Learn how to make sourdough bread from a starter mix.
Until the Industrial Revolution, nearly all breads were
made from sourdough cultures fermented by air- borne
bacteria and yeast, which create most these breads’ flavor.
Bake bread in this ancient tradition, with natural,
homemade sourdough starter instead of commercial
yeast, and discover rich texture and fabulous flavor.
Sourdough breads have been around for centuries. At some
time in human history, people figured out they could
ferment grain and use it to make bread. Perhaps, as Ed Wood
speculates in his book Classic Sourdoughs: A Home
cakes of cereal left sitting out on warm days inadvertently
collected wild yeasts. Eventually, someone baked the cake
and discovered bread; later on, people learned to use
pieces of old bread to make subsequent batches rise. It
wasn’t until 1857 that Louis Pasteur discovered the secret
beasts that give bread its boost: yeast.
But yeast is not the only factor involved in making
sourdough bread. Although yeast is responsible for raising
the dough, bacteria, primarily lactobacilli, are an
essential part of the process. They thrive in the acidic
environment of sourdough’s active yeast culture and produce
a multitude of flavors for which sourdoughs are known.
Besides the intricate workings of yeasts and bacteria, time
is the primary component that separates sourdoughs from
commercial yeast breads. It takes many hours for the wild
yeasts and bacteria in sourdoughs to do their work when making sourdough bread from a starter mix.
Unlike sourdough starters, which are inhabited by many
different species of wild yeast, baker’s yeast is made from
a single hyperactive species that produces a uniform
product in a relatively short period of time. The two hours
required to make a loaf of fluffy white bread also do not
give bacteria adequate time to complete their job, so most
people consider the flavor far less complex and
interesting. And a cake of baker’s yeast produces only a
single batch of bread, while a carefully tended sourdough
culture can conceivably be passed down through generations.
Creating a Sourdough Bread Starter
Before you can begin baking sour dough breads you need to
cultivate a healthy, active culture, or starter-what the
French call levain. You can buy one of the exotic
cultures from Ed Wood’s company, Sourdoughs International,
in Cascade, Idaho, or from King Arthur Flour in Norwich,
Vermont (see “Resources”). But it’s just about
as easy to harvest local, wild yeast and make your own.
Experts disagree whether the yeasts that ferment sourdough
bread cultures originate in the grain or the air, but you
can be sure there are plenty of them available wherever you
Many complicated starter recipes have been published in
books and magazines over the years, but Alan Scott,
co-author with Daniel Wing of The Bread Builders:
Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, eschews them all.
Scott’s technique for making starter is simply to mix
together some fresh organic flour with some spring water
(avoid chlorinated water, which can kill the microorganisms
you’re trying to encourage), then set the starter in a warm
place for a few days. “As long as you feed it organic,
freshly ground flour and good water, and keep it at a
steady temperature you’ll develop a stable society of
microorganisms that will get along quite well,” he says.
You’ll need a glass jar or nonmetal mixing bowl to start
your culture. (Wash it well before you begin, so you don’t
give any non-desirable bacteria a head start.) Mix 1 cup
flour with 3/4 cup water, then cover the bowl lightly with
cheesecloth and set it in a place where the temperature
will remain warm and constant. Stir the mixture
occasionally and check it in 24 to 48 hours. When you see
small bubbles beginning to form, start adding the same
amount of flour and water once a day for the next two days,
until the culture becomes very bubbly, possibly even foamy.
(If nothing happens, it’s probably best to throw the whole
mix in the compost bin and begin again.)
Once the starter becomes active, the microbes will get
hungry more quickly. Remove 1 cup of the culture (discard
the remainder) and feed it 1 cup of flour and about 3/4 cup
of water every 12 hours for the next three days. By week’s
end you should have a bubbly, active starter that will
become even more lively and flavorful as you use it over
the next few weeks.
You can store your starter in the refrigerator for weeks,
even months, between baking. Each time you bake, remember
to reserve a cup of the starter and feed it 1 cup of flour
and 1 cup of water. Pour this mixture into a wide-mouthed
jar, then cover loosely with a lid to permit some air
exchange. Pennsylvania baker Steve Getz allows the mixture
to rest for a couple of hours before putting it back in the
refrigerator to give the microbes a chance to work on the
fresh flour. At some point, a light brown liquid, called
hooch, may form on top. This is a normal
development in a healthy culture. Just stir it back into
Preparing to Bake Bread
Though they typically bake dozens of loaves at a time to
supply their customers at Bake Oven Farm, Steve and Karen
Getz of Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania, have developed a
favorite two loaf recipe they use for the family and for
testing new flours. To fit your baking time around your day
job, Steve suggests refreshing your culture the evening
before you plan to bake. Remove the starter jar from the
refrigerator and pour the culture into a large, nonmetal
(like glass or ceramic) mixing bowl. Feed it 1 cup of flour
and enough water (about 3/4 cup) to create a consistency
similar to pancake batter, then cover the bowl tightly with
plastic. Let it sit overnight in a warm spot where the
temperature will remain between 75 and 80 degrees. in the
morning, your culture should have risen considerably and be
full of bubbles.
