Artisan Sourdough Bread Tips, part 1: creating and using a stiff starter

One of the most frequently asked sourdough questions we get on our Baker’s Hotline is, “How do I make my sourdough bread taste more sour?”

Another common question: “How do I get those nice holes in my bread?”

This first in a series of three posts is about taking you a bit further down the road with your sourdough bread baking. It’s about working on the flavor and texture of your bread, aiming for something truly amazing.

Are you new to sourdough baking? Scroll to the end of this post for the resources you need to get started. If you’re familiar with sourdough, already have an active starter, and are comfortable using it – read on.

Over the next few days we’ll be working on a sourdough recipe using a variation on your liquid starter; and learning some new skills along the way: well-known techniques used by professional bakers to both simplify their work, and produce exceptional results.

So first, let’s talk about flavor.

Your sourdough starter is made up of friendly bacteria and wild yeast that dwell together in productive harmony. When working with sourdough, I always take a moment to reflect on its magic. Every time I feed my starter with a little flour and water and see it rise up in all its bubbly vitality, I realize that sourdough is a wonder and a gift. Talking scientifically about it doesn’t in any way lessen its aura.

The flavor in your sourdough starter is affected by various factors. The most important of these have to do with the flavor components given off by the bacteria in your starter: lactic acid and acetic acid. Lactic acid (think mild, almost buttery) is more likely to develop in a warm, moist environment; while acetic acid (think vinegar) thrives in a cold, stiff (drier) environment.

You can encourage these flavors by manipulating the temperature and texture of both your dough and your starter. Change the texture of my starter? OK, take a deep breath – you can do this!

Artisan Sourdough Bread Tip #1: Introducing a stiff starter

A stiff starter is a tool in your sourdough arsenal that has many virtues to offer and isn’t difficult to achieve or maintain. I like the flavor a stiff starter brings to my bread, and how easy it is to tell when it’s ready to use.

The optimal time to add “fed” liquid starter to a recipe is when it’s at its peak of rising and fermentation, before it falls. This ephemeral moment can be difficult to determine, then plan into your mixing and baking day.

While the goal is the same with a fed stiff starter, the optimal moment is more easily recognized and allows for a slightly longer window for use.

How do you recognize a stiff starter at its ultimate maturity – its peak of perfection?

A mature stiff starter will have doubled in size, domed on the top, and just be starting to sink in the middle.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Here’s a picture of a stiff starter that’s ready to go, along with the ingredients you’ll need for this recipe.

One chief advantage of a stiff starter is that it can create bread with more intense sour flavor (if that’s what you’re looking for).

A stiff starter will also hold up a little better than a liquid starter in the refrigerator. Ideally your starter, liquid or stiff, would be stored between 46°F-50°F when you’re unable or choose not to feed and maintain it at room temperature.

Our home refrigerators, which need to stay at 38°F or less, are a bit too cool for sourdough, and prolonged refrigeration may damage the friendly bacteria that promote flavor. But I’ve found that my stiff starter maintains its flavor well, even under the less than ideal conditions of refrigeration.

Both a liquid starter and a stiff starter will benefit from a reviving period after being refrigerated. Leaving the starter at room temperature, feed it once in the morning and once at night until it’s good and bubbly. This extra attention will awaken your starter from its dormant state in the refrigerator and restore the balance of its ecosystem, giving you the best shot at great flavor and rise when you use it in your bread.

Artisan Sourdough Tip #2: Converting your liquid starter to a stiff starter

Are you ready to try a stiff starter? You can easily do so using the “discard” from feeding your liquid starter, rather than throwing it away.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

First, a note about measuring ingredients: a scale will make this process and your entire baking life much easier. You can avoid errors due to the natural variability of volume measurements, and reducing or expanding your recipe becomes much more straightforward when you’re dealing with numbers (especially metric weights) rather than measuring cups and tablespoons.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Here’s how to make a stiff starter: Next time you pull your liquid starter out of the refrigerator to feed it, take 1 cup (8 ounces) of the starter (the part you’d ordinarily discard), and feed it a scant cup (4 ounces) of unbleached all-purpose flour – no water, just flour. What this will do is convert a starter that is equal parts water and flour to a starter that has twice the amount of flour as water, by weight.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Knead everything together until it feels smooth; you may need to add an extra tablespoon or two of flour, since liquid starters can vary in consistency.

This is easily done by hand, but if you prefer your stand mixer, set it on the lowest speed and use a dough hook. But be aware that the small quantity may prove a challenge to larger mixers, which are geared to bigger batches of dough and batter.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Place your starter in an oiled container, with room for the dough to double in size (a small dough bucket works well for this).

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Now that you’ve transformed your liquid starter into a stiff starter, the next feeding should take place about 8 hours later, when your starter has domed and just begun to sink in the middle. Take 2 ounces of your starter (1/4 cup lightly packed), tear it into pieces, and feed it 2 ounces (1/4 cup) room-temperature water and 4 ounces (a scant cup) of unbleached all-purpose flour. Mix and knead everything together to form a fairly smooth dough.

Remember this ratio: 1 part starter : 1 part water : 2 parts flour. It will be your regular feeding routine for your stiff starter.

For this first feeding after transitioning from a liquid starter to a stiff starter, you’ll have 10 ounces of discarded stiff starter. For those of you who can’t bear to waste starter, check out our Stiff Sourdough Starter recipe, which offers instructions on converting stiff starter discard back to liquid “unfed” starter, suitable for use in all our recipes calling for “unfed” starter.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

The point here is not to develop a strong dough, but to get an even consistency, with no dry spots. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

Place the starter in an oiled container with a lid and allow it to ferment for 8 hours or until it’s domed, doubled in size, and just beginning to sink in the middle.

