Making San Francisco Sourdough Bread
Revised May 2015
You will have a much easier time of it—and lots more fun—if
you will sit down and read through this little booklet 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. If I were doing it, I would go through the
entire breadmaking process the first two or three times step-by-step
following this booklet. The answers to fully 99.9% of the email questions
I receive can be found right here, 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. And trust yourself and your judgment! It
is VERY difficult to kill the San Francisco Sourdough Starter.
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
here or on the website, then by all means, email me! Tech support is
usually quick and always free. I really want you to be a successful sourdough
breadmaker, and you can be—I PROMISE!
Activation Revised—The EASY Way
NEVER add any commercial yeast—or ANYTHING other than flour and
water—to your sourdough starter—ever.
In a medium mixing bowl, place three cups (15 ounces by weight) of all-purpose
unbleached flour and mix in three cups (24 fluid ounces) of 65°-75° tap
water or bottled water—your choice. To this mixture, add the contents
of your San Francisco Sourdough Starter packet and stir it up well—a
few lumps are OK. Cover your container with a tea towel or plastic wrap.
The important thing is for you to watch what is happening while the wild
yeast and the friendly bacteria come out of hibernation. So plan to activate
when you can be home to look at it and see what’s happening often.
I’d start it right before bedtime when you can be home most of
the next day. Then, when you wake up, it will only have been about 8
hours since you started.
You can probably just leave the bowl on the kitchen counter. But if your
normal room temperature is cooler than about 65°-68°, then the
easiest way to achieve the temperature you need is to adjust a rack in
your oven to the middle, place your bowl of activating starter on it
and then put a loaf pan or casserole on the floor of the oven or the
lowest shelf with about 3 cups of very hot water in it.
Depending on the ambient temperature (longer at cooler temps, shorter
when it is warmer), somewhere between 8 and 12 hours after you first
mixed the starter with flour and water, you will see that it is beginning
to come out of hibernation and becoming bubbly.
At this point, stir it and look at it carefully. You are seeing some
bubbles, but you may need to let your starter have more time to become
When you can see bubbles—large and small—throughout the mixture
and the top looks sort of “quilted” (see the Pictures page
on my website)—then your starter has reached its most active stage.
It’s important that you observe as much of the activation process
as possible, because when you have seen your San Francisco Sourdough
Starter go through all of the stages of growth and metabolism up to its
most active point, you will be equipped with the knowledge and experience
to know when your sponge is ready to be made into dough.
And that knowledge and experience will make your first adventure in San
Francisco sourdough breadmaking much easier and less stressful for you—and
a lot more fun!!
Most of the tech support questions I receive are the result of this highest
level of activity not being recognized. This is because the SF starter
is so incredibly vigorous that it is easy to miss seeing the greatest
activity level by waiting too long to take a good look.
It’s hard to believe how fast it can happen, especially at warmer
room temperatures. Don’t make this mistake—look at your activating
starter often—then the rest of the breadmaking process will be
quite easy for you.
After about 12 hours, if you see some bubbles but you don’t see
the intensive bubble activity and the quilted-looking top, then one of
two things has happened:
1. Your starter has gone past its most active point. If this is the case,
then you will probably see a layer of beige-colored liquid on top—that’s
hooch, which is the by-product of the metabolism of the wild yeast.
This will only happen if you haven’t looked at your activating
starter fairly often after the first 8 - 10 hours of activation have
passed. If this happens, don’t panic. Just stir your starter and
pour out about 2 cups of the mixture and add 2 cups each of flour and
water to what remains to wake it up and get it back to its most active
2. Your starter has not quite reached its most active point. In this
case, you should continue to look at it every hour or so until you see
the higher levels of activity.
Now when your SF starter is totally vigorously active, you can put two
or three cups of this newly-activated starter into the fridge (this is
your stash) for a day or two, or as long as a couple of months, until
the day before you want to bake your first loaf of San Francisco Sourdough
Care and Feeding of Refrigerated Starter
When you first put your stashinto the fridge, leave the cover loose until
the mixture is chilled throughout, or the pressure inside the container
will cause it to explode—what a mess that would make! After about
48 hours, you can tighten down the lid. I keep mine in the 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 sourdough breadmaking.
If you haven’t baked in several months and don’t plan to
bake soon, take your starter stash out of the fridge, stir it well, (with
my Handmade Bamboo Starter Stirrer or the Danish Dough Whisk, either
of which is perfect for mixing your sticky starter as well as lots of
other things) reduce the volume if necessary, and give it a feeding that
will about double the volume. Then 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 while, 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 in your bread, leave your stash in the fridge,
unfed, for four to eight weeks—up to three or four months. 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. About
12 hours before you want to start your dough, take your stash out of
If you want to bake on Saturday morning, on Friday evening before you
go to bed, take out about a half cup of your cold stash and put it in
a bowl. Add 3 cups each of flour and water and cover it with a tea towel
or plastic wrap. Leave it at room temperature (between 65° and 75°F)
before you go to bed on Friday evening. Then on Saturday morning, you
should have a very active sponge. If you overslept or got distracted,
don’t panic. Just give your sponge a good feeding—at least
a cup or two each of flour and water—and it will be back to its
vigorous activity within an hour or so.
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.
Classic San Francisco Sourdough Bread Recipe
Makes a 1½ pound loaf, two 12-ounce loaves
or three or four ‘mini’ loaves
2½-3 cups of sponge (the very active starter 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 your loaves of
bread on or in
Some coarsely ground cornmeal—usually labeled stone ground
An egg mixed with 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 Recipes page of my website.
Naturally, you can make it entirely by hand, just like the original bakers
of sourdough did.
Put the 2½-3 cups of the sponge (very bubbly active starter) into
your mixer fitted 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 and it is important.
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 up to the full 2½ cups until you have a fairly stiff dough—still
moist but not too sticky. If it still seems too wet, add more flour a
tablespoon at a time. 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 still 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 understand 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 68° and 75° F. Expect sourdoughs to rise 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 about 80° 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 48 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 your 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
shaped—or both. The San Francisco Sourdough Starter is strong,
flexible, and forgiving!
Look at your rising dough every 30 minutes or so and when it is about
twice 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 oiled closed fist gently into the middle of the dough down
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 Stainless Steel Dough Divider/Scraper or the Plastic Dough Scraper
on my 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 with a damp tea towel or oiled plastic wrap
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 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 Chicago Metallic Double and Triple French Bread Loaf Pans
are great at shaping your sourdough bread into beautiful long baguettes
without its rising out instead of up. I use them all the time.
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 (70°-80° 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 high 70’s
to 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.
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! But you can get a great one on my website!
?) Also before preheating, place an 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 or whatever works for you and your oven!
Preheat the oven to 400° F for a minimum of 45 minutes—so that
your baking stone, water, and oven are all fully and evenly heated—before
putting your bread into the oven.
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 take a
very sharp single-edged razor blade (like the razor knife lame’ 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 along the length of the loaf—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 after
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 and water
glaze. Try that one too and see which one suits you better!
Now get your spray bottle of plain water and spray your 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! (Warning!! Don't spray the light
bulb or your hot baking stone—cold water will break either one
because they have been preheated.) 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 you like 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 in total, 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 with the large dial 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 knife 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 12 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.
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, Slim Baguette and Oblong Banneton
Rising Baskets, the Professional Loaf Pan, the Chicago Metallic Double
and Triple Italian or French bread forms—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 2015 Revised May 2015