The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Fantastic sourdough in just under two months..?

amyv's picture

Fantastic sourdough in just under two months..?

Hello bakers!

My name is Amy and I am new to the boards.  I am a mostly self-taught pastry cook, but I've also worked in an artisan bakery as a pastry assistant.  I've been off work for almost 2 years because I had a baby last May.  I no longer live in the city where I worked before, and where I live currently there are no artisan bakeries (just a LOT of really large, commercial bakeries). 

I was trying to decide what to do about a job, and finally decided that I would like to go into business for myself rather than work for a production line bakery.  I'm applying for a youth business loan but in order to qualify I had to come up with a viable business plan.  I knew that realistically, there simply would not be sufficient demand for specialty pastry items in the relatively small city I live in.  Thus, I think it's basically essential that I make artisan bread the "bread and butter" of my business and pastries just a "sweet addition" (har har har).   

The problem? Until two weekends ago, I'd never even once raised a starter and made sourdough from scratch.  Sure I'd seen it done a million times when I worked at the bakery... but that really gives me only a minor advantage over someone who'd never even touched a bag of flour.  :) 

According to the timeline in the business plan I submitted to the funding program, I am to start soliciting local retailers and restaurants to use or sell my products as early as mid-October, with hopes to go into production by the end of that month!

So, I just wanted to introduce myself and say "hi" because I'm probably going to be lurking around these boards quite a bit trying to learn from others' experiences and hopefully pick up some tricks and tips.  I still have a LOT to learn, and am not even 100% confident that it can be done.  What do you think?  Heheh.  But I am going to dry my darndest, anyway.

If anyone has any knowledge or experience they'd like to impart, I'm all ears!  Below I've added some thoughts & pics of my first ever spelt sourdough loaves.

Thanks in advance, 


My first loaves:

I've got 2 starters going right now, and the first is a rye-based starter recipe from King Arthur Flour cookbook, but rather than using white wheat flour I've been using spelt flour in it. 

Pictured below is my first ever spelt sourdough (just came out of the oven a few hours ago).  I have already noticed a few problems with it, some of which I think I can account for and others not so much.  First, the bottom of one loaf is burnt, but I know that this is because I am using a painfully small oven right now with a horrid temperature guage and total inability to maintain an even temperature--and even though I have an internal thermometer, the oven gauge is so totally off it's like my oven is 500 degrees one minute so I turn it down a tad and the next thing I know it's 550!  Sigh.  Anyways, the other problem is my baking stone won't fit in it, so I am going to borrow my sisters' and see if it will fit until I get my good ovens.  (Hence the burnt bottom). 

Spelt Sourdough #1: My first sourdoughSpelt Sourdough #1: My first sourdough

Second, taste-wise, I didn't find the bread quite as flavourful as I had hoped for a rye-based starter.  I'm going to try proofing longer next time, maybe overnight in the fridge turned right down to be around 60 degrees.  Does that sound OK?

Spelt Sourdough Image #2Spelt Sourdough Image #2

Third, it was a little denser than I might have wanted--and I think this was because I kept adding flour because a) it seems that you need to use a tad more spelt flour than all-purpose in recipes and b) I didn't realize that sourdough dough was supposed to be fairly wet and tacky.  I was blaming it on the spelt.  

Fourth, my shaping and scoring abilities (not to mention photography skills) leave much to be desired.  Hopefully diligently learning from YouTube videos and practice will help.

Spelt Sourdough Image #3Spelt Sourdough Image #3

Finally, the burnt bubbles on the top of the loaves--what's up with that?

Again, thanks in advance!

Kuret's picture

Hm, I think the sloppy feeling of spelt is the way it should feel. A hint when working with spelt is that you must use less water, and this is always preffered to adding more flour as this messes less with the bakers percentage. Also, do not try to knead your dough as much as your previous bakery kneaded their french bread doughs etc. you will end up destroying the fragile spelt gluten.

