James Beard Award-winning Cookbook Author

How to Sourdough

Greg Patent the baking wizard

Sourdough bread baking exploded during the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic. I couldn’t understand why at first. I began reading about the craze while my wife and I were overwintering in sunny and warm southern California, away from our home in cloudy and cold Missoula, Montana. At the end of March we drove back north to safety and my sourdough starter, which had overwintered in our refrigerator. Time to wake it up again and start baking.

Fat chance! Flourless shelves greeted me at every market. It seemed as though they were jeering at me. I felt personally hurt. What was I to do? King Arthur, one of my main online sources, had no flour to offer me. The “Temporarily Unavailable” message repeated itself many times. After hours of searching for flour online–I wanted bread flour, pizza flour, and high gluten flour (for bagels)–I struck gold at two places. New York Bakers (nybakers.com) had everything I needed. My other source, etsy.com, was a complete surprise, but I found one supplier offering unbleached all-purpose flour and another, from Kentucky, bread flour. I ordered from both sites and had to wait a couple of weeks before the UPS man began delivering my precious cargo. Cost of postage? Don’t even ask!

While waiting for my flours to arrive, I kept reading about the baking craze that was sweeping across America. Why now? I think baking brings comfort and security, especially in times of stress. Warm ovens, yummy aromas wafting from them, and the promise of pleasure eating something homemade, all create coziness and a feeling of safety at a time when uncertainty and danger lurk outside.

Sourdough, in particular, grabbed the spotlight because it requires tending. And people had time to spare to devote themselves to it. A sourdough starter is a living thing, populated with yeast cells and bacteria, all working together in harmony to provide the baker with a culture that when mixed with flour and water can be turned into bread to nourish the family.

I made my starter many years ago and it has provided me with sourdough breads of infinite variety. Starters take a couple of weeks of nurturing before they can become part of a bread dough, so have patience. The book that started me on my sourdough journey is “Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery,” (Villard, 1996). Published almost 25 years ago, it is one of the first seminal volumes on sourdough baking and it has become my bread bible. Nancy Silverton’s writing is clear and explicit and she offers many visual cues to guide you to creating fabulous breads.

Her starter takes 14 days to make and she describes the whole process in detail over many pages of text. She uses organically-grown grapes–an excellent source of wild yeasts and bacteria–wrapping them in cheesecloth, whacking them gently to break them open a bit, and combines them with water and flour in a 1-gallon container to begin the starter-making process.  Over a 2-week period, the culture ferments, is refreshed periodically, and regular feedings begin. Once you have an active starter, you will feed it three times a day. I know, I know, I can hear some grumbling in the background. But please don’t despair. You control the amount of starter. When actively baking, you’ll be making a lot. You only need to keep a small amount refrigerated when not baking. When away for a few months in the winter, my starter (about 2 cups of it), sits happily in the fridge. It only takes a day or two of feedings to bring it vigorously back to life.

I have not read anything better on sourdough starters, and if you are thinking of embarking on a journey of sourdough baking, I encourage you to buy her book.

Right after I bought her book in 1996, I gave myself over to it for six full weeks. After I established my grape starter in the first two weeks, I tested 18 of the bread recipes and, with one exception, I had sensational results. (I cannot find my notes regarding that 18th recipe). My favorite recipe, and the one I make most often is The Basic Loaf: Country White. That’s a picture of it at the top of the page. The recipe makes two round loaves, or boules. It looks as though it’s giving me a big smile. And I certainly get one when I bite into the crusty end a few hours after I take it out of the oven.

Happy baking! I’m happy to learn of your own sourdough adventures.



2 thoughts on “How to Sourdough”

  • I baked my first loaf of sourdough bread at the end of September after getting a starter from King Arthur flour. I have been using the Ben Starr “lazy person’s sourdough method” and it has worked well for me. I have also made the King Arthur flour recipe for sourdough cinnamon raisin bread. I have always liked sourdough but never wanted to take the time to do the whole fiddly process involved which is why I have done the Ben Starr process.

    • Thank you so much for writing, Wendy. I know the Ben Starr Process, and I am delighted to know that you are so happy with it. I pretty much grew up with Nancy Silverton’s sourdough method, and it has never failed me. A side benefit of her sourdough is that I can leave my starter in the fridge for as long as 6 months without feeding it–when away from home for long stretches of time–and when I do want to activate it, it comes back to life vigorously in a couple of days. But no matter how a baker has made a successful starter, the happy result is that it opens the door to a whole new world of baking.

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