The Fresh Loaf

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My San Francisco Sourdough Quest, Take 6 (and final?)

dmsnyder's picture

My San Francisco Sourdough Quest, Take 6 (and final?)

My series of San Francisco-style sourdough bread bakes has featured several variations of levain elaboration, leaving the final dough ingredients and procedures essentially constant. Today's variation involved using a firm starter to activate the stock starter and building the stiff levain which is mixed in the final dough in three steps, rather than two. In addition, rather than retarding an intermediate build, I retarded the stiff levain.

You may also note that the activation and intermediate builds used a flour mixture of 75% AP and 25% WW flour. Re-reading my class notes from the SFBI Artisan II workshop, I was reminded that this was the feeding mixture recommended by the SFBI instructor. I thought I would give it a try. 

Feeding the starter twice in 24 hours demonstrated a dramatic increase in the leavening power of the starter. The second feeding expanded dramatically faster than the first. And, even though the total fermentation time (not counting the overnight retardation) of the stiff levain was shorter than previous versions, it was very nicely expanded.

I started with my stock refrigerated 50% starter that had been fed last weekend. That feeding consisted of 50 g active starter, 100 g water and 200 g starter feeding mix. My stock starter feeding mix is 70% AP, 20% WW and 10% whole rye flour. 

I activated the starter with a feeding of 20 g stock starter, 25 g water, 37 g of AP and 13 g of WW flour. This was fermented at room temperature for 16 hours. I then built an intermediate starter using 40 g of the activated starter, 50 g of water, 75 g of AP and 25 g of WW flour. This second build was fermented at room temperature for 12 hours. I then mixed the stiff levain.

Stiff levain

Bakers' %

Wt (g)

for 1 kg

Wt (g)

for 2 kg

Bread flour




Medium rye flour








Stiff starter









  1. Dissolve the starter in the water. Add the flour and mix thoroughly until the flour has been completely incorporated and moistened.

  2. Ferment at room temperature for 6 hours, then refrigerate for 14 hours.

  3. Take the levain out of the refrigerator and ferment at 85ºF for 3 hours.

Final dough

Bakers' %

Wt (g)

for 1 kg

Wt (g)

for 2 kg

AP flour




WW Flour












Stiff levain









  1. In a stand mixer, mix the flour and water at low speed until it forms a shaggy mass.

  2. Cover and autolyse for 90 minutes

  3. Add the salt and levain and mix at low speed for 1-2 minutes, then increase the speed to medium (Speed 2 in a KitchenAid) and mix to get early window paning. (This took about 10 minutes.) Add flour and water as needed. The dough should be rather slack. It should clean the sides of the bowl but not the bottom.

  4. Transfer to a lightly floured board and do a stretch and fold and form a ball.

  5. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover tightly.

  6. Ferment at 76º F for 3 1/2 to 4 hours with a stretch and fold at 50 and 100 minutes.

  7. Divide the dough as desired. (Note: I had made 2 kg of dough which I divided into 1 1 kg piece and two 500 g pieces.)

  8. Pre-shape as rounds and rest, covered, for 10 minutes.

  9. Shape as boules or bâtards and place in bannetons. Place bannetons in plastic bags.

  10. Proof at room temperature (68-70º F) for 2-3 hours.

  11. Cold retard the loaves overnight (12-14 hours).

  12. The next morning, proof the loaves at 85º F for 3 hours. (If you can't create a moist, 85 degree F environment, at least try to create one warmer than “room temperature.”)

  13. 45-60 minutes before baking, pre-heat the oven to 480º F with a baking stone and steaming apparatus in place.

