Making San Francisco Sourdough Bread

© Linda Wilbourne 2020

First of all, it's important that you know that working with the San Francisco Sourdough Starter is unique. It is different from any other sourdough starters and commercially available yeast. Therefore, it's very important to follow these instructions only and not methods that you find online or from other bakers. I wrote these instructions for this starter only.

The activation process is simple — only three steps:

  1. Mix your dry San Francisco sourdough starter with flour and water.
  2. Look at it often — at least every 30 minutes.
  3. When you see teeny-tiny bubbles, put it in the fridge — you're finished!

A word of advice: You will have more fun and not get frustrated if you will read these instructions through a couple of times — and then keep the instructions open to the part of the process that you are working on. Rest assured, after you've made bread a few times, you will find the entire process easy. It really is simple if you break it down into its individual parts, but you know that anything new seems more complicated at first. Go slowly the first couple of times and you will master the process quickly. As you begin each step, review the section about that step — highlighting where you need to. I have underlined and bolded the really crucial parts, so pay special attention to those. The answers to fully 99.9% of the email questions I receive can be found right here in this little booklet.


Plan to activate your San Francisco Sourdough Starter when you can be home to look at it often.

NEVER add any commercial yeast — or ANYTHING other than flour and water — to your San Francisco sourdough starter — ever! In a medium mixing bowl, place three cups of tap water or bottled water — not distilled — in the bowl and then add the contents of your San Francisco Sourdough Starter packet.

Add three cups of plain white all-purpose or bread flour and stir it well — a few lumps are OK. Even if you plan to bake your bread with another type of flour, I recommend that you do the activation with plain white all-purpose or bread flour. It makes the process more predictable — thus easier for you. Cover your container with a tea towel or plastic wrap.

You can leave the bowl on your kitchen counter unless your home is cooler than about 70°. Then the easiest way to achieve the ideal temperature — mid-70’s to the mid-80’s — is to adjust a rack in your oven to the middle, place your bowl of activating starter on it and then put a loaf pan or casserole on the floor of the oven or the lowest shelf with about 3 cups of very hot water in it.

Now, be sure to look at your awakening starter about every 30 minutes. You will see a change happening fairly quickly, depending on the ambient temperature.

Soon you will be able to see some really teeny tiny bubbles on the surface of the mixture. You will need to look very closely to see these miniscule first bubbles. When you see them, then activation is finished! Now put your activated starter in the fridge --- where it becomes your "stash.";

Leave the cover loose until the mixture is chilled throughout, or the pressure inside the container will cause it to explode! After three or four days, you can tighten down the lid. This is your stash and it always needs to stay refrigerated except when you take it out to use it.

After 6 to 8 hours, if you see no tiny bubbles, then you need to email me right away so I can send you a replacement. But don't throw it out — put it in the fridge and if you see hooch on top within another few hours or so, you'll know that your SF starter is actually alive. Even if it's not alive, you can save it and use it to feed the new starter — after all, it's just flour and water.

Just about the only tech support questions I get are from people who need to feed their starter or sponge more. The more time that passes and the warmer the temperature is, the more food those babies need.

Care and Feeding of Refrigerated Starter

When you first put your stash into the fridge, leave the cover loose until the mixture is chilled well. After about three days, you can tighten down the lid. But if you tighten it down too soon, the container can explode!

After it has been refrigerated for a while, you should see a layer of light beige- or brown-colored liquid — we call it hooch — on top of your stash because it was still eating and growing when you put it in the fridge. This is normal. Hooch is the by-product of the metabolism of the yeast!

Just FYI: To prevent mold from forming inside your stash container, make sure that the sides and top edges of your container are free of drips. The SF starter repels mold naturally, but the small drips and dabs dry quickly so they don't have the acidity to prevent the mold from forming. Then, once it gets started, it can spread to the surface of your stash.

You don't have to feed your stash every time you bake if you'll have plenty for the next time. But any time you want to have a larger quantity of stash in the fridge, you can give it a feeding of flour and water that is about equal in quantity to the stash you are feeding — or as much as you want to get the quantity you need.

If you want more sour flavor in your bread, leave your stash in the fridge, unfed, for two to eight weeks — up to three or four months. Then take it out and use it. Some breadmakers keep two or three stash containers aging in the fridge because freshly fed starter isn't as sour.

Making Bread -- The Sponge

Sponge is the name that bakers use for the mixture that they allow to ferment or proof before mixing in enough flour to make a dough.

