Sourdough: pages two, three, and four.

March 26, 2010 · 18 comments


I face yet another moment of time, sitting at my computer, realizing that it’s quite possible no one will care a single iota about today’s subject matter. But then I remind myself that, unless reading my blog has become the torture method of choice used by government sources on terror suspects, someone is actually choosing, on occasion, to read it. Which leads me to fantasize that there are others out there who are as excited about sourdough! as I now am. If you are not interested in sourdough, or how it can change your bread-making life, then today’s dough minutia might sent you scrambling for any other form of entertainment, to which I send you with my blessings (but only after promising to come back for my next post, pineapple salsa).

Last post, I left you with the raging success of my first attempt at sourdough, and the promise of more experimentation to come. The first project I tackled was using my sourdough starter to replace the commercial yeast in our wheat sandwich bread. Figuring out a process was not quite as easy as I thought: starting with the realization that there are countless ways to begin a batch of natural-yeasted bread: I found instructions that called for everything from 1 Tbsp to 1 1/2 cups of starter, and fermentation times from an hour to a day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is a starter, anyway?

A starter is a mixture of flour, water, and little friendly yeasty beasties (look here for a more accurate technical description). These little fungus-y guys can be “caught” wild, or procured by purchasing them in a dehydrated form (wherein you are responsible for bringing them back to life, something that’s hard to do in a 66º kitchen, I found). Catching a wild starter is also something you can find tons of instructions for — but the gist is that you let flour and water sit and ferment and “catch” the little beasties that are already floating around your kitchen or growing on the peels of the still-edible contents of your fruit bowl. Once the starter is caught and nurtured, the little guys and gals stay happy if you leave them at room temp and “feed” them some fresh flour and water twice a day — though this is only necessary if you plan to have a starter that’s ready to make bread at a moment’s notice. If you’re not baking bread that often, or if you’re going on vacation, you can stick it in your frig, where it can live for quite some time — I think of it as a hibernation for the fun-guys. You’ll just need to pull it out and wake it up again (i.e., leave it at room temp and feed it 2x a day) for a few days before expecting your friends to party with you (i.e., make your dough rise).

When you boil down the mystery of sourdough, you really just have to remember two things:

  1. Instead of using a packet (or a couple teaspoons) of yeast, you’ll use a quantity of active (i.e., recently-fed) starter (though the mixing will be a bit different), adjusting the flour and water quantities in your recipe to allow for what’s already in your starter.
  2. You’ll allow for longer rises, and will usually start your bread the evening before baking (make a “sponge”), allowing for a 12-24 hour fermentation which develops both flavor and gluten (the stuff that makes bread chewy and allows for a good rise).


That makes it sound easy — and in some ways, it is. But the literally infinite variations on that theme is where it can get frustrating. As is always the case when learning to bake bread, you’ve gotta be willing to make some bad loaves.

Which is what I did, earlier this week. I was cocky after my initial success, and immediately attempted to convert our wheat sandwich bread to a sourdough. My desired end result would be loaves quite similar in texture to the commercially-yeasted counterpart, but with a mild sourdough flavor. I began with about a half-cup of starter (120 grams, to be precise), and made a sponge (an initial mixture of the starter with some of the total flour and water added) using some wheat and bread flour, with a little rye for good measure (sourdough beasts love rye flour). This fermented overnight, and then I proceeded with the recipe.

I was expecting a longer rise time — like the 6-hour fermentation of my Pearl Levains — but was surprised when my dough had doubled in just two hours. A bit flustered, I decided to go ahead and shape my loaves. The dough at this point was a little foreboding: the gluten seemed under-developed, as the surface was not as elastic as needed, and broke easily. Not knowing what else to do, I shaped as I normally do, and let rise again. They seemed ready in another two hours, so I slashed and baked.


There was very little, if any, oven spring (where your dough rises a percentage more in the heat of the oven). And the surface of the loaves seemed dull, dry, and unappealing. I let the loaves cool completely before cutting (not so hard when you dread the results), and a cut slice revealed a decent crumb — not as cake-y as I’d feared — but a flavor that was entirely too sour for regular, daily sandwich bread. It was a bit denser, smaller loaf, too. We didn’t throw them out — I tried them on my kids and they surprisingly obliged. But I’m just left wondering: how to avoid such a sour flavor (since they fermented for a shorter period than my other loaves, I will first try a smaller amount of starter)? Also, how to get better gluten development, and a shinier, more appealing crust?

