Sourdough Bread

Now I’m settling into my life here, I thought it was time I started baking again.  I decided to start with bread, as I find the bought bread here in the US overly sweet and oddly textured. My sour dough starter was a gift from my sister and I brought “her” across, frozen,in my suitcase, (the starter not my sister!)

I refer to her as she because my sister names her starters, I think the original Mother Of All  Starters is Agnes, mine is the third offspring and is therefore named Dorcas, which by strange coincidence was nearly the name my parents gave me, but thankfully they came to their sense before condemning me to years of torture at school.

It turns out we are not alone in naming our starter, this article in the New York times calls sourdough starters the new American pet. it also contains lots of useful links and also the basics on starting your own starter, so to speak. There are a couple of recipes I will be checking out, although probably not the 38 page, two week one! My sister’s recipe comes of course from the wonderful BBC Food page, with adjustments to suit us.

Dorcas as she arrived in the US, frozen solid and overflowing her container

Anyway, the recipe and instructions here are written by my sister, as are the notes in red in the recipe section, my comments are in italics and the photographs are of my attempts to follow the recipe:

Dorcas care instructions

NB baking with sour dough takes a long time – sadly not a matter of getting up early and knocking up a loaf in time for breakfast!   Times will vary (environment, temperature, how fresh the starter is) but very roughly, 2 -3 hours to double the starter, maybe about 4 hours for first prove and about 6 hours (or overnight) for 2nd prove – but you can go out and leave it while its proving so your involvement is much less than it sounds).

Ok, so the main principle is that you ‘double’ your starter each time before you bake – ie add more flour and water to it, which gets it fermenting again, and then use half to make your loaf, and keep half for the next time.

There is loads of ‘science’ out there about how to make a starter / how to keep a starter, what ‘saturation’ the starter has(which I think just means the proportion of flour to water there is in the starter).  I got myself into a befuddle reading too much before I started – including one recipe which asserted that it is IMPOSSIBLE to make a starter without digital scales (which would be news to Laura Ingalls Wilder) – at which point I decided to just keep things simple and give it a go.  The recipe below seemed to be about the simplest I found, and what I like about it is it actually specifies how much starter you need in weight for the bread recipe itself, so you can adapt it.  (I use 1.5 times the amounts specified – will explain that more below).


So… Dorcas has been made simply using flour and water,pioneer style, and she is half-and-half flour / water.

If she is 350 g at the momentthen to double her, you would:

1. Defrost her, and have her at room temp;
2. Tip her into a kilner jar or similar (mine doesn’t have a size written on, but I just poured water in it and it seems to be the slightly odd size of 1.7 litres – actually come to think of it that’s 3 pints, so not so odd after all!  That’s quite big but gives plenty of room for doubling, also if you want to build her up a bit);
3. Add 175g strong bread flour (or, if you want to build her up 225g);
4. Add 175g water (or if you want to build her up 225 g) (I do actually weigh it, rather than measuring – 175g ought to be 175 ml, but my measuring jug doesn’t have a 175 line on it).  I actually use bottled water, that’s because I read somewhere that modern tap water is quite highly treated, which might kill the natural yeast – no idea if that’s true, but that’s what I use (and I’ve used sparkling water perfectly successfully as well).  I usually give the water a quick turn in the microwave (10-20 seconds) before adding – you want it tepid, not hot.
5. Give her a good old stir, and then scrape down the insides of the jar as much as you can (mixture left up the sides will dry up like flour and water paste) but don’t stress over it, it does get a bit messy. 
6. Then what I do is draw a line across the jar with a marker where the mixture comes up to – this helps you keep track as she bubbles up.
7. Then put her in a warm place.  The usual suggestion is on top of your fridge, but my SMEG is insulated– hence I use my broadband box instead 😉  On top of a radiator would be too warm (unless you put a bunch of tea towels underneath as a cushion), but near a radiator should be ok. (The boiler cupboard in our apartment works perfectly)

All of the above takes 10 minutes max, in case I’ve made it sound over complicated!  [NB, you would probably do this anyway, but wash up the utensils / wipe up splashes etc off counter top straight away – once the mixture dries it’s a pain, as I’ve discovered due to lazy-arseness.]

Then, you keep an eye on how she rises up (she should go nice and bubbly) – how fast this happens will depend on how lively she is – supposing you are baking with her regularly, like every day or something, then she can live out on the counter and she will double really fast (hour – 2 hours).  If you bake with her say, once a week, then you’ll want to keep her in the fridge in between times and she’ll take a bit longer (maybe 3 – 4 hours ish).  But these times will depend on her – I’m just guessing!

What you are looking for is:

– She is double the size she was when you put the marker line on; OR
– If she never quite gets there, that she has stopped growing (ie she’s as big as she’s going to get)

She’s ready to bake with then. Don’t panic if she starts to recede a bit before she gets as high as double, but you want to bake with her before she starts to go down too much – otherwise the yeast isn’t at its liveliest.  When I was getting to know Agnes and her little ways, I used to draw a further line each hour to help keep track of this.   Write down how long it takes for her to be ready, it won’t necessarily be the same each time but useful as rough rule of thumb.

NB – if she gets nowhere near doubling in size before she starts to ‘recede’, don’t panic, it just means she was super hungry!  Pour off half the mixture and double her again.  She’ll soon come up bubbling.  (In fact this is what happened when I first started feeding her)

After baking

Once you’ve used half of her to bake with, she can go back in the fridge, if you aren’t going to bake with her every day (who has the time for that!).  When you want to use her again, bring her out to come to room temperature.  

