Fear Not Bread, Part IV: Sourdough

I started the Fear Not Bread series as a bit of encouragement for my self described “bread challenged” BFF Chris, and for anyone else who is hesitant to make bread from scratch. Bread is not difficult. Some bread can be downright simple. Some bread takes time.  I started with a simple beer bread, moved on to an easy, but slightly more involved yeast bread, then transitioned to a versatile pizza dough. Through it all, you’ve been great. You’ve been a great sport. You’ve ventured out of your comfort zone, and baked bread from scratch. Go, you!

Either that, or you thought I was completely nuts for even trying to get you to make bread in the first place. I’m okay with that.  Just humor me a bit more.

Since you’ve had success with the other bread, I think you are ready to move on to something a bit more challenging. Chris chastised me for not giving her a challenge.  She asked for rustic breads, or sourdough, so here it is. This recipe is my adaptation of Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking recipe, from the 1975 edition. If you don’t haven’t cooked from Joy of Cooking, you should. Libraries and eBay are rife with copies. Pick one up. Today.

Fair warning: I am going to throw around strange words like “starter” and “sponge.” I don’t mean the starter on your car, or the sponge you use to wash your dishes. Starter and sponge are bread terms, that I will explain. Don’t let the terminology intimidate you. Sourdough is made in three stages. Stages are very manageable, if you focus on the one at hand. You can do this. You may just win friends and influence a few people. Sourdough is powerful stuff, man!

By the way, this is a long post. The printable for this, and any other of my recipes are available on my Tasty Kitchen profile the day following a recipe post. Just click on the Tasty Kitchen badge in the right margin of my blog.

So let’s get started.

Stage 1: the Starter:

2 ¼ tsp. (1 packet) active dry yeast

2 C. lukewarm (70 to 80 degrees F) water

2 C. all-purpose flour

Starter is actually a preferment that will serve as the rising agent for the bread. It also adds depth with a slightly sour flavor, and a complimentary texture. A true starter begins with warm water and flour, which is mixed and set out to allow it to trap wild yeast flying around the air. Being that I don’t continually bake yeast breads or live in a bakery, I don’t have a whole lot of wild yeast hanging around, so I need to add a bit of yeast to get the starter, well, started.

First, invest in a large glass, wide mouth crock. I picked this one up at the local grocery store for under $5. When I’m not using it for starter, it’s an excellent way to display cookies. The starter and sponge are made in the same jar, and you’ll need the height later. This one is about a 12 inches tall. Sourdough is son #2’s favorite bread, so he does a happy dance when he sees me get out this crock.

Fill a 2-cup measuring cup with warm water, and sprinkle yeast over the top. Give it a stir, being sure to get all the yeast off of the spoon and into to water. Let it sit for about 5 minutes to bloom a bit. You remember what “blooming” is, right? When the yeast swims around in the warm water and starts to wake up and get a little frisky? Great! I knew you did.

In the meantime, measure the flour into the crock.  Once the yeast has had a brief soak in the warm water, pour it into the flour.

Stir the flour/warm water/yeast mixture with a wooden spoon until it’s smooth. A few tiny lumps are alright, but it shouldn’t be as lumpy as pancake batter.

Because I am easily distracted,(it’s an ADD thing,) I like to label the starter with the date that I mixed it so that I don’t lose track of time and forget where I am in the process. I highly recommend you do the same. Set the starter in a warm, draft free area of your kitchen. We’re going to let it ferment there for 4-7 days. But don’t forget about it–a good starter is like a pet, it needs daily attention.

The starter will separate overnight, and form a bit of a crust on top. Stir the crust down into the starter, breaking it up, and mix it all back together. Then walk away. Go! Be free! But come back the next morning to stir it again. Stir the starter each morning for at least 4 days, but no more than 7. I haven’t noticed much of a taste difference in bread made from 4 day starter vs. 7 day starter. What I have noticed it that there is a fine line between sour starter–which is good, and rancid starter–which is gross. That line tends to be crossed after 7 days on a countertop.