As I research and continue to experiment, I will probably try to glean from the success of my final sourdough adventure for the week: the Sourdough Starter Baguettes from Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini. I had to make a few changes to her recipe, since she uses a 100% starter and my starter is a 50% starter.

(See what I mean? I just threw that out there — those numbers in front of a percentage sign. As if I and everyone else has known what that means since we stopped wearing diapers. Basically, as I learned a couple weeks ago, it’s the percentage of hydration. So, Clotilde uses equal amounts of flour and water each time she feeds her starter [each part is 100%], making for a thick-batter-like consistency. The starter I acquired from my farmer friend was a firm starter, meaning it is fed at 50% hydration, or 2 parts flour to 1 part water.)

As I was saying — since Clotilde uses a starter that has a higher ratio of water-to-flour, I had to adjust the rest of the ingredients accordingly (i.e., I took out a bit of flour, and added a bit of water to make our total dough hydration the same). Since I’m now using a killer kitchen scale to measure out my ingredients (THIS, friends, has been a total game-changer, and I heartily recommend that this item be moved to the very top of your gift wish-list, immediately, if you make bread regularly), the process was pretty much fool-proof. I used a mixture of King Arthur all-purpose and bread flours, plus my own freshly-milled hard white wheat and rye. The results were like a fire that will get me through these last few 40º days of early spring. Like a sea change at the end of a months-long writer’s block. Like an Rx for happiness. The loaves were easy to put together, and the dough’s overnight refrigeration meant for a low-key bake-day. The oven spring was amazing; the flavor very mildly soured, not unlike the Pearl’s Levains; the crust crisp and cracking as you tore a piece; the crumb airy with very well-developed gluten, and a sheen on the surface of the air pockets. Since the recipe makes four demi-baguettes, it’s a great one to use if you’re wanting to have enough to give away. I’ll be experimenting next time with a higher ratio of whole-grain flours, and hope for similar results.


It’s hard for me to reign in my sourdough excitement, as I’m sure you can tell. Tim can see it first-hand, and asked me the other day if I would consider baking bread to sell at the Farmer’s Market. But as much as I love baking, I don’t see myself enjoying strings of days of 4am wake-up calls and spending hours loading and unloading my single small oven in order to make about $30 on a dozen loaves of bread. I will, however, share some starter with you, if you live in Indy. Just give me a few days’ heads-up, to get enough extra, and it will be yours for the taking. But only if you promise to provide it with a loving and stable home, with its own room that’s kept at a consistent 75º.

What can I say. I’m an over-protective starter-keeper.

*This post is part of the Tuesday Twister blog carnival at GNOWFGLINS.

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Jen March 26, 2010 at 3:29 pm

I must confess; I’m a little bitter to be living so far from you in FL right now…ok, a lot bitter!

Beautiful bread worthy of all the excitement!

Oh, and question for you…I’m trying to make a starter. When go to feed it in the morn, it sometimes has separated into a liquid on the top. Is this normal? Should I toss and restart?

katy March 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Ugghhh… the liquid on top. Mine did that the whole time — and I read somewhere (in the CFH instructions maybe? — is that where you ordered?) that you could pour off the water. But mine looked like that every day, and every once in a while I’d see a bubble rise to the surface. But now that I’ve seen a healthy starter, I know that mine was nowhere near that, ever.

I don’t know if I should have given it more time?

One thing that wasn’t clear to me then: you really do need to throw out an amount of starter equal to what you’re adding — otherwise the yeasts can be overwhelmed by the volume. I didn’t do this for the first week or so — my starter volume just kept growing — and I wonder if that’s where I went wrong. That, plus a cold kitchen.

I hope yours fairs better! I wish I could get some of this stuff to you!

katy March 28, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Hey, just found this paragraph at a sourdough site:

“Leave the starter on the kitchen counter for five days. As the starter ferments, it will develop a strong aroma — bready and alcoholy and not particular appetizing. Feed it every day or two by dividing it in half and adding a cup of flour and a cup of water to one half of it (you can throw the other half away). When you see a watery substance floating to the top, stir it. Sourdough bakers call this “hooch.” Over the week the starter became a thick liquid, like pancake batter. It will be slightly yellowish. ”

And now, of course, I remember reading about hooch.

What a name.

