My journey with sourdough

This blog will be one of those updated ones wherein I use the same post to track my progress on this most formidable of baking skills. Most recent entries are first. (Not that I’m expecting to go viral or anything)

Aug 26

I thought I should renew my acquaintance with Discovering Sourdough by Teresa Greenaway. When I got my starter, she also gave me a CD with this book on it. Her idea is pretty simple and humble enough: the book is available as a free download at and the reader is essentially invited to make a financial contribution (What is this book worth to you?). Her blog is at So, nearing the end of last week’s inglorious attempt, I try again, undaunted. What is new since then?

  • I now know the difference between starter ratio by volume and starter ratio by weight. 1:1 volume yields a 166% hydration, whereas 1:1 weight yields 100% hydration.
  • I now pour just a little starter into a new jar, then feed it (still 166%) and I’m finding that as Northwestsourdough points out, it will become much more active when there is more food to less starter. Probably the new jar doesn’t matter. I’m sure its just the lessened amount.
  • Last week I made a sponge (which I now understand is another name for a pre-ferment)  – it bulked up like crazy, and so did the ferment and the proofing  – but a total flat top in the oven (it was in loaf pans). It did however double in size – thanks for small mercies
  • that what salt does is to inhibit an enzyme called protease which breaks down the gluten. It slows the fermentation, but strengthens the gluten.
  • that if I use whole grains for my starter, I should use a 100% hydration. (OK I will give this a try. )
  • My aim between now and tomorrow is to make the ‘soft white pan sourdough’ from her first volume and do it religiously as directed. One of my problems generally is that I depart from recipes. I decided to do this one because it uses a preferment and I want to eventually get things so that I am making consistently successful regular loaves.

I promise a picture no matter how it turns out.

August 21, 2013

This journey began over a year ago now, when I met a baker  – part of the STOP program here in Toronto, and she gave me a container of starter and a cd which linked to ……

From this initial point, I kept my starter going, and it still goes today. I went to the ‘first basic loaf’ recipe and worked away at that, but I really have not been terribly happy with the results. It was always OK. The dough tended not to rise up, but I did get a good oven spring. I also went between yeast bread and sourdough. There have been times when my family have gotten quite tired of these efforts and resorted to getting storebought bread instead, meaning that there were even fewer to eat it, and so fewer loaves baked, and less practice.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to another baker – this time at the Owen Sound Market. She was assuming that we shared a common process in it, but what she was saying did not make a lot of sense to me. Feeling very puzzled, I sought to figure this out. You see the ‘basic recipe’ I was following calls for adding a cup of starter to 4 cups of flour and an equal amount of water. Let it sit 20 minutes and add salt. Then a bulk ferment for 4-5 hours. she was talking about a starter, then a sponge, THEN bulk ferment. My recipe clearly missed the sponge part. I think after a couple of years I need to return to my original book and see what comes AFTER the ‘basic loaf’! Its time to move on.

The next step in this was finding Michael Pollan’s Cooked, in which there is a major section on bread, in particular, sourdough. I’m still digesting that one, and have now attempted his recipe – which does include a sponge phase – twice. I get it now.  – or begin to get it. Here are some key points that catch my current learning:

  • You do need to feed  the starter daily. Old starter needs to be poured off, new starter added.
  • It seems to help to pour how much starter you want into a new jar and then add flour water to that.
  • You truly do need to have it vigorous.
  • Although it can be left for a few days, it does need  to be well fed for the next few days.

One question I have at this point is around the water/flour ratio. I have conflicting opinions: a 1:1 volume ratio, and a 1:1 weight ratio. The latter results in about 30% less water.


19 Sept

Its been a while – and I clearly have not kept up with the  blog, though I am doing better with the bread!

I’ve gone back to my source on all things sourdough – Northwest Sourdough and found a white pan loaf that uses a preferment. I decided to follow this recipe religiously.

But first I had to get things in order with my starter. As noted above, the pouring off is really essential. I did a little experiment: In one jar I poured @ 125ml of starter, then I poured out what remained in my original jar. (this left me with perhaps 40ml of starter on the sides of the jar). I then filled each of these with flour/water in a 166% hydration – – 1 cup flour, 1 cup water. The result is that there is an optimum quantity of old starter needed, and it seems to be about 125ml. The jar I had poured into did much better.