If you want to bake on Saturday morning, on Friday night at bedtime, stir your cold stash well (yes, including the hooch), take out ½ cup — no more, and put it in a bowl. Add 3 cups each of flour and water and cover it with plastic wrap. You can leave the bowl on your kitchen counter.

Then early on Saturday morning — about 8 hours, more or less, after you went to bed, you should have a very active sponge. If you overslept or got distracted and it doesn't look very bubbly and/or the consistency has thinned out or you see little puddles of hooch on top, that means that it has gone past its most active point and isn't active enough to start your dough. But don't panic. Just give your sponge a good feeding — at least two cups each of flour and water — and it will be back to its vigorous activity and ready to use to make your dough within a very short time.

If your room is on the cooler side, then your sponge might not be quite fully active when you wake up and you need to wait a little while. Trust your judgment.

It's always important to have a very active sponge to use to make your dough. If it hasn't reached the point of vigorous activity — or it has passed that point, you need to either give it more time to metabolize or feed it more flour and water to bring it back to vigorous activity. But if you started with live starter, your dough will eventually rise, so don't throw it out if you don't see it rising nicely within a couple of hours. Just be patient and it will behave like the popular "No-Knead Bread" recipes that use only a tiny amount of yeast and might24take up to 24 hours or more to rise enough. But it will rise!

San Francisco Sourdough Bread

Makes a 1½ pound loaf, two 12-ounce loaves, or three to four "mini" loaves.

Things You'll Need:

Other Stuff You'll Need:

I like to use my KitchenAid stand mixer to mix the dough, but you can make and knead the dough in a bread machine if it will handle a fairly stiff dough and you can intervene during the rising cycles. A recipe for sourdough in the bread machine is on the Recipes page of my website. Naturally, you can make it entirely by hand, just like the original bakers of sourdough did.

Put the 3 cups of your sponge (very bubbly active starter) into your mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add about a cup and a half of the flour and mix well. Now stop for 30-90 minutes before adding more flour. This resting period, called autolysis by the bread geeks, allows the flour time to absorb the liquid and it is important.

Next mix and add flour and the salt until the dough gets too heavy for the paddle attachment. Change to the dough hook and continue adding flour until you have a fairly stiff dough — still moist but not sticky. If it still seems too wet, add more flour a tablespoon at a time. If it's too dry, add water a tablespoon at a time.

After your mixture has become dough and is a cohesive mass, knead with the dough hook for about five minutes or until it isn't sticking to the sides of the bowl (it will still be sticking to the bottom). Don't knead much longer, because if the dough gets too warm from the kneading action, the gluten will collapse and your dough will not rise at all — ever!

If you're kneading by hand, ten minutes is probably the bare minimum time. I let my KitchenAid mixer do most of the kneading, but I usually finish with a minute or two by hand to really get a feel for its exact condition.

Now oil (or spray with Pam) a straight-sided dough rising bucket like on my website, if you have one. You can put a rubber band or a piece of masking tape around the bucket so you'll be able to tell when the dough has doubled. Or you can use a large bowl. Place the dough into your well-oiled container and then oil the top. Cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap and put it somewhere that it’s not drafty and is between about 70° and 80° F.

Look at your rising dough every 30 minutes or so and when it is about 1½ to 2 times its original size, you're ready for the next step. Here's a good test: Push your finger into the dough about three-quarters of an inch. If you can see the dough come back and fill the hole within a minute or two, then it isn't finished with its rise. If the indentation remains after a few minutes, you're ready .to proceed to the next step

You can expect sourdoughs to rise more slowly than breads made with commercial yeasts. The cooler range is fine — better in fact. It will take your dough longer to rise, but cooler rising temps also improve the flavor and texture of your bread.

If you want or need to delay your baking for some reason, you can cover your unrisen dough securely with plastic wrap that has been sprayed with Pam and put it into the refrigerator for 1 to 48 hours. This can help when you run out of time or want hot bread on a schedule and will always enhance the flavor of your finished bread. When you're ready to continue, just bring your dough to room temperature and allow it to finish its rise. You can refrigerate your dough for the first rise or for the second rise after it has been shaped — or both. Just be sure to protect it from drying out in the fridge. The San Francisco Sourdough Starter is strong, flexible, and forgiving!

