Three experiments in sourdough

San fransisco sourdoughSan francisco sourdough

san francisco sourdough

So, over the course of a few week I’ve been experimenting with this San Francisco sourdough recipe. I’ve been determined to find the best level of hydration for this dough, one that can hold a nice shape, and produce a nice open crumb. Each loaf took about four days – as the sponge is left to rest at room temperature for about 9 hours, then a further 34 hours in the fridge, then this sponge is mixed with the rest of the ingredients and left to rise at room temperature for a little longer, and you need to perform several stretch and folds every 15 minutes or so. It is then left to rise in the fridge overnight. Then in the morning it is taken out to return to room temperature, shaped, then left to prove for another 3 hours or so.

This requires a little bit of forward planning as you need to make sure you’re free at the times when the dough needs to be worked on, but really most of this recipe is patience and waiting for the dough to develop that sourdough tangy flavour. I really noticed a difference in flavour between the loaf made using a sponge that had been left in the fridge for the full 34 hours, compared to the loaf that had only had about 20 hours. The longer the sponge is left in the fridge, the more sour and flavoursome the bread comes out! Although it is recommended not to leave it in the fridge for much longer than 34 hours, as the levain will eat up all its food and lose it’s rising power.

The original recipe was great in providing a time table as a guide to how to plan the bread making intervals around normal life:

So, day 1 at 11pm you make the starter/sponge and leave it covered at room temperature for 9 hours.

day 2 at 8am, put the sponge in the fridge for about 34 hours.

day 3 at 5pm, take the sponge out of the fridge, mix with the rest of the ingredients and knead til combined. Let rest for 15 minutes. Stretch and fold. Rest for 15 minutes. Stretch and fold, then 40 minutes rest at room temperature. At 6:40pm, you should have finished this so it then goes straight into the fridge again, til the morning.

day 4 at 10am, leave the bread at room temperature for 2 hours. At 12am, shape the dough and place into a banneton. Leave to prove for about 3 hours.

At about 3pm the dough is ready for baking, and baking time is about 45 minutes. So you’ll have bread ready to have with dinner! After FOUR days!!

As I work 13 hour shifts it can be hard to find the right days to fit this in. Day 1 and day 2 are fine as there is not really any work involved, so I can be working all day on these days. On day 3 I try to plan to have that evening off work, and then I try to plan it so day 4 I’m off work.

So here are the ingredients.

Ingredients for the sponge:

126g strong white bread flour

83g water

24g sourdough culture (active and bubbly) (Mine is equal weight water and flour)

Ingredients for the sourdough:

All of the sponge/starter that has been resting in the fridge (about 233g total weight)

264g strong white bread flour

50g spelt flour or strong whole wheat flour

204g water

9g salt


On day 1 of the plan at 11pm, mix all the ingredients for the sponge starter together. You should now have a stiff ball of dough. It doesn’t matter if it looks a bit rough. Cover with cling film and leave for 9 hours at room temperature, to preferment. Day 2 at 8am, take this bowl and place it in the fridge. That’s all you need to do on day two. This now stays in the fridge for 34 hours. It’s okay is you choose to leave it in there a little less time, this will just mean that the flavour won’t be as sour.

But if you leave it in the full 34 hours, it should be ready at 5pm on day 3. Mix the sponge with the rest of the ingredients for the sourdough, and knead til it comes together. It’s good to mix the sponge the water first, to loosen it a little.

Now let this rest for 15 minutes. Remove from the bowl and perform one stretch and fold. Let rest for 15 minutes, and perform another stretch and fold. Then place back in the greased bowl, cover and let rest for 40 minutes, at room temperature. Then, place in the fridge for 15 hours.

The next day, take the dough out at 10am. Leave to come to room temperature for about 2 hours. Shape the dough using your preferred technique, place in a well floured banneton, and let rise again for about 3 hours. This rising time depends on the temperature of your kitchen and strength or your sourdough starter, so it may take a little less time to reach its optimum rise, or a little longer.

Turn the dough out on to a baking tray, slash the top of the dough, then bake for about 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 240C, then a further 30-35 minutes at 230C. It is also a good idea to place a pan of boiling water at the bottom of the oven for the first ten minutes of baking to encourage oven spring. The steam will keep the crust moist and prevent it forming a hard skin before the dough can expand an optimum amount.