This is not only the normal feeding routine for your stiff starter, but also the first part of our bread recipe, since, just like recipes calling for fed liquid starter, we’re going to want to add this starter to our recipe when it’s mature and at its peak of fermentation.

I’ve found that if I feed my starter right before I go to bed it will be ready to add to my recipe the following morning, so this is how I’ve written the recipe.

The timing of this overnight rise can vary, depending on how warm your house is, but don’t worry if your starter has passed its peak, and is a bit more deflated than you expected when you get up in the morning – it will still work. Just pop it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to mix your dough.

There are a few tricks you can try in case you find your starter is fermenting too quickly overnight. I feed my starter with cool water and occasionally add a pinch of salt to slow down the fermentation so that it will be ready to make bread with when I get up in the morning. Sometimes I mix up the starter the day before baking, and then pop it in the refrigerator until I’m ready for bed, when I remove it from the refrigerator. This gets the starter off to a slower start, and helps it to last through a hot summer night better than a starter that has begun fermenting at room temperature.

Note that you’ll only use half of the starter for this recipe. Unlike other sourdough recipes on our site, there’s no need to feed and perpetuate the remaining part of your starter in the middle of making this recipe. We’re going to save a hunk of bread dough just before shaping the loaf, which will keep in your refrigerator for up to a week and that can be fed and perpetuated as your stiff starter for future baking.

You can either discard the remaining 4 ounces of starter or convert it back to “unfed” liquid starter as described in the Stiff Sourdough Starter recipe.

Artisan Sourdough Bread with Stiff Starter

The night before you plan to mix your bread dough, feed your stiff starter by kneading together the following ingredients:

1/4 cup lightly packed (2 ounces) mature stiff starter
1/4 cup (2 ounces) cool water
1 scant cup (4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

The next morning, to make the dough:

2 1/8 cups (17 ounces) room-temperature water
4 3/4 cups (20 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 cup (4 ounces) King Arthur Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 cup lightly packed (4 ounces) mature stiff starter (half of the amount from above)
2 1/2 teaspoons bread salt (or any finely ground salt)

Optional ingredients:

Artisan Bread Topping (or other seeds for sprinkling on top of the loaf)
Brown Rice Flour (mixed half and half with unbleached all-purpose flour to prevent the dough from sticking to cloth and baking vessels)

Now we’re ready to mix and knead our dough!

Artisan Sourdough Bread Tip #3: Less is more kneading

Jim Lahey’s “no knead” recipe that rocked the baking world about a decade ago may have benefited in part from an older technique, called “autolyse,” developed by bread expert Professor Raymond Calvel.

Prof. Calvel discovered that by first mixing the flour and water in a recipe and allowing it to sit for 20 to 60 minutes before adding the remaining salt and leavening, several desirable results occurred. The flour became fully hydrated; the gluten bonds developed on their own, and the dough relaxed in a way that allowed for better stretching and expansion later on (there’s a lot of chemistry involved here, so just trust me, it works!). The salt and leavening agents are traditionally left out of this phase because both have a tightening effect on gluten.

We’re going to try a mixing and kneading method that’s somewhere between these two methods. I call this method “Less is More Kneading,” since it’s not quite “no-knead,” nor is it a true autolyse.

We’ll mix all the ingredients together briefly, just until the flour is fully moistened, and then cover the dough and let it rest for 30 minutes. After that we’ll knead for only a minute or two. This method yields many of the same benefits as autolysing, but avoids the difficulty of incorporating the stiff starter later in the process.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Pour the 17 ounces of water into a bowl. Rip the 4 ounces of starter into small pieces and add to the water.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Add the flour and salt and mix only until the flour is fully moistened.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

To mix by hand, stir the ingredients in the bowl with a dough scraper until the dough becomes a shaggy mass. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto your work surface (don’t add additional flour) and smear the dough with the heel of your hand, so that you force all the flour to hydrate and blend the starter with the dough.

Scrape the dough off the board with your plastic scraper (or a bench knife) and turn the dough to be sure there are no remaining pockets of dry flour, which can translate to lumps in your dough. This whole process should only take a minute or two.

Return the dough to the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

To use your stand mixer, mix on the lowest speed with the dough hook for about 1 minute. Scrape the sides of the bowl down as necessary to insure all the flour is moistened. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to sit for 30 minutes.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Once the dough has rested, knead by hand for two minutes or mix on speed 2 in your stand mixer for 1 minute.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

When kneading a wet dough by hand, resist the urge to add additional flour. Scoop the dough up with your scraper or bench knife, letting the dough hang briefly (this stretches it), then slap it down on your work surface. Fold the dough over on itself, and repeat. This slap and fold method replicates the stretching and folding of traditional kneading, but doesn’t allow the dough to stay on the table long enough to stick very much. Frequently scraping the board will help keep the sticking to a minimum.

You’ll notice the amount of time we spend kneading is minimal. Why is that?

1. The resting period has done much of the work for us.
2. Less kneading will allow for a more open crumb and less oxidation. Oxidation damages the carotenoids in the flour that contribute both color and aroma to our bread.
3. A few folds during the rising process will serve to gently strengthen the dough.

Speaking of an open crumb (i.e., large holes in the finished loaf), how do you make that happen?