  14. Transfer the loaves to a peel. Score the loaves as desired, turn down the oven to 460º F, steam the oven, and transfer the loaves to the baking stone.*

  15. After 15 minutes, remove the steaming apparatus, and turn down the oven to 435º F/Convection. (If you don't have a convection oven, leave the temperature at 460º F.)*

  16. Bake for another 15 minutes.*

  17. Turn off the oven, and leave the loaves on the stone, with the oven door ajar, for another 15 minutes.

  18. Transfer the loaves to a cooling rack, and cool thoroughly before slicing.

*Note: I baked the two smaller boules first – 15 minutes at 460ºF with steam, then 15 minutes at 435ºF convection bake. I then baked the 1 kg boule after reheating the oven for 25 minutes – 15 minutes at 450ºF, then another 25 minutes at 430ºF.


San Francisco-style Sourdough, large boule

San Francisco-style Sourdough, large boule crumb

San Francisco-style Sourdough, small boule

San Francisco-style Sourdough, small boule crust close-up

San Francisco-style Sourdough, small boule crumb

San Francisco-style Sourdough, small boule crumb close-up

The appearance of the loaves was like those previously baked, as were the crust and crumb structure. However, the flavor had a prominent sourdough tang. This bread was quite similar to the bake I blogged on March 19, 2012 (See: My San Francisco Sourdough Quest, Take 4)

This is the crunchy crust, chewy crumb, moderately sour loaf I was after … at least it's close. I cannot say it replicates the “Wharf Bread” from Parisian Bakery I ate in San Francisco years ago. It has a less sweet, more whole grain flavor. The crust is thicker and crunchier. The crumb structure is more open. But it's a keeper. This is the one I'll be making from now on ... or until I can't resist tweaking it further.

I think it would go great with Dungeness crab!


Submitted to YeastSpotting


dmsnyder's picture

I'm glad you enjoyed it.


sandydog's picture


The title, above, says most of it - Although you wouldn't think so after you get to the stuff below.

Some would debate that retardation is actually part of the final proofing -So it is not that short if you accept that point of view - Which I do.

I make a lot (For a home baker) of Hamelman's (predominantly) white wheat (12.4% protein) sourdough breads and always get really good expansion/oven spring - These loaves were just the same, I could not wish for better - Always a little flat going into the oven (Which incidently I can not get above 250C - I FEEL ANOTHER QUESTION COMING ON FOR YOU IN A MINUTE !) but stood to attention at about the 8-10 minute mark. The big batard was particularly attractive (My wife said, and I presume she was referring to my loaf) and the boule was not a dissappointment either. If I can get one of my newphews to show me how I will put some photos up to show you but be assured they were pretty much identical with other photos on this thread (Nice blistering from a gas oven)  

When I did version 4 it was the case that I never got to retard the dough in the brotformen as it was patently ready to bake after 2 hours - Almost spilling over (The 1 Kg brotformen) I wished to see how retardation affected the taste and texture etc, which is why I went straight to fridge after final shaping into brotformen. Retardation was for 12 hours and the baskets were up to the top the next morning and I think I could have baked them immediately from the fridge (Hamelman certainly sees this as a viable option) but I had to wait an hour while my oven came up to temp (See below for next question. The finished loaves were well worth the effort.

Oven temperatures - My oven never gets above 250C, as it happens that is your recommended starting temp for baking these loaves - So far so good. I do not, ever, have to turn my oven down and wonder if others experience what I am about to outline here? I always leave my thermometer in the oven (Old chef habits die hard) so I know what is going on and I find that after quickly loading a big loaf and steaming the oven (I am pretty slick at this by now) the temperature goes down to just about 190/200C and takes another 20-25 minutes to get back up to 230C, at which point I usually turn the loaf upside down on the stone to brown off/harden the bottom for 10 minutes before turning the right way up again to finish. My total bake time is approximately 50 minutes for the 1Kg loaves.

I read lots of recipes which recommend turning the oven temp down at various points and I want to know if I am the only person who's domestic (Well known, good quality - Stoves) oven acts like this. I have baked commercially in big powerful ovens which recover heat very quickly and certainly do require adjustment (Incidently I have found in the past that commercial ovens do not always do what they say either, and need calibratng/chef's knowledge to ensure quality product comes out unscathed) but doubt that domestic ovens require the same attention for the reasons stated above.

