Sourdough, winter 2014-’15

Every winter I crank up the bread production and for the third winter in a row, I’ve used a sourdough culture.

A sourdough culture is a symbiotic relationship between lactobacillus and wild yeast.   The lactobacillus converts natural sugars in the flour into lactic acid (sour) and the yeast is also feasting on those sugars and making gas and ethanol. I love a really good sourdough, one that tastes sour but also has a sweet taste, as if honey was added.  I’m guessing the sweetness is from the remnants of the ethanol after baking (the sweetness is most prevalent shortly after baking).


Sourdough starter

Sourdough starter just after feeding.  In 12 hours it will rise to double.


Each year I’ve used different sourdough starters.  One came from the bakery at Whole Foods Market, where they bake a decent batch of sourdough loaves daily.  Another I mail ordered from Ed Wood’s International Sourdoughs.  This year, I started my own starter from organic rye flour, which has naturally occurring lactobacillus in it. In all cases, I had starter ready to use after about 4 days.

Last year I made a proofing box.  It isn’t necessary for sourdough bread, but it makes things a little easier.


My old Igloo cooler in service as a proofing box for bread dough and starter.

My old Igloo cooler in service as a proofing box for bread dough and starter.


I started with my cooler and added a light and a temperature thermostat.


Inside of cooler with 25 watt light bulb and jar of starter.  When I'm making a loaf, it goes in here, too.

Inside of cooler with 25 watt light bulb and jar of starter. When I’m making a loaf, it goes in there, too.


The starter was really easy this year.  I started with 4 ounces of organic rye flour and enough water (without chlorine) to make a pancake batter consistency.  Put it into a quart or liter sized glass jar and put the lid on loosely so it can still breathe. I put the jar in the proof box at 90 degrees F for 24 hours.  I didn’t see much of change in the first 12 hours. After 24 hours there was evidence it had nearly doubled, then contracted back down.  It smelled pretty acidic, which meant things were going well.  Then I added 4 ounces of regular flour and enough water for a thicker pancake batter consistency and reduced the temperature to 74 degrees F.

Every 24 hours, I stir it down and dump out all but 1 cup, and add another mixture of 4 ounces of flour and water.  This is the feeding process.  Because ethanol is being produced and making the starter thinner, I use less water for the feedings, so that the flour/water mixture I’m adding has almost a peanut butter consistency (somewhere between pancake batter and bread dough).  About 6 to 12 hours after each feeding (once you get past the first few days), the starter will get bubbly and rise.  Because of my altitude, the starter will go crazy and I have to use a larger jar.

The yeast and the lactobacillus thrive at slightly different temperatures.  The yeast does great at room temperature.  The lactobacillus likes to be a little warmer.  At the warmer temperatures (more lactic acid generated from the lactobacillus), the yeast is not as active.  So there is a trade-off:  more sour and less leavening, or more leavening and less sour.  The important thing is to make sure there is enough sour to keep other wild organisms from taking over and ruining it.

They say (I don’t know who “they” are), that a sourdough starter takes on the personality of the caretaker, the flour and water.

I mentioned above that I dump out all but one cup.  The part that is dumped is used to make bread dough, or goes down the drain if I’m not making bread that day.  Once the starter is stabilized and living a happy life, it can be refrigerated and only fed every 3-5 days, maybe weekly.

I won’t cover making bread in this post, but I will usually take the starter dumped at feeding time and add it to 1 pound of flour and enough water to make dough.  Let the dough sit for 15-20 minutes after mixing, then add teaspoon of salt before kneading.


Difference in height from using flours with different protein contents.

Difference in height from using flours with different protein contents.


After baking several loaves that came out on the flat side, it dawned on me that the flour was probably at fault.  In the past I’ve had no problems with Bob’s Red Mill Organic Unbleached All Purpose Flour.  But this year, perhaps with using a different crop of wheat, it sucks! (See loaf on right in above photo.) In previous years I didn’t like King Arthur Organic Bread flour due to the stale taste.  But this year, the King Arthur flour tastes good, and as you can see on the left in the photo above, has a better protein content, which makes better/more gluten and bigger bread.  I’ve learned I can’t hang my hat on any particular brand and that it’s going to vary.