Generally the higher the hydration (amount of liquid in the dough compared to flour), the more open the crumb – think ciabatta. However, sourdough’s acidity tightens the dough’s gluten, making it more difficult for large holes to form. Thus, kneading it less will keep the dough relatively relaxed, encouraging that sought-for open crumb.

Another factor affecting the crumb is the protein content of the flour. In general, if you’re looking for a more open crumb in your bread, our unbleached all-purpose flour is a better choice than our unbleached bread flour, since the higher protein content of the bread flour will tend to give you a stronger dough, which often leads to a tighter crumb structure.

Finally, the way you shape and handle the bread also has a big effect on crumb, as does the final rising of the shaped loaf and the baking method you use. We’ll cover these two factors in our upcoming posts.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Place the dough in an oiled bowl covered with plastic wrap. Ideal dough temperature for sourdough is around 76°F, although a few degrees one way or the other won’t hurt anything. If your house is cooler than that the dough will still rise, but it will take longer.

And that’s where we’ll leave things for now: with your bread dough happily rising.

A long time ago I worked for a whole-grain collective bakery called Wildflour. We published a book of recipes from similar bakeries all over the country called Uprisings: The Wholegrain Bakers’ Book.  Here’s an illustration I drew for a sourdough recipe from a bakery in Wisconsin. It makes me laugh now to look at it, but I always think of this when I set my sourdough to rise.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Sourdough is slow magic . . . meditate while the bread is rising!

OK, so we were hippies, but we knew what we were talking about!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, where we take on dough temperature and folding!

If you’re just beginning your sourdough journey, here’s a sourdough post to help you create your own sourdough starter. Or you can purchase a starter from us, and we’ll offer lots of help and guidance when it comes to feeding and maintaining your new pet.

We love sourdough baking and have lots of wonderful recipes to share, and a sourdough baking guide to help answer your questions and get you started on the right path.

Are you ready to take your sourdough baking to the next level? Don’t worry, we’re here to coach you along the way. The bakers on our Baker’s Hotline (855-371-BAKE) are part of your team, ready to offer immediate inspiration and assistance when necessary.

Throughout my baking life I’ve been guided by many great teachers and books, but the one book I continue to keep close for reference and inspiration is Jeffrey Hamelman’s “Bread.” Jeffrey is the director of our King Arthur Flour Bakery, a Certified Master Baker, and an instructor in our Baking Center. I’ve been lucky enough to roll baguettes across the table from him in the bakery and also take his Advanced Bread Baking class. In fact, the starter I use today was first created in his class. If the concepts I introduce here inspire you with questions about the science and history behind them – the “why” of it all – I wholeheartedly refer you to Mr. Hamelman’s book. He’s a gifted baker and teacher, and you won’t go wrong under his guidance.

Ready for more? Read Artisan Sourdough Bread Tips, part 2; and Artisan Sourdough Bread Tips, part 3.

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Kay

    I stick to the safe shores of the No Knead Bread, but I LOVE reading the in-depth study and practice of these sourdough starters!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Kay! And who knows, maybe someday you’ll feel like launching into the sourdough adventure. We’re here to help, whatever baking path you choose to follow! Barb

    2. Carolyn

      Kay… No-Knead is wonderful, but after 2-3 years I’ve discovered it’s even more wonderful when I stretch & fold the dough about 3 times while it’s sitting. I keep it in the bowl and draw one side up over the top and press it down, turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat for a total of 4 folds per session (grand total of 12). Who knew! 🙂

  2. Rachel M

    I love the posts that get into more “baking science”, explaining what effect small changes will have in the finished product. I’m a busy mom of young kids right now, so my breadmaking is more of an “eyeball it” kind of affair- but it always turns out well enough, because I have learned the “why” of so many aspects of breadmaking, with King Arthur making a substantial contribution to that knowledge. It gives me a comfortable kind of feeling to know that when things slow down for me and I can turn my energies towards honing my bread for a more consistent and predictable product, King Arthur will have tutorials like this to walk me through it. And in the meantime, I will pick up and use whatever happens to “stick”. 🙂 Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Rachel, thanks so much for your kind words! I had my own days of baking with little ones, and some of my favorite baking memories are of giving them each a hunk of whole wheat challah dough and letting them add raisins or chocolate chips or whatever I had on hand and seeing their pride and amazement as their bread rose in the oven. Baking, like life, has its seasons. I’m so glad you feel King Arthur is here to support your baking now and in the future!
      Barb

  3. Aileen Nickel

    I’ve just started making Artisan bread, mainly sourdough, and love your tips in this article. Such great information and explanation of how dough “works”. I’m hoping to see the next installment on dough temperature and folding. We had the chance to visit your great store in August. What a beautiful,place.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks, Aileen! So glad you’re finding this series helpful. And glad you could come visit us too!
      Barb

  4. Ann

    Thanks so much for this info. I’ve always kept my started wet and always thought it was too sour. Now I know why! I will not add as much water and keep the dough stiff.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Ann, a liquid starter should keep your starter a bit more mild in flavor, but a lot has to do with how often you feed it and what temperature it lives at. Refrigeration will tend to give you more sour flavor, while storing and feeding your starter twice a day at room temperature will give you the mildest flavored sourdough.
      Barb

  5. Pam

    Since I am on my first sourdough starter making adventure, your comments along with all of the King Arthur website are really getting me excited to see the breads that will result from my experimenting with flour. I have dearly loved sourdough bread all my life and now I want to make my own. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Pam, you’re very welcome! We’re so glad we can help you bake the bread you love!
      Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Robert! I hope you’ll be inspired to bring your own sourdough bread to life!
      Barb

  6. macy

    Barb, thanks so much for the reference to Uprisings! I enjoy the character in the drawings and hand-written recipes. I’ve had this book for several years, but had forgotten about it. Mine must be a revised edition, because page 119 is Non-Dairy Frosting. However, in flipping through looking for it, I am reminded that there are lots of interesting recipes still to try. I wasn’t yet in to yeast-raised things back when I was baking from it, so it’s like finding a whole new cookbook. Thanks again, and best wishes.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Macy, not all the drawings included in the first edition appeared in later editions, unfortunately. I’m so glad this post allowed you to rediscover Uprisings! Barb@KAF

    2. Amy Parker

      I have that book on my shelf as well! I’ve not tried bread baking for many years but I’m back!

