The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Introduction, Technique and Equipment suggestions for new sourdough baker

kshaunfield's picture

Introduction, Technique and Equipment suggestions for new sourdough baker

Hello all,


Maybe the forum is a better place for this, but I wanted to introduce myself and ramble a bit.  I am a new sourdough baker (and currently have no interest in yeast breads) with about 10 loaves under my belt.  In addition to being a lover of sourdough, I am also a stay-at-home dad with a 4 month old daughter, an avid cook, home-brewer, urban gardener, beekeeper, and chicken-raiser and love cycling, hiking and backpacking.  Also, I love to learn and tend to throw myself into new hobbies.


I got into baking after reading Classic Sourdoughs by Ed Wood and aquiring a culture (his Finland culture).  After a few bakes, with few real successes (dense crumbs, the second half of the loaves mostly went to the chickens), I discovered The Fresh Loaf and my education really began.  Firstly, thank you to this community of passionate bakers with a willingness to share.  I think my initial lack of success was due to poor kneading technique, over-proofing and perhaps using mostly all-purpose flour.  My last few loaves have been quite successful and I think (based on a slightly educated guess) it's related to limiting my bulk fermentation to about 6 hrs, incorporating about 50% bread flour and improving gluten development in the dough via autolysing and doing several stretcch and folds during fermentation.  Needless-to-say, I'm eager to broaden my experience and continue developing my techniques.  As I'm still a beginning baker I realize I have MUCH to learn and am hoping for a few suggestions.


First of all, I'd love to know what experienced bakers would suggest regarding equipment.  So far, I have only the very, very basics: some measuring cups, large pyrex mixing bowls, some counter space or large wooden cutting boards, and a couple of baking sheets.  I'm the type that likes to keep things simple and have neither the space or funds for significant equipment (aka a mixer), but I wonder if a few basic things like a dough whisk, dough cutter/scraper and scale would be my best initial investments?  It definitely seems to me that a scale is necessary to truly get consistent results and be able to precisely control hydration (not to mention it seems experienced bakers here only list their recipes by weight).  What are your favorite or indispensible tools?


My second question regards techniques.  I started following Ed Wood's advice (all-purpose flour, not preheating oven, I even put together a proofing box to control temperature - I've barely used it).  I realize now that the suggestions he provides in Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook, are neither typical nor particularly extensive.  He seems to imply that temperature is the primary driver of sourdough flavor, higher temperature favoring bacteria and sourness, potentially at the expense of leaving ability.  However, from some of my subsequent reading on TFL and elsewhere, it seems the picture is much more complicated and that the sourness of sourdough is multifaceted (lactic and acetic), and can be influenced by the hydration of the starter (cooler and drier favors the yeast?), temperature, length of different proofs, even how long after the baked bread cools that it is sliced (so the flavor continues to mature even after baking?).  Many questions, I know.  Regardless, as I embraced the broader world of sourdough baking suggestions I seem to have had more success, though I don't yet have enough experience to fully understand why.  So what technique or change in process first propelled your sourdough to the next level?  Also, there seem to be many valuable books that could enhance my understanding and baking, what would you recommend?


In regards to my loaves, I'm still perfecting my basic loaf: a 1.5-2lb white (or mostly white) sourdough batard.  Here's my basic process, I'm willing to tweak it and am open to criticism and suggestions.  My current process involves thoroughly mixing by hand, letting autolyse for 30 minutes to an hour, adding the salt and the last cup of flour, a short maybe 10 minute kneading (I'm still not very good), then rest in a covered bowl and do a stretch and fold about once an hour for 4 hrs allowing a total of 5-6 hrs bulk ferment, then removing from bowl, letting rest for 30 minutes, shaping (which I still need practice at), allowing to ferment (covered) an additional 3 hrs, brushing crust with melted butter, slashing, placing in a 450 - 475F preheated oven, spritzing oven with a spray bottle 3 times at 5 minute intervals in the first 10 minutes, turning loaf once, removing from the oven after about 40 minutes and allowing to cool overnight on a wire rack.  The result is a pretty decent loaf: crispy-chewy golden brown crust with some blistering, moderately open and moist crumb, not particularly complex or sour but delicious.  I'm pretty happy with the result (its as good as anything I can buy locally), but would ultimately like to be able to increase the sourness, get a more complex overall flavor, get a consistently attractive bubbled/blistered golden brown crust, reliably achieve a more open crumb, and hit the shape I'm going for (my last 3 "good" loaves were all rather wet doughs and despite my shaping attempts were slightly flattened, maybe 2-1/2" high).