Sorry for this long winded text but I can't believe I am the only person who's oven acts like this.

What do you think?   Do you monitor actual temperatures as opposed to what it says on the dial/digital display.

Thanks again for the bread - I would not wish the above to obscure my gratitude - I will be making it again very soon.

Kind regards from the North of England,





dmsnyder's picture

I have no experience with gas ovens. From the problems others have reported after switching to them, it sounds like you have yours exceptionally well controlled. Hmmm ... Actually, your oven has you exceptionally well controlled! Whatever. You and your oven have an accommodation.

I haven't checked my oven temperature for years, but the thermostat and the digital readout seem very accurate. It takes about 15-20 minutes to heat to 500 dF with the baking stone in place. It also recovers quickly after being opened, although I try to minimize this. It also heats very evenly. It is a bit hotter in back than front, judging by crust coloration, at least, although the heat source is in the back when the oven is on "convection bake."

Also, it seems you get a lot of loaf expansion in the fridge - more than I do. I need to check the temperature in mine. Could you do the same? That's one variable that, if substantially different, could account in part for differences in out-of-fridge proofing times.


bnom's picture

as one of "the others" David references who is struggling with the switch to gas oven, I would appreciate hearing Brian's steaming routine. 

David - I appreciate your comments on proofing times -- I've been so consumed with adjusting steaming techniques to achieve ears in the new oven that I hadn't thought to underproof. 



sandydog's picture

Thanks, for forcing me to consider the variables which may affect my/your bakes - It is one of the things I like about this forum and which is often a prime motivator for me to amend my methods.

I have a baking "Buddy" near me who has an electric oven which gives him a much more even bake than my gas oven.                                         I know this because he has a spiral mixer which can mix up to 4Kg of dough and we often make a large batch of dough, then split it and bake in our respective ovens. It does not seem to matter which of us is in charge of the bake in our respective homes, so I have accepted that equipment (As well as skill/technique) does clearly make a difference.  

My oven, like yours, is a bit hotter in back than front, judging by crust coloration. When I flip my loaves (Which of course does not help heat retention) I also rotate them in an attempt (Usually successful) to even out the bake. The other thing which doesn't help temperature retention is that I have to steam the oven twice to delay (And then get) a decent crust formation, because gas ovens vent more than electric so don't retain steam for very long

I have a double oven - The larger one has the baking stone in it, on which I start the bake at high temperature. Because I commonly bake several loaves in one session I have started using the smaller oven (At 180C/350F) to finish off loaves once they attain the colour I want - This allows me to make better use of the bigger oven at the higher temp with the stone in and drastically reduces overall session baking time, as well as drying the loaves out a bit more without them over browning (I guess this is an alternative to your instruction No 17. "Turn off the oven, and leave the loaves on the stone, with the oven door ajar, for another 15 minutes")  This results in them keeping a firmer crust (Which I like) whereas they used to come out of the oven crisp and then soften drastically as moisture came out. Of course not everyone likes a crusty crust. Can't win em all eh!

Ah yes, fridge temperatures, I almost forgot.                                                                                                                                                                        I  have just checked mine - The one in my kitchen is running at 5C/41F and the one, with the beer in it, in my utility/garage, is running at 2C/35. I have now adjusted it to run at the same temp as the other one as the beer is too cold.  The last loaves I told you about were in separate fridges at different temperatures and it did not seem to make any difference to how they proofed/baked (Hamelman would expect that to be the case as far as the baking went) but I can't tell you if they taste any different yet because I have only cut into one of them - If I find the second one tastes different I will let you know, otherwise please assume there is no difference.   

Thanks again for taking the time try to help me. 


dmsnyder's picture

Oh, well. So much for fridge temperature. The fridge I retard loaves in runs at about 41 dF.

