Sourdough Bread

A slow rise has best flavor, but there’s a quick method too!

First, a few words about sourdough starter:

         For thousands of years, bakers leavened bread from fermenting the natural yeast that floats around us in the air! A little of the dough was saved from each batch to “start” the new batch the next day. Over time, this starter grew richer and more active, and the dough more flavorful. Of course, once commercial yeast became available, this shortened the time for the dough fermentation, but the best sourdoughs are still made from the original process. A simple combination of flour and water and yeast with a little salt and you have all you need.

        My starter is a medley. I began with a homemade wild yeast starter I made from scratch from my friend Virginia Carter’s Frontenac grapes from her vineyard, 2009 vintage. I followed Nancy Silverton’s instructions on a Julia Child Master Chefs series to make my original starter. I am ever grateful to both of them for this recipe. Follow this link for instructions:

         Since then, I’ve added some starter created by our friend Cassandra. So this is a combination of the efforts of three friends at the Walpole Unitarian Church!

virginia grapes
Virginia harvesting her grapes from her vineyard at Mountainview Hill Winery in Walpole, NH

          Virginia’s grapes originally added a distinct lavender purple cast to the starter, which lightened as it was divided. Even though undetectable now, I still think of it as my purple starter.

         Of course, if you are not my neighbor, you can make your own starter, or order some from various sources online. Although it takes some time, the process of making the starter is not difficult at all – a little mixing, a lot of waiting.

        You should feed the starter every one or two weeks (even longer) even if you are not using it. It will separate and have bubbles or a film on it and look disgusting. This is normal. Stir it up and it should smell like sour yeast. It is pretty hard to kill a starter; it wants to live. So feed it and use it and you will be all set. If you feed it and don’t use it, give away or discard a cup, otherwise the starter will start to overtake your shelf space!

         Feeding: If your starter has been refrigerated, you need to feed it before you use it in a recipe.

         I weigh with a scale, but you can also measure.  Add four ounces (a scant cup) of flour and four ounces (a half cup) of water to four ounces of starter. Mix well and set aside, loosely covered, and let the starter digest its new food. Let sit for at least three hours and up to 12. There should be some happy bubbling action going on (see slide show # 2 and #3. I have my best results when I let it sit in a cool room, or even in the refrigerator.

       Once fed, make your bread! There is a long, slow method (over two days) or the quicker same day method that uses a little commercial yeast. The slow method produces vastly superior bread, but the quick method is pretty luscious too.

Now, the bread

10. Finished baking
The finished product ready for the table.


Slow-Rise Sourdough Bread

 1 cup or more of fed starter

5 cups or so unbleached white, whole wheat, or spelt flour

1 ½ cup room temperature water

1 tbsp. sugar or honey

1 ½ tsp. salt

            Feed your starter in the morning and let it sit all day, 12 hours is best. 

            Before bed, mix together the starter, *water, sugar, flour, a little at a time, and at the last, the salt. You can knead this in a stand mixer, or by hand. If I’m going to the trouble of the slow method, I usually do it by hand, unless I am dead tired. Then I head to the stand mixer, always an option.

            Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. Grease a large bowl, and place the dough in the bowl, turning it over to grease all surfaces. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a cool place overnight. You can even place it in the refrigerator if it is hot outside.

            In the morning, gently pull it away from the sides of the bowl, and look at the texture. Fold the edges over and into the middle, gently. It should appear kind of lacy around the edges as you move your fingers around the bowl. The dough will collapse. Cover again, and let sit for another eight hours or so; it will have risen again, to two or three times the size, and will smell really good.

            Turn the dough out and divide into two loaves and place in a baguette pan that is greased and sprinkled with cornmeal. Alternately, you can place on a tea towel, dusted with flour, making a fold between each loaf to keep it in the baguette shape.

            Once the loaves have risen for another hour or two, preheat your oven to 450 degrees.

            Gently slide the loaves onto a greased and cornmeal-sprinkled cookie sheet. With an extremely sharp, serrated knife or razor blade, slash several long gashes in the top of the baguette to allow steam to be released. Throw three or four ice cubes in the oven to create steam, close the door for a moment for the steam to build up, and pop in the loaves.

            Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until nicely browned, throwing in a couple more ice cubes at the 10-minute or so mark. If you are a slave to your instant-read thermometer, you are looking for a temperature of 195 to 200 degrees, but the color is usually the most important factor. 

            Do not cut into this when hot! I know it is torture, but if you cut into it too soon, you will ruin the texture of the bread. Sometimes I’m naughty and cut off the very end if I cannot stand it, but please do as I say and not as I do!

*Most recipes for making bread ask you to dissolve your yeast in warm water, 100-105 degrees. I do not find this necessary at all; this is a long, slow process and the temperature of the water, and even the room, does not need to be overly warm. In fact, the slower the fermentation, the more flavor will develop. This is why many recipes call for an overnight in the refrigerator.

At a glance…

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Quick(er) Three Friends Sourdough Bread

1 cup or so fed starter

Sourdough Starter – Hand off your excess starter to a friend! I always tuck mine in a Mason jar, but it is best to store it long-term in your refrigerator in a container with a looser fitting lid and not a tight seal. A small crock is great, as is a refrigerator container with a drop-on lid rather that something that screws on.

1 ½ cups room temperature water

1 ½ tsp salt

1 tbsp honey or sugar

1 packet instant yeast

5 cups or so unbleached white, whole wheat or  spelt flour

            Feed your starter in the morning. In early afternoon, mix together a cup of this fed starter, water, sugar, and yeast. (Return the rest of the starter to the refrigerator). Stir well and let rest for ten minutes.

            Add the flour a cup at a time, as well as the salt. You might not need the entire amount, you might need a bit more, it all depends on your flour and the humidity of the day. Turn it out onto a floured board, and start kneading. I usually have the last cup in reserve and use as needed when the dough starts to get too sticky, so use it a sprinkle at a time, as you knead the bread to keep it from sticking to your board or marble. You can also “knead” this in your standing mixer fitted with the dough hook – even faster.

            Once the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, place it in a warm bowl that you have oiled. Turn the dough over so the top is oiled, cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm spot for an hour or so, until double in bulk.

            Remove from the bowl, let rest a few minutes, cut into two pieces, and shape into rustic loaf shapes. Place on an oiled cookie sheet, or in a French bread pan (my preference), and let rise again until double in bulk. You can sprinkle the pan with a little cornmeal before placing the bread.

            Slash the tops with a razor blade or really sharp knife, and bake at 425 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until nicely browned. When you first put the bread in the oven, throw in three or four ice cubes to create steam in the oven. This will make a nice crisp crust.


 With both methods:

  • In general, the longer and slower the dough proofs, the more flavor you will get. Thus, a cooler rise means more time and flavor. However, don’t proof for a long time in a hot place!
  • You can use spelt flour rather than all purpose, and a mix of whole wheat and white also produces a nice bread, not a traditional baguette, but healthy and delicious.
  • Nothing is better than turning this dough into Sourdough Oatmeal. Just add two cups of cooked old fashioned oats to the dough, along with a cup of pulverized old fashioned oats. I use molasses rather than honey, and double the amount. This has a lovely flavor, and for extra texture I sprinkle with oatmeal just before baking.!
  • The ice cubes will create a lovely moist environment for the bread and encourage a crispy crust. You can also open the door several times and mist the bread, but that is a pain in the neck.
  • The slashing of the dough means a controlled release of steam. If you don’t do this, the bread will split any which way it likes, resulting in rather strangely shaped bread!
  • When making any type of bread, keep the salt from the yeast for as long as possible in the mixing process. Salt can inhibit yeast action, but it is absolutely necessary for a delicious loaf.
  • You can enhance the sour flavor slightly by adding a quarter teaspoon of citric acid during the first mix. This is not essential, but will add to the sourness.
  • Resist the urge, and let the bread cool before cutting and eating. I know you won’t do this, but you are supposed to let it rest in order to keep the texture of the bread in tact. If you cut it too soon, the bread will appear underbred. It just needs a rest.
  • If you are a thermometer crazy, the internal temperature of the bread when done should be around 195 to 200 degrees, it will sound hollow when thumped.
  • The water you use when feeding starter or baking bread should NOT be chlorinated for best results. 
  • If you regularly make bread, the yeast floating around in your house will intensify the activity or your starter!