    3. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Welcome back, Amy! We’re so glad you’ve decided to join us here, and hope you’ll reach out with any questions you have as you get your hands back in the dough.
      Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Norman, you certainly can, but if you replace all the flour with white whole wheat flour, expect a denser bread. And it will be helpful to add a bit more water to the recipe, since whole wheat flour will absorb more liquid than all-purpose flour. This should only be a few tablespoons extra water. Barb@KAF

  7. Michiel Eldering

    Interesting article on the stiff starter. I already have made one a week ago although not quit like you describe.
    One thing in your article puzzels me. I was convinced a higher proteïn flour helpes you get a more open structure because there is more strength in the dough to keep the co2 in the dough. In the Netherlands most of the bread flour has around the 10% proteïn. So for American recipes I have been looking for stronger flour (12-13%). But apparantly I was wrong; if I want a more open crumb I can just use the 10% flour best?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Michiel, the higher protein flour does provide more structure to your loaf, which can lead to a better rise, but the crumb has a tendency to be more closed because the dough is stronger. You could certainly use the 10% flour for a more open crumb, but there may come a point where you need a bit more structure, so adding some higher protein flour may help. You need enough structure to keep the bread from completely flattening out, but not so much that the dough seems very tight.
      Barb

  8. Michele Garcia

    Hi Barbara,
    Thank you for all the various tips and information on sourdough baking. I used to love to bake sourdough bread and pizza crusts, but had to give up gluten due to autoimmune issues. I’m currently working on achieving a sourdough grain-free loaf using whole cassava flour, a newer option in the grain-free world which is an amazing replacement for wheat flour. I’m always interested in reading more about different techniques in baking wheat breads as there seem to be some things that are transferable to making great grain-free breads as well. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Michele, I’m glad you could still find some useful information in your pursuit of a grain-free sourdough! I’ve never heard of cassava flour, but will definitely have to check that out. Thanks for sharing this information.
      Barb

  9. Julie Lane

    I don’t even know where to begin. I have attempted making bread (Sourdough included) but have always failed. Too tough, too chewy, too dry, you name it, I have succeded at doing it wrong. I desperately want to learn to make good bread. Sourdough especially because I love it. I love to bake! I have used King Arthur flour before and found it superior to other brands. I decided to try your website to see if I could get good tips. Your blog is proving to be helpful. My first day here and I have learned something new already. I am looking forward to learning more. I wish I could come to VT to get some hands on, but I think you are going to prove that long distance learning can work. I look forward to my future in breadmaking.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Julie, we’re excited to help you with your sourdough baking and hope you’ll continue to reach out with your questions and concerns. We want to help you succeed in doing it right this time, and we’ll do everything we can to make your baking journey a positive and rewarding experience. Baking sourdough can be challenging, but it’s definitely worth the effort!
      Barb

  10. PAM L

    Like Michiel commented – the ap flour for a more open crumb was news to me. I understand what you’re saying about bread flour providing structure to support the loaf (particularly a boule which for me never seems to get high enough for how much it spreads). But if I enjoy the large airy holes, a bit less structure (AP flour) is called for? If I learn to handle the dough better (as in not tearing gluten strands and knowing when the proof is “done”) will the AP be my ticket to producing a consistent sourdough of great form and still have the holey crumb? This series is wonderful…..but I felt like I’d almost mastered sourdough (wet starter) and it’s like going halfway back to start again!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Pam, there’s no need to go back to the start with your sourdough baking! Many of these tips can be applied to the sourdough bread you already enjoy making. Feel free to pick and choose the methods that you find work best for you. Whether you choose all-purpose flour or bread flour will affect the structure and crumb of your bread, but other factors play into this as well, so it’s not a hard and fast rule. I hope these new ideas and methods will encourage you to experiment and build on what you already know, rather than cause you to question your progress. A stiff starter is by no means a requirement for furthering your sourdough baking, but it might be interesting to give it a try and see how it works for you. Whatever direction you choose, we’re here to answer your questions and help you succeed!
      Barb

  11. Irene

    I’m new to sourdough, well, and bread making in general. Thank you for breaking things down and making the information beginner-friendly. Also, thank you for the hot-line.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      You’re very welcome, Irene! It gives us a great deal of joy to be able to help bakers like you through our posts and on the Baker’s Hotline. We hope we can continue to offer advice and support as you take on new baking challenges.
      Barb