 Also another tip Ive heard is to add a pinch of diastatic malt. 

ClimbHi's picture

I'm just a beginner, but I'm amazed at how much flavor will develop if you allow at least part of you dough to rest overnight in the fridge, at normal fridge temps. Night & Day different!

Get a hold of some of Peter Reinhart's books -- he goes into great detail on the whys and wherefores of this method. It's the "real deal."

Oh, and good luck on your new endeavor!

Pittsburgh, PA

GrapevineTXoldaccount's picture

Amy, I have no doubt that with your love of baking and hard work you will succeed.  As ClimbHi points out, Peter Reinhart's books are EXCELLENT.  Also, this website is absolutely THE BEST for offering insight.  Read and consume the bakers blogs here on TFL.  You will find that this is your, ONE STOP SHOP, for all things, bread related.  Some of our friends have their own websites too.  By all means, VISIT THOSE TOO!


Many successes to you.  I applaud you for following your dream. 

amyv's picture

So I am taking some of the advice I got, and planning on sticking to a few recipes over and over and over until I get them right.  There is a levain recipe in the King Arthur Flour cookbook which looked easy enough, but I think I messed up in a few places so could use some advice.

First, when I was mixing the dough in my mixer (I have a circa 1960 12 qt. Hobart), it seemed really sticky and wasn't forming a ball at all.  I realized that I had accidentally left out about 5 oz. of flour because the recipe called for 1lb. 5 oz. all purpose, and I missed the 5 oz.  So, I added it, but it still seemed really wet and sticky though it was beginning to form a ball.  In total, I mixed it for about 8 minutes on the third (of three) speeds and it did not seem to be getting any less sticky so I stopped the mixer, took the temp (80.4) and scraped it into a bowl to ferment for an hour (as per the recipe). 

 When I took it out to fold it, it was still very wet and sticky and somewhat challenging to fold. Having read that sourdough dough is best if it is somewhat sticky, I was determined to get it right without adding flour, and after folding it a second time, it did seem a bit tighter as the recipe suggested it should be.  I returned it to the bowl for its second rest, another hour.  

After an hour, I scraped it onto the counter to divide and shape it.  Being very inexperienced, I had a really hard time with this because, again, it was still very wet and sticky.  Is it still supposed to be wet and sticky at this point?  But after a few tries, I managed to get them into the bowls to proof with reasonable success.  

Here is where I might have really messed up--I left the house and forgot about the doughs, and by the time I got back (after they had been sitting about 5 hours covered at room temp.) they were very wet, stringy and had no shape at all when I tried to slide them onto the baking sheet.  While it would seem that this was the first place I strayed from the recipe (it said to proof for 2 hours at room temp), I can't help but wonder if the recipe was already doomed from its very wet and sticky beginning.  

Has anyone experienced this?   Any thoughts on what might've went wrong?  I ended up mixing in more flour, reshaping, and baking but it didn't turn out.  It's totally flat.  

I'm going to try to same recipe again tomorrow.  Any thoughts appreciated. Thanks!

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Harry Nillson sang that on "Nillson, Schmillson" (if memory serves) and it was a song about, among other things, the meaninglessness of words. And therein lies the difficulty of the current discussion.


What to you is sticky, unmanageably sticky, might be just fine for other members of this group. It's a question of point of view, ones frame of reference, and ones experience. It's like "too crusty" or wanting "a good crust". Words fail us when we describe how something should feel. I've never felt dough that felt like a baby's bottom. And I've felt a few baby bottoms and lots of dough.


Similarly, there is an implied belief in your note that dough should feel like this that there should be one way dough should feel. And that varies all over the place depending on the bread or baked good being made. Muffaletta bread, ciabatta and focaccia are almost batters, where bagels and pizza dough are usually so dense you think you're making bricks. So, there isn't one answer. The answer depends on the bread you're making. And experience.


