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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 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 means, email me! Tech support is usually quick and always free. I really want you to be a successful sourdough breadmaker, and you can! ?

Activation


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 metabolizing and 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 out.


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 spring).


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 things:


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 Sourdough Bread.
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 which is 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 of bread.


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 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 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 did.
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 shaped.


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 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 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

u 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, 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.


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 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 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.
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 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.


Happy Breadmaking!
© Linda C. Wilbourne 2013 Revised December 2013