Sourdough Tips

Last revised:  26-Jan-09

This page is the repository for all of the many tips and techniques that I've learned, found out, or made up.  I've put them here in order to reduce the size of my various recipes and such.  Eventually they'll be alphabetized, and/or indexed.  At the end, I may even add an appendix.

Flour:

There are literally thousands of different theories and ideas about flour.  Let me make it simple for you...flour is necessary!  Any kind will do, but with a little care, you can get superior results.  Flours range from "cake flour", to fancy packaged and labeled specialty or "boutique" flours.  Most are a waste of money.

All-purpose flour: although the exact formulation various from location to location and miller to miller, it's generally a medium-hard flour with enough gluten and other characteristics to be useful for successful bread making.  Can be used alone, or in combination with other less structure imparting flours.

Bread flour: a hard-wheat, high-gluten flour ideal for bread making.  Can be used alone, or in combination with other less structure imparting flours.

Cake flour: a thin, light, fine, soft flour NOT suited for bread making.

Rye flour: a flour made from rye grains, as opposed to wheat.  In addition to its own unique flavor, this flour promotes a better and deeper "sour" flavor to most sourdough breads.  Used alone, this flour makes a very dark, dense bread.  It is best used in combination with other flours.

Whole wheat flour: is flour made from the whole wheat kernel.  It is arguably the most healthful.  An excellent source of dietary fiber, it imparts a slightly sweet, nutty flavor to the bread; as well as some darkening of both the crust and crumb.  However, due to the presence of the wheat bran this flour does not loft and hold its structure as well as plain white flour.  It is best used in combination with other flours.

Other flour: there are a wide variety of other flours available as well; corn, oats, spelt, Kamut, Amaranth, millet, buckwheat, and rice to name but a few.  They impart specific qualities that the baker wishes to implement.  There are too many used too infrequently to warrant specific inclusion here.  If you do use them and like the results, please drop me a note with your comments...and I'll see about including some info about them here.

Finally, bleached vs. un-bleached, enriched vs. un-enriched, and sifted vs. un-sifted, organic, and so on... 

Bleached flours have been chemically treated to make them whiter and brighter.  This is mostly a cosmetic treatment that does not effect the underlying flour quality.  However, this process is caused through the use of chemicals that are not a normal part of our living and working environment.  It's not needed, so I eschew such products.  

Enriched flours have had additional nutrients added to the flour.  This change was brought about many years ago in a successful effort to wipe out many heretofore common, preventable childhood diseases.  Given the standards and levels of nutrition today, it's no longer considered a necessary requirement.  I eschew it simply because I want to use plain un-modified flours.  Use it if you like.  Read more about the policy and reality behind this concept.

Sifted flour has simply been pre-sifted before packaging.  Some consistency in delivery and measuring can be received, but otherwise that is no advantage to the typical home baker.

Self-rising flour has had 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon of salt added to each cup of standard all-purpose flour.  You should AVOID this flour for your bread making!

Organic flour is promoted by the claim that it has been grown free of pesticides and other "artificial" means.  A nearly impossible claim to verify, and usually not worth the 2X or 3X increase in cost.

My Favorite flour has become the Gold Medal "Harvest King".  It is the only "plain" flour I now use in my recipes.  Rye, Whole Wheat, Spelt, and other flours are for blending with my HK in order to get the various bread flavors and textures.

Goals:

My goal in making sourdough bread was just to learn how to make this tasty, wonderful, naturally leavened bread.  In addition, I wanted to replicate, as closely as possible, the methods and materials from my grandmother's era.  She didn't have refrigeration, automatic bread makers, commercial bakers yeast, a dozen different, titanium framed, diamond polished, integrated 32-color digital display, high-tech resources, nor automatic thermometers calibrated to 1/10th of a degree Fahrenheit or Celsius in four different languages; and still managed to turn out some wonderful bread!

Making sourdough bread has to be simple, easy, and something an old-country grandmother could fit into her day and make while being a typical country wife.  So my three most important bread making goals were: 1) simplify, 2) simplify, and 3) simplify!

I have intentionally changed or modified some of the "typical" sourdough bread makers recipes and methods for many reasons: errors, omissions, and needless obfuscations among others.  Most salient among them?  I'm a contrary cuss that just likes to do things my own way--especially if it's simpler and the results are demonstrably superior!

History:

For the moment, the somewhat abbreviated "History of Bread" should prove to be interesting reading.  While I may yet add it, explaining the history and all of the ins-and-outs of making and using sourdough would consume 100's of pages and days of your time.  There are probably as many stories and anecdotal descriptions on the various methods and ingredients as there are sourdough bakers!  However, I will explain, in as brief a manner as I can, what I've done and the rational behind most of the steps or measures I take.

