Sourdough Bread

I’ve made four loaves of bread using the sourdough starter I got from Whole Foods.  Two of those loaves were actually a single loaf dough divided in two, one kneaded more than the other.  I’ll come back to why I was doing that in a moment.


Loaf #1 with distinctive hour glass design in the top.


Home baked bread

I’ve said it before, I love home-baked bread.  I’m also somewhat of a perfectionist, control freak, and an engineer. Combine that with something as variable and bratty as bread and it becomes an obsession to master it.  I’ve been baking bread regularly for 20 years and I’m still learning how to do it.

The overall procedure is a little different when making sourdough.  And sourdough starter seems to make the dough more sticky, confusing me when determining the proper balance between liquid and flours. All of this has me re-examining  bread making in general.  I’m living at 8300 feet in elevation, where the leavening power of either yeast or sourdough starter doesn’t have to be as strong.  I want to harness that advantage.

Loaf number 1 had great sour flavor, but it was a little dense and dry.

The next loaf I made, I decided to divide in two.  I left one fairly sticky.  For the other I added more flour and kneaded a little longer.  I baked them as rounds on a cookie sheet. The result:  the sticky one rose more and had a better texture, the opposite of what I expected.

Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo.  Friends arrived as the bread was coming out of the oven, and needless to say, there wasn’t much left by the end of the day.  One of those friends is another engineer.

But what about the science?

I said, “Mike, there are so many contradictions between science & engineering and cookbooks, it leaves me very frustrated.  It seems like so many things in the realm of cooking are handed down without really understanding why it is we do certain things.  Take for example the common rule that if you bake in a glass pan, you lower the oven temperature by 25-50 degrees.  Why is that?  Glass is an insulator compared to a metal pan, why don’t we increase the temperature to make up for the thermal resistance of glass?”

Mike looked at me while he thought up an answer.  He threw out a guess, but added he didn’t know.

I said, “Here’s another one.  If water boils at 190 degrees at this elevation, why does the Joy of Cooking say to increase the oven temperature at high elevations.  That would make the water boil out of the bread even faster!”

Mike said from his experience, there is a lot of technique used in making foams, and bread is just another form of foam, and some of those techniques are counter intuitive.  (It was a more detailed answer, but still didn’t directly answer the question, which I wasn’t expecting since I was simply venting.)

The next day I took to the internet and found more contradictions.  But I did stumble upon a book called Bread Science: the chemistry and craft of making bread.  Just what I need.  I ordered a copy and I hope it arrives soon.

I re-watched a saved copy of Alton Brown’s show Good Eats, wherein he makes bread.  If you’ve never seen an episode of Good Eats, Alton dissects the foods he makes and gives the viewers the associated history/scientific/engineering background.

Not all flours are created equal

One thing very important for bread is the protein content of the flour.  This is directly related to how much gluten the flour will make.

I’ve always used All-Purpose flour for my bread.  Sometimes I’ve added wheat gluten to give it a little boost, but the bread ends up too gummy.  Among All-Purpose flours, I’ve noticed big differences in how well they make bread dough.  Not all flours are created equal.

Everybody seems to agree that the better breads are made with flours with around 11-12% protein.   The All-Purpose flour I was using had 10% protein in it.  I went to the store found some that were as low as 8%.  The King Arthur Bread Flour had the highest at nearly 12.7%.  I picked up a bag of that, and a bag of the Bob’s Red Mill Organic Unbleached and Unbromated flour (protein is about 11.7%).  (You need a calculator to divide the number of grams of protein by the number of grams in the serving size.)


Loaf #4 has perfect texture, but lacked flavor


The next day I made Loaf Number 4 with the King Arthur flour.  The crumb (the inside meat of the loaf) had perfect texture for sourdough.


Nice texture for a sourdough. Firm, some bubbles -- a good sandwich bread. I've never been a fan mushroom shaped breads, I usually make round ones. But this will do for now.


However, the King Arthur flour had kind of weird smell to it, like mildew and old paint.  I checked the expiration date and it doesn’t expire for a couple of months, but I think it’s old.  The expiration on Bob’s flour is 2014, at least a year fresher.  So I think I’ll pick up another bag of King Arthur from a different store and see if has the same smell.   It might just be the natural flavor of a different strain of higher protein wheat that I’m not used to. In any case, the smell is hardly noticeable in the finished loaf, so I think the loaf is worth keeping.

