Making San Francisco Sourdough Bread
You will have a much easier time of it—and lots more fun—if
you will sit down and read through this little booklet two or three times
before you touch an ingredient. Alton Brown says to do that with any new
recipe you're going to follow—and this is a process—much more
than just a recipe! I have underlined and bolded the really crucial parts,
so pay special attention to those. Then be sure to go through the entire
breadmaking process the first couple of times step-by-step with this booklet.
The answers to fully 99.9% of the email questions I receive can be found
right here in this little booklet, but there's really way too much information
to absorb in just one or two readings.
Also, please keep in mind that any breadmaking is a process of continuous
adjusting and you can count that twice for sourdough. Many different variables
contribute to the final results and I could never go into enough detail
here to describe every combination of events that make your final loaf
of bread the way it is. You are unique, your kitchen and oven are unique,
and your baking techniques are also yours alone. For those reasons—not
to mention different flours, waters, temperatures and humidities—breadmaking
is always an adventure in learning. I am still learning and I’ve
been baking bread since I was a teenager (which was a very very long time
ago)! So, please be patient with yourself, your starter, and your bread.
If your bread doesn’t turn out exactly like you want it, there are
always adjustments you can make to get closer to perfection in your eyes.
Remember that your perfect loaf of sourdough bread could well be totally
different from that in another baker’s view.
I have tried to put answers to the most often asked questions on the
FAQ page of my website. If you can’t find the answer to your
question in this instruction booklet or on the website, then by all
me! Tech support is usually quick and always free. I really want you to
be a successful sourdough breadmaker, and you can! ?
NEVER add any commercial yeast—or ANYTHING other than flour and water—to
your sourdough starter. In a medium mixing bowl, mix one cup of 75°-85° tap
water with one cup of wheat flour—all-purpose, white, whole wheat
or bread flour—doesn't matter. To this mixture, add the contents
of your San Francisco Sourdough Starter package and stir it up—lumps
are OK. Cover the container with a tea towel. The important thing is to
keep this mixture at the correct temperature—above 75° and not
more than 90°, ideally around 85° while the wild yeast and the
friendly bacteria come out of hibernation. If your normal room temperature
is cooler than 75-78°, then the easiest way to achieve the temperature
you need is to turn on the light in your oven and put your starter mixture
in it. But be sure to put an accurate thermometer in the oven with your
starter—you can use the Large Dial Easy-To-Read Instant-Read Thermometer
that’s on my website—the same one you’ll use later for
checking to see when your bread is done. Or, you can turn on your oven
for a minute or so, turn it off and then use that warmth (check with a
thermometer) for activating. This is important!! You DO NOT want to expose
your starter at any time to temperatures above 95°. But, you do want
to give your babies enough warmth for them to venture out of their state
of hibernation. 80°-85° F is just about perfect for that.
Somewhere between 4 and 8 hours after you first mixed the starter with
flour and water, you will start to see that the texture of the mixture
has changed and become more cohesive and glutenous and see enough bubbles
to know that the wild yeast is beginning to wake up. You'll probably have
to stir the mixture to be able to see the first very tiny bubbles, so feel
free to stir any time and as much as you want. Stirring is actually good
for your starter at any time because it redistributes the critters and
the food supply, giving all the babies a chance for another snack. Stirring
also allows you to see what’s actually going on beneath the surface.
You won't see many bubbles on top of your mixture, but when you stir it
and look closely, you’ll see lots of extremely tiny bubbles throughout
the mixture. When you see these miniscule bubbles, (or after 12 hours have
passed) then feed your mixture, without reducing it just this one time,
2 cups of flour and 2 cups of water.
Continue to look at your growing babies often—about every 30-60 minutes—and
NO MORE than every two hours, and soon you will see more and more bubbles;
the consistency of the mixture will change—it will become thicker
and more cohesive and viscous. When that happens and you can see lots of
larger bubbles throughout the mixture, it’s time to feed again!
This time, reduce the volume of your starter to ½ cup and feed it
with 1 cup of 75°-80° water and 1 cup of flour. Each time you reduce
and feed, your starter will show activity in less and less time, so it
becomes more and more important to look at it more often. If you wait four
hours after the first or second feeding, you might miss its peak of activity
and think that it is dying because it will have passed its peak, used up
all of its last feeding and begin to hibernate.
From now until the end of the approximately 72 hours of activation, you
will need to feed your new pet regularly—whenever it reaches its
peak! DO NOT feed on a time schedule! Your starter will let you know when
it is ready to be reduced and fed—NOT the clock!!
