Our family has maintained a sourdough start for several decades. It has great flavor, but we use it mostly for pancakes. I've tried making bread with it several times, but never get good results.

This experience has led me to look for some sort of diagnostic procedure for bread. I'm hoping to find some sort of bread trouble-shooter, with common problems and their cause. And, I guess, not just problems, but say I just want more chew, or a flaky crust, the ideal guide would give me some things to try.

Can you recommend a good bread trouble-shooter?

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    "Our family has maintained a sourdough start for several decades" - wow, NICE!
    – rfusca
    Aug 26 '11 at 2:53

I think your 'troubleshooter' and the desire to know what to do to get a different result ('more chew, or a flaky crust,etc) are definitely one in the same. You'll need to understand the basic chemistry of bread (and some critical techniques as well). Baking in general is more (not all) chemistry than normal cooking. If you throw too much of something in, it may not just taste different, but change the entire critical chemical reaction in the oven.

Once that's cemented in your head, then if your bread doesn't rise, you immediately know that its one of a few things. If you want a crisp crust, you'll know what to add. Its the same knowledge.

The best two references that I've read in regards to this are :

  • The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart - Its pretty much a classic now and a must read for anybody wanting to get into baking. Its got great chemistry, technique, and recipes in it.This is the book that made MANY things with bread just 'click' with me. A large chunk of this book deals with sourdough.

  • I'm Just Here for More Food by Alton Brown - Just like on TV, he goes through the why and the how of everything. It's a general baking book - not just for bread, but there's a whole section on dough. I like the techniques and understanding here, but found the recipes to be a bit lackluster. (He's got pancake info here too!)

Additionally, I'd encourage you to ask specific problems in regards to your bread issue on here. There's a wealth of knowledge on the site and absorbing some via here would be a perfectly valid resource.

  • Thanks for the input. I've got The Bread Baker's Apprentice on hold at the public library. If it looks good, I'll definitely buy a copy for reference.
    – erickson
    Sep 3 '11 at 22:46
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    +1 for the bread baker's apprentice. I have AB's book but I don't know I would recommend buying it just for this purpose. Shirley Corriher's book "Cookwise" is also excellent for recipe troubleshooting. Sep 6 '11 at 18:37

I am also wondering what you mean by "never get good results".

Is the taste not what you expect? Or is it the texture and/or crust? Or do you not get enough leavening from the starter itself?

James Beard's Beard on Bread has a recipe for sourdough that uses a starter, a sponge and another packet of yeast when putting the final dough together. If leavening is the issue, this technique may help. (I have had lots of success with this recipe.)

Beard recommends a tablespoon of salt per pound of flour, which is too much for me, but this may help improve the flavor of your bread, if that's the issue.

For chewy texture, try putting a pan of water in the oven - 1 to 2 inches deep - while baking. The steam keeps the loaf from drying out.

There are several ways to treat the bread for different types of crust:

  • Water - spray or brush water on the crust before baking. This doesn't do much for me, personally, especially if I use a steam pan.
  • Butter - brush melted butter on the loaf before baking. You will get a very brown, but dull crust, but lots of flavor.
  • Egg Wash - whisk one egg with one tablespoon water and brush onto the loaf just before baking. This is my favorite method. It gives a shiny, hard crust that is perfect for sourdough.
  • Mostly the texture (too crumbly, not chewy). I will give the steam pan a shot, but I'm wondering if there's something wrong with my kneading or something.
    – erickson
    Sep 7 '11 at 22:00
  • It may also be what's happening in the rise. A long, slow rise will do more for the texture than a short, fast one. The texture will also be affected if you're kneading too much before the bench proof, or not allowing the bench proof to go long enough.
    – shilantra
    Sep 8 '11 at 15:22

For sourdough issues in particular I'd recommend The Cheese Board: Collective Works. It's not a general bread troubleshooting guide, but it does have over 10 pages on starting, maintaining and using a natural sourdough starter.

Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Bread Bible, has a website which has a Q&A section with ideas and advice.

I am wondering what you mean by "never get good results". I realize that you didn't ask directly for troubleshooting help, but I'd be interested to know what recipe(s) you're following and how your bread didn't turn out.

  • 1
    Beranbaum's website is great. Hope you don't mind if I edit the URLs in your post into links.
    – erickson
    Sep 6 '11 at 16:00
  • Feel free. You can fix spelling mistakes too if you like. ;-)
    – FuzzyChef
    Sep 20 '11 at 2:26

A good book that explains the science of baking is BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking Shirley O. Corriher. For many of the recipe varients, she explains how each change in ingredients or procedures affects the finished product. Unfortunately, she doesn't go into that much on dealing with sourdough vs. other leaveners.

As for the specific problems you're having, it likely depends on what you mean by "rarely get good results". I'm guessing that a sourdough for breads may need to be more vigorous than what you'd need for pancakes, so looking at some of the tips specifically for sourdough:

From Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen:

Guidelines for Working with Sourdough

The key to successful baking with sourdough starters is to limit bacterial growth and acidification, and encourage healthy yeast population. In general, this means keeping sourdough starters relatively cool, and "refreshing" them frequently yb adding new flour and water and aerating them vigorously. ...

... starters need to be refreshed frequently, two or three times per day. Adding new water and flour dilutes the accumulated acids and other growth inhibitors, and provides a fresh supply of food. Aerating the starter -- whisking a liquid one, or kneading a doughy one -- supplies the oxygen that yeasts require to build cell membranes for new cells. The more frequently the starter is divided and refreshed, the better the yeasts will be able to grow, and the more leavening power the starter will have.

Of course, this is for a non-refrigerated starter. It mentions 68-78°F / 20-25°C. If you're using a refrigerated starter, you may need to let it warm back up to become active before adding to a starter.

And I also looked through Howard Hillman's The New Kitchen Science: A Guide to Know the Hows and Whys for Fun and Success in the Kitchen, which is close to what you're asking for (more generic than just bread, though), but the only thing I found for sourdough was:

Why is a sourdough bagueatte denser and more acidic than a standard baguette?

The sourdough yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus) multiplies at a significantly slower rate than does common baker's yeast. A more compact and less airy loaf results.

Sourdough bread is more acidic because, unlike baker's yeast, sourdough yeast cannot digest maltose sugar. Bacteria are, however, willing and able to do it -- and a certain type native to San Francisco area does. In the process, a highly acidic byproduct is formed, one that helps give sourdough bread its characteristic flavor.

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