Feeding when not baking regularly

Even if you don’t want to bake with her every week, she should really be fed once a week (or alternatively, freeze her again).  Feeding her is just the same idea as doubling her, except you won’t be using half of her to bake with, so you can get rid of half of her before you start, halve the amount of flour / water you would normally add, and you’ll still have the same amount you started with by the time you’ve finished (eg suppose you keep her at 350g, you’d normally add 175g each of flour / water, and then use half in the recipe, leaving 350g left; so just to feed her, pour off 175 g, add 88 g of flour and water, and you’ll still have 350g to put back in the fridge once she’s bubbled).  

The other thing you can do is double in the usual way / usual quantities, and then take half the doubled mixture off at the end, either as a reserve, or to give someone (that’s how Dorcas was born). 

Making the bread

Here’s the recipe I use.  I adjusted the amounts because I thought it was too much for one loaf, but too small for two.  Have shown the amounts I use in red – which makes two loaves of the size you’ve seen.   My proving baskets(bannetons) are 10 inch ones – I just got them from Sainsbury’s, they aren’t posh ones.  They have an elasticated cloth on them, so I just flour that.  You can get artisan baskets that you ‘treat’ blah blah if you don’t want to use a cloth – see millions of hipster articles on the internet if you want to go down that route!  Personally I find the cloth easy (and I don’t even bother washing it each time, I just dust it down, and wash periodically).  You can just use a bowl and a (well-floured) tea-cloth instead for proving, but the proving baskets do make life easier.  (Having tried it once with a bowl and cheesecloth, I did then invest in a couple of proving baskets off eBay).

The Recipe


I bought a set of US electric scales and simply press the button to change from ounces to grams as I find that easier. If you want to go the cup or ounces conversion route, this page at is very handy.

For the loaf

500g strong white flour   (for 2 small loaves use 750g – I use the original method for one large loaf)

1 tsp fine salt  1.5 tsp (just ordinary salt, not sea salt – I use sea salt

tbsp honey  1.5 tbsp (I keep a squeezy bottle of runny honey in just for bread-making, MUCH easier)

300g sourdough starter (450g)


Tip the flour, 225ml warm water (just ordinary tap water fine for this bit), salt, honey and sourdough starter into a large bowl, or a table top mixer fitted with a dough hook.  I use a normal plastic bowl I use for cakes, and my handheld mixer has dough hooks, which work a treat.

Stir with a wooden spoon, or on a slow setting in a machine, until combined, adding a little extra flour if it’s too sticky or a little extra warm water if it’s too dry. It WILL be quite sticky – sourdough is…! Tip onto a work surface (top tip, oil the work surface first, I use an olive oil spray or just tip a bit of oil out and spread it out with your hand, also works fine) and knead for about 10 mins until soft and elastic, if using a mixer, turn the speed up a little and mix for 5 mins. Having used the dough hook on the hand mixer to mix, I still knead by hand but only for a few minutes. The dough is ready when it bounces back when gently pressed with a finger.

Place the dough in a large plasticwell oiled bowl and cover with an oiled sheet of cling film. Leave in a warm place to rise for 3 hrs I usually find it takes a bit longer – it needs to have got bigger and a bit spongy looking, but don’t stress, the timing is an art not a science. You may not see much movement after this time, but don’t be disheartened, sourdough takes much longer to rise than a conventional yeasted bread.

Line a medium-sized bowl with a clean tea towel and flour it well, if you have a proving basket you can use this (see above– I split the dough between my two baskets at this point). Tip the dough back onto your work surface (use flour instead of oil this time on the work surface) and knead briefly to knock out any air bubbles. Shape the dough into a smooth ball and dust it with flour. Place the dough, seam side up, in the bowl or proving basket, cover with a sheet of oiled cling film and leave for 6-8 hrs, until roughly doubled in size.  I find it never really gets to double the size.  You can leave it longer, but the longer you leave it the sourer the taste of the final loaf.  It sticks like the stickiest thing in sticky land hence the need to oil or flour the cling film.

Cheese cloth lined proving basket

Place a large baking tray in the oven, set to 230C/210C fan/450f/gas 8, to heat up. Fill a small roasting tin with a little water and place this in the bottom of the oven to create some steam.  don’t bother with this – instead, just before I put the loaf in, I chuck in a few ice cubes on the bottom of the oven. Remove the large tray from the oven, sprinkle with flour then carefully tip the risen dough onto the tray ie you don’t bake in the proving basket ;) . 

Left for 8 hours over night in the boiler cupboard. You can see it rose to the top of the proving basket and slightly over the top. The basket left a nice pattern so I skipped the scissor slashing.

You can slash the top a few times with a sharp knife I use floured scissors if you like. Bake for 35-40 mins until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped. Leave to cool on a wire rack for 20 mins before serving.  For my 2 loaves, about 30 mins is enough.  

I also found 30/35 minutes was enough for my one big loaf

After 30 minutes in the oven

So it takes a little time, but it is worth the effort. JT loves it and I get the satisfaction of knowing that I am controlling the amount of sugar in something I am eating. It also makes fantastic toast. One loaf lasts about a week with just the two of us, including JT’s packed lunches. I’ve yet to try it out on my sweet-toothed, step-children, but we won’t exactly mind if they don’t like it!

3 thoughts on “Sourdough Bread

  1. I find American bread nasty!! It just doesn’t seem to toast well either! I plan on making bread when over there too, can’t beat home made bread 🙂

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