Have you tried Sylvia's oven steaming technique with hot and wet towels? I think it has worked well for some with gas ovens.

Another suggestion for a minor tweak: In commercial bakeries with steam injection ovens, some bakers - including Hamelman, if I remember correctly - pre-steam the oven. That is, they inject steam just before loading the oven. Then they steam again just after loading. After trying to do this several ways, I've taken to putting my perforated pie tin with ice cubes on a skillet with lava rocks in the oven just before loading the loaves (which are already on the peel, scored). I think this makes for a little improvement in my oven spring and crust texture. With the ice cubes, there is a few seconds of lag time before steam is generated. If you pour boiling water on your rocks before loading, you would risk a steam burn, unless you wear oven gauntlets when loading. Anyway, give it a thought.


sandydog's picture

Not claiming it's right or perfect - This is what I do, and it works for me.

I have a roasting tray, full of stones off my local beach, on the rack under my baking stone in the oven. When I am ready to put the loaf in the oven I bring a kettle of water to the boil, slash the loaf and spray it lightly with a mist of warm water (To assist with retardation of crust formation) before sliding it off the peel onto the baking stone, swiftly followed by pouring boiling water out of the kettle onto the hot stones in the roasting tray. It is a lot quicker to do than it is to write it down here - The oven door is open for no more than 8-10 seconds. After 2 minutes I introduce more boiling water onto the stones which by now are completely dry - This takes about 5 seconds - No wonder my oven gets cold but I can't see a better option for getting decent oven spring as well as a lovely final crust.

There are slight differences in total baking times according to what kind of loaves I am baking, but generally 400/500g loaves take 25-30 minutes and the 800g/1kg loaves take 40-50 minutes - High hydration loaves can take a few minutes more..

How does that sound to you? Do you do something similar?



fancy4baking's picture

Hi David,

Could you please tell me what's the hydration of the stiff starter that you initially used in building your levain?!!



dmsnyder's picture



sandydog's picture

Thanks for the reminder David,

I have not tried Sylvia's oven steaming technique with hot, wet towels but I remember reading that thread some time ago. I have read it again today and I am interested enough to try it next time I bake - Might do some baguettes tomorrow. I will let you know how I get on.        

I believe others have tried adapting Sylvia's method by putting the hot wet towels, and a little extra boiling water, on top of their heated stones in a roasting dish and I will try that also as it should give lots of immediate steam as well as the long duration (10 minutes or so) steam which is difficult - nay impossible - for me using my current method/oven. It should also be better on two other counts for me.

1. I only have to open the oven once to steam and put the loaves in which will help heat retention, and

2. No pouring boiling water into a tray beneath my baking stone - Often tricky -I will put the towel tray in the top rack of the oven. 

Always excited and looking forward to trying new (To me) techniques - particularly from reliable sources.

Re commercial bakeries with steam injection ovens, pre-steaming the oven just before loading the oven, then steaming again just after loading. I have done this myself in a proper baker's deck, hearth oven and it works just fine, but you have proper internal steaming equipment in that type of oven which, as you undoubtedly know from your training courses, means you do not have to open the oven door to steam - You also probably have a damper arrangement to release steam from such ovens, once the loaves have coloured up, again without opening the oven door.                     

I have also noted the ice cube method but discounted it on the grounds of the poor heat retention in my oven.

I accept that if you pour boiling water on your rocks before loading, you risk a steam burn - I use a simple "Chef's" heat proof cloth for this kind of operation, but am not advocating this for everyone - NB. I have years of experience working in commercial kitchens where you don't have time to faff about putting gauntlets on and off, as you are doing several other jobs at the same time - As well as the ridicule from "Chef"

Of course - Like every smart A** - I occasionally burn myself, about once every 6 months or so - Suffering for my craft!



breadforfun's picture

Brian -

My bakes have improved dramatically since I started using Sylvia's wet towel technique.  It's a great way to go.  I use an electric oven, no experience with gas.



bnom's picture

Steaming towels worked great in my electric. They have so far not worked in my gas.  I used them for a couple of bakes and the loaves came out very pale, which is possibly the result of oversteaming.  Indeed, when I introduced less steam I had no problem with crust color. The system I've been using lately is very much like yours Brian -- I will be interested to see what results you have from your towel experiments.