How do I know when I need to feed? You'll know because the yeast and
lactobacillus organisms will eat what you fed them, get busy and start
multiplying, and you'll see the difference with a slight expansion of volume,
a thickening or clotting of the texture and more bubbles—and larger
bubbles—throughout the mixture and on top. If you leave it alone
for a while longer, you’ll actually see some tiny ‘foam’–type
bubbles on top. If your starter goes past this 'most active' stage, then
the bubbles will decrease in size and number and the consistency will thin
When your starter has reached its most active stage, stir it well and
then pour out (yes, down the drain!) all but ½ cup of the starter and
feed what's left with one cup each of flour and water. I know, I know,
I really do hate waste too, but this step actually helps to avoid wasting
flour and water. The more starter you're feeding, the more food you have
to give, because larger quantities of starter contain much larger populations
of hungry organisms which want much more flour and water to eat.
You’ll want to keep watch on your starter as often as possible during
the time that activation is going on. From your observations, you will
learn what your San Francisco Sourdough Starter is supposed to look like
at each stage of its activity. You’ll use this knowledge each time
you bake. When you know what starter at or close to its peak looks like,
you’ll be able to start your dough with sponge that is active enough
to give your sourdough three good rises—one in the rising bucket,
one after shaping and one in the oven (the third rise—called oven
Don’t get up in the middle of the night to feed your starter. Whenever
you know that you won’t be around to check it and feed whenever it
reaches the peak of activity, just give a double or triple feeding so that
your sourdough babies won’t starve. (One-half cup of starter and
two or three cups each of flour and water.) Or, you can put it into the
fridge, just as it is, and leave it overnight and start again in the morning
if that works better for you. Lots of folks who work just use a container
with a cover to transport their starter to work with them, then loosen
the lid so that the critters can breathe, and check on it while they’re
working. This is a great idea because it’s important to watch the
activation in all of its different phases.
As your new pet goes through several activations, the density of the
population of yeast and lactobacillus increases exponentially and that’s exactly
what we want to happen. (If 18-24 hours after mixing the dry starter with
the flour and water you can stir it and still see no change in the texture
and no tiny bubbles at all, then you should email me.)
After about three 24-hour days of regular feedings or as soon as you can
clearly see the mixture get very active within an hour or so after a feeding,
you'll know that the activation process is finished. This is the only time
you’ll have to wait three days to bake. Now you can do one of two
1. Put a cup or more of your starter into the fridge (this is your stash)
until the day before you want to bake your first loaf of San Francisco
2. If and only if your starter is at its most active state—full of
bubbles and thick and glutenous, then you're ready to go directly to The
Dough on Page 6 and make your first loaf of San Francisco Sourdough Bread
right away with the very active starter you've just finished activating!
Don't forget to save at least ½ cup stash for next time!
Care and Feeding of Refrigerated Starter
When you first put your starter ‘stash’ into the fridge, leave
the cover loose until the mixture is chilled throughout, or the pressure
will cause it to explode—what a mess that could be! After about 36-48
hours, you can tighten down the lid. I keep mine in the one-liter glass
wire-bail jar that’s on my website. It’s small enough not to
take up too much valuable fridge room and large enough to take out and
feed without having to transfer the starter to a different container. It
has a tight-fitting top, so if it accidentally turns over, all my precious
stash isn’t spilled. Plus, you can see clearly through the glass
jar and watch what's going on with your new partner in breadmaking.
About once every four to eight weeks, take your starter stash out of
the fridge, stir it well, (with my Handmade Bamboo Starter Stirrer
perfect for mixing your sticky starter as well as lots of other things)
reduce the volume if necessary, give it a healthy feeding and let it come
to room temperature. When you can see good activity beginning to happen,
put it back into the fridge, without tightening down the lid, of course,
until it is thoroughly cold and asleep. After it has been refrigerated
for a couple of weeks or so, it’s entirely normal to see some beige
or gray-colored liquid on the top. The old-timers called this ‘hooch’ because
it contains alcohol and some people actually drank the stuff. If you want
more sour flavor, leave your stash in the fridge, unfed, for at least three
or four weeks. Then take it out and use it. Some breadmakers keep two or
three stash containers ‘aging’ in the fridge because ‘freshly
fed’ starter isn’t as sour.
Making Bread--The Sponge
Sponge is the name that bakers use for the mixture that they allow to
ferment or proof before mixing in enough flour to make a dough. The
night before you want to bake, take your stash out of the refrigerator.
If you want to bake on Saturday morning, take out about a half-cup
of cold starter and put it in a bowl on Friday evening.
Feed what is left in your “stash” container and put it back
in the fridge.