I become ecstatic when, after all the feeding and kneading, I get a loaf that has just the right combination of sour and leavening, and I just want to share it with everybody I know.


More bread

I can make sourdough reliably now.  I’ve made three or four loaves now and they all pretty much look like this:




I’ve given some loaves away to the neighbors.

Today I experimented with a 6-grain bread of my own devising.  It was about one-third whole grains with the remainder white flour, sweetened with maple syrup.  The dough was a little too damp so the shape doesn’t look good, but it tastes wonderful and has a good texture.


Whole wheat, buckwheat, triticale, barley, oat, rye and flaxseed



Artisan Bread (Loaf No. 7)

Since my last post, I received the book Bread Science in the mail, and I’ve baked two loaves of sourdough.

Loaf No. 6 was crap.  I didn’t bother taking any photos of it.

Loaf No. 7 was perfect in my eyes and in my mouth.

My sourdough starter and hot loaf (no. 7) just from the oven

The day that I received the book, I devoured it.  I was a bit disappointed with it.  There’s a lot of science but half of it doesn’t translate through to actually baking at home.  On the other hand, I was able to read between the lines and figure out what I’ve been doing wrong.  So, all in all, the book helped in spite of its holes.  Here’s what I’ve learned.

As I wrote in the previous post, my first mistake was not using a flour with a high enough protein content.  This I learned before I got the book.

My doughs have been too dry.  I tend to add flour during the kneading process to make it non-sticky.  Sourdoughs seem more sticky than other doughs I’ve worked with.  Water and salt are needed to make the gluten form.  In looking at the photos in the book, the author’s dough was pretty wet looking.  She wrote about sometimes needing a dough scraper to get the dough off of the board.

The “window” test is where you stretch the dough into a thin membrane and can see light through it.  I’ve known about the window test, but never successfully got a window.  Between the low protein flour and the dough being too dry, the window would always break.

Today I left a lot more moisture in the dough and kneaded it while it was sticking to everything.  I don’t know how much of difference this makes, but the author doesn’t add the salt until the kneading stage.  Today I did that as well.  And I got a good window!

One thing I’ve always lacked is “oven spring”.  This is when the dough expands in the oven.  Mine has never expanded.  It always stayed the same size as when it went into the oven.  I’ve tried steam and other remedies to no avail.  I think the primary reasons are what I’ve mentioned before.

One thing I learned from Loaf No. 6, is that the author’s oven temperature is way too high for 8300 feet elevation, even with steaming.

For Loaf No. 7, I had a large roasting pan sitting on the bottom of the oven, with about 1/4 inch of water in it.  I also spritzed the dough with water from a spray bottle before sticking it into the oven.  To get oven spring, you need to keep that outer layer of dough soft enough so it can expand.  This all happens in the first 10-15 minutes of baking.  Water, water, water! It’s the elevation because water evaporates so easily.

After 15 minutes I pulled the roasting pan out and let the bread continue baking another 20 minutes (total of 35 minutes for the boule).  My oven was at 375. I checked the internal temperature of the bread at 30 minutes and it was 170.  It should be around 180 or higher.  So, I let it go another 5 minutes.

At this elevation, water boils at 190.  I’m thinking if internal temperature of the bread is over 190, the bread is overcooked and dried out.

Good texture, good flavor, thin but very crispy crust.


This bread is so good, there’s nothing I need to improve.  And now that I have much better handle on the dough moisture while kneading,  it will be much easier to make in the future.

Sourdough bread takes a long time, but not much work.  I let it ferment for about 6 hours after kneading, punching down once.  Then let it rise for two hours once it was in the pie pan.   This sourdough starter seems to make more alcohol than CO2.  That was probably good because the dough kept moist during all that time.

Edited to add:  I just realized that Loaf No. 7 is actually Loaf No. 6.  I counted wrong.  But I’m not changing it.  Seven is lucky after all.