  12. Lee James

    This a wealth of information. I purchased the starter and so far the stiff starter is going well although the rise is slower. My home is cooler but the dough is close to my wood stove. This is my second try at sour dough. My first dough started out well but just didn’t rise.I ALREADY GOOF ON THIS TRY! I used bread flour and not all purpose flour. Should I start over?
    I am new to cooking and baking. My life was spent working as an intensive care nurse. With the nursing shortage, i worked much more than I played. Quick meals were a necessity. Now, I have retired and have the time to actually learn to cook. I love the feel of dough in my hands. The problem now is getting my dough to rise well.
    Love the articles and the support of the King Arthur’s staff. I can depend on the staff to be the kind neighbor next door, helping me to learn to bake. Thank you so very much for your support.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Lee, don’t worry, you haven’t ruined anything by using bread flour rather than all-purpose flour. Your starter is likely a bit stiffer because of the bread flour and this will slow it down a bit. While you’re using bread flour you’ll need to add an extra tablespoon or so of water, because the bread flour absorbs more liquid than the all-purpose flour does. All-purpose flour is preferable for feedings because it has more starch in it, which is what the yeast likes to eat, but feeding your starter bread flour won’t ruin it. Your starter is a hardy creature and it takes a lot to do it in! I’m so glad you’re getting this time in your life to explore cooking and baking, after your many years as an intensive care nurse. I hope you’ll enjoy the process and reach out to us whenever you need neighborly guidance! We’re here for you, Lee!

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Not as written, no. However, there may be some gluten free sourdough recipes online. Jon@KAF

  13. James Boone

    I am working my way through part one on stiff starters. Your information is most welcome, and I enjoy your writing – very insightful. Better bread is important to me. If you write more, I will read every bit. Parts two and three of this series are not available to me, hopefully they will be on-line soon, or is the problem just with me?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      James, I’m so glad to hear you’re finding this post helpful! I’m not sure why you can’t view parts two and three, but I will include the links here in hopes this will provide access to you.
      Barb

  14. Pat

    Argggh! You tell us to use a scale (good advice – I always have), and then you tell us to add one cup starter to one scant cup flour. Not good, Barbara. Not good…

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Pat, sorry for reverting to volume measurements, but as much as I would like to speak only in terms of weight measurements, not everyone has a scale. Thankfully all the weight measurements are available via the recipes (and also in the post).
      Barb

  15. amy!

    When I took the Artisan Baking at Home workshop, we learned in the sourdough portion that we could maintain a very small starter (2oz) and grow it for a day or two before baking. Since I’m a single person who doesn’t bake regularly, that had been my method to avoid wasting all the feeding flour. Does a stiff starter also work for small starters? I can scale the math down but I wasn’t sure whether it would be harder to determine if it was ripe or not. Maybe I just keep it in a much smaller container?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Amy, I think it would be fine to keep less starter as long as you are able to achieve good flavor and rise in your bread while maintaining the smaller amount. A smaller container would be helpful to be able to detect when your starter is ripe.
      Barb

  16. "Buffalo Jean"

    I am confused because in two places you say to add four ounces of flour, and then in parentheses you say “a scant cup.” Is it one-half cup or one cup?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Buffalo Jean, a full cup of unbleached all-purpose flour weights 4 1/4 ounce, so you want just a little bit less than a cup, which is what I refer to as “a scant cup.”
      Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Karen, I hear you! At this point you can print out the recipes by going to the recipe page and clicking on the words “printable version.” The blogs themselves are a bit more cumbersome, but I will definitely pass along your suggestion!
      Barb

  17. Sue Bauer

    Hello Barbara! When I pulled the stiff cover off my starter there was water-like substance underneath. Did I wait too long to use it. It said to let it rise 24 hrs. Was that too long? While it was rising I noticed it was still in liquid form. Can you help me? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Sue, I’d love to help! Generally the stiff starter only takes about 8-12 hours to rise fully, so 24 hours does sound like too long. And if your starter was still in liquid form you may need to add a bit more flour to bring it to a firm dough consistency. If you’d like to give the Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-2253(BAKE), I’ll be available tomorrow (1/4) from 7am-3pm EST. I’d be very happy to talk to you about this recipe!
      Barb

  18. Donna Middleton

    Barbara, I love seeing the picture of your drawing from “Uprisings.” I have “Uprisings.” It is still one of my favorite baking cook books. It has been in use at my house for more than 30 years!
    Thanks for the sourdough articles. They are wonderful!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Donna, I still use my “Uprisings” cook book too! There’s a granola recipe in it that has no added oil or sugar (sweetened with mashed up dates) that I’ve adapted and make all the time. Look forward to a future blog! I’m so glad you enjoyed the sourdough posts. Thanks so much for your comments. Barb

  19. Frank Martinez

    Thanks for all your information on sourdough starters. I have been using a liquid sourdough mostly but have used a stiff sourdough starter before. I have been reading and making sourdoughs and Rye sours from bakers like Richard Miscovich, Peter Reinhart and Chad Robertson for about a couple years now and each have their specialty styles on sourdough, just like you and each sourdough has it’s own flavor and consistency. I was wondering if I used 100% Whole grain, whole wheat flour instead of all purpose flour if the flavor would come out a lot more sour. Or would the whole wheat have a negative effect on the all ready built starter. Have you ever used whole wheat in your sourdough to make it stiff and to change the flavor?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Frank, I haven’t tried do a stiff whole wheat starter, but I’m sure it would work. The big concern with whole grains is that they contain more minerals and so ferment more quickly and also are slightly more prone to spoiling. The stiffness of the starter will help slow down fermentation somewhat. I think it’s definitely worth playing around with, and as long as you feed your starter regularly it shouldn’t do any harm.
      Barb