Shaping and Baking

Push your oiled, closed fist gently into the middle of the dough down close to the bottom of the container, then gently push the outside parts of the dough into the hole you’ve just created in the middle. This is called "punching downz" the dough and serves to rearrange the gluten strands to encourage a proper second rise. Now dump the dough out of the bowl and on to the counter. If you've greased your container well, it will slide right out. Divide the dough with the Plastic Dough Scraper you received with your starter into the portions you'll use for your final shaping and "round" each one, then let rest on the counter for about 15 minutes, covered with a damp tea towel or oiled plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.

Rounding is important and not many bread recipes discuss it. Here's how it's done: Pick up the piece of dough that will become a loaf of bread and gently pull the cut edges of the dough underneath, making a round ball of dough so that you have sort of a "skin" around the ball of dough and no cut edges are exposed. Pinch the bottom together firmly. Then put the "round" on a clean dry counter with the bottom side down and put your hands on the sides of it. Push the round from alternate sides so that it goes around and around on the counter. You'll see the skin tightening as you do this. Do it gently so you don't break the skin. Alton Brown and his cohort, Shirley Corriher, both of whom I admire greatly, taught me about rounding and its importance.

While your dough is resting for 5 to 15 minutes, prepare your baking sheet by sprinkling some coarsely ground corn meal where your rising bread will go. You can oil the pan or spray it first with Pam if you like, but the cornmeal adds an artisan-like texture to the bottom of your loaf of bread, so don't leave out that step. There's a good cornmeal shaker (only $8.99) on my website that I keep full of cornmeal all the time. Actually, I have several — one for cornmeal, one for flour, one for powdered sugar, one for freshly- and coarsely-ground black pepper, and one for kosher salt. They're very handy.

If you want to bake your bread in loaf pans, now is the time to grease them well. You can also dust the bottoms with cornmeal. Be sure to check out the bread pans on my website. The Commercial Heavy-Duty Non-Stick Bread Pan on my website is the best loaf pan I've ever used. It heats evenly and is a kitchen staple that you'll never have to replace. The Chicago Metallic Double and Triple French Bread Loaf Pans are great at shaping your sourdough bread into beautiful long baguettes without its rising out instead of up. I use them all the time.

Now that your dough has rested, it's time to shape it. You can shape it any way you want. For a round or oval shape, pick up the dough and gently push the edges toward the underside until you get the shape you like. Then be sure to pinch the dough together firmly on the underside. If you're making a round shape you can do the "rounding" thing again. When you're satisfied with the shape, place your dough on top of the cornmeal on your baking sheet or put it into the loaf pan.

Cover your shaped loaves with a tea towel or plastic wrap that has been sprayed with Pam. Now place them in a warm (68°-80° F) non-drafty place again. This rising could take from 1½ to 3 hours — mine usually takes about two at my normal room temperatures in the high 70's to the low 80's, but it depends on the temperature of your room and the character of your dough. And again, keep in mind that cooler temperatures and longer rising times contribute to flavor and texture. You can do the same finger indentation test on the second rise that you did on the first.

For the oven: If you have a baking stone, put it into the oven before you preheat the oven. (If you don’t have a stone, don't worry — your bread will still turn out great, but you can get an excellent one on my website! ) Also before preheating, place an oven-safe container on the floor of the oven full of water. If this won't work, put a pan of water on the lowest shelf. Or, don't use the pan of water and just spritz more with water while baking — whatever works for you and your oven!

Preheat the oven to 400° F for a minimum of 45 minutes — so that your baking stone, water, and oven are all fully and evenly heated — before putting your bread into the oven.
When your unbaked loaf has risen to about 2 times its original size and passes the finger indentation test, it’s time to bake. Your oven has been preheated to 400° F.
Beat an egg with a tablespoon of water and set it aside.

Then take a very sharp single-edged razor blade (like the razor knife lame ’ on my website), dip the blade in water before each cut, and slowly and gently make cuts in the top of your loaf—not straight down, but at an angle — about ¼ to ½ inch deep. To keep from collapsing your risen loaf, be careful — sometimes I have to go over a cut two or three times rather than press down too hard and risk deflating the dough. Practice helps a lot as does a razor-sharp blade!

If your loaf is round, the traditional San Francisco way is to make two vertical slashes and two horizontal slashes in a tic-tac-toe pattern. If you have an oblong or oval, you can still slash it that way or just make one long cut along the length of the loaf — be creative. Back in the days when there were no home ovens — just one big one in the middle of the town that everyone used — each baker would create an original slashing pattern so that he could identify his loaves after baking. When the slashes are finished, gently brush your loaf of bread with your egg wash. I like the egg wash, but many bakers use a cornstarch and water glaze. Try that one too and see which one suits you better!