Feed the ½ cup that is in the bowl 3 cups each of water and flour,
cover it with a tea towel or plastic wrap, and leave it at room temperature
(between 75º and 80º F). Then on Saturday morning, you should
have a very active sponge. It's always important to have a very active
sponge to use to make your dough. If it hasn’t reached or it has
passed its most active point, you'll get very slow or no rises and you
risk birthing a hockey puck (or a door stop) instead of a great loaf
The Dough--Classic San Francisco Sourdough Bread Recipe
Makes a 1½ pound loaf, two 12-ounce loaves or three or four ‘mini’ loaves
2½ cups of very active starter (the sponge that you have allowed
to ferment until peak activity is reached)
2-2½ cups of bread flour, or enough to make dough that’s
still moist but not too sticky
2 teaspoons of salt, or more, up to 1-2 tablespoons if you like (I like
Other Stuff You’ll Need
A hand spray bottle full of water
An oven-safe pan or other container that will fit on the floor (or lowest
shelf) of your oven
A baking sheet or loaf pan or whatever you want to bake on or in
Some coarsely ground cornmeal—usually labeled stone ground
An egg and 1 Tablespoon of water for an egg wash
A pastry brush
A new, sharp single-edged razor blade or razor knife
Some oil and/or oil spray—like Pam
A tea towel or plastic wrap or both
I like to use my KitchenAid stand mixer to mix the dough, but you can
make and knead the dough in a bread machine if it will handle a fairly
stiff dough and you can intervene during the rising cycles. A recipe
for sourdough in the bread machine is on the website. Naturally, you
can make it entirely by hand, just like the original bakers of sourdough
Put the 2½ cups of the sponge (very bubbly and very thick active
starter) into your mixer with the paddle attachment, add about a cup
and a half of the flour and mix well. At this point, stop for 30-90 minutes
before adding more flour. This resting period, called autolysis by the
bread geeks, allows the flour time to absorb the liquid.
Next add the salt and mix and add flour until the dough gets too heavy
for the paddle attachment. Change to the dough hook and continue adding
flour until you have a fairly stiff dough—still moist but not too
sticky. You just can't use exact measurements in breadmaking.
After your mixture has become dough and is a cohesive mass, knead with
the dough hook for about five minutes or until it isn’t sticking
to the sides of the bowl (it will probably be sticking to the bottom
of the bowl). If you’re kneading by hand, ten minutes is probably
the bare minimum time. I let my KitchenAid mixer do most of the kneading,
but I usually finish with a minute or two by hand. Getting your hands
on the dough is the only way to really gauge its exact condition.
Now, oil (or spray with Pam) a straight-sided dough rising bucket like
on my website, if you have one. You can put a rubber band or a piece
of masking tape around the bucket so you'll be able to tell when the
dough has almost doubled. Or you can use a large bowl. Place the dough
into your well-oiled container then oil the top. Cover with a tea towel
or plastic wrap and put it somewhere that it’s not drafty and is
between 70° and 85° F. Expect sourdoughs to rise much more slowly
than breads made with commercial yeasts. The cooler range is fine—better
in fact. It will take your dough longer to rise, but cooler rising temps
also improve the flavor and texture of your bread. Remember—don’t
go any warmer than 90° F.
At this point, you can cover your unrisen dough securely with plastic
wrap that has been sprayed with Pam and put it into the refrigerator
for one to about 14 hours. This can help when you run out of time or
want hot bread on a schedule and will always enhance the flavor of your
finished bread. When you’re ready to continue, just bring the dough
to room temperature and allow it to finish its rise. You can refrigerate
your dough for the first rise or for the second rise, after it has been
Look at your rising dough every 30 minutes or so and when it is about
1½ to 2 times its original size, you’re ready for the next
step. Here's a good test: Push your finger into the dough about one-half
to three-quarters of an inch. If you can see the dough spring back and
fill the hole within a minute or so, then it isn't finished with its
rise. If most of the indentation remains after a couple of minutes, you're
ready to proceed to the next step.
Shaping and Baking
Push your closed fist gently into the middle of the dough close to the
bottom of the container, then gently push the outside parts of the dough
into the hole you’ve just created in the middle. This is called ‘punching
down’ the dough and serves to rearrange the gluten strands to encourage
a proper second rise. Now dump the dough out of the bowl and on to the
counter. If you've greased your container well, it will slide right out.
Divide the dough (with the Dough Divider/Scraper on the website) into
the portions you’ll use for your final shaping and ‘round’ each
one, then let rest on the counter for about 15 minutes, covered to keep
it from drying out.