Sorry for the lengthy post.  Thanks again to the entire TFL community for sharing your skills and wisdom, particularly the imformative posts of dmsnyder and txfarmer (and many others I have yet to discover).  I look forward to hearing from anyone willing to give me guidance on where to go from here!





P.S. - Equipment-wise a scale is probably on top of the list, then I'll try my hand at some of the amazing recipes on TFL like dmsnyder's San Joaquin Sourdough or  txfarmer's 36+ hr Baguettes


AnnieT's picture

Hi Kirk, and welcome to TFL. One of the most useful things you can buy quite inexpensively is an instant read thermometer to be sure your bread is cooked thoroughly. A scale, a Danish dough whisk, a bench scraper, maybe a large stainless steel bowl to cover the loaf for the first part of the bake (I got mine at a thrift store) and you'll be set. If you would like to see the recipe and method for my go-to sourdough loaf, type in June 25, 2008 in the search box - lots of good reading there and my loaf always has "freckles", A.

kshaunfield's picture

I will definitely take a look at your go-to loaf.

wassisname's picture

Welcome Kirk!  The only thing I would add to Annie's list is a plastic bowl scraper, the best $1.50 you'll ever spend on baking equipment.  You already have one of my other favorite baking tools - chickens!  A great, guilt free way to dispose of those loaves that just don't turn out right, old bread, and discarded starter.  Happy baking!



kshaunfield's picture

Ah yes, bowl scraper. That is definitely a job I don't yet have the proper tool for.

I haven't yet baked a bread with any eggs in it, but then the symbiosis will be complete!'s picture

Those top my list.   If you want to learn from your mistakes and successes, then you have to know what it was you just did (right or wrong).  And the only way to really know is to measure everything (even liquids -- for accuracy) by weight, and write it all down.  A rounded edge plastic dough scraper is great for getting dough out of round bowls and onto bench.  Dough whisk seems pretty far down the list -- a convenience for which a fork or regular whisk (as used for eggs) perform just fine.  Instant read thermometer is very useful to test inside of baked loaves for doneness (~200˚F, + or -).   A baking stone if you want to produce hearth breads.  Authentic bannetons for proofing wet doughs can be substituted with all manner of thrift store baskets (see posts by dabrownman -- he's got a real American Pickers collection of).

Yes, sourdough cultures are dizzyingly complex and dynamic, chemically and biologically.  Best advice I can give is to adopt a very comfortable and uniform routine with your culture and stick to it.  I've been very pleased with how my starters have come into their own, stabilized and behave marevlously predictably.  A pleasure to watch (and smell, and taste).  There are plenty of books, but it's hard to argue against a combination of your own cumulative experience enriched with input from TFL.  This is an awesome resource.  You've already found David Snyder and txfarmer -- well spotted!  I find something new and useful (in the archive) almost every day.  For example, this thread today, featuring input from go-to sourdough microbiologist Deb Wink.  As an overall stranded-on-a-desert-island-with-nothing-but-baking-supplies-and-equipment recommendation, I'm partial to Jeff Hamelman's Bread, new addition due out [soon]. 

Welcome and happy baking!




kshaunfield's picture

Thanks, Tom. I'm REALLY enjoying the discussion you linked to, and I just reserved Hamelman's book at the local library.'s picture

...try his Vermont Sourdough if you like sour, or Pain au Levain if you like less sour.  Both GREAT starting points.  Basic, bulletproof.

