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Handy sourdough tips

If it bubbles and smells nice…

These sourdough making and bread baking tips aim to help you with your sourdough bread baking. Maybe you have your sourdough starter culture ready and active. If not, please check out our tutorial on how to make your own sourdough culture in easy steps.

  • Time is your friend, time means taste. And compared to yeast based breads you will need much more of it for the dough to properly develop. So, do not make sourdough bread when you are in a hurry, it takes as long as it takes!
  • Do not be discouraged if your first sourdough bake is not perfect. This is perfectly normal. Like with all baking you need to learn and get to understand your dough and its quirks in combination with your surroundings, your material and ingredients. Lots of factors that need to come together.
  • Start with a good basic sourdough recipe like our Pain Naturel. When this goes well you can get creative. Make the recipe at least a few times as described before changing anything…get to know the recipe and get a feel for the dough.
  • Every sourdough culture is a bit different, some take 2 hours to proof your bread, some take 4 hours. So bake a few times to get a feeling of your sourdough culture it may be different from ours.
  • Even if your sourdough loaf is not perfect and maybe a bit flat, do not throw it away. Most of the time it will still be very edible!
  • You will see a lot of different names for the same thing in recipes in books and on the internet; sourdough, culture, starter, barm, sauerteig, kultur, desem etc. It all means the same; a mixture of water and flour fully alive with wild yeast and good bacteria. Do not be confused, it all works the same! The biggest difference will be the amount of water and the type of flour.

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Some basic tips to start with

Taking care of your sourdough culture
A good sourdough bread can only be made with a sourdough culture that’s alive and kicking. So make absolutely sure:

  • You take good care of your starter by refreshing it regularly. When a starter gets too sour the acid stops the yeast from growing and making bubbles. By refreshing you give your starter new food to eat and you dilute the acid environment so the yeast comes back to live again.
  • When you do not use your starter for a few days or it is a hot day / week you can store it in the fridge for up to three weeks before it needs refreshing again.
  • Your culture smells nice! Your starter should smell fresh and fruity, reminding you of things like blueberries (with rye) and yoghurt and citrus (with wheat). If this smell changes to something resembling nail polish it is definitely time to feed your starter. If the polish smell does not go away…we are sorry but we think it is time to start all over again!
  • You stir your starter to help add oxygen to it. The ‘nail polish’ bacteria do not like oxygen but the yeast and the good bacteria like oxygen.
  • You use the right flour to feed your culture. Organic whole grain wheat and rye and spelt will work best because these grains will have enough yeast spores to keep your culture going.
  • You use the right water too. A sourdough culture does not like chlorine, so if your tap water has too much of it, use bottled water.
  • Any signs of fluffy stuff and strange colors on your culture. Something moved in that does not belong. Throw it away and start again!

As long as your sourdough culture is not red, blue, green or black, doesn’t stink so foul you want to run away from it or is growing fluffy hair you can rest assured it is alive and well!

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Why do we maintain such a small amount of starter?
We work with a two step system. When using a preferment (like a poolish or a biga) we use about 15-20 grams of sourdough for a sourdough loaf like our whole wheat levain and pain naturel. With this small amount of sourdough you create a fully active sourdough preferment overnight which you then use to build the final dough. This way you can keep a small starter and still have the full sourdough flavor. Big advantage for home and hobby bakers is you are wasting far less precious flour when refreshing your culture than you would maintaining a big one!

Example: You bake 2 loaves each week. With our method you only have to maintain about 50 grams of sourdough. If you decide to skip baking this week, using our method, refreshing means throwing away only about 30 grams of sourdough. With the other-big-starter-method refreshing means throwing away 200 to 400 grams of culture depending on the recipe! Plus with this method you always need to refresh your starter before baking because the gluten weaken and you would otherwise have all this flour in your dough. With our method, you add the small amount of culture to a fresh batch of flour and so you will not have this problem of weakened gluten in your culture.

More sour please!
There are two main acids produced in a sourdough culture ― lactic acid and acetic acid. Acetic acid, or vinegar, is the acid that gives sourdough much of its sour taste. The lactic acid gives more of a mild yoghurt type of sourness. Giving acetic acid-producing organisms optimal conditions to multiply will yield a culture with more sour notes. Here are some tips to get more sour in your sourdough:
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  • Maintain your starter at a lower hydration level (more thick paste like consistency). Lactic acid-producing organisms like a wet environment whereas acetic acid is produced more abundantly in a drier environment.
  • Refrigerating the culture also slows down the yeast activity and lets the bacteria dominate and produce more sour acids.
  • Working oxygen into the starter by mixing during feedings should also promote more acetic-acid sourness.
  • Acid-producing bacteria like whole grain flours, so use more of them.
  • Try to achieve a longer, slower rise. This may mean you’ll need to create a cooler rather than a warmer environment. You can let the dough rise in a cool place or use the fridge to further retard the dough rising process.
  • Sourness also comes with age. If your culture is still very young it may need to ripen a bit more to show its full potential.