In computer culture, it's said experience is directly proportional to the amount of equipment ruined. It applies here. How many loaves have you made that not even your dogs or the birds would eat? Don't feel bad, even if the answer is two or three digits.  see, it's not ruined bread or wasted time and ingredients, it's experience!


Many times the best answer is a hands-on class where you can feel dough, make bread and feel what things should feel like. A look at Google might help you find classes near you. Look for baking classes, culinary schools and so on.


And now, with qualifications aside, I'll try to answer your questions.

Most doughs would rather be a bit too wet than a bit too dry. Most beginners tend to make their dough too dry. The first time I baked, I kneaded flour into the dough for 45 minutes looking for a smooth, satiny, and DRY dough. I gave up and baked some nice bricks. When I go on auto-pilot, I still tend to add too much flour.


In this area, I have two sets of suggestions. One is to weigh your ingredients rather than using cups. When cups are used, they can be very inconsistent, and that leads to inconsistent dough. In a news group the members with scales weighed a cup of flour and the range was from less than 100 to more than 200 grams. Worse, cups varied as much as 25% from cup to cup. The light cups were from people who sifted their flour twice, spooned it into the cup, and then leveled the cup. The heavy cups were from people who scooped flour out of the sack and then didn't level the cup. The correct answer here is to sift the flour once, spoon it into a cup, and then scrape off the excess to level the cup. You should be within 10% or so of 120 grams for most flours, which is what the flour companies think a cup should weigh.


If I tell you to use 4 cups of flour, you have no idea what I mean, unless I tell you how I fill my cups. And I have no idea what you will measure, unless you tell me how you fill your cups. 4 cups - is that 400 grams or 800? Or the 480 that the flour companies think it should be. If I tell you 500 grams of flour, I can be pretty sure you'll be very close to what I had intended.


Weighing eliminates the variable and gets you closer to the dough the person who gave you the recipe intended.


If you can't, or won't, weigh then you should try to find out how the person who gave you the recipe fills cups. Most cookbooks will tell you. Most web sites will not.


Many recipes tell you a range of flour, such as 4 to 6 cups. Others will just say "5 cups". If you are measuring with cups, start with the low end of a range, or at 1/2 to 2/3 of the fixed amount of flour. Mix by hand, adding flour sparingly, grudgingly, as needed. At some point most doughs will be too hard to mix by hand. At that point, turn them out of the bowl and start kneading by hand. Again, the goal is not to add flour. So pretend you're Ebenezzer Scrooge and flour is as expensive as Saffron.


How long to mix? I mix until the ingredients come together, then I start kneading. I usually knead about 5 minutes, let the dough sit for 5 minutes, and then knead for another 5 minutes. This works for most doughs, whether they are mixed by machine or hand. I use a light and quick touch. If you are slow and heavy, dough sticks more. It has more time to stick. Your goal is usually a dough that is still fairly soft, a bit wet, and tacky rather than sticky. Too dry is not a good thing.


I suggest beginners make bread by hand. It's not hard and it gives you a tactile understanding of how dough develops. As dough develops, it starts out looking like a ragged lumpy mess, then it smooths out and looks like the ads in the back of ladies magazines about the evils of cellulite, then it will smooth out further.


While you can overdevelop dough in a mixer, it is all but impossible to do that by hand.


When the dough is developed, you can cover it. Some breads call for two rises, some for just one. If you are making a bread with just one rise, let the dough rest for 15 to 30 minutes, then form the loaves and let them rise. This rest allows the dough to relax so it will be easier to shape.


Again, I suggest beginners make bread by hand. It's not hard and it gives you a tactile understanding of how dough develops, I have a few web pages I'll suggest.


For information about kneading, you might look at


If you are a beginning baker as well as a sourdough starter, I suggest you master the art of baking - or at least get comfortable with it. Yeast makes very good bread and it is much more consistent in the hands of beginners than sourdough. All you learn in yeast baking will transfer to sourdough baking. And when something goes wrong you'll have a better idea if it is your baking skills or your sourdough skills that might have let you down... of if it was just one of those things.