  20. Frank Martinez

    I’m making some sourdough bread with wheat and want to add KA Harvest Grain Blend to it. Do I need to soak it for a few hours only, or over night, or do I just add it straight to the dough from the bag. I made some rye bread the other day with some rye chops and had to soak the rye chops over night before I added it to my dough. Just wanted to know if it’s the same with the Harvest Grain Blend. Also do I add a few more ounces of water to the dough cause the Harvest Grain Blend will dry out the dough if I don’t. Thanks for your help.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Frank, you can go either way with this blend. I like to pour an equal amount of boiling water (by weight) over the Harvest Grain Blend and then let them sit for an hour before I add it to the dough. Drain off an excess water if necessary before adding the grains to the dough. I generally add 1/2 cup of grains to this recipe and that seems to work well. I like to cook them a bit, but if you like them crunchy, it’s fine to add them dry. I don’t think you’ll need to add much extra water, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to add a tablespoon or two, since the dry grains will absorb some liquid. Barb

  21. Doug Ward

    Please explain the necessity of the “discard half and feed” approach. Please explain why discarding half of a 1k starter and feeding it with 250g flour and 250g water is any different than feeding the entire 1k batch with 500g water and 500g flour but ONLY USING HALF (500g) of the mother? Scaling the discard method to production standards does not make econmic sense, either.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Doug, in a production bakery there is seldom a need to discard starter because every day you are able to plan your starter development to meet the needs of the day, with just enough starter remaining to feed and prepare for the next day’s bake. So, the short answer is there is no difference, as long as you keep the proportion of ingredients the same. The need to discard is more a home baker predicament because the starter must be fed regularly, even when you’re not able to bake with it, and it’s better to maintain a small amount of starter so that feedings are proportionally small, and the resulting discard is also relatively small. When preparing to bake a recipe that requires more starter, the home baker can then build the starter to a larger size, with enough remaining to feed and maintain. In the example you gave, the proportion of starter to flour and water is different than our liquid starter, which is equal parts starter : flour : water. With the larger proportion of starter to flour and water, you’re going to get a very rapidly fermenting starter, which is not always ideal. I hope this helps.
      Barb

    2. Doug Ward

      Just to clarify:

      1K starter, discard 500g leaves 500g starter.

      Feed with 250g flour and 250g water makes 1k starter at 100% hydration, a liquid starter, same as yours.

    3. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Doug, what I meant was that the proportion of ingredients is different in your starter because the amount of starter is twice as much (by weight) as the individual weights of the flour and the water. In our liquid starter the weights of these three elements are all equal. Both your starter and our starter are 100% hydration, but the percentage of starter is greater in yours, so it will tend to ferment more quickly. I hope that makes sense. If not, give me a call at the Baker’s Hotline (855-371-2253) and I’ll be glad to talk starters with you!
      Barb

  22. Joy Roxborough

    Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for the post!

    What I am wondering, though, is if you punch the dough down and let it rise again and you do this several times, won’t the dough begin to just fall apart as it overferments? Could I do this punch down and let rise several times technique, could I do it with a spelt dough?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Joy

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Joy, the long fermentation and folds described in this post are meant for a sourdough recipe without yeast. The dough will take this long to develop and will not fall apart, rather the folds will continue to gently develop the strength of the dough. The gluten in spelt flour is not as strong as other varieties of wheat, so you may want to combine this flour with our unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour to give you a strong enough dough. Whole grain spelt flour will ferment a bit more quickly than regular flour, so you may find the loaf is ready to shape a little earlier, but if the recipe does not contain added commercial yeast, it will still take a few hours for the dough to feel nice and airy and ready for shaping. The gentle folding described in the link above will not harm the spelt flour.
      Barb

  23. Susan Elizabeth Siens

    I viewed this blog and spoke with someone at King Arthur (I’m sorry, I forgot your name) then I went to Sustainable Food UK’s blog about making artisanal sourdough bread. I chose to use their recipe — much easier, much less complicated, no kneading, no attempt to make the fermented bread look like regular kneaded high-gluten bread prior to baking (the dough looks very rough and shaggy until it is folded). And, wow! it is the best bread I’ve ever made and the best bread I’ve ever had! Very simple, one just needs to understand that it is made over a 40-hour or so period. And, no, I don’t have to make stiff starter, and, no, I don’t throw any starter away even when my crock of starter has been sitting in the fridge for several days. For anyone who wants to attempt this, I highly recommend checking out Sustainable Food UK’s blog. For an extra bonus, my gluten-intolerant husband (he does not have celiac, just does not digest gluten well) can eat this WHEAT bread.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Susan, I’ve very glad to hear you found a recipe that works well for you and your lifestyle! Thanks for sharing the information.
      Barb

  24. Judy

    Barbara

    I’m finally getting this after several failures and your blog is just what I need. I would love to print it out so I can easily refer back but when I try to print it comes out to 26 pages with all the pictures. Can I get a print version without your beautiful pictures? Sorry!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re so glad that the article has been of such help, Judy! While you can print just the recipe for Stiff Sourdough Starter or Artisan Sourdough Bread by following the links to the recipe pages, we don’t offer an option to print the text of the blog without the photos. We have found that it can work to simply copy the content of the article into a word doc and delete the pictures. Hopefully one of these things will do the trick! Mollie@KAF

  25. Bonnie

    Hi Barbra! Thanks for all these wonderful tips. It is fascinating to learn the science behind the art. Incidentally, I recognize you from my childhood. I grew up on South Blvd too, and was at your house often. Absolutely wonderful to be learning about baking from you. I’m new to sourdough ( an art I could never master until recently) but baked a lot of other breads in years past. Good to see you!
    Warmly, Bonnie