Recipe suggestion for a sourdough with more sour tang:
San Fransisco Sourdough Bread
No Knead Soft Sourdough Rolls

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Less sour please!
Don’t want the acidity to hit you full in the face? Stick to these tips to aim for less sour in your sourdough loaf:

  • Maintain your starter at a higher hydration level (more yoghurt consistency) and feed / refresh it (more) regularly. This helps to minimize the alcohol content which will help reduce the overall acidity of the sourdough.
  • Acid-producing bacteria like whole grain flours, so use less of them and more (finer / white) bread flour.
  • Keep your culture at room temperature. The best environment for the yeast and lactobacilli to prosper, but feed regularly!.
  • Try to speed up proofing times. You can play with temperatures and amounts of culture added.
  • We have found that the sourness depends on the ripeness of the preferment. This means that using an under-ripe poolish gives you the flavor advantages but not the added sourness.
  • For a subtle hint of sour and wonderful crust and crumb and a speedier process, check out some of our hybrid bread recipes. They combine the best of sourdough and yeast. Our pain rustique recipe is a good example.

Recipe suggestion for a loaf with less sour tang:
Sourdough Pain Naturel
Sourdough Mini Boules

Starters are like children!
You cannot neglect them or leave them alone for too long plus they are unpredictable. They are all different with their own characteristics and quirky traits.
This is why, despite all the tips given, it can still be that your own culture is a mild and gentle type, never capable of producing a super sour loaf, or the other way around. If all else fails or you are not happy with your results, start a new or second culture and give it another go.

Play with these tips, try different cultures and flours (rye, wheat, spelt) and recipes and see what comes out. It’s all part of the wonderful journey to your ultimate sourdough bread!

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18 Responses to Handy sourdough tips

  1. Richina says:

    BEste Marieke,

    Fantastisch artikel! Je nieuwe desem doet het weer fantastisch. Een bedorven desem stinkt inderdaad verschrikkelijk, die van mij had zelfs groene spikkels. Ik ververste de laatste tijd met roggebloem in plaats van roggemeel. Misschien dat dat mee heeft gespeeld.

    Groeten en fijne feestdagen van Richina

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Hoi Richina,
      Heel interessant om te horen. In roggebloem zullen door het uitmalen waarschijnlijk ook minder wilde gisten aanwezig zijn en misschien krijgen andere beestjes zo ook meer kans zich te ontwikkelen. Onze trouwe eko roggemeel van de molen blijft het fantastisch doen..ik zou zeggen in ieder geval terug naar het meel. Maar heel soms gaat er gewoon wat mis. En groene spikkels…dat is meteen hupsakee weg ermee en opnieuw beginnen! Geen risico.
      Hoop dat het weer snel naar bosbesjes ruikt!

      Happy baking en een heel fijne kerst!

      Ed & Marieke

  2. polly says:

    hello there. i could not see a 100% sourdough rye recipe on your website… do you have one? this is my favourite type of bread…. would love to bake it well.. for now though i’m just learning and trying things out (and getting things wrong!) – would be great to have some of your clear guidance. wonderful website :)

  3. Robert Voss says:

    On the subject of chlorine in tap water, there is another alternative for those who would rather not buy bottled water. Chlorine in tap water is unstable. If you fill an uncovered jar (any size) with tap water, the chlorine will dissipate overnight. If your tap water contains fluorine/floride or chloramine (your water dept. can tell you this) you will need an activated charcoal filter to get rid of those.

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Thank you very much Robert, for these very useful tips. Indeed a very good alternative for many people we are sure!

  4. Priscilla says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article. I have a question. My husband has decided to use the whole starter into the bread dough and the take out a ladleful after the first proof. This is instead of our biweekly feed in the jar. So he pours all the starter into the flour, adds water, kneads it, proofs, then takes out a bit to put into the jar and sets aside, then adds the salt, if using, does the second proof. The starter in the jar is put in the fridge until the next bread is made. Which is about 3 or4 days later. Will it affect the strength of the starter if he renews it like that rather than feed it in the normal way?

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Hi Priscilla,
      Your husband uses a method that has been used by artisan bakers for many years. It is called the old dough technique, except the baker uses a leftover piece of dough of the previous baking day (including salt). So what he is doing is not wrong in any way as there is not really any right or wrong in bread baking, especially when it is working for you and generating good loaves. However, keeping and feeding a starter is used more often by bakers as this seems to keep your sourdough culture more stable and pure and less prone to contamination (for example you have touched the dough with your hands and then leave it for several days). Also the gluten structure in a wheat sourdough weakens a lot during a few days, so you are basically adding dough with a lot of weak gluten to your dough which could effect the end result.

