What's your sourdough game?

About three years ago a friend gave me some sourdough starter and the instructions for making bread from the book Tartine Bread.

At first I faithfully followed all the instructions for making bread and maintaining the starter, but it sure got tiresome after a while. And I noticed that the starter is far less fragile than most instructions would have you believe - I don’t know what the longest period of time I’ve let it sit undisturbed in the back of my fridge is, but one time it completely dried out. I’m sure I’ve let it go for 6 weeks at a time or more. Now I just feed it when it occurs to me that it’s probably been a couple of weeks or more since the last time I did.

Anyway, I make delicious bread with the starter but no longer follow any fussy directions or recipes. These days, here’s how I make sourdough bread:

  1. The evening before the day I want to make bread, feed starter with 1/2 cup warm water and 1/2 cup flour. Leave out over night.

  2. In the morning, put 1/2 cup of starter back in the fridge for future use. Make a sponge with the remaining starter - I don’t follow a recipe, but generally I’ll use about 2 cups warm water, some milk powder, about a tablespoon of sugar, and then add “interesting” flours/additives until I get a sponge texture. Yesterday I used mostly whole wheat flour, along with a little teff flour, some raw wheat germ, and some brewer’s yeast.

  3. Let the sponge sit for a couple of hours.

  4. Add a scant tablespoon of salt and then white flour until a proper dough is achieved. Then proceed as one generally does for bread making: rise, punch down, put in baking containers, complete second rise, bake.

The one thing I have found is that the starter I have needs a lot of warmth. Room temperature is generally 70-75 degrees year round in my house, and doughs I make with commercial yeast will happily rise fairly quickly if left on the counter. But for the sourdough, I let it rise in the microwave with a big glass of very hot water so that it is in a really warm environment. As long as I do that, it rises at more or less the speed of dough made with commercial yeast.

So to you other sourdough aficionados out there, do you fuss over your starter and your bread-making recipes? Or do you just kinda toss it together the way I now do?

When it comes to the starter, nah, I don’t fawn over it. I’ll forget it’s there and leave it for months without feeding the microbes. If I don’t feel like nursing it back to health, I’ll begin another starter.

When it comes to the bread, it depends on the bread. If I’m just making a rustic loaf I’ll just wing it. If I’m making milk bread, I follow the recipe to the letter.

We named our starter, like a pet. However, we would be accused of abuse since we do not take as good care of it as perhaps we should. That said, it is fairly resilient, and will respond to feeding and warmth, like any pet.

My wife does the care and feeding of the starter, and when we want to make something she follows your unfussy process for the most part. One thing I learned about the starter is you can basically capture your own and get it going, without needing to get some from a friend (altho that gives you a big head-start). Also, if you tried to use starter originating in San Francisco, for example, it would soon die off and be replaced by whatever local strain lives in your area. This explains why we cannot get that great sour punch we find in breads made in the SF Bay Area. Ours makes some awesome pancakes, tho!

Good to know. It’s possible to buy SF sourdough starter granules and I’ve always thought I should, because there is nothing in the world as delicious as SF sourdough. But knowing that it wouldn’t keep its distinctive taste, I won’t bother.

My starter is pretty good, actually. The friend who gave it to me did all the hassle of capturing the wild yeasties, so I got to skip that part. (I tried it once decades ago but kept forgetting to stir it on schedule and ended up with a foul-smelling brew that I tossed.)

We started on sourdough breads just before the pandemic when my wife got one a friend had smuggled in. The original came from a bakery in Copenhagen, Denmark, so my wife named it Henrik.

We learned a lot from James Morton’s Super sourdough, so have been keeping it mostly refrigerated right from the start, and managed to keep it alive through our three moves in 2020. It froze close in our first place in Cincinnati because the fridge was way too cold, but we brought it back to life.

We’ve landed on an overnight cold rise bread that goes as follows.

Start with a levaine around 12:30.
48g of starter (ours is a rye starter)
24g bread flour
24g whole wheat
48g water

Two hours later make a soaker
450g bread flour
450g whole wheat

Two hours after that again, mix the levain, soaker and 18g of salt. Knead for nine minutes by hand, or a little shorter in the stand mixer with a dough hook if, like me, you are lazy. I’ll just mix the soaker in the stand mixer bowl and leave the hook in while it soaks.

Let raise for four hours, do 3-5 "stretch and fold"s in that time, then do a bench shape of two loaves and let rest for 30 minutes.

Put the loaves in proving baskets, or, since we only have one, use a bread tin lined with a kitchen towel. Stick both in a proving bag and leave in fridge overnight.

In the morning heat the oven to 480 degrees, turn the loaves out and score them and bake 20 minutes with steam then 30 minutes without. We use a dutch oven so we don’t have to fuss with adding a baking dish with water. Just have to remember to let the dutch oven heat up properly before baking.

That’s been our regular everyday bread for about a year and a half now.

Can you explain this? I’m not familiar with “soaker” as a term relating to bread. Google seems to think it involves soaking ingredients in water - but you don’t mention any liquid.

D’ough! 700g of water. Woops! Yeah, it’s about letting the whole wheat flour hydrate for a long time.

When I was a baker, we had a levain living in a five-gallon bucket. Half of it got used each day to make a relatively small batch of incredible bread. Bakery lore was that it was a couple decades old, and it was basically indestructible. It survived many short circuits of the finicky proofer turning off in the middle of the night.

I heard that a sourdough bakery in San Francisco has a strain over a hundred years old. For security it is divided into three locations, so if there is a disaster at one the strain is not lost. But I can’t cite this as I don’t remember the name of the bakery.

Boudin is the first brand I thought of. They started in1849. In the earthquake and fire of1906, Louise scooped up the starter into a bucket and saved the business. It is still going strong.

Having fiddled around trying to make a bread that (a) was sour enough and (b) rose acceptably, I have ended up with the following brute force method.

Which, oddly, is what I do - well, I have triplicate starters for security, but they’re all in the same fridge. Each starter is probably 200g, and a batch of bread (two loaves) requires three quarters of each starter (so, ~ 450g) plus 500g strong bread flour and a teaspoon of salt (OP: tablespoon of salt was a typo, surely?). There is so much starter that additional water isn’t usually required. That gets mixed, then kneaded for 12 minutes, floured, put into the floured loaf tins which then go (covered) into the airing cupboard for 6 hours. Bake for 25 minutes at 230C.

The starter originally came from the father of one of Trep jr’s old girlfriends. I must have had it around 5 years.


I’ve finally decided to try and make a sourdough starter of my own again. I was a baker professionally but for whatever reason I have had little success with getting a starter going that actually works.

Bread has always been my favorite baking item, all sorts of bread. I remember as a kid trying to make bread and not knowing that it would be at all like that soft and sliced stuff that the grocery store had.

Wish me luck. Hopefully I can come back in a while and report success.

Luck wished!

As a baking professional with lots of bread experience, you’ll produce something tasty, I’m sure. In the middle of a particular batch, you can always cheat and add commercial yeast at some point, if the rise from the wild yeast is just too listless. That’s happened to me once or twice - it’s disappointing from a sourdough production standpoint, but in terms of producing a tasty loaf of bread it’s just fine.

Heh, I actually usually end up with the opposite problem. My starters usually end up very vigorous if I keep them fed. If I follow the rising times in a recipe, I’ll usually over-proof the first proof.

But yeah, there’s no shame in adding some yeast to your sourdough, especially if you’re just using up discard. That requires some experimenting, but hey, you get plenty of bread to eat while you figure it out. Good luck! :smiley:

What keeps going wrong?

Although I try to follow directions it rarely starts to grow very much. I know there will be a distinct aroma, but often what I try smells just “bad”

You have a lot more overall baking experience than me, but:

Do you always use the same spot for letting it grow? There might be something weird going on with the natural yeasts in your kitchen. You could try storing it in a warm closet elsewhere in your home.

Are you using tap water and, if so, is your water particularly hard?

When you notice that it’s not bubbling consistently, do you try feeding it a little sooner to see what happens?

Either way, good luck!

I do use tapwater but I don’t actually know how hard or not hard it is. And about bubbling consistently I have usually waited and not fed it earlier. I’m in a new residence now, so when I try making the started the place it will sit will be different.

Thank you so much for your ideas and points. As bread making is my absolute favorite aspect of baking, I’ve sometimes felt embarrassed I haven’t been able to do much with sourdough.

Good luck! You’re gonna do great.

I look for a box of mix that says ‘Sourdough’ on it. Never baked much, didn’t get into sourdough. I have tasted incredible sourdough breads and rolls a couple of time but I’m sure every other sourdough product I ever tasted did not come from live culture.