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San Francisco Sourdough Bread

Makes a 1½ pound loaf, two 12-ounce loaves
or three or four ‘mini’ loaves


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 more 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
A large oven-safe 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
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. Naturally, you can make it entirely by hand, just like the original bakers of sourdough did.

Put the 3 cups of your 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. Now 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 mix and add flour and the salt 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. If it still seems too wet, add more flour a tablespoon at a time. If it’s too dry, add water a tablespoon at a time.

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). Don’t knead much longer, because if the dough gets too warm from the kneading action, the gluten will collapse and your dough will not rise at all—ever!

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 to really get a feel for its exact condition.

Now oil (or spray with Pam) a straight-sided dough rising bucket like on the 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 doubled. Or you can use a large bowl. Place the dough into your well-oiled container and then oil the top. Cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap and put it somewhere that it’s not drafty and is between about 70° and 80° F. You can 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.

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 1 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. Just be sure to protect it from drying out in the fridge. 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 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 three-quarters of an inch. If you can see the dough spring back and fill the hole within a minute or two, then it isn't finished with its rise. If the indentation remains after a few 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 Plastic Dough Scraper you received with your starter 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 cut edges of the dough 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 firmly. 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 for 5 to 15 minutes, prepare your baking sheet by sprinkling some coarsely ground corn meal where your rising bread will go. You can oil the pan or spray it 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 the 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 the website. The Commercial Heavy-Duty Non-Stick Bread Pan on the 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 shaped loaves with a tea towel or plastic wrap that has been sprayed with Pam. Now place them 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 an excellent one on the 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 the 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 as does a razor-sharp blade! And lots of places will say to use a knife, but you'll do much better with a razor.

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 8 to 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 crisper crust and a higher rise 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 like a soft 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 the website) into the center. A reading of 190° to 210° F means your bread is done. Amazingly, an instant-read thermometer like the one on the 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 the website— they’re the best I’ve ever used and the price is amazingly reasonable—I have sold tons of them over the years and never had a complaint or a return.

Once it has cooled, you can pop your beautiful bread into one of the two types of large, long, and heavy plastic bags that you’ll find on the website. One comes with twisty-ties and is the larger of the two. The other has a zip-top closure. They are 2 mils thick and easily washable and reusable.