      Hope this helps. Happy baking to your husband.

      Ed & Marieke

  5. Paul Loopuyt says:

    Hi Ed & Marieke,
    I found a nice solution for the throwing-away-part of making sourdough. (I hate to throw things away and pancakes every week is just too much) In Polish and Czech cooking they make very interesting soups from it: żurek and kyselo.
    I don’t know if or where to post the recipes. When you would like me to share them, let me know.
    Love, Paul

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Hello Paul,
      That sounds really intriguing and I understand about the pancakes! Do you have a link to these recipes so maybe we can give the information as part of this posting? If you prefer to mail it to us that is very good too of course.

      Happy baking and sourdough soup cooking,

      Marieke

  6. Misty Hogue says:

    I’ve attempted the rye starter 2 times now, both failed to make it past day 3. They more than doubled in size after day 2 feeding then shrank before 3rd feeding. After discarding 2/3 of starter and adding 40 gr. water and rye, stirring and waiting 24 hours, there are no bubbles and no life.. And smell isn’t very pleasant either. Any ideas? I’m using bobs red mill organic rye, and San Francisco tap water… Which I use for my other no knead breads without any problems. Any feedback would be great. Love your website!

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Hello Misty,
      If it smells really bad (and not fruity, yogurty or like beer) we can only advise you to throw it away and start again with a clean jar and preferably with a new bag of flour. Sometimes there can be something in the flour (also check the date on the bag, make sure it is fresh) or you might have caught something in the culture that does not belong there.
      Do not give up, a lot of people need a few attempts to get started.

      Good luck and good (baking) Sunday!

  7. Esther says:

    Hoi Ed & Marieke, wat een fijne site hebben jullie! Ik probeer de beginselen van het zuurdesem onder de knie te krijgen. Het maken van een actieve desem is goed gelukt. Ik heb er nu twee staan, 1 met 60% hydratatie en 1 met 100% hydratatie. Wat ik nog niet helemaal begrijp is het “onderhoud” van het desem: die met 100% hydratatie staat nu na de maakfase van 7 dagen in de koelkast (nu 4 dagen). Als ik hem wil voeden moet ik hem dan tijdelijk buiten de koelkast laten om weer actief te worden of kun je hem voeden en weer terug zetten? En als je wilt bakken met een desem uit de koelkast, moet je hem dan de dag tevoren weer wakker maken?
    Ik hoop dat jullie mij kunnen helpen! Alvast reuze bedankt!
    Groeten Esther

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Hallo Esther,
      Ja , dat klopt. Als je de cultuur gevoed hebt wacht je ongeveer 12 uur zodat deze weer kan groeien en actief kan worden en daarna zet je je potje pas in de koelkast (dus goed kijken dat je cultuur eerst weer verdubbeld). Ververs je desem minimaal elke drie weken als je het in de koelkast bewaart, dus ook als je niet bakt. Als je het wilt gebruiken haal het dan inderdaad één dag voor gebruik uit de koelkast. Als het langer dan een week in de koelkast heeft gestaan moet je het ook eerst verversen voor je het de volgende dag gaat gebruiken.
      Hoop dat het zo duidelijk is.

      Veel bakplezier en een lang en actief leven voor je desem!
      Groetjes,

      Marieke

  8. r rehkemper says:

    Hello Marieke & Ed
    I was wondering if you keep a very small portion of “Mother Starter”, in the refrigerator that you refresh weekly just like you would refresh the regular starter for the weekly bread? I am thinking of a back-up just in case :-)
    Thanks so very much,
    Renee in Chicago

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Hi Renee, we keep all our sourdough starter in the fridge during the week. I refresh my starter after bakingin the weekend, let it rise for 24 hours than store in the fridge. The day before baking I take it out of the fridge, make my poolish and the cycle repeats!

  9. Jasper says:

    Hey Bakkers!

    Als ik een zuurdesem maak dan blijven er altijd ‘restanten’ aan de randen/zijkanten van de pot aan de binnenkant zitten. Dit is niet te voorkomen. Dit heeft de neiging om snel te gaan schimmelen. Wat is hier aan te doen?

    • Weekend Bakers says:

      Hoi Jasper, wij hebben zelf het probleem niet van het schimmelen van de rand-resten. Na 1 dag op de keukentafel rijzen / ontwikkelen bewaren wij het zuurdesem in de koelkast voor maximum 1 week. Wij bakken minimaal 1 keer per week dus de desem wordt ook door ons minimaal 1 maar per week ververst.