This is what the starter should look like by day 6. Nice and bubbly, because the yeast has been doing its thing all week, and smelling slightly sour.

I tend to begin the starter on a Sunday night,  stir it down all week, then make the sponge on Friday night, so it’s ready to be made into bread by Saturday. Hey, I have organized moments.

SO, let’s move on to the next stage: the sponge. A sponge, by definition, is just a wet batter with yeast added to it. Our yeast is coming from the starter. The yeast/starter creates bubbles in the batter, giving it a sponge-like appearance. That, is what Hubby would call “title significance.”

Stage 2: the Sponge:

1 C. sourdough starter

1 ½ C. warm (80 degrees F) water

4 C. all-purpose flour

2 tsp. honey, or sugar, or molasses

Measure 1 cup of starter out of the crock. I like to pour it from the crock through a mesh strainer into the measuring cup. That way any bits of crust that haven’t been broken down by the fermentation process are filtered out. After measuring the starter, I give the crock a quick rinse with hot water before adding the flour to the crock.

At this point, it’s important to keep the starter warm and happy so that the yeast that we’ve worked so hard to perk up and and grow doesn’t stall out and take a nap. For that reason, warm water is added to keep the yeast warm and active.

Honey is added as well, so that the yeast has something to eat, which will help create the air bubbles that help the sponge rise and give it texture.

Salt is added to keep the yeast in check so it doesn’t get too crazy and rise way too much. I’ve forgotten the salt before, and it wasn’t pretty. Think of the Blob oozing out of the crock, over the counter, and onto the floor. What a mess! Do yourself a favor, and don’t forget the salt.

Stir it all together with a wooden spoon until everything is well incorporated. This will take some muscle, as the batter will be stiff. Leave the sponge overnight, in a warm place in the kitchen.

See how bubbly and spongy it looks? The well fed yeast will cause the sponge to rise near the top of the crock. This picture was taken an hour after mixing the sponge. If you are more patient than I am, you could probably watch it grow.

By morning, the yeast will have exhausted itself, and the sponge will have fallen.

As with the starter, a light crust will form on the sponge overnight–no worries, that will be stirred into the dough. Which brings us, at last, to the bread.

Stage 3: the Bread:

2 C. all-purpose flour, divided

2 Tbls. butter, softened

1 egg, beaten

Hang in there, we are almost done!

Add 1 cup of the flour, the softened butter, and beaten egg to the sunken sponge. Stir with a wooden spoon until well incorporated, or if your arms are tired like mine from mixing the sponge the night before, and dump it all in the bowl of a stand mixer, and let the mixer do the work. (Add the sponge, flour, butter and beaten egg to the mixing bowl, and stir on medium speed with the paddle attachment until thoroughly mixed.)

Switch to the dough hook, and knead in the last cup of flour, on medium speed. Once the flour has been mixed into the dough, increase the speed to medium-high, and let the hook knead the dough for 3 minutes. If you are kickin’ it old school without a stand mixer, knead in the last cup of flour by hand until the dough is smooth and elastic–about 10 minutes.

Now for the fun part–making the loaves!

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface. It will be slightly tacky. Sprinkle a touch of flour on top, and roll it around the mat to form a large ball.

The dough is ready to form into loaves if you can push two fingers into the middle of the dough

and it bounces back slightly, but the indents remain. If the dough bounces back all the way, cover it with a clean towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes, and try again.

Divide the large dough ball in half with a bench scraper, or a sharp knife. If you use a knife, be sure not to cut through your pastry cloth. Trust me, cutting through your pastry cloth will ruin your day.

Roll the dough around to create two smooth dough balls. Set one aside.

Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a sort-of-rectangle. It’ll probably be more oval shaped. Place your loaf pan on top to make sure the dough is big enough. The dough should be about 1/2 inch longer than your loaf pan on each end.