FWIW, Chef Jeff specifies "bread flour" for all the white flour in this and other parts of the book.  He's scrupulously honorable about not (ever?) mentioning a King Arthur product, at least that I can recall. [and interestingly, KA does not list his book in their book offerings -- just got their latest catalog yesterday].  But I'm skeptical about his actually suggesting thus that the reader use that high a protein flour for all these formula.  Somewhere in the book (it's not in front of me) I read that he recommended ~11.75% protein for bread flour.  So I mix an AP (Central Milling Organic) with KA Organic Bread Flour at a ratio of 55:45 to get that percentage for all the "white flour" in my breads.  Nothing magic or necessarily smart about it.  Just what I do and I'm no expert or seasoned veteran.  Indeed, I plan to back off the bread flour crutch soon (KAOBF requires an overnight road trip to a Whole Foods to get), as crumb air certainly improves with higher AP.  But developing dough strength has been a continuing challenge for me, and I lean on added protein to help.  Others may/will have much to say on this.




proth5's picture

the folks who know me know I love my toys, but I can be a minimalist when duty calls.

1. The book "Bread, A bakers...."  (long title)by Jeffrey Hamelman (baker and beekeeper).  You will never look back.  In some editions his "Six fold unkneaded French bread" will show you a hand mix technique with no hard work.  But no matter the edition -  it is solid gold.

2. A scale.   You got it right.  People will tell you that you need this to make good bread and volumetric measurements aren't up to snuff.  I'm not 100% in that camp (I'm about 40% in that camp), but a scale makes everything go faster and easier and I'm a big fan of faster.  I have one that does ounces in decimals - which is great because I like ounces/pounds.  But if you are new to this get a scale that weighs in grams and get yourself used to metric.

3. A good metal bench scraper.  You will use it for so many things besides bread that you will wonder why you didn't buy one earlier. 

4. A plastic bowl scraper (I collect free ones from trade shows, but they are extremely inexpensive). Another fabulous kitchen multi tasker.

5. Plastic containers (like Cambros) for dough and your levains.  These are controversial as some folks like to avoid plastic.  I'm not one of those people and I work in a dry climate, so I like that the lids fit tightly.  They also stack easily so if you are doing multiple doughs in a day and are short on space they work like champs.  If you don't have containers like these for fermenting dough (or pre ferements) you can use multiple mixing bowls and covers.

6. A good mixing bowl

7. Some reusable covers for the bowl.  I use the vinyl ones from the Vermont Country Store, some use hotel provided shower caps and I've seen these "Quick Covers" at my favorite mega mart.  Using little pieces of plastic wrap is no fun, is wasteful,  and doesn't work well where I live.

8. Hefty Big Bags. Want to cover a half sheet pan of proofing loaves?  A 4X Big Bag (which is food safe - see earlier remarks about plastic) will do the job easily - just insert pan and close.  They can be re used for years.

9. A length of baker's linen in a width that will fit your proofing surface and a length that will accomodate your planned loaves and even a little extra.  I love those folks, but don't get if from King Arthur flour.  Their baker's linen (couche) prices are a tad extravagent.  Try TMB baking - you may have to call them, but it is well worth the call.  You will want to use it for baguettes, batards, and a wide variety of loaves.  You can use various substitutes (and folks will tell you that this is a big waste of money and that they use all manner of other things), but in the end, if you really develop your skills, you will want this - so get it in the beginning.  If used only for home baking and cared for properly, it will probably outlive you.

10. A blade holder (available from TMB baking) and double edged razor blades.  Again, you will find all kinds of tools for scoring loaves (do not purchase "lames" that have blades that cannot be replaced) but a blade holder is inexpensive - and in the end you will want it. So, again, start with it, learn on it and avoid all the other intermediate purchases.

11. A peel and a transfer peel.  Both can be made inexpensivly and there are many suggestions on these pages.  My peel is celebrating 30+ years of yeoman's work - I'm a great believer in buying things once - so I'm hard pressed to resent whatever amount I spent on it. 