Now get your spray bottle of plain water and spray your loaves with a very fine mist. Put your pan into the oven directly on your baking stone. You already have a pan of water in the oven. As soon as you put your bread in the oven, put your hand sprayer on stream and spray the sides and floor of the oven with water. Do this three or four times during the first 8 to ten minutes of baking. Yeah, it's high maintenance, but believe me, it's worth it! (Warning!! Don't spray the light bulb or your hot baking stone — cold water will break either one because they have been preheated.) Combined with the water evaporating from the pan, this spraying will reward you with a crisper crust and a higher rise on your finished loaf of bread. The egg or cornstarch wash makes it look pretty by adding a nice shine and making it brown nicely. If you like a soft crust, brushing with oil or butter before and after baking will do the trick.

After 10 minutes of baking, turn your oven down to 375° F. Your bread will take about 30 to 60 minutes to bake in total, depending upon your oven and the size of the loaves you have made. The only way to really know when bread is done is to remove the bread from the oven, turn the loaf on its side or upside down, and insert an instant-read thermometer (like the one with the large dial on my website) into the center — from the side or the bottom, of course, so the hole won't mar the beauty of your bread.

A reading of 200° to 210° F means your bread is done.

Amazingly, an instant-read thermometer like the one on my website is about twice as fast to give you the temp as a "digital" one that requires a battery. Put the loaf on a rack to cool and admire your creation. Try to resist cutting it right away. If you can, wait until it has cooled at least 30 minutes and always use a good sharp serrated knife to slice it. Check out the fabulous aluminum-handled bread knife on my website — they're the best I've ever used and the price is amazingly reasonable — I have sold tons of them over the years and never had a complaint or a return.

Once it has cooled, you can pop your beautiful bread into one of the two types of large, long, and heavy plastic bags that you'll find on my website. One comes with twisty-ties and is the larger of the two. The other has a zip-top closure. They are 2 mils thick and easily washable and reusable.

Happy Breadmaking!

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Other Misc Stuff

After you have baked a few loaves of your own San Francisco Sourdough Bread, you may want to experiment. Feel free to double the recipe or replace some of the white flour with whole wheat or rye. And be sure to add cheese, roasted garlic, or your favorite nuts, grains, herbs or spices just for fun!

Another thing I have tried is using plain all-purpose unbleached flour instead of bread flour. I also use spelt, kamut, semolina and other ancient and exotic flours and whole grains and seeds and my family and I love the results. Be adventuresome and have fun with it!

If I'm not serving or giving my bread within about 12 hours of the time it comes out of the oven, as soon as it is perfectly cool, I wrap it in an air-tight package and freeze it. As long as there's very little air in the package with your bread, (I wrap mine in plastic wrap before putting into the large heavy plastic bag) you won't be able to tell the difference when you thaw it and eat it. And yes, you can thaw and re-freeze& #8212; homemade SF sourdough bread is amazingly tolerant and has a long shelf-life because it's naturally resistant to mold and mildew.

If you like, slice it before you freeze it so you can take it out one or two slices at a time, or you can wait until you're ready to serve. The heavy-duty long "bread-shaped" plastic bags for baguettes and multiple loaves on my website are very affordable and perfect for storing on the counter or in the freezer. Users tell me they love them and reuse them.

Sourdough is STICKY! Be sure to put all your tools in cold water straight away to soak. If you do, cleanup is a breeze later with just a vegetable brush.

If you want bigger holes in your bread, add more water or less flour to make a wetter dough and try using some all-purpose flour in place of part of the high protein bread flour. Longer, slower proofing also helps make larger holes as well.

If you're making sourdough in your bread machine, be sure to go to the Recipes page on my website and read Joe Wagner's Sourdough in the Bread Machine Research Project. It's a fun read, but more important, it’s a fabulous "how-to" for machines. There's also a recipe page for the basic recipe for San Francisco Sourdough Bread in the Bread Machine.

If you have a problem with your free-form loaves spreading out more than rising up, just understand that this is something that happens to sourdough bread because the acidity of the starter weakens the gluten. Adding more flour to the dough will help. Making the loaves smaller will also help. If you have used A/P flour, substituting all or part with higher protein bread flour will help too. The best way to get the shape you want is to use a bread form, like the Round, Slim Baguette and Oblong Banneton Rising Baskets, the Professional Loaf Pan, the Chicago Metallic Double and Triple Italian or French bread forms — you'll find all of them on the website.

Happy Breadmaking!

© Linda C. Wilbourne 2020

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