Start with the side furthest from you, and tightly roll the dough into a cylinder.

Pull up the edges and pinch them together to seal.

Push down on the edges to release any trapped air. Tuck the edges up an pinch them to seal.

Put the bread on a greased loaf pan, seam side down.

Press the dough down to flatten.

The dough should mostly fill the gaps in the pan. Set it aside and go to the next loaf.

You can repeat the whole process, and make the second loaf of sourdough. Or…OR!! Here’s what I like to do with the second loaf: dump a 1/2 cup of mini chocolate chips on it. It was initially son #2’s idea, because he thinks everything is better with chocolate chips.

Fold the dough in half, over the chocolate chips. Tuck any escapees in, and fold it in half a few more times to knead the chips into the dough.

Once the chocolate chips seem to be contained and embedded into the dough,

roll it out and drool over the chocolate-studded goodness.

Roll and form the dough into a loaf, as you did with the first one. Be extra sure that the ends are pinched together around the chocolate chips.

Brush the tops of both loaves with about 1 tablespoon of melted butter. The butter will keep the top crust soft. If you want a more rustic and crunchy crust, skip this step.

Cover the pans with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Let them rise until almost doubled in bulk–about 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Just for grins, brush the tops of the risen loaves with more melted butter.

Bake the loaves in the preheated 400 degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until its an even, light golden brown.  We like our sourdough to be on the lighter side. I think it’s more versatile that way. For a more rustic bread, with a darker, thicker crust, continue baking an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until it’s as dark as you like it.

Remove the bread from the oven, tip the pans sideways, and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.

Remove the bread from the pans, and cool completely on their sides. Why on the side, you ask? It keeps the bread from sinking under the weight of the top crust during the cooling process. The bottoms of the loaves are very soft while still hot, right out of the pans.

Being that I made this bread on a weekend that we had house guests, we tore into the bread within the first 10 minutes of being out of the oven. Both loaves were gone before the end of the night.

The chocolate chip sourdough is delightful toasted, with a smear of butter. What fresh bread isn’t?  But chocolate chip sourdough is life changing as french toast. Life changing!

Before we snarfed down all of the sourdough with a stick of butter, we decided to make panini. Because we are all disciplined, and stuff. My brother packs more into a panini than anyone has a right to, but it always works.

Venture out of your comfort zone, and try making sourdough bread. You’ll be glad that you did.

Sourdough Bread

Adapted from the Joy of Cooking (1975 edition)

By Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker

Makes 2 loaves

Stage 1: the Starter:

2 ¼ tsp. (1 packet) active dry yeast

2 C. lukewarm water

2 C. all-purpose flour

  1. Fill a 2 cup liquid measuring cup with lukewarm water, and sprinkle yeast over top. Stir to combine, being sure to wipe any yeast clinging to the spoon back into the water. Let sit for 5 minutes.
  2. Place flour in a tall (at least 12 inches high), wide glass container or crock. Pour the yeast water over the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon until well incorporated.
  3. Let stand uncovered in a warm area (at least 70 to 80 degrees F) for at least 4 or up to 7 days.
  4. Stir the starter once each day. If a crust forms, just stir it into the starter, as well. The starter will start to bubble, and smell sour.  If you don’t use it by the 7th day, it must be refrigerated, and used within a day or two, or it will become rancid.

Stage 2: the Sponge:

1 C. sourdough starter

1 ½ C. warm water

4 C. all-purpose flour

2 tsp. honey, sugar, or molasses

2 tsp. kosher salt

Measure 1 cup of starter into a liquid measuring cup. Discard the rest. (**or see note below.)

  1. Wash the glass crock that you made the starter in.  Pour the starter into the glass crock.
  2. Add the water, flour and honey into the crock, and stir with a wooden spoon to thoroughly combine. (This will take some muscle!) This will become a “sponge.”
  3. Let stand uncovered in a warm place to ferment overnight.
  4. The next morning, the sponge will have risen and fallen. Stir down any crust that may have formed.
  5. At this point, transfer the sponge to a large bowl of a stand mixer. (Or continue by hand.)