12. A baking stone.

13. Half sheet pans.  You can bake on them, use them to carry around proofing loaves, sit on them and slide down hills (if you are of the proper size) - so many things.  I could not do without a few of them hanging about.

14. A good instant read thermometer - not for judging the doneness of the loaf (I will not advocate that) but to measure temperatures of flour, air, pre ferment, and water to achieve the proper desired dough temperature.  Don't know what that is?

15. Did I mention the Hamelman book?  You will never look back.

To me, this is a good minimal set of equipment  and will serve you well for many years from beginning to advanced bread baking...Hope this helps.'s picture

You're funny Pat.  You trying to scare him off? 

But I'll second the peel, if only because any of the more and less obvious homegrown substitutes can be all too disappointingly revealed as inadequate when, following what was otherwise a perfect preferment, mix, fermentation and shaping, the dough ends up on the floor on hanging between the stone and oven rack wire or the oven door or...everywhere except stone center.  Peels deliver.  Worth every sent.

So buy a peel.  Mine's a $20 wood one but I've often thought a stainless steel (pizza?) type would provide smoother delivery.  I've had the same piece of parchment paper duct-taped (YES!  A use for duct tape in baking!) to my peel for a year, to lower friction (that + semolina).



proth5's picture

only one more than a "baker's dozen" - I wasn't trying to be scary (or funny).

But in my mind's eye I did a baking day and imagined everything that I touched every single time I bake bread.  Some, like my bench scraper and my bowl scraper, feel more like hand extensions than tools.  If you look at it, some of the things are quite inexpensive and commonplace. 

Of course, when individuals list their favorite tools - they usually list different things - this person a peel - this one a scraper.  I love all my tools the same - I couldn't name a favorite.

Geez - I guess that I should not have counted the mixing bowl - or covers - would that be better?  :>)  What I considered was how far one could go with those pieces of equipment.  And one can go from raw beginner to expert baker with no more than what I listed.

Now, pastry - there's a tool intensive hobby...



All at Sea's picture
All at Sea

... was 13 last I knew. That's inflation for ye!

I have some sympathy with Pat, however. I did the same exercise and notched up OVER 15 items used in the course of a normal batch of bread-making. But with the exception of a baking stone, an aluminium DO and some gorgeous dough scrapers (bought from a chandlery, intended use for fairing!) - the rest are all terribly cheap, or free, and very, very easily acquired.

For example, plastic pedal bin-liners (ultra small size) for containing my makeshift bannetons of proofing dough in the fridge. These get used and re-used over and again.

Plastic-covered paper-clips for sealing the rolled-over tops of those pedal bin-liners.

A cheap 2" paint-brush for brushing off excess flour during pre-shaping and shaping.

Parchment and an upturned baking tray for a peel.

Oh - and The Fresh Loaf for relaxation, regular recipe referral and general guidance!

All at Sea

kshaunfield's picture

A gadget-lover's minimalist list indeed! But I do still value the imput. At this rate, I'm saving probably $4 per loaf I bake, so I'm sure my equipment list will be expanding. And I certainly believe in investing in quality, durable tools.

proth5's picture

gave the list some heavy thought.  Things like - "Well - now the bread is mixed and we need to leave it to bulk ferment - it has to be covered with something and what are you going to do?" or "Now we have shaped our loaf and it needs to proof - where will you put it and how will you keep it from drying out?" I've been at this for a long time.  The stuff I have suggested works. And works hard.

When you are ready for a gadget list - I did some consulting work for the company that owns OXO and have nearly every gadget that they made at the time.  Couldn't resist. :>)

Remember - you must READ the "Bread..." book.  Don't just bake the recipes or you will miss the best part.

Happy Baking!


LindyD's picture

Favorite and indispensable tool?  Hamelman's Bread.   Updated new edition scheduled for release November 20.

Followed by a scale, stone, bench knife, instant read thermometer (see Pat's #14), and good quality linen for a couche.  SFBI sells baker's linen online, as well as other high quality baker's tools:    I tried canvas initially and didn't like it.  It's thick, doesn't wick well, and flour crusts on it - but it's great for paint jobs.

