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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 couple of 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 white flour and mix in three cups (24 fluid ounces) of 70°-80° tap water or bottled water—your choice—but not distilled water. To this mixture, add the contents of your San Francisco Sourdough Starter package and stir it up well. Cover your container with a tea towel or plastic wrap to keep dirt and flying insects out. The important thing is to keep this mixture at the correct temperature—between about 72° and 80°—while the wild yeast and the friendly bacteria come out of hibernation. You can probably just leave it on the kitchen counter.

If your normal room temperature is cooler than 72°, 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. Pour about 3 cups of hot water into the loaf pan or casserole and close the door. If necessary, write down the time that you mixed it up so that you can be sure to check on it within about 24 hours. You can look your mixture, but it’s not necessary to stir it.

Depending on the ambient temperature (longer at the cooler temps, shorter at the higher range), somewhere around 24 hours after you first mixed the starter with flour and water, you will see that your budding starter has become very bubbly (see the Pictures page on my website). At this point, stir it well, mixing in any liquid that has formed on the bottom or top. Now add 1½ cups of white all-purpose flour to the mixture. Stir it well and then add 1½ cups of 70°-80° tap water.

Put two or three cups of this newly-activated starter into the fridge (this is your stash) for a minimum of two or three days or as much as four to eight weeks for maximum sourness, without disturbing it, or until the day before you want to bake your first loaf of San Francisco Sourdough Bread.

You can either throw out the remainder or make pancakes with it (recipes on the Recipes page of my website), or share it with a friend.

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 would be! After about 36-48 hours, you can tighten down the lid. I keep mine in the one-litre glass wire-bail jar that is 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 a month, take your starter stash out of the fridge, stir it well, (with my ‘Sourdough Stirrer’ which is perfect for mixing your sticky starter as well as lots of other things) reduce the volume if necessary, give it a feeding and let it come to room temperature. After about a hour, or 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. I don’t recommend it. Just stir the hooch back into the starter mixture any time you take it out of the fridge to use it or to feed it. Or, if you’d rather, you may pour it off and then dilute what remains with plain water. Your choice!

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 quarter-cup of cold starter and put it in a bowl on Friday evening.

Feed what is left in your storage container with about the same amount of flour and water, reducing it before feeding if there won't be room in your container. In other words, if you have about a cup in your jar, feed it 1 cup each of flour and water. You don't need to keep more than about a cup in your jar. Stir it and leave it at room temp for an hour or so, then put it back in the fridge (no tight lids!) so you’ll have starter the next time you decide to bake. This is your “stash.”
Feed the ¼ 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 65º and 85º 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 has passed its most active point, your dough could take many hours to rise--very frustrating!

The Dough

Classic San Francisco Sourdough Bread Recipe

Makes a 1½ pound loaf or three or four ‘mini’ loaves

2½ cups of very active starter (the VERY ACTIVE sponge that you have allowed to ferment for the past 12 hours)
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!)
½ teaspoon Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C pills crushed fine or Fruit Fresh) added to the dough with the first flour—enhances the rise—sometimes it's already in your flour—look on the ingredient list

Other Stuff You’ll Need

A hand spray bottle full of water
An oven-safe custard cup or other other container that will fit on the floor 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 or clean bristled paint brush
A new, sharp single-edged razor blade or razor knife
Some vegetable oil and/or vegetable 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 did.

Put the 2½ cups of the sponge (very, very bubbly active starter) into your mixer with the paddle attachment, add about a cup and a half of the flour and the ascorbic acid and mix well. At this point, it’s good if you can 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 that isn’t sticking to the sides of the bowl (it will probably be sticking to the bottom of the bowl), knead with the dough hook for about five minutes. 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. So be sure to dump it out on a lightly floured counter and get your hands in it.

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. If not, 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 65° and 85° F. 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 though--don’t go any warmer than 80°-85° F.
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. If you don't have a straight-sided container for this first rise, it's a little harder to tell when it's time to start the shaping process. 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, you're ready to proceed to the next step.

Shaping and Baking

Push your closed fist gently into the middle of the dough all the way to the bottom of the container, then gently push the outside parts of the dough into hole you 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 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 interesting texture to the bottom of your loaf of bread, so don't leave out that step. There’s a good cornmeal shaker 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 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 two bread 'forms' on my website. The Rada Unglazed Stoneware Loaf Pan thinks it's a mini-brick oven and bakes a wonderful 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 the worry of its rising out instead of up. I use them both 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, sacrifice a custard cup to baking (the minerals in the water won’t come off) and place it 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 cup or 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 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—round is traditional. But I have experimented and baked just about every shape I could think of—and they’ve all turned out great. 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 baking sheet with your shaped loaf on it (or your loaf pans) in a warm (65°-80° F) non-drafty place again. (The oven with the light on is fine—just remember to take it out before you preheat!) This rising could take from 1½ to 3 hours—mine usually takes about two at my normal room temperatures in the high 70's, but it depends on the temperature of your room and the character of the 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 times its original size, 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 I have on my website), dip the blade in water before each cut, and slowly and gently make cuts in the top of your loaf 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.

When the slashes are finished, gently brush your loaf of bread with the 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 the loaves with a fine mist. Put your pan into the oven directly on your baking stone. You already have a bowl 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 about every minute or two 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 likely explode!)

Combined with the water evaporating from the bowl, 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 a brown to a beautiful color. If you want a thinner, less chewy crust, then leave off all the water in the oven. If you like 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 most accurate way to know when it is done is to remove the bread from the oven, turn the loaf upside down, and insert an instant-read thermometer (like the one on my website) into the center—from 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 for about 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.

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 on the day I bake it, 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. You can 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 that they are so thick, they are reusable.

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.

Don’t put any commercial yeast in your dough. It will totally change the taste and texture of your bread.

Some bakers say that to enhance the flavor of sourdough you should add about a tablespoon or two of plain rye flour to the dough for each loaf. And remember that longer, slower, cooler proofings and risings (even overnight in the fridge!) are guaranteed to contribute heavily to that wonderful sourdough flavor.

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 Chicago Metallic double baguette form or the Rada Unglazed Stoneware Loaf Pan 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 2008
Revised December 31, 2008