Salt:

I use and recommend Kosher salt.   No, it's not a "religious thing" with me, it's practical.  Regular table salt contains Iodine, a necessary trace micronutrient.  However, iodine is a also powerful antiseptic.  Although only trace quantities are present, my philosophy says that it can never be good for my culture.  So I don't use it.  Taste is a subjective sense, I find the Kosher salt tastes "brighter", and I use it for all of my other salting purposes as well.  It gives me superior flavor and technical results.  However, I have been replacing it with a fine grained sea-salt in some of my recipes (again, iodine free).  The jury is still out, but it too seems to work well... 

Sponge:

Sourdough sponge is an active, working, growing mass.  In a roughly equal mixture of flour and water (by weight), you introduce an inoculation of culture.  For each 1-cup of liquid, use 1-1/2 cup of flour, and 1-tablespoons of culture.  Cover; let sit for about 3-4 hours at 85F or 6-8 hours at 68F; longer, overnight, if it's cooler.  This first proofing time is an interdependent function of the temperature, the nature and history of your starter culture, and to a lesser degree the nature of your flour and water.

The culture content of our sponge will double and re-doubled each hour (at 85F), and will fully infuse the sponge mass in about 4-hours (longer if it's cooler).  Making a good, robust sponge is the start of the sourdough bread baking process and the underpinning of the entire sourdough bread making process.  You must have a healthy and active sponge in order to successfully make good sourdough bread.

No matter what the current status of the lifecycle of your "mother" culture, you will always find some of each of the necessary "critters" in it--more of some, less of others; but--unless dead or severely damaged--you can always count on finding enough critters to get them to start another round of their symbiotic lifecycle.  By using the critters as you find them, they will not always be in the prime point of their growth cycle.  So, we make a sponge matrix, and inoculate it with a small, but sufficient, amount of the culture.  Upon finding themselves in the new culture medium, they resume their reproduction cycle.  In a short while, they will have generated a consistent, repeatable, copy of themselves; in exactly the right state or condition to be used for baking our bread--at the height of the yeast cycle with the LB cycle just getting started.

As with all things sourdough, there are no hard, fast rules about this process.  While the sponge description described here is "the ideal", most any amount or time will work--as long as you keep in mind the impact of those changes.  The 1-cup, 1-tablespoon, ratio will vary with the amount of sponge you wish to make.  Proofing at 68F (as opposed to 85F) will double the time required.

NB: be sure to replace your "usage" & refresh your starter before you put it away.

Sourdough:

"Sourdough" is a symbiotic mixture of several specific wild yeasts and lactobacilli in the approximate ratio of 1:100.  The yeast is a form of plant, a microscopic fungus actually.  "Lactobacilli" is a somewhat fancy, yet shortened, name for any number of a specific species of lactose (a form of sugar) feeding bacteria.  Symbiotic means that they have formed a survivable, long-term working relationship in which each serves the other.  Simplified: the yeast convert some the complex carbohydrates in the flour into simpler starches, lactose, carbon-dioxide, and a little alcohol.

According to "Yeast Technology" by Reed and Nagowithana, the indigenous yeast in rye flour are the strains of Candida crusei, Pichia satoi, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or Toruplupsis holmii.  The latter is synonymous with the yeast found to comprise most sourdough microbes.  It will work with a variety of lactobacilli strains as well.  Lactobacillus brevis and L. plantarum, etc., but in low population density.

Like all living things, the yeast cells don't live forever.  The lactobacilli, eat other flour components, the sugars the yeast produce, as well as dead yeast cells.  In turn, the lactobacilli excrete a variety of acid like materials (the source of the "sour" in sourdough).  The lactobacilli also secrete antibiotic cycloheximides which "sterilize" the dough by killing "foreign" organisms (other yeast strains--wild or domestic), bacteria, and so on...  This keeps the mixture "pure" and allows the "partner" yeast, which is resistant to their specific cycloheximides, to flourish.

Like all communities, this complex culture follows a continuous cycle of interrelated events.  At any given point in the life cycle of this living system; one organism or the other is either in rise, plateau, or decline.  Many factors effect these cycles; age, time, temperature, the flour, hydration (water), the exact species of yeast, the exact species of lactobacilli, and so on...

In order for a sourdough loaf to become true sourdough, you can't just grab a slice of that culture and use it as you find it.  You have to use the culture at the very peak of the yeast cycle, as the lactobacilli cycle is going on a rise and before the yeast goes into decline.  If you want bread that's more sour, then you'll want to add additional proofing time to the basic description given here.