The sourdough didn’t have a very strong flavor in this loaf, but that’s my fault.  I had put the starter in the refrigerator to slow down its metabolism because I wasn’t expecting to make another loaf so soon.

I’ve run across a term on the Internet — Artisan Bread Maker.  I might be one of those.  I think simple is better.  I make whole wheat bread the most.  Once I master the white sourdough, I want to make a whole wheat version.

More to come. I’m sure of it.



One of the few things I like about the Whole Foods Market,  is their sourdough bread.  They bake it right there in the store.  It’s almost as good as what you can get in San Francisco.  And some batches are superb.

I stopped by after work to pick up a few things and on an impulse decided to ask a bakery worker if they sell their sourdough starter.  Really, much to my surprise he said yes.  He packaged up a dollop of dough for 99 cents and off I went.

About 8 years ago, I spent a lot of time and effort trying to get my own starter going.  And I did get it going and made dozens of loaves over a couple of month’s time.  It eventually turned a shade of green and I discarded it.  It’s hard work to keep sourdough alive and well.  It requires regular feeding like any other creature.  And warmth.

Once I was home with my dollop of starter, I realized I didn’t have anything to keep it in.  Even though I keep buying large canning jars, there’s never enough.  After transferring my oatmeal into a plastic container, had a 2 quart jar that I could use.

I’ve taken the starter and added some flour and water, stirred, and placed it into the jar.  I covered the jar with several layers of paper towels and secured them with a rubberband.  Cheesecloth would be better, but I don’t have any.  I put the jar in a semi-warm place.  Ideally it should be in the lower 80’s, but it’s in the mid-70’s.

With any luck, I might have enough to make bread sometime this Thanksgiving weekend.  I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.



In its basic form, bread is very simple:  water, flour, yeast and a little salt.  Perhaps that’s why I like baking my own bread, it’s so simple but so nuanced. Beer, which contains similar ingredients comes to mind, too.

I’ve been making my own bread since the invention of the bread machine, ten or fifteen years ago.  I had made bread prior to that, but I wasn’t a fan of the kneading process and the whole process seemed too complicated.  The bread machine taught me a lot of things.  I think the main thing it taught me was there is nothing critical about making bread. Cookbooks always made bread sound more like a chemistry experiment with tightly controlled parameters.  Granted the bread machine does keep track of time and temperature, but that’s just because it can. Bread has been made for many centuries without timers and thermometers. The other thing the bread machine taught me is that fresh bread dough, since it was easy to make, makes a huge difference in things like pizza or cinnamon rolls, and lately I use bread dough in place of pastry dough in fruit cobblers.

But with time, the bread machine’s program kept getting in the way.  It was either kneading too much or too little.  Sometimes I wanted a longer rise time.  There was no way to control these things.  While I still have a bread machine, lately I prefer my food processor and its dough blade for kneading and the old fashioned approach of using bowls and bread pans (depending on the dough sometimes I’ll bake it directly on my pizza stone). With the food processor, I can easily control how much kneading the dough needs and kneading only takes a few minutes at most.

It’s Alive!

I used to think yeast was finicky.  Nah.  It’s simple and not very demanding.  Once reanimated from its powder form, it will live as long as doesn’t get too hot and has something to eat.  Once, I had a sourdough starter I kept alive for nearly 8 months.  And the only reason it didn’t last longer was some other yeast or bacteria started living with it, which didn’t make very good tasting bread.

When the bread is rising, the yeast are busy making baby yeast, eating, belching and making alcohol. This process gives bread its flavor.  I’ve learned not to rush this process.  But it does require some babysitting.  The yeast don’t have legs and once they eat the food in their immediate area, they starve and die unless you “punch down” the bread and redistribute the yeast.  I think what makes bread smell so good while baking is the evaporation of the alcohol made by the yeast.  With the long winters here, I look forward to turning on the oven to warm the house and making a fresh loaf of bread.

My town used to have a bakery that made fresh bread daily.  That was until eating carbs became bad.  I’m here to say that carbs are not bad.  The problem is American’s eat too many carbs, too much junk, too many processed foods.  If you remove the junk and the processed foods, there is plenty of room for bread.  Maybe one day when I’m done being an engineer, I’ll open a bakery/pinball arcade/record store/teahouse.  Hmm… with the exeption of pinball, it sounds like my home.