Rounding is important and not many bread recipes discuss it. Here’s
how it’s done: Pick up the piece of dough that will become a loaf
of bread and gently pull the edges of the dough that were just cut underneath,
making a round ball of dough so that you have sort of a ‘skin’ around
the ball of dough and no cut edges are exposed. Pinch the bottom together.
Then put the ‘round’ on a clean dry counter with the bottom
side down and put your hands on the sides of it. Push the round from
alternate sides so that it goes around and around on the counter. You’ll
see the skin tightening as you do this. Do it gently so you don’t
break the skin. Alton Brown and his cohort, Shirley Corriher, both of
whom I admire greatly, taught me about rounding and its importance.
While your dough is resting, prepare your baking sheet by sprinkling
some coarsely ground corn meal where your loaf (or loaves) of bread will
go. You can oil it with vegetable oil or spray the pan first with Pam
if you like, but the cornmeal adds an artisan-like texture to the bottom
of your loaf of bread, so don't leave out that step. There’s a
good cornmeal shaker (only $2.99) on my website that I keep full of cornmeal
all the time. Actually, I have several—one for cornmeal, one for
flour, one for powdered sugar, one for freshly- and coarsely-ground black
pepper and one for kosher salt. They’re very handy.
If you want to bake your bread in loaf pans, now is the time to grease
them well. You can also dust the bottoms with cornmeal. Be sure to check
out the three bread pans on my website. The Commercial Heavy-Duty Non-Stick
Bread Pan on my website is the best loaf pan I’ve ever used. It
heats evenly and is a kitchen staple that you’ll never have to
replace. The Rada Unglazed Stoneware Loaf Pan thinks it's a mini-brick
oven and bakes a wonderful crusty loaf of bread. To make it even better,
unlike other unglazed stoneware, you can wash this pan in the dishwasher
with no worries. The Chicago Metallic Double French Bread Loaf Pan is
great at shaping your sourdough bread into beautiful long baguettes without
its rising out instead of up. I use all three of them all the time.
For the oven: If you have a baking stone, put it into the oven before
you preheat the oven. (If you don’t have a stone, don’t worry—your
bread will still turn out great!) Also before preheating place a shallow,
oven-safe container on the floor of the oven full of water. If this won’t
work, put a pan of water on the lowest shelf. Or, don’t use the
pan of water and just spritz more with water while baking—whatever
works for you and your oven!
Preheat the oven to 400° F for a minimum of 45-60 minutes—so
that your baking stone, water, and oven are all fully and evenly heated—before
putting your bread into the oven.
Now that your dough has rested, it’s time to shape it. You can
shape it any way you want. For a round or oval shape, pick up the dough
and gently push the edges toward the underside until you get the shape
you like. Then be sure to pinch the dough together firmly on the underside.
If you’re making a round shape you can do the ‘rounding’ thing
again. When you’re satisfied with the shape, place your dough on
top of the cornmeal on your baking sheet or put it into the loaf pan.
Cover your loaves with a tea towel or plastic wrap that has been sprayed
with Pam. Now place your loaves in a warm (75°-85° F) non-drafty
place again. This rising could take from 1½ to 3 hours—mine
usually takes about two at my normal room temperatures in the low 80’s,
but it depends on the temperature of your room and the character of your
dough. Expect sourdoughs to rise much more slowly than breads made with
commercial yeasts. And again, keep in mind that cooler temperatures and
longer rising times contribute to flavor and texture. You can do the
same finger indentation test on the second rise that you did on the first.
When your unbaked loaf has risen to about 1½ to 2 times its original
size and passes the finger indentation test, it’s time to bake.
Your oven has been preheated to 400° F. Beat an egg with a tablespoon
of water and set it aside. Then, just before putting your bread into
the oven, take a very sharp single-edged razor blade (like the razor
knife on my website), dip the blade in water before each cut, and slowly
and gently make cuts in the top of your loaf—not straight down,
but at an angle—about ¼ to ½ inch deep. To keep from
collapsing your risen loaf, be careful—sometimes I have to go over
a cut two or three times rather than press down too hard and risk deflating
the dough. Practice helps a lot! If your loaf is round, the traditional
San Francisco way is to make two vertical slashes and two horizontal
slashes in a tic-tac-toe pattern. If you have an oblong or oval, you
can still slash it that way or just make one long cut lengthwise—be
creative. Back in the days when there were no home ovens—just one
big one in the middle of the town that everyone used, each baker would
create an original slashing pattern so that he could identify his loaves
When the slashes are finished, gently brush your loaf of bread with
your egg wash. I like the egg wash, but many bakers use a cornstarch
glaze. Try that one too and see which one suits you better!