I also wanted to find out my starters optimum life span. For this I set up a gopro camera to take a photo every 30 seconds. The result of this was that my particular starter is best after 3 1/2 hours. So this is really useful as it allows me to adjust optimally when planning my bread. “Overnight” becomes “3-4 hours”!

Sept 23-24

How curious. I thought I had down my optimum starter ‘life span’ of activity. But clearly more is to unfold.  After the last time I had decided to keep my starter in the fridge, bringing it out a couple of days before I wanted to make more bread. Now I am finding the optimal time for the starter to kick in is 6 hours – a far cry from 3.5. Possibly its because I was filming it and there was a light overhead – thus more heat.

I’m also beginning to develop my own go to recipe which involves a preferment and pan loaves. In a nutshell, I’m using whole wheat bread flour for my starter, I’m using Red FIfe for my preferment, and white baking flour for the bulk rising. It means in effect a loaf that is half WW flour.

Yesterday I did something a little unusual. Lets start with the starter. I took it out of the fridge on the 22nd, and added a cup of water, cup of flour, and did this twice in the day to get it rolling.

On the morning of the 23rd, I did this one last time: poured off old starter (leaving about 150ml) added a cup of water, a cup of flour for that 166% hydration, and left it until it seemed done – as I noted, about 6 hours. Then the preferment: (from Northwest Sourdough book 1 p.104) 255g starter, 226g h20, 276g red fife flour yielding a hydration of 103%. I let this go for quite a while too – about 6-7 hours. So far so good. Now it is evening, and time to do the bulk ferment. Here I am deviating from THG’s recipe as I want to get to a point where I am making a bread with the simplest of ingredients: flour, water, salt. I now added 183g water (the total of this recipe’s milk and water), 703g white bread flour. I’m still adding 28g sweetener (agave) and about 30g oil (where the recipe asks for 56g melted butter). 20 minutes autolyse and then 19g salt, and knead in the stand mixer with a dough hook.

But its evening, and I am tired and weary. I can see this thing taking another 6 hours or so, and I will not be in a state to deal with it. So, taking a page from I thought this would be a time to try a 12 hour in the fridge rise. By this point I am really going by the seat of my pants, following, at this point, no recipe in particular. After a night in the fridge it was  – well – cold! But still pliable. So I shaped my two loaves, put them in pans, and this time kept them on the counter, for how long?? Who knows. Maybe 3 hours. I wanted to see signs of a rise before I did anything with them. So indeed after about the 3 hours, I did see those signs of life, the oven was cranked up to 425 (convection) and in they went. I was indeed relieved to see significant oven spring, and knew all would be well. Well almost. I had layered one pan with flax and oil, the other with wheat germ and oil. The latter was really difficult to yank out of the pan, whereas the flax seed loaf was relatively easy.

My next steps: I’m going to try to let the bread guide me, have more faith that rising will happen. I’m also going to try and eliminate the oil and sweetener. If that still makes a successful bread, I want to try and figure out quantities that are easier to remember!

Here’s my crumb shot. Not bad. A lot better than when I began all this, and the taste is wonderful, quite nutty and full.


Sept 26

So here is the plan if I want to continue along these lines ( keeping my starter in the fridge, doing a 12 hour refrigerated bulk ferment):

Aiming for a bread ready to eat with dinner… on DAY 2

Day 1:

  • Take ‘dormant’ starter out of fridge first thing in morning and feed it.
  • Noon – pour off much of the starter and feed it again
  • Late afternoon/dinner prep: prepare the preferment
  • Before bed: (this all assumes the baker actually sleeps during the night) prepare bulk fermentation, and stick it in the fridge

Day 2:

  • around noon: take out of fridge, shape loaves, prepare pans, do pan rising
  • Late PM or when you note that the loaves are rising: turn on oven, prepare loaves for baking
  • Bake your loaves
  • Allow an hour to cool down
  • Serve …. with dinner.

Timing it so that loaves are baked in the morning or by noon would consequently require a 3 day process using this long slow cool leavening process. I’ve certainly come 180 degrees since a couple of months ago when I was using the proofing control in my stove and dry yeast to supercharge – and exhaust the poor yeasties and produced bread in under 2 hours.

Sept 28
Its now been a month since I’ve tracked this. In the last couple of days I’ve prepared a starter for T, responded to a blog by Bunz, put together the food 52 ‘no knead’ dough, made a baguette from the same and hauled out my starter now. Its been dormant (or slowed down) and have begun to feed it. From 53:00 to 10:00 hardly action. Then it started – so I’m just going to see how long it will take before it no longer rises.
What’s interesting for me is that I think I’m graduating from being a mere newbie. I’m looking not at recipe times but how it feels. Also by some friends I’m considered a local expert though I know I’m not.