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Bonnie, of course, I remember you and your family! What a small world it is. I’m so glad you found the King Arthur Flour baking community and are enjoying our posts! Sourdough is such a fun and rewarding baking endeavor–I still find it magical (and delicious!). Barb

  26. Bonnie

    Yes, I just can’t stop making it. There is something so nurturing about the entire process, from starter to finish. Good to see you.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks, Bonnie! Nice to hear from you! I feel this as well, every time I make this sourdough bread!
      Barb

  27. Kathy Awbrey

    Isn’t there any sugar at all in this bread? That confuses me as doesn’t there need to be something at activate the yeast besides, warm water?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Kathy, enzyme activity converts the starch in the flour to sugar for the wild yeast to eat, so no added sugar is necessary.
      Barb

  28. Christine

    My husband can’t have whole grain or part grain breads due to colon issues. How can I make a sour dough starter thats doesn’t use whole or part grains?
    Whatever it takes, I’ll do it
    We have to eat as simple as possible and store bought is too chemically loaded and makes him very ill.
    I thank you in advance

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Christine, if you’re talking about the whole grain flour called for at the beginning of our sourdough starter recipe, it will work just fine to start your starter with unbleached all-purpose flour instead, although it may take a bit longer for it to show signs of activity initially. And if you’re interested in trying this recipe, it will work fine to substitute all-purpose flour for the whole wheat called for in the recipe, although you may want to hold back on about a tablespoon of the water if you do so. In fact, most bread recipes that call for part whole wheat flour can be modified by substituting all-purpose, as long as you reduce the liquid by a tablespoon per cup of all-purpose flour substituted.
      Barb

  29. Ian Watson

    I’m about to convert some wet starter into stiff in hope of achieving the elusive tangy flavor I’ve been after, but I would like to use it in the “Extra” Tangy Sourdough Bread Recipe on this site (1) because I’m now used to it, and (2) to get a better comparison to see how much difference the starter makes. (I omit the sugar and sour salt and extend the refrigeration time to 24 hours, by the way, but am still getting only a very mild sourness.) How much stiff starter should I use? Do I just use the same weight ( 8 1/2 oz.)?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Ian, I would go ahead and add 6 ounces of the stiff starter to the Extra Tangy Sourdough recipe. To compensate for the consistency of this starter I would also add an additional 3 ounces of water to the mix. Rip the stiff starter into small pieces to allow it to incorporate more easily. I think this should give you comparable rise and fermentation, although the rate of fermentation may be slightly different. I find that refrigerating the shaped loaf overnight has the greatest impact on developing sour flavor, so you might want to try incorporating this step into the Extra Tangy Sourdough recipe. Barb

    2. Ian Watson

      Thanks. I did in fact refrigerate one of the two shaped loaves of my last batch, and it was tangier than the unrefrigerated loaf, but it still wasn’t as tart as my very first attempt.

      Back on the subject of your blog, my stiff starter conversion worked brilliantly at the first feed and more than doubled overnight, but when I then took 2 oz. and added flour and water as instructed, it doesn’t seem to have risen at all in 9 hours. Have I killed it somehow?

    3. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Ian, It’s hard to say why your starter didn’t rise after the second feeding, especially after the first feeding went so well. You sound like you know the ropes when it comes to environmental temperature, etc., so this is a little baffling. That being said, it takes a lot to kill a starter, so I’d feed it again and see what happens. This time I’d save 3 ounces of starter and feed it 3 ounces of water and 6 ounces of flour, just to give it a little more wild yeast to work with. I hope your starter bounces back with full vigor!
      Barb

    4. Ian Watson

      Thanks. I take it then that the formula for using stiff starter in a recipe that calls for wet is to add half the amount (by weight) of water to the stiff starter so that they add up to the recommended weight of wet starter? That should, by my reckoning, produce the equivalent of a 100% hydration wet starter.

      I gave up on the converted stiff starter that failed to rise after the second feeding and started again with new wet discard and now have a stiff starter that behaves properly after the first feeding. I have baked with it successfully, but I can’t say the tanginess is noticeably different – perhaps it will mature more in cold storage. I will continue to experiment. (For the record, I have also been extending the pre-ferment to 24 hours and leaving my loaves in the fridge for a long rise, with only subtle enhancement of tanginess. Nothing has yet approached the perfect zing of my first attempt, which simply followed the “Extra Tangy” recipe on this site but using bread flour (one cup of which whole wheat) and adding 3 Tbsp water when adding the last flour to the pre-ferment. The fact that I produced super-tangy bread without any of tweaks at the making stage leads me to believe it was the quality of the starter itself that gave it the tang.)

      Can I just ask you specifically at what stage I should be putting my stiff starter in the fridge for storage, and how exactly to determine when it is ready for baking? I have noticed that seemingly everyone who has ever baked a loaf of sourdough has a blog on the subject, and they all say different things – some say to refrigerate right after feeding, some say wait a few hours for fermentation to get a good start, and others to let it reach its peak before refrigerating. Similarly, some say to mix stored starter straight from the fridge, others to let it reach room temperature and yet others to revive it by feeding a couple of times. Given that one of my goals is to cut down on the amount of discard I’ve been drowning in, and my hope is that by keeping my starter cold it will produce tangier bread, what would you recommend on both fronts?

