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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 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.

How the San Francisco Sourdough Starter Works

If you want to be successful at activating and baking with the San Francisco sourdough starter, the most important thing for you is to understand how it works.

The starter you have received is composed of a tiny amount of flour which holds two living organisms—a wild yeast and a friendly bacteria. We’ll talk about the yeast first.

Within just a few hours after you mix the dried starter with water and flour, the yeast begins to come out of hibernation. Once the yeast organisms in the starter begin to wake up, they immediately start to consume the flour and water mixture—this is their food.

As soon as they start eating the food you gave them, they begin to reproduce themselves—in other words, they make babies—lots of them. This all happens very quickly. These babies immediately begin to eat and make more babies—and so on and so on! Very soon you have multiple generations of yeast critters eating the food you have given them and making more babies. As long as they have plenty of food, they will live and reproduce indefinitely.

But with the population of yeast organisms increasing exponentially, the food doesn’t last long. Any time that your sourdough starter is at room temperature it needs to be watched carefully for signs that it needs more food. That’s why you will keep it in the refrigerator all the time—except when you take it out to bake with it.

Why Do I Need to Understand All This Stuff?

Because if you understand what’s happening in that bowl of flour and water and starter, you will easily be able tell what your starter is doing any time you stir it and look at it. And that knowledge is the key to making the activation and breadmaking processes simple.

How to Activate the San Francisco Sourdough Starter

NEVER add any commercial yeast—or ANYTHING other than flour and water—to your San Francisco sourdough starter—ever!
In a medium mixing bowl, place three cups of white flour and mix in three cups of tap water or bottled water—not distilled water. 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 to keep out dust and bugs.

Plan to activate when you can be home to look at it and see what’s happening often. I’d start it early in the morning when you can be home the rest of the day and evening.

You can probably just leave the bowl on your kitchen counter. But if your home 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.

After you mix the starter that came in the plastic packet with the three cups of water and flour, stir it about once every hour. You probably won’t see any change for the first two to four hours. But soon, when you stir it and notice that the consistency of the starter mixture is becoming thicker and more cohesive, then you know that the yeast is alive and eating and reproducing.

At this point, you may be able to see some small bubbles beneath the surface of the mixture as you stir. As time goes on, though, you will be able to see more and more bubbles—many small but some larger ones will appear too. This is the time to look at your starter and stir it at least every 30 to 45 minutes so you can observe the changes in its activity. As you continue to watch and stir, you’ll be able to see more and more bubbles. When you can see lots of bubbles—large and small—throughout the mixture and even when you stir it, the bubbles don’t go away, then activation is finished!

You can now put one to three cups of this newly-activated starter into the fridge—no tight lids, please. This is your stash and it needs to stay refrigerated except when you take it out to use it or feed it.

It’s very important that you observe the activation process so check on your critters often. When you have seen your San Francisco Sourdough Starter go through all of the stages of growth and metabolism and reproduction, you will be equipped with the knowledge and experience to make your first adventure in San Francisco sourdough breadmaking much easier and less stressful for you—and a lot more fun!!

The SF starter is so incredibly vigorous that it is easy to miss seeing its most active point 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.
During this activation process, if you see a layer of beige-colored liquid on top—that’s hooch, which means your SF starter has been actively consuming food and making new babies—and it also means that it is running out of food! Give it a feeding!!!!

This will probably only happen if you haven’t looked at and stirred your activating starter often. If this happens, don’t panic. Just stir your what is in the bowl well and pour out all but about about 1 cup of the mixture. To the cup that is left, add 3 cups each of flour and water and mix well. This extra feeding will give all the yeast and bacteria critters enough food to start eating and making babies again.

Care and Feeding of Refrigerated Starter

When you first put your stash into 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 72 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 used your starter in several months and don’t plan to bake soon, it will need to be fed. Take your starter stash out of the fridge, stir it well, 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 hooch at the top of your stash.

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 8 hours before you want to start your dough, take your stash out of the refrigerator.

If you want to bake on Saturday morning, on Friday evening before you go to bed, take out 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 and it doesn’t look very bubbly and the consistency has thinned out, that means that is has gone past its most active point and isn’t active enough for a good sponge. But don’t panic. Just give your sponge a good feeding—at least a cup and a half or two each of flour and water—and it will be back to its vigorous activity within an hour or so.

If the sponge you are working with at room temperature is very active with lots of large and small bubbles, then it needs to be used soon. If it cannot be used soon, then it needs to have food to eat while it waits.

It's always important to have a very active sponge to use to make your dough. If it hasn’t reached its most active point or it has passed its most active point, you'll get very slow rises.

But if you started with live starter, your dough will eventually rise, so don’t throw it out if you don’t see it rising nicely within a couple of hours. Just be patient and it will behave like the popular “No-Knead Bread” recipes and might take up to 24 hours to rise as much as you need. But it will rise—I promise.

San Francisco Sourdough Bread

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 a lot!)

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 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 on my website or the Plastic Dough Scraper you received with your starter purchase) 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 (68°-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. 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—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 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 baking.

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.
Other Stuff

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 brush.
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!

Happy Breadmaking!
© Linda C. Wilbourne 2015
Revised August 2015

Here is the full text of the Instruction Booklet in pdf format


Attention New Sourdough Bakers:

Two of my wonderful breadmakers have recorded the activation of the San Francisco Sourdough Starter and have given me permission to share their original Sourdough Log with you, complete with pictures and wonderful descriptions.  You will love it!

Open Sourdough Log