Parchment is very handy but don't buy the rolled stuff.   You can probably find 50 full sheets (you can cut them in half) for under $5 at a restaurant supply.

Other tools listed in this thread are very helpful, but since you mentioned a limited budget, if you make only one purchase, start out with Bread.   That will be your lodestar.

ph_kosel's picture

Your description of your loaf ingredients and methods suggests you're either trying to bake something different from my ideal (which is good simple sourdough batards) or using recipe guidance that's inconsistent with it.

I suggest the following:

1. Skip the all purpose flour mixture unless you're shooting for crusty french baguettes.  Try 100% unbleached bread flour instead, or 90% unbleached bread flour and 10% whole wheat.  Skip brushing the loaf with butter too.  Salt, flour and water make awe inspiring sourdough.

2. Instead of spritzing the oven repeatedly, add 1 cup of hot water to a preheated pan on a lower shelf at the start of the bake.

If your oven temperature is accurate you are seriously overcooking those loaves at the 40 minute line I suspect.  25 minutes at 450F should be about right; add up to 5 more minutes if you want more browning.  Check your oven temperature with an oven thermometer and see if it's accurate.

I've read that bread is at it's best an hour after it's baked and that matchs my experience.

Stretch-and-fold manipulations seem to add largish bubbles in the dough in my experience, which is OK if you like that. Kneading a well risen dough fairly agressively before forming loaves seems to have a different effect conducive to good jump rise in the oven and nice chewy texture.  Baking on a freshly oiled baking sheet also seems conducive to good jump rise.

The Finland sourdough culture you mention is good stuff and makes nice bread.  As far as controlling sourness, my experience is that it builds up over time.  Using a lot of very ripe (sour) starter will produce a sourer loaf than using a lesser amount of newly refreshed (less sour) starter.

I run my starter and loaves at the same hydration (67%, i.e. 3 parts flour to 2 parts water by weight).

I hope this helps


kshaunfield's picture

I would not be surprised at all if the temperature was off on my dinky little oven, but my loaves are definitely not overdone. I've tried a cast iron skillet with boiling water in the oven but not since I was having other difficulties with my loaves. I'll give it another shot.

That seems like a really stiff starter! Could that be considered "motherdough"?

Yes, the more I read, the more contrarian Ed Wood's Classic Sourdoughs seems. I will definitely read some Hamelman, Leader and Reinhart for a better grasp on the basics, and beyond.

Thanks for the input!




ph_kosel's picture

It is a stiff starter in comparison to guidance just about everyplace else but I find it keeps well in the fridge and doesn't get nasty or separate.  When I use it I add it to a weighed amount of water and use a dough whisk to break it up and mix it into a lump-free white soup which I then add to my salted dough flour.

My sourdough maintenance procedure is as follows:

I use 3-cup plastic Glad containers for storing starter in the fridge - they're cheap, re-usable, unbreakable, stackable, and have lids that will pop off if necessary to avoid container bursting.  When I refresh starter, I first weigh 150g of flour into a soup bowl.  I use a clean teaspoon to transfer a glob of old starter into that bowl.  I use or discard the remainder of the old starter, rinse out the Glad container with hot water under the tap, shake it dry, and weigh in 100g of cold tap water.  To this I add the dusty glob of old starter from the soup bowl full of flour with my teaspoon and mix it into a lump-free white liquid with the spoon.  Then I dump in the flour from the soup bowl and mix it with the liquid using the spoon, first using circular motions and then spreading and folding the mixture repeatedly to form a smooth dough.  Working with the back of the spoon avoids globs of dry dough stuck in the bowl of the spoon - the spoon can be wiped clean on the final starter dough after mixing.  Finally I scrape down the container walls so I'll be able to check rising, put the top on, and let it sit on the kitchen counter for 24 hours or so after which I stick it in the fridge.  The Glad container is pretty much full when it gets fridged up.