Sept 30

Yesterday I came up to our cottage for a couple of days. Its a really wonderful place up on the Niagara Escarpment, near Owen Sound. It was also coming into time when I needed to make more bread, & wanting to experiment with temperature effects and also the food 52 no knead recipe. At the point I came up, my preferment had been in the fridge overnight, and the no knead dough had been in the fridge for a couple of days. I’ll outline what happened to each.

‘no knead’ dough: This is an 82% hydration yeast recipe where minimal yeast is used. The idea is to bulk ferment it at room temperature for 5 hours, then stick it in the fridge. When needed, take it out, shape the loaves, bring to room temperature and let rise, then cook. For me its compelling quality its its flexibility. I need bread. I turn on the oven. I reach into the fridge. and  configure the dough – a bun, a pita, a loaf, whatever. The longer it is in the fridge, the more you can get it to rise, the nuttier and more complex the flavour. I can see doing this more, but I’ll be doing my own quantities.

The sourdough: I’ve NEVER had a longer sourdough process! Its all a matter of where I’ve been and what I  feel like. The preferment came out of the fridge at 6AM yesterday, was in the van between 8 and 12 (still a little cool) and by around 2PM, it still hadn’t passed the float test (a piece of ‘done’ preferment is supposed to float in water). checked again at 4. Not floating, but not resting on the bottom either. Good enough. Make bulk ferment. This time I decided to not add oil/butter, not use  milk. Not even sweetener.  Just flour and water. Having used red fife for the preferment, I am using white flour for the bulk ferment. Now I am looking at several hours of rising – possibly 6. I felt it to be too late in the day. I did not want to be baking at midnight or later. So….. back in the fridge it went. And so now we are into day 3. First thing this morning out it came. I split and shaped the dough – I only need one loaf (as I had done stuff with the other dough yesterday afternoon). The other half of the dough went back in the fridge. I’m wondering if the same idea can apply to that as to the no knead dough: that it can happily live in the fridge for a few days until needed. So as I write, the dough that is to be today’s loaf is rising in a pan, at room temperature.

And there’s more.

This afternoon I’ll be leaving here, and there may be no one around for a couple of weeks. So… experiment time. The place will be hovering around 12 degrees. I’m going to set out a bowl of flour and water (166% hydration) – no cover, the idea- attract the natural yeasts and actually do my own from scratch starter. It may not work- I know it would be best to pour off every day – but that won’t happen. We’ll see.

Oct 5

I’m bringing this series of entries to an end, as I now feel that I am ‘in control’ of the process more – no longer a ‘newbie’. I no longer need to follow a recipe blind and to the letter. To some extent I’m aware of the forces out there and can use them to my advantage.

There were three really essential learnings for me at this stage:

  • Your starter MUST be vigorous. Along with this learning are two others: feed your starter with more than twice its volume of new flour/water, and, get to know when its maximum growth period is.
  • Use refrigeration to your advantage. It slows the process right down, and it also allows the various yeasts to interact and get to know each other better, resulting in a more complex nutty flavour to your bread.
  • Be patient, but also vigilant. Timing is everything. Prepare the preferment at a point when the starter is most active. Prepare the bulk rising when the preferment is the most active, most risen, most bubbly. Monitor your internal bread temperature in the oven. How long it takes depends on a variety of factors – is there a pan of water? How many loaves? How big a loaf? I usually stick a meat thermometer in when I feel it is nearly ready, and make sure it gets to 200.

So where am I at now?

I can now do a consistent and reliable half whole wheat pan loaf. This is what I set out to do.  Its moist, chewey, flavorful, and has a close but not dense crumb. There is a hint of sourdough tang. It makes fantastic sandwiches, or for toast and jam – a real comfort food. Here’s its crumb shot:

Sept 30 crumb shot

Where to next?

I’m going to start a new post in which I’m going to look a t the underlying fundamentals of this basic loaf with a view of teaching myself how I can get creative yet also keep the basics and assure myself that it will turn out.


One thought on “My journey with sourdough

  1. If you check out my blog there is a recipe based on one from the river cottage website that works for me every time. I have also found starters to be quite robust, I left mine in the fridge for a fortnight while we went on vacation and it made an excellent loaf on the first day we were back

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