Now get your spray bottle of plain water and spray the loaves with a
very fine mist. Put your pan into the oven directly on your baking stone.
You already have a pan of water in the oven. As soon as you put your
bread in the oven, put your hand sprayer on stream and spray the sides
and floor of the oven with water. Do this three or four times during
the first five or ten minutes of baking. Yeah, it’s high maintenance,
but believe me, it’s worth it! (Don't spray the light bulb—it'll
almost surely explode!) Combined with the water evaporating from the
pan, this spraying will reward you with a thick, chewy crust on your
finished loaf of bread. The egg or cornstarch wash makes it look pretty
by adding a nice shine and making it brown nicely. If you want a thinner,
less chewy crust, then leave off all the water in the oven. If yo
a softer crust, brushing with oil or butter before and after baking will
do the trick.
After 10 minutes of baking, turn your oven down to 375° F. Your bread
will take about 30 to 60 minutes to bake, depending upon your oven and
the size of the loaves you have made. The only way to really know when
bread is done is to remove the bread from the oven, turn the loaf on
its side or upside down, and insert an instant-read thermometer (like
the one on my website) into the center—from the side or the bottom,
of course, so the hole won’t mar the beauty of your bread. A reading
of 200° to 210° F means your bread is done. Amazingly, an instant-read
thermometer like the one on my website is about twice as fast to give
you the temp as a ‘digital’ one that requires a battery.
Put the loaf on a rack to cool and admire your creation. Try to resist
cutting it right away. If you can, wait until it has cooled at least
30 minutes and always use a good sharp serrated knife to slice it. Check
out the fabulous aluminum-handled bread knives on my website— they’re
the best I’ve ever used and the prices are incredibly reasonable
for the value you get.
Once it has cooled, you can pop your beautiful bread into one of the
two types of heavy plastic bags that you’ll find on my website.
One comes with twisty-ties and the other has a zip-top closure. They
are 2 mils thick and easily washable and reusable.
After you have baked a few loaves of your own San Francisco Sourdough
Bread, you may want to experiment. Feel free to double the recipe or
replace some of the white flour with whole wheat or rye. And be sure
to add cheese, roasted garlic, or your favorite nuts, grains, herbs or
spices just for fun!
Another thing I have tried is using plain all purpose unbleached flour
instead of bread flour. I also use spelt, kamut, semolina and other ancient
and exotic flours and whole grains and seeds and my family and I love
the results. Be adventuresome and have fun with it!
If I’m not serving or giving my bread within about 24 hours of
the time it comes out of the oven, as soon as it is perfectly cool, I
wrap it in an air-tight package and freeze it. As long as there’s
very little air in the package with your bread, you won’t be able
to tell the difference when you thaw it and eat it. And yes, you can
thaw and re-freeze—homemade sourdough is amazingly tolerant and
has a long shelf-life because it’s naturally resistant to mold
and mildew. If you like, slice it before you freeze it so you can take
it out one or two slices at a time, or you can wait until you’re
ready to serve. The heavy-duty long ‘bread-shaped’ plastic
bags for baguettes and multiple loaves on my website are very affordable
and perfect for storing on the counter or in the freezer. Users tell
me they love them and reuse them.
Sourdough is STICKY! Be sure to put all your tools in cold water straight
away to soak. If you do, cleanup is a breeze later with just a vegetable
If you want bigger holes in your bread, add more water or less flour
to make a wetter dough and try using some all-purpose flour in place
of part of the high protein bread flour. Longer, slower proofing helps
make larger holes as well.
Remember that longer, slower, cooler proofings and risings (even overnight
in the fridge!) are guaranteed to contribute heavily to that wonderful
If you’re making sourdough in your bread machine, be sure to go
to the recipes page on my website and read Joe Wagner’s Sourdough
in the Bread Machine Research Project. It’s a fun read, but more
important, it’s a fabulous ‘how-to’ for machines. There’s
also a recipe page for the basic recipe for San Francisco Sourdough Bread
in the Bread Machine.
If you have a problem with your free-form loaves spreading out more than
rising up, add more flour to the dough. If you have used A/P flour, substituting
all or part with higher protein bread flour will help too. Also, you
can use a bread form, like the Round and Oblong Rising Baskets, the Professional
Loaf Pan, the Chicago Metallic double baguette form or the Rada Unglazed
Stoneware Loaf Pan—you’ll find all of them on the website.
To convert the US-centric measurements in this booklet to metric, go
to this site—it will do all the work for you! http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/conversions.htm.
© Linda C. Wilbourne 2013 Revised December 2013