The above procedure works well for me.  I doubt that anybody else does it exactly the same way.

BTW, I notice that several others recommended a linen couche and in that context I call your attention to the "couche chronicals" discussion at

ph_kosel's picture

I use a yard of 18-inch couche fabric from San Francisco Baking Institute, the cheapest and best I've found.

kshaunfield's picture

So, another question: I keep my culture in wide-mouth quart jars and periodically dump (or divide) excess starter as suggested by Ed Wood so as to avoid excess acidity building up which hinders the yeast (according to him). Does anybody else do this?? Or do most of you keep your culture in a large container with a loose-fitting lid?'s picture

I use 8 oz "jelly jars" (small mouth mason lids).  At refresh time for 100% hydration culture (liquid levain), I stir it up then remove all but ~1/4" from bottom (1T, + or -), add 30 ml (gr) H2O, stir well to disperse (w/fork, not dough wisk :-), then add 30 gr flour (I use a mix of AP/ww/spelt/rye), mix well, leave on counter or wherever temp is 75-80˚F.  I never pay attention to the tightness of the lids.  If you don't consciously tighten them, there's enough space for CO2 to escape. 

For my stiff starter, I use same size jar, but 50% water:flour.  Knead until smooth, roll into egg shape (to fit in 8 oz jar), coat w/flour mix, drop into jar, place in fridge for day or two before taking back out to actually grow up (this is a recommendation from San Francisco Baking Institute via David Snyder -- don't know basis of this practice but it works wonderfully).  

These small jelly jar cultures always provide enough starter to inoculate levains (w plenty left over to maintain) for my baking.  If you plan on baking larger batches, then you might want to maintain a higher volume stock -- or do a preliminary build from your small stock of course. 

One temptation to avoid:  Pro bakers refresh their levain stocks multiple times daily.  Not necessary, even daily, for casual once/week home baker.  They remain happy on the fridge door as long as they're not neglected for weeks on end.  Take them out weekly (a few days before planned baking -- Wednesdays for this weekend baker), feed and pamper, and they'll reward consistently.



AnnieT's picture

I use the kind of jars with a latch and rubber gasket, but remove the gasket. I find them at thrift stores and my favorite is ( I think) French and is slightly wider at the top - makes for easier stirring. I keep 1/4c and add the rest to the mixing bowl, then to the saved 1/4c add 1/2c bottled water and enough flour to make a thick paste. After an hour or so on the counter this goes back to the fridge until next baking day. I take it out first thing in the morning then it's ready to use by noon. Every now and again I add a little rye flour to liven the starter up. As to the "toys", I do have a mini Bosch mixer which I use for a deli rye recipe - but my grandgirl Lily uses it more often to make cookies. I also bake on a very thick stone along with the stainless steel magic bowl. My peel is a piece of heavy cardboard, my bowl covers came from a catalog and were very inexpensive. What I really need is a bigger kitchen, or at least more counter space, but for now my very basic tools work well. Well enough to get two blue ribbons and a merit award in the County Fair last month, A.

baybakin's picture

I count myself as a tool minimalist.  I hate uni-taskers in my kitchen, so most of the items has other uses than just bread, my bare minimum list for baking bread is as follows:

- Big bread bowl for mixing.  I do most of my kneeding in-bowl for lean-dough bread, so a big bowl is necessary
- Digital scale.  I use it for many things around the house too (54g of coffee for an 8 cup french press, 2g tea per "tea cup")
- Dough Scrapers.  One metal flat one, one plastic bowl scraper.
- Oven Stone.  I use unglazed terra cotta tile, cost me less than $2 at home depot.
- Bakers cloth for proofing baguettes/batards.  I got untreated thick canvas from the local art supply store.
- Steam apparitus.  I use a big, cheap roasting pan with the 'magic towel' technique.

That's it. the rest of the money goes to a good quality flour and other bread making raw materials.  I think the total for all these parts comes to less than $20, and have lasted me years.

edit: forgot the bakers cloth