    5. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Ian, while the formula I used to generate the amount of stiff starter to add in place of the liquid starter in the Extra Tangy Sourdough recipe is as you summarize, in general I try to stick to the type of starter called for in the recipe, and convert my starter, if necessary, prior to making the recipe. The rational here is that most recipe authors have a reason they prefer one type of starter over the other, and the recipe will be most faithfully and successfully followed if the starter is replicated.

      Most starters will benefit from feeding before you store it in the refrigerator, with a brief time at room temperature (1-2 hours) before refrigeration to allow fermentation to commence. This is what I recommend when storing your stiff starter in the refrigerator. When your starter has been stored for up to a week in the refrigerator, it will benefit from a few “revival” feedings to bring it back to full vitality before using it in a bread recipe that does not call for added yeast. Look for your stiff starter to double in size and be domed on top, or just beginning to recede in the middle. This is the optimum time to add it to your recipe. Without these revival feedings you’re not likely to achieve as good of a rise in your bread.

      Have you tried to replicate your original successfully sour bread, using the same methods and with the same sourdough starter maintenance? I’m a strong believer is using the methods that work best for you, whatever you find those to be.

      While I’m reaching the limits of my experience in advising you, I highly recommend Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes. This book is my bible when it comes to sourdough baking!

      Good luck in your pursuit of the perfect sourdough bread!
      Barb

  30. Ian Watson

    P.S. I’ve seen several other websites that claim a stiff starter produces a LESS sour loaf, which is the opposite of what your blog says. I’ll still try it and see, but I am confused by all the contradictory advice I keep coming across — some say dry and cold is best, others wet and warm. All I want is to recreate the lovely, mouth-puckering sourness of my very first loaf, which tasted of San Francisco. That was using a wet starter, by the way, and it was probably not quite fully-developed. Months later, I now have a robust and dependable starter, and my bread has a lovely crumb and crust — but it is flavorless.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi again Ian, the biochemistry that contributes to flavor in sourdough baking is, indeed, a complex subject that at times reveals contradictory view points. My overall understanding is that warm, wet conditions encourage the bacterial activity that promotes flavor development, but that cold dry conditions increase the ratio of acetic acid to lactic acid development (acetic acid being the sourer of the two). From my own sourdough baking experience, I find that maintaining a stiff starter and using it regularly produces bread that is predictably sour. I do refrigerate my shaped loaves overnight in the refrigerator, which, as I said before, seems to have the greatest impact on sour flavor development. When I took a sourdough baking class here at our baking school in Vermont, the emphasis was on maintaining a strong, healthy starter (in this case, a liquid starter) and concentrating on flavor development during the dough phase. Barb

  31. Ian Watson

    Thanks for your reply above, and sorry to test your limits, but I have one follow up: You say to revive a starter that’s been stored for a week. Does that mean it should be OK to use a starter that’s been stored shorter than that straight from the fridge (once domed)? Since I bake sourdough twice a week (and since I don’t want to dilute any acetic acid benefit I get from cold storage), what I’m really hoping is that I can use my stored starter without reviving then feed and store for another three or four days. That will leave me with only two discards a week. I’ll do my own experiments, of course, but can you tell me if that’s likely to work well?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Ian, I think this may work if you’re able to catch the starter when it is still domed. Try putting it in the refrigerator right after feeding it, and this should help prolong the fermentation time in the refrigerator. I still think you’ll get better results with more feedings, but let me know how your experimentation goes!
      Barb

  32. Ian Watson

    Thank you for your help and advice last month. I now have a strong, consistent stiff starter that lives in the fridge. One thing I’ve noticed is that the refrigerated starter is much more gooey and sticky than when kept a room temperature. (In fact, the consistency is not a million miles off my liquid starter, which I keep pretty thick.) I assume that is from more acid being produced in the cold environment. This is not a problem, as the taste I’m after is quite tangy — it’s just a bit challenging to tear into small chunks when mixing. Now that I’m used to it, I think I prefer working with the stiff (even if gooey) to the liquid, and it’s certainly less trouble to maintain.

    The resulting bread is good in any event. There are still variations in taste and consistency each time, but this is no different from my experiences with the liquid starter and are more likely down to fluctuations in temperature and handling. As your article is about starter, though, I won’t say more about my baking experiences, except to say I’ve had very good results with a new (and discard-free) recipe I devised. Essentially, I just feed my starter enough to make up 24oz to use as my preferment. I then reserve 6oz and bake with the other 18oz. This is the only time I feed my starter, and it does just fine. I haven’t tested the limits of its shelf life, as I have to keep baking every 2 or 3 days to keep up with my family’s demand. (My original plan was for only twice a week.) Anyway, thanks again for your advice. Have a great weekend.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Ian, I am so glad to hear things are going well with your starter and your baking routine! Thanks for the update!
      Barb

  33. Val in Cincinnati

    My stiff starter (my liquid too, for that matter) will easily triple in four hours, and even at that point won’t always be showing signs of collapsing. Should I go ahead and use or refeed after 4 hours, or should I try to slow it down by refrigerating it so that I get the full 8 hours of fermentation in? (And as a related question, is this level of vigor/activity a disadvantage for flavor or anything else? I generally get a pretty good rise, but I’d love more tanginess.)

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Val, congratulations on the vigor of your sourdough starters! Vigor is always a good thing, but you may find you get a little more flavor if you’re able to slow down fermentation. Try using cold water when feeding your starter and see if this gives you a longer window, and shoot for the 8 hour fermentation time. If need be, you can certainly refrigerate your starter to slow it down, but you’ll need to adjust your water temperature a bit when mixing the dough to adjust for the colder starter.
      Barb

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *