Making San Francisco Sourdough Bread
© Linda Wilbourne 2020
First of all, it’s
important that you know that working with the San Francisco Sourdough
Starter is unique. It is different from any other sourdough starters
and commercially available yeast. Therefore, it’s very important
to follow these instructions only and not methods that you find online
or from other bakers. I wrote these instructions for this starter only.
The activation process is simple—only three steps:
1. Mix your dry San Francisco sourdough starter with flour and water.
2. Look at it often—at least every 30 minutes.
3. When you see teeny-tiny bubbles, put it in the fridge—you’re
A word of advice: You will have more fun and not get frustrated if you
will read these instructions through a couple of times—and then
keep the instructions open to the part of the process that you are
working on. Rest assured, after you’ve made bread a few times,
you will find the entire process easy. It really is simple if you break
it down into its individual parts, but you know that anything new seems
more complicated at first. Go slowly the first couple of times and
you will master the process quickly. As you begin each step, review
the section about that step—highlighting where you need to. I
have underlined and bolded the really crucial parts, so pay special
attention to those. The answers to fully 99.9% of the email questions
I receive can be found right here in this little booklet.
to activate your San Francisco Sourdough Starter when you can be home
to look at it often.
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 tap water or bottled water—not
distilled—in the bowl and then add the contents of your San Francisco
Sourdough Starter packet.
Add three cups of plain white all-purpose or bread flour
and stir it well—a few lumps are OK. Even if you plan to bake your bread with
another type of flour, I recommend that you do the activation with plain
white all-purpose or bread flour. It makes the process more predictable—thus
easier for you. Cover your container with a tea towel or plastic wrap.
You can leave the bowl on your kitchen counter unless
your home is cooler than about 70°. Then the easiest way to achieve the ideal temperature—mid-70’s
to the mid-80’s—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.
Now, be sure to look at your awakening starter about every 30 minutes.
You will see a change happening fairly quickly, depending on the ambient
Soon you will be able to see some really teeny tiny bubbles
on the surface of the mixture. You will need to look very closely to
see these miniscule
first bubbles. When you see them, then activation is finished! Now put
your activated starter in the fridge---where it becomes your “stash.”
Leave the cover loose until the mixture is chilled throughout, or the
pressure inside the container will cause it to explode! After three or
four days, you can tighten down the lid. This is your stash and it always
needs to stay refrigerated except when you take it out to use it.
After 6 to 8 hours, if you see no tiny bubbles, then
you need to email me right away so I can send you a replacement. But
it out—put it in the fridge and if you see hooch on top within
another few hours or so, you’ll know that your SF starter is actually
alive. Even if it’s not alive, you can save it and use it to feed
the new starter—after all, it’s just flour and water.
Just about the only tech support questions I get are from people who
need to feed their starter or sponge more. The more time that passes
and the warmer the temperature is, the more food those babies need.
Care and Feeding of Refrigerated Starter
you first put your stash into the fridge, leave the cover loose until
the mixture is chilled well. After about three days,
you can tighten down the lid. But if you tighten it down too soon,
the container can explode!
After it has been refrigerated for a while, you should see a layer of
light beige- or brown-colored liquid—we call it hooch—on
top of your stash because it was still eating and growing when you put
it in the fridge. This is normal. Hooch is the by-product of the metabolism
of the yeast!
Just FYI: To prevent mold from forming inside your stash container,
make sure that the sides and top edges of your container are
free of drips.
The SF starter repels mold naturally, but the small drips and dabs
dry quickly so they don’t have the acidity to prevent the mold from
forming. Then, once it gets started, it can spread to the surface of
You don’t have to feed your stash every time you bake if you’ll
have plenty for the next time. But any time you want to have a larger
quantity of stash in the fridge, you can give it a feeding of flour and
water that is about equal in quantity to the stash you are feeding—or
as much as you want to get the quantity you need.
If you want more sour flavor in your bread, leave your stash in the
fridge, unfed, for two 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.
If you want to bake on Saturday morning, on Friday night at bedtime,
stir your cold stash well (yes, including the hooch), take out ½ cup—no
more, and put it in a bowl. Add 3 cups each of flour and water and
cover it with plastic wrap. You can leave the bowl on your kitchen
Then early on Saturday morning—about 8 hours, more or less, after
you went to bed, you should have a very active sponge. If you overslept
or got distracted and it doesn’t look very bubbly and/or the consistency
has thinned out or you see little puddles of hooch on top, that means
that it has gone past its most active point and isn’t active enough
to start your dough. But don’t panic. Just give your sponge a good
feeding—at least two cups each of flour and water—and it
will be back to its vigorous activity and ready to use to make your
dough within a very short time.
If your room is on the cooler side, then your sponge might not be
quite fully active when you wake up and you need to wait a little
It's always important to have a very active sponge to use to make
your dough. If it hasn’t reached the point of vigorous activity—or
it has passed that point, you need to either give it more time to metabolize
or feed it more flour and water to bring it back to vigorous activity.
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 that use only a tiny amount of yeast and might
take up to 24 hours or more to rise enough. But it will rise!
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 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
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 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
adding flour until you have a fairly stiff dough—still moist but not
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).
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
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 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 doubled. Or you can use a large bowl.
Place the dough
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.
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
three-quarters of an inch. If you can see the dough come back
and fill the hole within a minute or two, then it isn't finished
If the indentation remains after a few minutes, you're ready
to proceed to the next step.
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
the flavor and texture of your bread.
If you want or need to delay your baking for some reason,
you can cover your unrisen dough securely with plastic
with Pam and put it into the refrigerator for 1 to
48 hours. This can help when you run out of time
on a schedule
always enhance the flavor of your finished bread.
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.
Francisco Sourdough Starter is strong, flexible, and forgiving!
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
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
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
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.
take a very sharp single-edged razor blade (like the
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
helps a lot as does a razor-sharp blade!
If your loaf is round, the traditional San Francisco
way is to make two vertical slashes and two horizontal
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
glaze. Try that one too and see which one suits you
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 my website) into the center—from
the side or the bottom, of course, so the hole won’t mar the
beauty of your bread.
reading of 200° to 210° F means your bread
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 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 my 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
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!
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, (I wrap mine in plastic
wrap before putting into the large heavy plastic bag) 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 SF sourdough bread 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
of part of the high protein bread flour. Longer, slower proofing
also 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
also a recipe page for the basic recipe for San Francisco Sourdough
Bread in the Bread Machine.
you have a problem with your free-form loaves spreading out
more than rising up, just understand that this is something
bread because the acidity of the starter weakens the gluten.
Adding more flour to the dough will help. Making the loaves
smaller will also help. If you have used A/P
substituting all or part with higher protein bread flour
will help too. The best way to get the shape you
want is to use a
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.
convert the US-centric measurements in these instructions
to metric, go to this site—it will do all the work for you! http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/conversions.htm.
© Linda C. Wilbourne 2020