The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

What sets outstanding sourdough apart from mine?

NotBadBread's picture

What sets outstanding sourdough apart from mine?

I'm know the answer could fill a book! If anyone has experience working in a great SD bakery, or has heard tell of techniques that such bakeries use to produce truly exceptional bread, I'd love to know.

I have been making pretty good SD loaves for about a year now. I'll include a couple of photos from some recent bakes, because that's fun... but I'm definitely not fishing for compliments with this post! I know my bread is pretty good; I don't feel embarrassed to charge for it when random friends-of-friends enquire. It's just not in the same league as truly great SD bread. 

The comparison I'm making here is to the bread from Winner bakery in Brooklyn (of recent NYTimes fame). I haven't made an exhaustive study, but it's hard for me to imagine a better loaf of sourdough bread. On day 1, the crust is somehow both thick and crispy, and gives just the right amount of chew. They bake it out really dark; sometimes it's a bit too charred, but I admire the courage! When it's just right, it's a whole new level of flavor/texture. The crumb is just incredibly moist; on day 2 and 3, it seems to (somehow) take on an even more luscious texture. You sort of can't stop eating it. It's like slightly extensible cake, except instead of being sweet, it's got this deeply nutty, toasted, and almost earthy flavor; truly spectacular. 

The below is Winner's "traditional" sourdough. I realize that EVERY aspect of SD baking is done with more skill in the Winner loaf than in mine. What I am asking is, if you had to pick a few things to work on, what would those things be? My #1 theory is that the Winner formulation must be very different than mine (90% bread flour, 10% WW), since the flavor is just... lightyears more complex. I'd love to know ideas about what those formula differences might be! But if I'm underestimating something else that's actually hugely determinant of flavor (proofing? Oven? Shaping? BF temps / cold retard temps?), by all means, let me know!

Thanks in advance for any & all replies.



Recent home bake #1 - Made these test loaves to look at two different starters. Darker crumb was made with 100% whole rye starter, lighter crumb is 50% WW 50% bread flour starter.


Recent home bake #2 -- Something was not quite right with this loaf, as you can see in the crumb, but still pretty good. 


Winner "traditional" sourdough:

idaveindy's picture

My opinion:

Bread making is a complex system of many factors and variables.  Everything has to work together.  It's all inter-linked.

You can attempt someone's pre-establshed system, like Hamelman's, Forkish's, Reinhart's, Robertson's, Teresa Greenway's, etc. But you  can't exactly duplicate every little thing they use or do: flour, water, starter culture, ambient temp and humidity, fridge/cooler, oven, etc.

So you have to tweak and adjust and compensate, by tons of experimentation and testing.  And that takes time, effort, anal-retentive documentation and control.

We often don't realize how some of our default ingredients or procedures work against our goals. So we have to not be "married" to something and be willing to change things up.

Maybe better taste could come from using more whole grains, or lower protein white flour, or adding bread spices. 

It took me a while to realize I was over-fermenting my home milled grain.  Others were using 20% levain, but I had to go down to 7% !   I also had to learn that "no knead" systems don't work all that well with 80%+ whole grain formulas.  Very high  percent whole grains need a mixer, or kneading, or slap and fold to develop gluten.

So, you've been at it about a year?   I got here in Sept 2019.  And I think I'm still a "duffer."  Still learning,  not even at "journeyman" level yet.

Welcome to the club.

NotBadBread's picture

What are "bread spices?"

That's an interesting note about 80%+ whole grain formulas. Do any of those illustrious bread bakers you mentioned use 80%+ whole grain for their "traditional" or "basic" SD formulas? I was under the impression that it's fairly unusual to use that high a % of whole grain.


idaveindy's picture

caraway, coriander, fennel, sesame, etc. Well, sesame is more a seed than a spice, but it adds flavor.

They can be toasted/roasted or raw, crushed into bits, ground to powder, or whole, mixed into the dough, or applied to the surface, in any of those combinations.

"Do any of those illustrious bread bakers you mentioned use 80%+ whole grain for their "traditional" or "basic" SD formulas?"

Yes, I see high % whole grain recipies in almost all their books. Some books even focus on high % whole grain. 

Now, just because the 80% whole grain formula is not given first in the book as the "master formula" does not mean it isn't basic or traditional.  

In Laurel Robertson's Bread Cookbook, every recipe is 100% whole grain. So to her and her audience, 100% is basic.

But, generally, the major bread authors offer "mostly" low or no % whole-grain formulas, because that is what most people want. They have to cater to the audience.

 BTW, "traditional" and "basic" are pretty much meaningless terms in the US. Traditions change, so it all depends on what point in history you are looking at.

Refined flour breads are, historically speaking, a "modern" affectation and invention. The milling companies push/emphasize refined flour due to it's longer shelf life than whole grain flour.  That has worked well with the masses' desire for light, fluffy, cloud like bread. One fed into the other, a vicious cycle, so now most of the North American and UK populations prefer white bread.

Though France does currently have a legal definition for "traditional baguette."


But all that's incidental, or side talk.

My main point is that there are no _individual_ "things" or tips to make great bread as opposed to good bread.  Great bread comes from an integrated "all things working together" __system__ of things (ingredients + procedures).

For instance, in Poilane's system, even the type of salt matters.

The "system" approach is illustrated by the many diferent ways TFL users do the various steps of bread making, mixer versus hand kneading versus no-knead versus slap-and-fold, short bulk vs long bulk, various temps, 7% levain vs 25% levain, store bought vs home milled, stone bake vs dutch oven, versus thin steel roaster.

So for every recommendation of an individual ingredient or percentage  or procedure or temperature, or piece of equipment, or oven, know this: it only works best in the overall system that was designed for it or with it.

You can't just plug in someone else's magic ingredient or procedure into your system and not expect knock-on effects. It might be just the thing you need, but maybe not.

albacore's picture

A professional artisan baker might be baking 50-100 loaves every day (maybe lots more); I bake 2 a week. The pro is bound to be much more adept at all aspects of breadmaking - judging mixing, bulk, shaping, scoring and so on with an expert eye. Then add in a deck oven with proper steam injection.

We amateurs dabble and often make great bread, but I think that repetition and routine (of baking a relatively small number of bread types) is the key to a consistent high quality product.



Briancoat's picture

It took me about 250 loaves over 5 years to get something I am content with. 

I’d have got to where I am faster by following the complicated recipe or advice of an expert but I feel I would not have learned as much and I’d still be spending hours of work on that fancy recipe (my total “touch time” from neglected-starter-to-sourdough-loaf is down to 40 mins over the course of 36 hours).


alfanso's picture

For anyone who knows my bakes on TFL, they also know my mantra of "practice, practice, practice".  I spent at least a year doing just about nothing but baguettes.  Except for the odd person who just "gets it" there's no substitute for paying attention and putting the work in.

phaz's picture

Lol, I see people practicing things all the time. And they do think it helps, but i watch and go, why are they doing that, it's all wrong. Practice is essential, but ya gotta practice the right things to get any good at something. Simple logic! Enjoy!