At the very early stages in a cultures' lifecycle the yeast is the main active component.  As the culture gains maturity, the primary initial food (flour) is consumed.  The yeast cells convert some of the carbohydrates and starches to lactose (a form of sugar), excrete alcohol, and finally start to die off from starvation.  As that happens, the lactobacilli begin to rise as they use the sugars, eat dead yeast cells, and generate the acids that keep the culture clean and pure.  That means that you have to be able to predict and control the exact stage of development of your sourdough culture.  The best way that I found to do that is to establish a consistent, repeatable methodology that ensures that each iteration of usage will always be essentially the same.

While reams of material can be found that covers the care and feeding of a sourdough starter culture; let me boil it down to a few simple steps.  You need:

  1. Flour

  2. Water

  3. and an inoculation of the culture

Now, what could be simpler, you ask?  Actually, nothing...until we let the human need to "fool with things" intrude.  There are many, many different culture formulations.  Over time and experience some of those have evolved to become what we know as "San Francisco" sourdough and other specifically named (typically regionally) cultures.  Each is a slightly different mix of critters that have, over time, evolved to work together in a manner that pleases the baker.  Also, as cultures age they change--Darwin's theories at work.  So, if you happen upon a working, tasty culture; just keep doing whatever you've been doing.  You might also want to consider taking a bit of it and preserving it--in case you inadvertently cause yours to expire...(trust me, BTDT!)

Water:

Although many folks successfully use tap water, I use bottled water just because I live in an area where they chlorinate water, and don't want to take a chance with my culture.  The chlorine in most "city water" will eventually dissipate and *may* not hurt your critters...much.  The chloramines they're starting to use in place of chlorine are definitely a critter hazard--and they *will not* dissipate!  You, of course, are welcome to use whatever floats your boat...

Culture:

No matter what you might read or hear from reams of "experts", you CAN NOT "create" a specific, viable, defined culture by capturing wild yeasts "out of the air" (that's because they're already there, in the flour--they're a natural component of it).  You can not build one using milk, sugar, yeast, potato water, grapes, or any of the other triggers often found listed in various publications.  If you want to make true sourdough bread and don't know someone who will give you a bit of their culture to start the process, then spend some of your "bread" and buy one!  Trying to hatch your own can be both a challenge and a thrill--and I'm not against such efforts.  But the odds are far, far more likely that you'll get something that is tasteless at best, or foul and possibly dangerous at worst.

Tweaking:

The goal is to make your recipe come out exactly as written.  But differences in humidity, variations in the moisture content of your flour, the kind and nature of your specific flour, and your own result goals will effect the final outcome.  If the specific flour you're using always ends up too dry, then you'd want to adjust your specific copy of this recipe by adding a tablespoon or so of water.  Too wet, then you'd want to adjust the water down.  

TIP:  When PLANNING your recipe, you change the amount of water you're going to use to achieve the desired moisture of the outcome.  When MAKING your recipe, you adjust the moisture by adding or withholding flour.

The amount of bread that you're going to make is predicated on the amount of flour that you're using.  The flour you use will need some amount of water in order to achieve a given level of hydration (wetness).  Now, many that make these delicious breads have and use highly accurate electronic scales, precisely calibrated hydration meters, and any number of such aids to achieving a specific and consistent result.  I've eschewed all that, and have chosen to use older, more esoteric, and less technical methods.  I go by look & feel!

Process:

The sourdough loaf creation process begins with the making of a sponge that incubates and replicates the sourdough culture.  This sponge will be mixed with the remaining flour until the wetness and handling characteristics of the resulting dough are what they should be--yes, this requires some level of experience, but trust me, it ain't brain surgery!  This also means that you adjust the amount of total flour until you have the right "feel" to your dough.  This is because it's easier to add flour than water to a dough ball.  Water added to the dough ball will coat the outside, making it nearly unmanageable by becoming slippery and slick.  Then, as it's absorbed, it'll get sticky and even harder to work.  It is difficult to get it absorbed in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of work.  Consequently, I use ALL of the water for that recipe when I make the sponge, and fine tune the dough when I add that final cup or so of flour.

The glutens in dough, need to be combined and formed into long chains in order to give the loaf structure and substance, and provide a base for the formation of the bread.  In yeast dough, this is done almost exclusively by kneading.  But, due to the metabolic action of the critters in the sourdough culture, they partly digest the flour and cause excellent gluten strands to be formed.  So, being basically lazy, I let a couple of trillion of my friendly sourdough critters do the heavy kneading work for me.