Stage 3: the Bread:

2 C. all-purpose flour, divided

2 Tbls. butter, softened

1 egg, beaten

  1. Add 1 cup of the flour, softened butter, and beaten egg.  Stir on medium speed with a paddle attachment, (OR by hand: with a wooden spoon,) until thoroughly mixed.
  2. Remove paddle attachment, and put on the dough hook. Add the last cup of flour, and mix on medium speed until the flour is worked into the dough.
  3. Then turn the speed up to medium high, and “knead” for 3 minutes. (OR by hand: turn dough onto a lightly floured board, and knead the last cup of flour into the dough, then continue kneading by hand until the dough is smooth and elastic. About 10 minutes.)
  4. Divide dough in half, and form into two balls. Roll each ball into a rectangle, no bigger than the loaf pans.
  5. Start with the side furthest from you, and tightly roll the dough lengthwise into a cylinder. Pinch the seam together. Slightly flatten the ends, and tuck the edges under, to form a loaf. Place the loaf into a greased loaf pan. Gently push the top of the loaf to flatten a bit to fill the loaf pan. Repeat with the other half of dough.
  6. Brush the tops with melted butter (about 1 Tbs.)
  7. Cover loaf pans with plastic wrap, and a clean towel. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled in bulk—about 1 hour.
  8. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  9. Bake loaves for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a light golden brown.

10.  Remove pans from the oven, and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove bread from pans, and rest on their sides to cool completely.


Chocolate Chip Sourdough--knead ½ C. mini chocolate chips into on half of the dough, then proceed with making loaves.

For a more rustic bread–do not brush the tops of the dough with butter, and increase the cook time an additional 10-15 minutes, for a darker, thicker crust. You may also skip the loaf pans, and  form the dough into boules (or round loaves) and make 3, ¼-inch deep slashs on the tops with a sharp knife. Rise and bake the boules on a sheet pan.

**IF you want to “replenish” the remaining starter and continue to make bread every few days, pour the remaining 1 cup of starter into a container. Add 1 cup of all-purpose flour, and 1 cup of lukewarm water, and stir to combine. Let stand overnight until fermented or bubbling. Use or refrigerate.

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  1. says

    Okay, the number one reason I’m scared to death to make Sourdough bread is because of the starter aspect – thank you for the step-by-step! Fear = busted.

  2. says

    Wow! Thank you so much for your great directions and pictures!! I will have to try this bread.

    And the chocolate chip sour dough. OMG! It looks wonderful.

  3. says

    I’m definitely in the “scared of making bread from scratch” club. But this bread looks amazing and your step by step instructions are great. Maybe it’s time to try. I love the unexpected chocolate chips in the middle of this!

  4. Lisa says

    I have a couple of questions. What do you do with the rest of the starter? After you have taken it out of the crock and then use the crock for the sponge… what becomes of the left over starter? Does this get moved to another crock and used later and if it does… how should that be handled? Should it be fed regularly? If so, how? Obviously, I have never made a sourdough starter before and I need the confidence of “the process” to get me going. :) Thanks!

    • says

      Good questions! You can store the leftover starter in an airtight container in the fridge and use it in the next day or two. I usually only end up with at most 1 1/2 cups of starter in the end, and 1 cup is needed to make the bread. I have on occasion saved the remaining starter and made sourdough pancakes or crepes or something the next day, but usually I just pitch the leftovers, since there isn’t much to worry about. If you wanted to feed the leftovers, you would first have to replenish it by adding 1 cup of all-purpose flour, and 1 cup of warm water. Leave it on the counter and stir it down for 3 days, then use it, or transfer it to an airtight container in the fridge. Some bakeries claim that their “mother” starters have been around for decades!


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