Anyway, I don't want to hijack David's post, so will point you to a thread I started after my disappointing results using  old techniques in my new oven.  On that thread I've tried to log my various experiments.



sandydog's picture

Hi, and thanks Barbara,                                                         Thanks to Brad also for confirmation that towels work for him.

I have " read your thread" - It seems pretty obvious that many others will have been down the same route as you and I. 

I have come to the conclusion that whilst it is possible to give general, and generic, advice to fellow bakers - And a lot of the books on bread making do - It is impossible to cover all eventualities, there is no "One size fits all" solution to our quest for great bread.

Certainly the difference between gas and electric ovens (Apples and pears spring to mind) is so great that once you have baked in both (As you have) you come to realise the futility of expecting them to react in similar fashion to any particular technique you/I attempt.

I am going to try Sylvia's towel technique, but will not beat myself up if it doesn't work for me as I am getting pretty good results with the method that you and I already use, and will be "Happy to quit while I am ahead".  



Ps. Hereunder, the ramblings of a madman - Optional reading for those without a nervous disposition, or a short attention span. 

For the purpose of this thread I had originally restricted my comment to baking at home, in a domestic oven, but I do have experience of baking with commercial ovens in reasonable (But not threatening the National bakeries) quantities of up to 300 (Hand formed) loaves per shift (Me and one other baker) I have used multi tray convection electric rack ovens both with and without steaming facilities, deck ovens both gas and electric, some with a hearth stone some without, again some with steam some without. They all baked differently - Even in the same oven, some decks bake different to others - Surprise,surprise.

The point being that I have just, after all this time and experience, become alarmed at my own stupidity in thinking there was one solution.

I am a great fan of Jeffrey Hamelman but I often overlook, or forget, his advice (Usually to my detriment). I was rereading his "Bread" book today as I was thinking about our discussions on steaming and it reminded me that his experience of baking professionally on a daily basis for over 30 years revealed that, and he spells it out on line 1, page 1 "It's really quite simple to make a loaf of bread" thereafter he elaborates on the many, constantly changing, interrelated factors upon which the manufacture of great bread depends and which we all struggle with.

It's a wonder we do as well as we do - All things considered, when it seems that no two days are ever quite the same.

Hamelman has quite a bit to say on the subject of steaming ovens -

See pages 26, 27, 88, 89 and 100. I have the 2004 edition. Well worth a look if you have not got it already.

The real point he makes, insofar as it relates to our discussions on this forum, is that in a domestic situation we are fighting a rearguard action in a battle to duplicate the results of professional equipment that costs many thousands of £'s/$, and that we need to establish what works for each of us in our own environment.

On TFL, we live in different countries, with different climates and humidity levels at any given time of year, we bake loaves of varying shapes and sizes with different ingredients/flours, of varying specification, from various different suppliers in several different types and sizes of oven. We make straight dough, dough with several different kinds of preferments of differing strengths and maturity, as well as sourdoughs of varying flours utilised in different % of total dough. We put our shaped dough onto silicone/greaseproof/baking paper or a tray or in a casserole pot, or into a banneton or brotform and then it goes into a warm(Sometimes cold) environment for a bit before going into a red hot box.                          

We should have no real reasonable expectation that all the above (And much more) will respond to just one perfect method?

But it's fun trying isn't it?


dmsnyder's picture

The most remarkable thing is that, even without the fancy professional ovens, mixers, loaders, sheeters, dividers, retarders, etc., we can make bread at home that's way better than what we can buy in the grocery or even at most bakeries. And "getting there is half the fun."