For an introduction to baking, I suggest


After that, you might look at my fast track to sourdough at


(Yeah, these are my web pages. Maybe I shouldn't recommend them, but I have gotten lots of positive feedback about the pages I am refering you to.)


Good luck,


Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

I've been down this road, and for some time owned a small bakery.


Business plans are the most carefully crafted and seductive works of fiction known to humankind.


Some suggestions... or SWAT questions that I hope you've already considered.... we lost over $250,000 starting a bakery, and I hate to see anyone else start out half cocked like we did.  (Or, I'm not trying to dissuade you or shoot down your dream, I just want to make sure you've smelled the coffee)

You, I, and many people here love sourdough.  However, this is far from a universal love.  Don't tie your financial success to this one technology.  Yes, sourdough is not just one bread "San Francisco Sourdough Bread." Yes, you CAN make any bread with sourdough.  Yes, allmost all breads before the mid to late 1800's were made with sourdough.  Yes, in some breads you can't even taste the sourdough.  And yes, sourdough is a healthier bread than yeasted bread, even if you can't taste it.  BUT a large portion of your potential customers will walk away when you use the word "sourdough" without even trying your bread.


Wedding and other special events cakes are the biggest money makers for almost any bakery that makes them.  You may be wise to focus on that market.  It's easy to sell to, and very profitable.  Many bakeries thrive by ONLY addressing that market.  And in some areas, you can legally sell products baked in your home.  So... you could work out of your home (in some areas) and legally make money doing it.  I know someone who makes all her cakes from mixes and still sells lots of wedding cakes.  (And I don't know HOW she makes all her cakes so dry!)


You say there are no artisan bakeries in your area.  Were there?  If so, what happened to them, and why do you think you can do better then them financially?  What other sources are there for the sorts of breads and other goods you are considering making in your area?  What reasons are there for someone to stop doing business with those other businesses and start doing business with you?


Again, I am not trying to discourage you.... just to make sure you've answered some questions I hadn't.


A final suggestion, you might conisider joiuning the Bread Baker's Guild of America and their mailing list.  There are more professional bakers there, and they are very happy to share their expertise.  Look at



amyv's picture

Wow, Mike, thanks so much for taking so much time to go through my questions.  To answer some that were in the first post--I do use a scale rather than measuring cups.  I worked at a large bakery and I am a pretty talented baker when it comes to sweets and pastries, my have improved even since working at the bakery, but for some reason I am having trouble applying that to bread making.  (Mind you I have just started).  When I am making a cake from a recipe I've never used, I somehow intuitively know if I need to add more liquid than called for, how much, what kind, etc., but I haven't figured that out with bread, yet.  While I realize its going to take time to learn how it should look/feel/etc., since I am working on a timeline, that's why I am seeking out some second opinions...

I'm not in the least worried about being able to sell the products that I plan to make if I can make them.  I am starting out really small and it is going to be a home-based business, I'm going to convert a room in our house into a second kitchen, I've already talked to the local zoning and health departments about it... the most I am going to invest the first year is about $7,500 according to my calculations so it's not a huge chunk of change even if things don't work out. I am going to sell the stuff through some small, local organic retailers and cafés (hopefully), so I won't have a retail space or huge overhead... but I do want to start going to these places with product samples in a couple months, and while I am not the least concerned about the cookies, biscottis, and other pastries I am going to try to sell ... I just don't know if I can learn bread by then.  The reason I am doing sourdough is that I am planning to sell organic products in organic stores, and health-conscious consumers, I think, tend to gravitate towards things called "natural" etc., (Plus I like it, and have worked in a "sourdough" bakery before but they didn't call it that just "naturally leavened" [I think that's key]).  

In any case, I am doing the levain recipe again today.  I am using a different flour and it is a lot drier. I will go back to the first flour and do it again tomorrow... practice, practice, practice, right?  I guess I was just hoping someone could give me an idea of whether I was on the right track to try to work with it while really sticky, or if people thought maybe I had too much water/not enough flour.  Also wondered what I described about it going very soft and stringy was a result of overproofing..?  

