Labour of Love’: Task(s) done for pleasure, not reward.

I’ve been feeling intimidated by some of the breads I’ve yet to make (in order to add to my list), but this week I felt particularly compelled to tackle one of the more complicated ones. San Francisco Sourdough. If you happen to read this blog because you like bread especially, and you don’t own a copy of Peter Reinhart’s Crust and Crumb, you should go find one. If you read the reviews online it’ll show you this is more of a baker’s sidekick than a do-it-at-home Martha Stewart style cookbook, but if you’re truly interested in the making of quality breads get your hands on a copy. It reads more like a textbook than a cookbook, and using baker’s formulas/percentages it helps you understand the ratio of the ingredients and how/why things turn out the way they do. A proper understanding of these methods and ratios; and you’re on your way to ‘making world class bread’, as he puts it!

Peter, you had me at ‘Hello’.

Even more interesting is the history of bread itself: read Wikipedia’s article here. I’m fascinated by all things ancient, especially when it comes to food and daily lifestyle. We lived a certain way for so many thousands of years, and in the past 200 or less; we’ve morphed dramatically in our eating habits, due obviously to technological advances in our modern world. Humans have been colonizing the earth for at least 70,000 years, and the earliest found settlement of humans to date is in Ethiopia. Fossils of our ancestors there, date back even further to nearly 5.9 million years ago. What did they eat? Do you ever wonder that? I do.

It sure as hell wasn’t kitchen-made sourdough or foie gras on brioche, that I know for sure.

Fun Bread Facts:

-The first loaf of pre-sliced bread was sold in 1928.

-Pre-sliced bread was banned in the United States, for 3 months in 1943.

-In Western Europe during Medieval times bread loaves were named after the classes of people who consumed them. Knight’s loaves, common loaves, Pope’s loaves, etc.

Lactobacillus is the bacteria that gives sourdough it’s sour taste, and before the 1800’s they didn’t know how to produce yeast without this bacteria. So all breads before the 19th century were in fact: sourdoughs. 

-St. Anthony’s Fire was a disease that killed tens of thousands of Europeans in the 11th century, known today as Ergotism. This disease was caused by consuming rye bread that had been infected with a particular fungus which turns the grain black. One report from the year 857 says: “a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.” Also that “victims suffered from hallucinations, insanity, vomiting, and gangrene of the hands and feet due to constriction of blood flow to the extremities. Those afflicted felt as if they were being burned at the stake as their fingers and toes split open and dropped off, one by one.” A late medieval chronicler wrote of an “invisible fire that separated the flesh from the bones and consumed it.” Credit:, a fascinating blurb about bread in the Middle Ages. 

-In the 13th century in England, a bread law known as the Assize of Bread and Ale was laid in order to ensure that even the poor could afford at least some amount of food for survival. The law stated that at least a small portion of bread be sold for as little as one penny. This was the first ever regulation of any food or drink in England’s history. These laws stayed in effect throughout the country for 500 years after, though it was eventually decided that bread would be sold by the pound (1822). 

It’s amazing how we’ve evolved. It may not date back to 5.9 million years ago such as our early-human ancestors, but the 30,000 years of history in bread is enough to keep you googling for at least a little while. The first breads to be made and eaten by humans around the globe were unleavened ones such as our modern day chapati, naan, matzoh, tortilla, lavash, and pita. The earliest record of sourdough bread was only 3,500 years ago, and it was made by the Egyptians (that is not where I expected it to originate). It may not have been then what it is in today’s bakeries, but either way it’s a marvel of nature to me. I had to make some.

Bread without the addition of yeast.


Making a bread without adding yeast is a fascinating thing, but I’m warning you- this is a project. To replicate this loaf I’m posting you need 8 days from start to finish.

Step 1) Make a barm (5 days). Step 2) Turn barm into a firm starter (24 hours). Step 3) Create dough and form loaves (24 hours). Step 4) Prepare and bake. Is it work the 8 days work? Yes, I believe so. But make a decent sized batch and freeze a couple of loaves, so you don’t have the sinking feeling of having just spent an entire week making bread only to watch it disappear in 30 minutes with your dinner! Seriously. Also take a piece of your dough starter (I will remind you later, in the recipe itself) and freeze it for later use. Saving your original starter and using it each time you make sourdough will increase the lovely flavours over time. Some families/businesses claim to have starter from generations passed. These are the best tasting loaves of bread. They’ve ‘been around the block’ more than a few times.

Special tools/equipment required: deck oven or pizza stone for best results, water spray bottle for spritzing loaves, sharp blade for scoring the bread before baking.


Day 1: Barm.

Soak 1 cup raisins in 2 cups warm water for 20 mins. Strain, measure 1 cup of liquid (without raisins) and discard remaining.

1 cup    whole wheat flour
1 tsp     honey
1 cup    raisin water

-Whisk together, leave at room temp overnight.