Some bakers add more flour and water, and allow the starter
to ferment several hours longer during what’s called a
sponge state. But you can skip the sponge step and
mix your dough, Steve says, as long as you allow the dough
a long, slow rise to develop flavor.
Into the Oven to Bake Sourdough Bread
The key components in achieving a crusty bread with a
lusciously soft crumb are heat and steam. These conditions
are easy to achieve in a wood-fired oven. For those with
gas or electric ovens, there’s kitchen gadget that closely
simulates the climate within a wood-fired oven: La Cloche.
A simple ceramic platter with a bowl-shaped cover, La
Cloche captures the moisture inside the dough and mimics
the moist, radiant heat found in wood ovens. Steve uses one
to make his Bake Oven Farm recipe ( see recipe ) and says
the results are nearly identical to those of his commercial
wood oven. He recommends buying a sturdy pair of oven mitts
along with La Cloche because you’ll need to remove the
cover to check on the bread while it’s baking. (See Sourdough Bread-Baking Resources at the end of this article.)
A pizza stone is another way to create the radiant heat
necessary for making a good crust, but you’ll need to be a
bit more resourceful to provide the necessary moisture.
Some people use a spray bottle to mist the oven just before
putting the bread in, then mist again every five minutes
for the first 15 minutes or so. You can also lay a wet
towel inside the oven door for the first part of the baking
process, as long as you’re not likely to forget about it.
(Set a timer to ring 10 minutes after you put the bread in
the oven if you need help remembering to remove the towel.)
The bread needs to bake 45 to 50 minutes in a 475-degree
oven. If you’re using La Cloche, Steve suggests resisting
the urge to remove the cover for at least 30 minutes, then
checking the bread periodically after that.
Knowing exactly when bread is finished baking is somewhat
of an acquired skill, but most people rely on the thump as
their primary cue. Just press your forefinger against your
thumb and give the loaf a good thwack! If it sounds hollow,
it’s ready to come out. If you’re willing to put a hole
into your beautiful loaf, you can use a thermometer and
remove the loaf when its internal temperature is between
190 degrees and 210 degrees.
Irresistible as it will surely be, try to refrain from
cutting into the hot loaf as soon as you pull it from the
oven. The flavor will fully develop as the bread cools and
releases trapped carbon dioxide. Few of us, though, have
the fortitude to wait more than a few torturous minutes
before tearing into the loaf. A primal urge surrounds a
fragrant loaf of steaming bread — a familiarity Alan
has witnessed time and again. “To bite into these fermented
breads,” he says, “is to experience a sort of homecoming. A
little bit of old-time comfort in the face of modern
Slashing the Bread Dough
When bread dough meets high oven temperatures, it gets a
lift known as oven spring, which helps give bread a lighter
texture. Slashing the top surface of the loaf allows the
contents inside to expand, or bloom. You can buy special
tools for Slashing, or use a sharp knife or single-edge
razor blade. (Cushion the dull side with masking tape to
make it safer and easier to handle.) The way a loaf is
slashed becomes the baker’s signature, so try your hand
making a unique, creative cut.
Use Fresh Flour When Baking Sourdough Bread
Sure, you can make a respectable loaf of bread using a
brand-name flour found on your local supermarket’s
shelves, but if you’re using a living culture, why not use
a freshly ground flour that will enhance its complex
Most experts agree that a high-gluten bread flour is the
best choice for making most kinds of bread. However, bread
bakers Alan Scott and Steve Getz both agree the most
important quality for a good bread flour is its freshness.
“We’ve found that our cultures are much more active and the
bread rises much better when we use-freshly ground flour,”
Alan has discovered some important benefits from working
with flours that are ground slowly between the mill stones,
“if you grind the grain very slowly, then allow the flour
to rest between the stones for a period of time, the oils
will saturate the flour more thoroughly. What you get is a
very creamy, fragrant flour. When you put this flour into
the bread starter, it’s about twice as active as other
cultures.” One reason the starter works so well, Alan
theorizes, is because slow-grinding polishes the edges of
the bran. In contrast, Alan says sharp bran particles,
which punch holes in the gluten and let the gas escape,
Alan works primarily with whole wheat flours, but Steve
prefers a blend of an organic unbleached flour and an
organic hard winter wheat he grinds himself. He recommends
combining equal parts of each, then experimenting with the
ratios until you find the combination you like best.
