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San Francisco Sourdough Bread

I have made a lot of rock-hard sourdough bread in the past. I blamed my failures on the air in my house not having enough yeast and the climate not being warm enough for the yeast to grow. Later, I realized it was because of my sourdough starter. Most books on baking sourdough bread say, "When your sourdough starter develops a bubbly froth, it is done", but that statement is missing crucial details for making a successful starter. After endless experimentation, I learned the key to baking successful sourdough bread is knowing when your starter is really ready.

There are many great web sites and books out there that tell you how to make a sourdough starter. The methods are basically same. My method is just one of them, which follows a basic rule: feed your starter once every 12-24 hours.

It is not difficult to make the starter bubbly, but how bubbly does it have to be? You must know when the starter is ready with enough yeast developed to bake successful bread. Most of my failures happened because I thought that the starter was ready when it was not.

When making sourdough starter, you can use white bread flour or whole grain flour. However, if you are a beginner, whole grain flour is easier to make a starter out of.


  1. Mix in a quart-sized transparent straight container:
    • 1/2 cup (100 g) chlorine-free water (I usually use bottled water)
    • 3/4 cup (100 g) whole grain flour
    • 1/2 tsp. sugar
    Cover this with a wet paper towel and keep in a warm draft-free area (85°F or 29°C) for 24 hours. The towel needs to be dampened every few hours. (Some say you can use a plastic cover, but I have never used a plastic cover because the weather in California is dry and the starter likes humidity.) I put this container in a warm water bath (85°F) and leave it in the oven at a warm temperature. This way, even when the oven's thermostat kicks in and the oven temperature reaches over 100°F (37°C), which is hot enough to kill the wild yeast, the water bath prevents the yeast from becoming too warm. The water bath stabilizes the temperature of the starter in the oven. I cannot count how many times I ruined my sourdough starters because my oven got too hot! But if you can find a better place with a stable 85°F temperature, you will not need a warm water bath.
  2. After 24 hours, your starter should have some liquid on the surface or else a very wet looking surface. Now you will do the first feeding. To feed the sourdough starter, add and mix:
    • 1/2 cup (100 g) chlorine-free water
    • 3/4 cup (100 g) whole grain flour
    • 1/2 tsp. sugar
    Cover with a wet paper towel and put it back in the warm environment.
  3. 12-24 hours after your first feeding, you might start seeing bubbles in the starter. If you did a good job by giving the starter a perfect environment (85°F with a wet cover), you will see lots of bubbles and the starter might be almost doubled in volume. But don't get fooled; this starter is not ready yet. Don't get discouraged if your starter has only a few bubbles, because either way, you still have to do the second feeding anyway. Before you do the second feeding, mix the starter roughly and throw away a half of the starter. Try to be precise by putting masking tape to mark half of the starter. This is one of the reasons why you want to use a straight container. If you really want to be precise, you can use a scale. After you have thrown away half of the starter, do the second feeding just like in step number two, cover with a wet paper towel and put it back in the warm environment.

    After the first feeding, the starter may double in volume and have a lot of bubbles.

    See Video (817K)
  4. 12-24 hours after your second feeding, you may or may not see more bubbles in the starter than the first time. Don't get disappointed even if the starter did not rise as much as the first feeding. Discard half of the starter and feed the starter for the third time. Cover with a wet paper towel and put it back in a warm place.
  5. Every 12 to 24 hours, continue to discard and feed the starter until the following event occurs: 3 to 5 hours after one of the feedings, your starter will enter a period of vigorous growth where it is rising rapidly and has a lot of bubbles; 1/2 to 1 hour later, your starter will be almost tripled in volume. This is when your starter is ready. When you see this, all your hard work has paid off. You don't want to miss this event after waiting so long, because this can happen when you are asleep at night or at work. Once it reaches its peak, it will start to recede as the starter slows down. Here is a suggestion: feed your starter in the daytime or evening when you can be at home after the feeding, like 6 PM or right after you come home from work. This way you won't miss this vigorous growth which signals that the starter is ready.

    Starter right after 3rd feeding.

    Only 4 hours after the 3rd feeding. Its volume has almost tripled. Click the photos for larger images. This is what it looks like when the starter is ready.

  6. Now that you have a healthy starter, you can go ahead and use this starter for making San Francisco Sourdough Bread. It will take about 30 minutes to mix the dough, shape it and cover it. This dough will be perfect to make just before going to bed since rising will take 12-14 hours before it is ready to be baked. If you are not using the starter right away, cover and leave it in the refrigerator. Keep feeding once a week.

San Francisco Sourdough Bread

  1. Mix in a large bowl:
    • 2.8 oz. (80 g) sourdough starter (1/5 of your starter)
    • 3 cups (400 g) white bread flour
    • 1 cup (225 cc) water (mix in malt and salt before adding flour)
    • 2 tsp salt
    • 1/2 tsp. malt
  2. Place the dough on a floured kneading board. If the dough is very sticky, add 2-4 tbsp flour and knead until the dough becomes springy. Keep the dough rather wet compared to regular loaf bread. Total kneading time is about 5 minutes by hand. This is a lot less kneading compared to regular bread. Let it rest for 30 minutes.
  3. Cut the dough into two pieces and shape each dough gently. Place them in the mold and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let it rise for 12-15 hours until doubled in size. Spray once in a while to keep the surface moist. The dough will rise rather flat, so it is better to use some kind of mold or dish.
  4. Leave 2 cups of boiling water in an iron frying pan or metal dish on the bottom rack of the oven and preheat to 450°F (250°C). When the oven is preheated, slash the loaves with a razor blade. Bake at 425°F (218°F) for 25 minutes. Steam makes the crust shiny and hard as hearth bread should be.
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