Day 2: Barm.      

3/4 cup water, slightly above room temp
1 tsp     honey
1 cup    bread flour

-Whisk into previous mixture, leave at room temp overnight.

Day 3: Barm.

1+1/2 cups  water, slightly above room temp
2 cups         bread flour

-Whisk into previous mixture, leave at room temp overnight.

Day 4: Barm.

Discard 1/2 the barm (or pass it on to someone else who wants to make sourdough!).

1+1/2 cups  water, slightly above room temp
2 cups         bread flour

-Whisk into previous mixture, and leave at room temp overnight.

Day 5: Barm.

3 cups        water, slightly warmer than room temp
4 cups        bread flour

-Whisk into previous mixture, leave at room temp overnight.

Day 6: Make firm starter from barm.

2 cups      barm (freeze the rest!)
2 cups      bread flour

-Knead in a mixer on medium speed with a dough hook for about 5-6 mins, or by hand 6-10 minutes. Dough will be tacky and stick to your hands slightly, but will not stick to the sides of the bowl while being ‘hooked’. You may have to add a few drops of room temp water to help the dough/firm starter come together.

-Rest the dough, lightly sprayed with cooking oil and covered with plastic wrap, about 4-6 hours at room temp until the dough almost doubles in size. Refrigerate overnight.

Day 7: Make bread dough from firm starter.

-Take firm starter from fridge, leave at room temp for one hour. Weigh 25 ounces/1.5 pounds, cut into 6 pieces, place in mixer bowl with hook.

6 cups       bread flour
1TB           salt
1+1/4 tsp   sugar
2 cups       room temp water

-Add above ingredients to your mixing bowl with the firm starter pieces in it, and knead with dough hook 6-8 mins, or by hand 12-15 mins.

-Place the smooth, elastic dough in an oiled bowl, spray it with oil, cover it in plastic wrap, and allow to rise at room temperature 4-6 hours or until 1+1/2 times it’s previous size.

-Divide the dough into 4 equal portions, and shape into boules as shown in this video. After shaping the boules, place them on parchment paper that’s been sprinkled with cornmeal, on the back side of a baking sheet (so you can slide them off the baking sheet, and onto the pizza stone tomorrow). Lightly spray the boules again, cover with plastic wrap on their tray, let rise at room temperature again 3-4 hours or until 1+1/2 times it’s previous size.

-Refrigerate overnight.

Day 8: BAKE IT!

-Pull your dough out of the fridge for at least 1+1/2 hours before baking. Preheat oven to 475F with pizza stone inside (if not using proper industrial deck oven).

-Score the tops of your loaves as desired (or google yourself some fun designs!), and place in the hot oven on the stone immediately. They are very temperamental and fragile, and will begin deflating on you. Work quickly. They will rise up again in the hot oven and from the steam you’ll add, so don’t fret.

-Spritz the loaves and the walls of your oven very generously (or use steam function of an industrial oven) and shut the door straight away. Wait 2 minutes, then repeat this step.

-Reduce oven temperature to 450F. Loaves will need about 30 minutes to bake, so be sure to turn them half way through baking to get even colouring.

-When loaves are dark golden and sound hollow when you tap them with your finger: turn off the oven and set a timer for an additional 7-10 minutes, leaving the loaves inside.

-Place on a wire rack to cool for 50-60 minutes before cutting, in order for the internal structure of the bread’s crumb to set.


So that’s all for today folks. I’ve not posted lately as often as I used to, but this particular one was a massive labour of love, truly. So I hope you’ve enjoyed it, come away from it with some interesting oddball facts, and are least a little bit inspired to try this loaf for yourself!

Until next time, Ciao for now!



Posted by:Ashley

12 replies on “San Francisco Sourdough

  1. Yum! We’re tending our first starter at the moment, doing it a little differently to your method but it’s bubbling away happily so hopefully it will work as well as yours has!

  2. I’m wondering why presliced bread was banned in the US for three months. I need to Google and find out why. Very interesting fun facts about bread!!

    Eight days from start to finish… now that is a challenge!! It looks like a lovely bread.. I’m totally impressed.. 🙂

    1. I’ve included links in those little factoids so you can read up on it! Click the green words ‘banned in the United States’ !

      Thanks for the compliment, hope you’ve enjoyed!

  3. I just started a rye starter yesterday but the method is different and longer than the one you posted about. I can’t wait to see what results I get (hopefully not St Anthony’s Fire 🙂 ) Also I just looked for Peter Reinhart’s book and Amazon have it on kindle so I will be adding that to my cookbook collection – thanks for the tip. I really like your blog, great content and brilliant photos.

    1. Too kind! Thank you for the comments and let me know how your starter works out for you! Glad I could help you out with that book, it’s worth the bit of studying it requires!

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