!
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 January 5, 2010  Posted by  Sourdough Tagged with:

  22 Responses to “The Definitive Guide to Sourdough . . . according to me.”

  1. Thanks for sharing those terrific pointers with us. They are helpful and will make the making of sourdough bread much easier.

  2. I loved this, Sarah. It covers all bases and takes the fear out of starters.

  3. Linked. thanks!

  4. ah!
    finally someone who understands the way i feel about my starter…
    too bad my first loaf wasn't sour at all. but i might just be up to trying a few of your tips…thanks for sharing!

  5. I'm new in making a sourdough starter. I bookmarked this for future use. Thanks for all the info.

  6. A quick question. When you measure your starter do you stir it down first or just measure with all the air bubbles incorporated?


  7. Thanks all!

    Debbie – I always stir the bubbles down first before measuring.

    Let me know if you have any questions!


    • 2 questions How do you make sourdough starter? I want crepes next Wednesday. Also, what do you put in savory crepes? I have lots of herbs. I would like to use vegetables as I don’t need lots of gooey sweet stuff for the 1st course. I am going to make friend apple crepes for desert. Thanks, ki

  8. […] fewer loaves, just cut the recipe in half. Have more questions about sourdough?  Check out my definitive guide to sourdough . . . Whole Wheat Oatmeal Sourdough Bread makes four […]

  9. I have a question regarding your container for storing the sourdough…do you use a mason jar and cover it with plastic or cheese cloth? Doesn’t it become too full or do you just be sure to use it if it gets overflowing? Also, in a mason, how do you stir it in? Or do you use a bowl of some sort?


    • Good questions Meggan!

      Normally I use small mason jars to store my starters in in the fridge (I have three of them). At first, a few years ago, I kept more starter around, in a quart size jar and fed it at least 1/4 cup flour and water each week, but now that I have more practice with the starters and have a better idea of what recipes I use most regularly, I tend to keep a smaller quantity around and store them in pint size jars, for the most part. If I’m just feeding them and not planning on using them the next day or two, I feed them a small amount (a Tablespoon each of flour and water) and stir it directly in the jar, then leave it out for eight to twelve hours for wheat based starters, and only an hour on the counter for my rye sourdough, before capping and putting back in the fridge.

      If I plan on using the starter to bake within the next day or two, I tend to remove it from the jar, feed it larger amounts in a bowl (to allow for easier expansion) then measure out what I need to bake and store the rest in a new, clean jar.

      I haven’t had the problem of over-expansion for a long time, not since I began keeping less around and feeding it smaller amounts if not in use. If you keep a large quantity around, it will get too sour without an equally large feeding as the yeast will overpower the food. If you keep a smaller amount around, and feed it appropriately, it won’t get quite as sour which actually makes it easier to maintain, in my opinion. Your bread will still be sourdough, and you can certainly augment your recipe/proofing time, etc. based upon the amount of time allowed to proof, maintaining the dough for days in the fridge before baking, adding more starter to the dough, etc to make that specific loaf more sour, if you so prefer, without making the entire starter super sour, which in turn makes it more acidic and more prone to die.

      Oh, and in regard to how I cover the starters, when they’re sitting on the counter after being fed, I tend to loosely drape over some plastic wrap or even a coffee filter (over the jars) and then I cap them with plastic caps for storage in the fridge.

      I hope this answers your questions! Please let me know if you have any more! Good luck!


  10. […] again I turn to the “sourdough mama” Sarah Warren and her Definitive Guide to Sourdough post.  It is amazing, go read […]

  11. […] The Definitive Guide to Sourdough at Heartland Renaissance This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged breakfast, food, recipes, sourdough. Bookmark the permalink. ← Japanese Gyoza (a.k.a. pot stickers) LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  12. Hi Sarah. I’ve just made my first starter and it’s wonderful and bubbly. Do you have a fool-proof recipe you recommend to begin with? Thanks!

  13. Thanks for your lessons. They let me begin with home-made bread. You are great, thanks again for shearing.

  14. I found this very helpful. I will start experimenting and see what happens. Can’t wait to make soourdough pancakes!

  15. wow, this is a great post! I’m new here but just wanted to say that this was just the information I needed and loved the way you presented it.

  16. This is great info! Thanks for putting it together! 🙂 I’ve read that sourdough starter is really good for septic systems (all that lactic acid eating things), so if you have one and you have to flush some starter every now and then, don’t feel bad about it! You’re helping your septic system do it’s thing.

  17. A couple of quickie thoughts…

    -That liquid that forms on the top IS a result of the fermentation process (yeast + grain/sugar +water = carbon dioxide and alcohol). Have you ever heard alcohol refered to as “hooch”? I understand that’s the original slang for the liquid that forms atop the starter…and it was coveted by the adventurous men that went West and to Alaska for the gold rush. They kept their precious sourdough starter on their person at all times (to keep it warm?) and they drank the hooch as alcohol (when there were no saloons in the neighborhood).

    So I agree, I *never* mix the hooch back in with the starter. Alcohol is the waste-end-by-product…and it seems to me it would kill some of the yeastie-beasties in the starter and make it harder for them to live & grow.

    – I make my sourdough starter with equal parts flour (usually broken into 3 equal parts of unbleached wheat, whole wheat & rye)…and fresh dairy kefir. It’s always worked; the sour taste is *perfect*; even the oldest bread never grows mold; and the kefir makes it even healthier yet.

  18. This is the most encouraging sourdough post I’ve ever read–thank you!

  19. Great info. Lucky me I discovered your website by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have bookmarked it for later!

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