That having been said, the "best" recipe for a robust and active sponge is equal parts (by weight) water and flour.  One of the "design goals" in making sourdough bread is to have between 20 and 30% of your total flour usage be fermented in the initial proof--this permits the enzymes moisture to generate enough long gluten fibrils to give the bread form and substance.  Given that most recipes use around 6 cups flour, and the typical water component is 1/3 of that, it makes sense that we use all of the water, and enough of the flour to achieve both a 50-50 mix of flour and water, *and* account for the 25-30% or so ratio of proofed to raw flour.  In addition, we get the added benefit of not having to spend as much time kneading the dough--as the action of the critters makes getting good results just from using a spoon, an easy reality.

Another consideration; more proofed sponge (the flour in it consists of more than the recommended amount of flour) means that less rise time and resulting loft is possible.  The critters gotta eat, and when the food's gone, they begin to decline and die.  This isn't necessarily bad, it just skews your timing and alters the mechanics of the process somewhat.

To make the bread more "sour", make less sponge and let the loaf rise longer.

Once your sourdough starter is healthy, you can proof the sponge and the dough very well at room temperature.  You can speed things up by proofing warm around 85F.  DO NOT exceed 100F!

3-Step Sponge:

The reason sponges are often built up in stages is to insure that the culture is both healthy and active.  By building it in stages, you force the culture to become active and robust.

"To Knead or not to knead," that is the question:

Even with my generally "no-knead" recipes, a little (marvelously therapeutic) kneading is required.  It is easiest when adding the final flour portion, to knead the dough as you add it.  I add flour until the dough just no longer sticks to my hands, bowl, or the table as I knead it.  And here's an important tip (thank you Mike Avery!) in order to know if you have enough moisture in your dough, you have to pay attention that the fold of dough that you pull over, onto the body of the dough, will "stick" when pressed into the body of the mass.  This is called, "sealing".  As you approach the proper degree of moisture for this kind and style of bread, the dough will start to NOT seal.  But, as the moisture and flour are absorbed and more kneading is applied, it will seal after a few "dry" tries.  So be wary when you get that close...

Add too much flour, and it won't stick anymore and you'll end up with "dry" joints.  That's where you have noticeable folds or "lines" in your finished loaf; poor loft, and a dense hard to eat bread.  The only thing you can do then is put the dough back into a bowl, add a tablespoon of starter, and work it a bit more.  Work it a minute or two, and let it rest for ten; until you get the right balance back.  You may have to do this and balance it with more flour in order to get it back.  Trust me, this is messy and not conducive to the continued desire to make more bread.

One final point; the vigilant baker is aware that the basic hydration (moisture content) of flours will vary.  The relative humidity where you are working will have an impact as well.  So, the amount of flour and/or water that you're using may vary both with location, the quality and basic substance of your flour, and other less definitive factors.  The wary baker becomes cognizant of these issues and recognizes that some deviations may be necessary to adjust for these issues.  Usually, if more than a tablespoon of water or a 1/4 cup of flour are needed to bring your dough into balance, there's probably something else amiss that needs attention...

Tools and materials:

Every once in a while you're going to read blistering diatribes by some of the "purist" adherents to the sourdough culture and how to work it.  One of the entreaties you'll probably most often hear is, "ONLY AND ALWAYS USE WOODEN TOOLS AND GLASS, CERAMIC, OR PLASTIC BOWLS!"  Okay, as an accomplished amateur biologist I have a fine, working, laboratory quality microscope.  I am very well versed in how to use it--and do so fairly often.  I looked.  Trust me, the "critters" have no eyes!  They can't tell what you're using.  While I most often use wooden spoons and tools, I use what makes the most sense at the time.  The dough can dry-on and stick very tenaciously as you work.  A metal spoon works far better than a wooden spoon for scrapping those crumbs and flecks off the bowl.  I use a metal whisk for mixing, and have used metal bowls as well.  So don't lose any sleep over not having the exactly "right" kinds of tools or bowls.

For certain, the yeast beasties are pretty well inert and not bothersome to, or effected by, metal objects--other than extreme temperature variations could be infused (a very hot or cold utensil and damage a small contact portion of your culture).  However, it is possible--however unlikely--that given enough time, some of the acid created by some species of lactobacillus could eat into metal.  While I've not gone so far as to do a detailed titrimetric analysis, the acid generated by the lactobacillus is going to be far too weak to have any measurable effect on any metal utensils used while baking.