Jen March 30, 2010 at 7:51 pm

crap, I should’ve saved my sad little starter full of hooch. I was just so fed up and to the trash it went. I was trying to start one with plane ww flour and water…it got all bubbly and strong smelling, but after a week, produced lots of liquid. You make a great point about not overpowering the yeast–I think I should have been removing the amount I put in…

I’m now using rye flour, water and some unwashed, organic blueberries. I’ve heard rye is the easiest to start. But I have (4) 45# buckets of wheat berries…I want to make wheat sourdough. I think I’m just determined to win with this sourdough starter and will then track down what I really need, someone with a healthy wheat starter :)

Thanks for the info, this was so helpful…and encouraging to press on, really.

katy March 31, 2010 at 8:00 am

Jen — ok, how crazy would it be for me to fedex a sourdough starter? I think I’ll look it up. If it’s probable that the starter would be ok, would you be willing to cough up the shipping cost? (Can’t remember what overnight is these days… that would probably help.)

Maybe if your new starter doesn’t take off?

Wow. FOUR buckets of wheat. Where do you keep it?

Jen April 2, 2010 at 7:19 am

Of course I’d cough up the shipping–a trusted starter, yes please (and thank you!). Let me know if you think it won’t travel…and we’ll give my current starter another few days at a fighting chance. Tho it doesn’t seem to be fighting much. Hmph.

FOUR buckets of wheat and THREE buckets of brown rice, oat groats and 7 grain cereal mix…oh, and a little bucket with a cute little gamma lid of 12# flax seed. Some people put cars in their garage…we put grains :)

Angie @ Just Like The Number March 27, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I love that you tagged this post “TMI.” For us bread-baking wannabes it was just perfect. I’m in awe of all this, from the maintaining a starter to fooling around with ratios of flour. For now I’m content to fool around with my recipes from “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day.” But it’s nice to know that if I’m ever brave enough to try my hand at sourdough, I can turn here for good information.

katy March 28, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Angie, you’re pretty much halfway there, by using the Artisan/5 Minutesbook. There’s still mixing of dough, and plenty of letting it sit. It just won’t make as much bread; but it’ll taste a lot better (the sourdough has more complex flavor development).

nan March 28, 2010 at 5:35 pm

ok. question. what is the difference in a sourdough starter and other bread starter? or is there another kind of bread starter? i’m just still figuring out all this lingo. i’ve been using a recipe where i made the starter and feed it and make bread each week– but i think i’m confused about what is different about your starter and mine….

katy March 28, 2010 at 5:50 pm

So, Nan. What do you feed your starter?

I’m sure there are other “starters” that are not technically sourdough — though they are probably doing something similar. The first thing that comes to mind is the Amish Friendship Bread, where someone gives you some, you feed it milk and sugar, and then bake.

I think a true sourdough culture is only ever fed flour and water. The sourdough is a certain type of animal, though, and I’m not totally sure by definition it would differ from other yeast-type organisms that are fed milk and sugar.

Is your bread sour?

Katherine March 29, 2010 at 9:21 am

I love this blog so much! I am actually drooling at the site of the holes in the bread. I will torture someone with tales of sad books to anyone who could even imagine your writing is anything less than divine!

katy March 29, 2010 at 10:19 am

Katherine, you are awesome. Thanks for your encouragement — and being a person who knows just how good you are at tales of sad books, I am personally now afraid of self-criticism…

Wardeh @ GNOWFGLINS March 31, 2010 at 12:48 am

Katy, those are some lucious loaves. You’ve passed me by with your technical knowledge of sourdough. I pretty much aim to keep the starter alive. :-) That was interesting about the hydration. When I work with whole wheat, I do 100%, but when I work with spelt, I do 75% because otherwise the starter is too runny.

Meg March 31, 2010 at 10:02 am

Your baguettes look beautiful! I think you’ve just inspired me to refresh my starter and try my hand at sourdough bread again. I’ve had bad luck in the past with sourdough rising – perhaps, though, things will improve with this additional info. Thanks!

katy March 31, 2010 at 10:35 am

Meg, mine has been a bit unpredictable, but for sure it’s much slower to rise when using all whole-grain flour (just like commercially-yeasted breads). I do encourage you to try again — when it works it’s like an adrenaline rush!

Some tips I read were: make sure your starter can double itself within 8 hours (before using), and try to use the starter (whether making a sponge or the whole dough recipe) when it’s at its peak, or about 6-8 hours after refreshing.

sandi @ the whistlestop cafe March 31, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I have posted on my sourdough starter named ‘kudzu’. I need to work with it a little more because it seems to be loosing it’s punch. You have some great tips here!
Thanks bunches~

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