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Amyv commented:

In any case, I am doing the levain recipe again today.  I am using a different flour and it is a lot drier. I will go back to the first flour and do it again tomorrow... practice, practice, practice, right?  I guess I was just hoping someone could give me an idea of whether I was on the right track to try to work with it while really sticky, or if people thought maybe I had too much water/not enough flour.  Also wondered what I described about it going very soft and stringy was a result of overproofing..?  

Practice is good.  Also, don't be a afraid to use bread flour.  Overall I find all-purpose gives better flavor, but bread flour handles better.  There are exceptions.  GM's Harvest King and All-Trumps come to mind.  Also, GM has an organic division, Sperry, that puts out some very nice flours.


When you deal with small mills, you are dealing with more product variability than with larger mills.  Smaller mills often make a better product when they're hot.  So.... what's better, consistently very good or excellent one week and not good the next?   Customers have little patience these days.


My experience with health food store customers is they want heavy bread that is under baked and tastes somewhat stale.  At least, that's what consistently sells.  They are looking for "healthy bread" not good bread.  Your mileage may vary.


Anyway, the last part is something I hadn't noticed the first time around, your dough getting soft and stringy.  When we talk about our starters, beginners talk about their yeast.  More experienced bakers talk about the yeast and bacteria, but they usually act as though their starter has one yeast and one bacteria in it.  No, wild starters have a mix of critters in them, with one strain of yeast and one strain of bacteria being dominant.  If conditions don't change, the dominant strains won't change. 

However, if a starter is abused, especially if it isn't fed enough, the conditions in the starter change.  When a starter is fed regularly, yeast that feed on starches and bacteria that feed on starches and dead yeast have an advantage.  However, if you don't feed the starter often enough the bacteria that can make proteolytic enzymes that can digest protein have an advantage and take over the culture.


These critters can make it almost impossible to make a loaf.  The starter this happens to tends to have an acetone smell (cheap fingernail polish remover).  Sadly, these starters can not be rehabilitated.  I've tried.  I've fed them very frequently, got them acting fine, missed two feedings and the bad critters had taken over again.  If you have the acetone smell, I suggest starting over and making a new starter.  Or buying one.  I talk about this a lot at


How often should you feed a starter?  I find that a starter at room temperature should be fed no less than twice a day, and each feeding should be enough to double the starter in size.  A recurring discussion in the BBGA mailing list is how to feed a room temperature starter once a day.  And each person who tries this goes back to two feedings a day.  One feeding a day at room temperature leads to troubles.


In ways I hope my comments are off the mark - dealing with starters with proteolytic enyme producing bacteria is no fun.





KosherBaker's picture

Hi Amy.

Wow lots co cover here. First I'd like to tell you that all of us here on TFL have studied Mike's blog extensively so I'll happily second his recommendation of visiting his blog.

Second on the flavor of your bread from a young starter, I wanted to tell you that when my starter was young it too produced a bread that was very very mild in flavor (read bland) and the bread was also quite pale out of the oven. Over time this improves.

Third, most folks here recommend doing the final proofing of really really wet doughs on the parchment paper. And then put them that way right into the oven.

Fourth I'm hugely excited for you, and envious of you, for following my dream, I mean your dream. :) And starting an artisinal bakery. And if I were in your situation I would try to put my best foot forward, especially at the start. If pastries are your specialty, I would sell those first. This will allow you to concentrate and refine a specific area of your business, while developing and testing the Bread baking aspect of it. Once your product speaks for you, and your pastries are the top dog around it will be a lot easier to cross sell bread to those same places. It will also be easier to sell bread to new places once you have a customer base. And that customer base might be easier to obtain if you are baking something you can produce "in your sleep". :)

Best of Luck to you and if I may lots of Blessings.