©1995, 1999, 2003 Jeff Renner    jsrenner@umich.edu

Sour dough bread has its origins in the times before reliable commercial yeast was available for leavening. A baker had several options available to leaven bread. The local brewer was a source of yeast that, while rather slow and often bitter, was usually reliable. People away from a brewery could make a starter by capturing wild yeast from the environment, a chancy proposition at best. Because of the ubiquitous presence of Lactobacillus spp., this starter would inevitably become sour. In a true starter, wild yeast and bacteria establish a relatively stable equilibrium. When a particularly good starter was found, it would be prized, and the baker would save a portion of the previous dough or sponge in a covered container to use for the next batch. This starter is a very vigorous one that a friend brought me several years ago from a famous Parisian bakery. It is subtly sour, and as a matter of fact, the French object to calling their naturally fermented bread “sour dough.” They prefer the term “pain au levain.” While it isn’t very sour, it is far more flavorful bread than bread fermented with commercial yeast. You can make more sour bread by letting each stage ferment longer than the minimum.

ACTIVATING THE STARTER (or reactivating a dormant starter): Add the starter sample to one cup of chlorine-free water (this is essential) in a non-reactive bowl and beat it to a froth with an electric mixer, then beat in a cup (5 oz.) of flour. I desired, you could beat it to a froth several times over 30 minutes before adding the flour.  The frothiness ensures good aeration for maximum growth of the yeast. This should become active and bubbly and frothy within a few hours. Then proceed to the next stage.  If the starter is tired, it may take longer or more “builds” to become active.

KEEPING AND USING A STARTER: I usually save only the equivalent of one cup each of water and flour (13 oz. total weight, volume variable) in the refrigerator in a loosely sealed plastic jar. I refrigerate it at the peak of its activity. The day before I want to bake, I remove two tablespoons and proceed as above, whipping it frothy and adding a cup of flour.  When it is fully active, I add another cup of water, beat to a froth, and add another cup of flour.  That evening, I add one or two more cups of water, whip it, then add one or two cups of flour.  The next morning it is bubbly. If I want especially sour bread, I start it earlier.  This is the time to double or triple the starter for a bigger recipe.  This first step with equal measures of water and flour is called the sponge stage.

If the starter has been kept long enough for it to become dormant (several weeks or months), follow the previous directions for activating the starter, using two or three tablespoons of starter and discarding the rest.

I like to use rye flour for the starter I keep for maximum vigor, and often use rye for at least part of the first cup when building a starter, even for a white bread.  Rye flour makes a vigorous ferment and is a dough improver in small amounts.  If I am making wheat or rye breads, I use the whole wheat or rye flour first, in the sponge, since fermentation produces enzymes that break down gluten in time. Since rye doesn’t have much gluten anyway, this results in a better rising loaf than if you let the enzymes work on wheat gluten in the sponge.  Besides, I think the flavors are nicer with these flours in the sponge, especially light rye.

USES FOR SOUR DOUGH Rye breads are especially nice made with a sour dough starter. The stickiness of rye flour is largely eliminated by the acidity of the dough, and the flavor of rye bread is best with the sourness. French country loaves, both white and partly or all whole wheat, are also nice.  This is essentially what San Francisco sour dough is, although it is made with a different culture.

The gluten in a sour starter is pretty well broken down by the enzymes present, and these enzymes will also weaken the gluten in dough if you use too long a fermentation time. One rise before shaping may be enough. Be sure to use flours that have high levels of strong gluten such as bread, clear, or high gluten flours. I like to make sour dough breads as hearth loaves, that is, baked without pans. You can either let them rise on a baking sheet, or on parchment, or in a basket lined with a floured cloth. For the latter two, bake them on a pizza stone, inverting the basket-risen loaf on a peel first. Slash the tops, or dock (stab) heavy rye loaves. I start them at 425F for ten minutes and then drop the oven to 375F until finished. Use steam for the first 10 minutes (heat an old cast iron skillet and put it in the bottom of the oven and put hot water in it), and if the loaves aren’t floured, spray them.

Basic Recipe

2-1/2 lbs any flour (variable) (including that in starter)

3 c water (including that in starter)

1 to 1-1/2 T salt (more for rye & French, less for Italian)

For maximum lightness and minimum sourness, proceed to next stage when starter is at maximum foaminess. For more sourness (at the expense of lower volume, which may be appropriate anyway), let the starter or sponge sit longer before adding to it.

Sample variations

French: Mild sour, all white bread flour, 1-1/2 T s.

Country French: Use portion whole wheat (try whole wheat pastry flour)

Italian: Very mild sour, 1 – 2 T light malt extract optional, 1 – 2 T olive oil, 1 T s.  Good for pizza.

American sour dough: Like French but with stronger sour

Jewish rye: Mild sour, 1 to 1-1/4 lb white rye flour, balance bread flour, 1 – 2 T light malt extract optional, 1-1/4 T s.

Medium Rye: As above with medium sour, 3/4 – 1 lb. medium rye flour, 1 – 3 T any color malt extract, 1 – 2 T caraway seeds optional

Dark rye: Medium to full sour, 3/4 lb. whole rye (or dark rye) flour, 1/4 lb. coarse rye meal or whole rye kernels (be sure to use in the sponge or presoak with some of the water), 1 – 4 T dark malt extract, 1-1/2 T s.

I assume that you know basic bread making techniques.  I recommend the newsgroup rec.foods.sourdough FAQ at

http://www.faqs.org/faqs/by-newsgroup/rec/rec.food.sourdough.html.  It is an incredible compendium of information.

Have fun!

1 Comment

picobrew · February 10, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Awesome pizza dough last weekend!

Another good site:

Leave a Reply