That having been said, it's only for the long term storage of your culture that I don't recommend metal contact.  Feel free to use metal tools and so on, even metal bowls for working the dough.  But you should avoid permitting metal contact when storing your culture for the long term.  It is possible, however unlikely, that some metal may be absorbed by your culture over long periods of time.  While almost surely not a health problem to the typical human organism, it is possible for your culture to become discolored, develop an objectionable taste, or even be killed by micro-metal poisoning.

Fermenting--the "second" proof:

After you make your sponge, the next step is to let the critters that you created in the sponge ferment, or further proof, the dough.  Using yeast recipes, you would permit the dough to double, punch it down, and do it again.  Regretfully, most sourdough critters don't take well to multiple risings.  So, if the dough appears to be working at all, that's probably enough.  Indication of activity is all that's really required.  Note too that this step can be accelerated by keeping the sponge comfortably warm ~85F.  NB: Take care to NEVER permit temps to exceed 100F!

Coupe:

This means to slash the dough.  In days of old this was done because bread was most often baked in a communal oven.  These slashes served to identify your loaf from the others.  These days it's used more as a mark that you've a "real baker".  I find that if I coupe before the final rise, the dough spreads and looks like crap, and if I coupe at the end of the final rise the loaf deflates.  So I don't coupe.  You can do as you will...


Theory:

NB: This section is still under construction, and shouldn't be relied upon to answer any of your questions just yet.  My primary goal is to generate a simple yet worthwhile rustic bread recipe.  Filling out this section will happen after I learn the how's and why's behind what did or didn't go right...

[Ed: As with all information gained by experience, a lot of what I'm about to relate here is subjective.  That means that I did, or did not, do something--and what I relate to you is a result of those actions (or lack thereof).  In all cases I had a reason for what I did.  Unfortunately, that does not always translate to a correct and valid reason.  Sourdough, probably more than any other baking style, requires the baker to keep in mind a multitude of causal or influencing "threads".  As both pilot and programmer, that's of little consequence to me--but it may drive others, more "recipe fixated", to insanity.  So relax!  Enjoy the show.  This is supposed to be fun and enjoyable...]

There are four stages to making sourdough bread:  Proof, Ferment, Rise, and Bake.  A fifth stage would be: 'Eat'.  But since that comes so naturally with this bread, I intentionally left it out!  Read a little about the methods to my madness (theory) behind baking with sourdough.

An important aspect of making sourdough bread is the amount of starter used in the recipe and how long it has been since that starter matured.  Typically, you want about 20-40% of the total flour should come from the starter. NB: the higher the percentage of starter, the less proofing time it will stand.  In other words, if 40% of the flour comes from starter, you may only be able to proof 3-4 hours before the loaves flatten excessively, depending on the starter and degree of maturity.  Different lactobacilli have different capacities to degrade flour and to make acid and therefore they act differently in bread.

The standard methods to keep bread from flattening excessively include reducing water (or increasing the flour), increasing kneading or adding ascorbic acid (100-200 mg (1/4 tsp.) per 5 pounds of flour), making sure the starter is not overly mature, and doing some of the fermentation as a "bulk" fermentation.  Bulk fermentation simply means that after mixing the dough you let it sit for 2-3 hours at proofing temperature before shaping the loaves.  That will give the yeast & lactobacilli time to make flavor and gas without having to worry about the loaves flattening.  Then the loaves are shaped and a final proof of 3-4 hours results in a fantastic loaf with a more interesting internal and external texture.

One other important reasons why sourdough loaves may flatten is that the starter is not fresh enough. When you feed your starter use the smallest amount of old starter that you can while still getting a very active ferment by the time you need to mix your dough. If the old starter is very active I would use only 5-10% by weight (usually a tablespoon or so) as the inoculum.  Starters that are not fresh produce extremely slack (limp) dough's.  The type of flour you use will help, but will not completely overcome the problem.  If 20-30% of the flour in your dough comes from starter you should be able to proof a free standing loaf for many hours without flattening.  I typically mix a dough, let it sit for 2-3 hours, shape into loaves, and give it another 3-5 hours of final proof with little flattening.  But, like all things in this craft, you've got to keep an eye on things and adjust if it seems to be going to or doing something you don't like.


Appendix:

gluten - (gloo'ten): n. the sticky, protein based amino acid substance, essential to human nutrition, found in flour.  Gluten is composed of a great number of thin, intertwined filaments, a "reticulum", which holds particles of hydrated starch.  If we compared the act of mixing (kneading) dough to that of building a wall, we could say that the starch granules are like the bricks, while the gluten is the mortar which incorporates them and keeps them firmly in place.

proof - ('pruf): transitive verb. to activate yeast.  The process of reviving and activating a yeast or other micro flora culture.  Feeding, warming, and hydrating.