Here are some pictures of how my first loaf turned out:

san francisco sourdough

just before going in the oven

San fransisco sourdough

san francisco sourdough

first slice

The crumb was interesting on this one, as looking at that first slice I was disappointed as the holes seemed so unevenly distributed. But, I took some photos of some slice at different parts of the loaf – and these told a completely different story!

san francisco sourdoughsan francisco sourdough

san francisco sourdoughsan francisco sourdough

The other end of the loaf had a really nice open crumb, and the crumb in the middle of the loaf was much more evenly distributed though not as open! I was really puzzled by this. I thought it might be the oven having uneven heat distribution, but it might also be a problem with my shaping. I was really gentle handling the dough after its first rise in the fridge, and tried to keep all the air in. I think this might have been the culprit, so I set out to follow the recipe again, but to be more firm when shaping.

Loaf two:

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I much preferred the crumb on this one – it was much more evenly distributed  yet still rustic and quite open! I knocked out more of the air after the first rise, gave the dough 2 stretch and folds and shaped it tightly. I think it worked well! This dough also had the full 34 hours preferment of the sponge in the fridge, whereas the first loaf only had about 20 hours as I had not forward planned so well. This really made a significant difference in terms of flavour.

Of course this isn’t the most ideal of experiments as the dough was made on different days and obviously had different resting periods, but I don’t think a longer preferment could have contributed to a more even crumb. It was definitely in the shaping!

So lessons learnt here: give the dough lots of time and patience, and don’t be scared to shape it and knock a bit of air out – it will rise again!

Loaf 3:

So loaf 3 was my attempt to increase the hydration levels in the original recipe, in order to see if this could help me get an even more open crumb. The original recipe has a hydration level of about 66%. This produces an easy to handle dough.

For this loaf, I added 60mls more water – so this recipe was at 79% hydration rather than 65% hydration. This dough is wet, sticky and difficult to handle.

So here are pictures of loaf 3 after baking:

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I thought the crumb was great – really lovely and rustic! I don’t have any pictures of it, but after turning out the dough and slashing, the dough became very flat, but sprang up very well in the oven. I think I will try a slightly lower hydration next time though, to see if I can compromise a bit and get something that’s a little less wet and sticky to manage. I also adapted the recipe a little when making this loaf, as it needed more than two stretch and folds to give it that strength so it wasn’t flowing all over the place. I let the dough rest for 15 minutes, performed two stretch and folds (rotate after the first), let the dough rest for another 15 minutes, did another two stretch and folds, let the dough rest for 15 minutes, followed by another two stretch and folds. Then again, rest for 15 minutes, and two stretch and folds. Let it rest for 15 more minutes, then straight in the fridge. I skipped on the 40 minutes leaving out at room temperature.

Here are the cats. They’re good at kneading and waiting patiently, so I don’t see why they can’t make the bread and contribute!

2san francisco sourdough


10 thoughts on “Three experiments in sourdough

  1. Epic experiments. I’ve just done a sourdough with a 24 prove, but even with the same batch, two loaves seem to be different. I love experimenting like this but do sometimes wish I could nail the consistency. Hard without being able to completely control temperatures though I suppose, eg any RT proving – my kitchen varies between about 16 and 24C through the year. I also struggle to really master handling those higher hydrations doughs – love the open crumb, but it’s sometimes really hard to get a nice plump loaf. I’ve made too many discus-shaped ones. Are you going to give us a definitive recipe?

  2. I know – I mean my experiments are really not all that scientific as I’m baking each loaf on a different day and there’s so many variables that come into play. Not to mention I don’t know how much the temperature in my kitchen varies. I tend to rely on hunches! I like the feel of a high hydration dough, they’re more satisfying to stretch and fold. But yeah I wish I didn’t have to get all tense before turning it out of the banneton and wondering how much it’ll spread out. I’m going to play around with this recipe a little more I think, with a slightly lower hydration than loaf 3.

  3. Haha I know! When I get something right I’m like, cool, awesome, I’ll record that recipe and make it again in many years time after I’ve perfected other bakes.. of which there are too many to perfect!

  4. really interesting read… I just tried to make my own sourdough, but failed due to my starter/culture. Did you make your own starter/culture? If so do you have any tips on how to make sure it doesn’t go off?

    • I did make my own yes! At the moment I’m just using strong white flour and water to an equal weight ratio. However I really recommend doing a rye based starter as this is what I used to use and it requires much less frequent feeding. I’m thinking of converting mine to rye actually, it’s more forgiving if you miss a day or two. Also always tip out excess starter so you’re working with a smaller amount, so you don’t have to feed it so much flour each time

      • thanks for the advice… will give it another shot! Though I was using strong white flour in equal ration to water and kept it in the same place between feeds, but I think I should have put it in the fridge after 5 days. will now try it with rye flour. determined to get it right ( I don’t like failing!)

  5. Pingback: Another sourdough experiment | NeedtoKnead

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