Several brands of hand grinders are available for the home
baker, but if grinding your own flour doesn’t fit your
lifestyle, try to find a local mill. Good flours also are
available by mail (see Resources and many natural foods
stores offer organic flours.
Kneading and Shaping Sourdough
Kneading sourdough is similar to kneading other types of
dough, except that the culture does some of the work for
you. Sourdough baker and author Alan Scott has found that,
when baking with the high temperatures in wood-fired ovens,
very little kneading is necessary. “All things are slowed
down, because of the oven and the type of bread,” he says.
“We’ve found that we can use wet, wet doughs and they don’t
need to be kneaded — just folded over every half hour
so the water can be absorbed.” Capturing that moisture,
Alan says, creates a nicer texture or crumb, and allows you
to experiment with different, more flavorful kinds of
wheat, some of which don’t have as much gluten as typical
bread flour. “The slacker, the moister the dough, the more
moist the finished product. It’s the same thing the
factories are after with all their additives.”
Those of us not fortunate enough to have high-temperature
wood-fired ovens will need to work with a drier dough. Some
people begin kneading right in the bowl, folding the dough
over on top of itself, then rolling it out onto a lightly
floured table as it becomes more manageable. Baker Steve
Getz recommends giving the dough a resting period in the
middle of the process. When the dough becomes fairly
workable, cover it lightly with a cotton towel and allow it
to rest for 30 minutes before you finish the process. “I
like to give the bread a break sooner than later, about
halfway into the kneading,” he says. Then knead again. When
your dough is smooth and elastic, put it into a large,
lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic and allow
it to rise, or proof, slowly in a cool place for eight to
10 hours, or until its size has doubled. If you’re proofing
at higher temperatures, your dough will rise faster, so
you’ll need to keep an eye on it. It’s best to keep the
temperature under 75 degrees so the bacteria has plenty of
time to develop the flavor.
When the dough is ready to shape, turn it onto a lightly
floured table. Steve uses a two-stage method of shaping, in
which he builds texture, similar to making flaky pastry.
Flatten the dough into a long rectangle about 1 inch thick,
separating it into two loaves. Fold each piece into thirds
lengthwise, folding one side over the other. Then fold the
ends over each other, pressing lightly on the center with
your fist to hold everything in place.
Next, take your squarish piece of dough and shape it
lightly around the edges to form a ball, or boule. Let it
rest for about 15 minutes, then turn it over and flatten
it. Repeat the shaping process, but this time, put your
boule into a bowl or basket lined with a well-floured
cotton towel or piece of linen. Allow the dough to rise
about 45 minutes or until its size has almost doubled.
Bake Oven Farm Sourdough Recipe
- 2 cups starter
- 6 cups organic flour (Try a
mixture of 50 percent unbleached and 50 percent whole wheat
flour, or adjust the proportions to your taste.)
- 2 1/2 cups spring water
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. In a
separate bowl, dilute the starter with the water. Slowly
mix the starter into the flour. (Steve prefers to use his
hands, but the more fastidious among us may prefer to use a
wooden spoon.) Begin kneading and slowly work the flour
into the dough. Just as the dough becomes workable, stop
and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes. Resume kneading
until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
- Shape it into a ball and put it into a lightly oiled bowl,
then cover it with plastic and allow it to rise in a cool
place (about 62 degrees) for eight to 10 hours. Shape the
dough twice (see ” Kneading and Shaping” and
allow it to rise about 45 minutes, or until it doubles. If
you’re using La Cloche (see “Resources”) or a baking stone, now’s the time to
preheat it and the oven. Slash the loaves just before you
put them in the oven. (See “Slashing the Dough”) Bake at
475 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes or until the bread sounds
hollow when you thump it with your finger.
Sourdough Bread-Baking Resources
The Baker’s Catalogue
Flours, cultures and other bread-baking supplies, including La Cloche.
Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods
Organic, slowground flours; grain mills, books and supplies.
Wide selection of sourdough cultures from all over the world.
Lynn Keiley gardens, cooks and writes in Pennsylvania. A former baker of hockey pucks, she now makes splendid loaves of crusty sourdough bread.