Cat’s Sourdough Learnings (How not to get a too-sour bread)

Sourdough Crock

by Catherine Haug

(all photos by C. Haug)

NOTE: see also my newer post: Feeding Sourdough Starter for more tips.

Ever since I brought my starter home (from our Gathering on Sourdough) and transferred it to its special crock (a gift from Ronny; see photo, right), I’ve been experimenting with whole grain bread.

Because I have problems with wheat, I started with a mix of whole grain flours: spelt, oat, barley and dark rye. But my bread was too sour for my taste. Ronny suggested I stick with wheat until I get it down. So, except for one tasting slice, I gave my subsequent loaves away to friends who can eat wheat.

See below for my photo essay.

Cat's First Sourdough Loaf


When I first brought my starter home, I added 1/2 cup flour (spelt, oat, barley, rye mix) and 1/2 cup water to make more starter. Over the next few days, it made about 1 Tbsp hooch on top.

Each time before starting the bread, I fed the starter 1 Tbsp flour and 1 Tbsp water at least twice the day (or so) before.

My first loaf (mixed grain) rose 24 hours for the first rise because I got interrupted. I was worried it would not rise after forming into a loaf, but it did! It also rose more in the oven, making a crack along one side of the top. A beautiful loaf, but way too sour for my taste.

At Ronny’s suggestion I switched to wheat, at least until I get a loaf I like.

My second loaf (all wheat) had a 9-hour first rise and 4 hour second rise. No oven spring, and was as sour as the first loaf. I decided to pour off the hooch, thinking it might be affecting the sourness.

The third loaf (all wheat) was a comedy of errors. I’d read on that to make it less sour, you use more starter, so I tried using twice as much starter (1/2 cup). It behaved beautifully when mixing it up, with perfect hydration.

But when it didn’t rise at all after 7 hours, I moved it to a warmer spot; it rose after another 5 hours (total 12-hour first rise). But it was my bedtime, so I punched it down, formed the loaf in the pan, covered it with damp towel and set it in a cool spot to rise overnight.

When I got up 8 hours later, it had risen and drooped over the sides of the pan and onto the counter! So I gathered it up and knocked it around a bit and formed the loaf again. After a 3 hour morning rise, it went into the oven. Lots of oven spring again, with a crack on the side of the top. And it was just as sour as the others, but then after a total of almost 24-hours rising time, it should be sour!!

My fourth batch (all wheat) had much better success. I used twice as much starter (same as 3rd batch), and got better rise response. And it was not as sour! See below for details.

Cat’s successful whole wheat sourdough bread

My loaf pan is smaller than the standard size, so I had to modify my ingredients from Ronny’s original recipe. I used:

  • 1/2 cup starter (extra for less sour flavor)
  • about 1 cup non-chlorinated water, divided portions
  • 2 tsp unrefined sea salt (I used Real Salt)
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour (I used Wheat Montana Prairie Gold hard white wheat)
  • 1 tsp Organic unbleached white flour for shaping the loaf

I fed my starter the night before (1 Tbsp flour, 1 Tbsp water). [NOTE: I’ve since learned a different feeding technique that you start 2 days before baking day. It makes the starter more lively and strong, for the task of leavening. See Feeding Sourdough Starter for details.]

I added the salt and 3/4 cup of the water to the starter in my mixing bowl and stirred a bit to dissolve the salt. Then I added half of the flour and stirred vigorously until the gluten began to form an elastic mix.

I added 2 Tbsp more water and the rest of the flour and worked this with my hands, kneading in the bowl. It was quite dry and hard to mix, so I let it rest about 5 minutes, giving the flour a chance to absorb the moisture (whole grain absorbs moisture more slowly than white flour).

Then I resumed kneading, adding another Tbsp water. The hydration seemed good, so I formed the dough into a ball, rinsed out the bowl and set the ball of dough back in the bowl. It picked up the water left in the bowl after rinsing, so I worked it a bit more. Total water between 7/8 and 1 cup.

See photo, below, for un-risen dough in bowl.

Beginning First Rise

I covered the bowl with a damp cloth and a plate, and let it rise in a warm spot. After 9 hours it had doubled in bulk:

After First Rise

I punched it down and shaped it into a loaf on a lightly floured board (I used 1 Tbsp unbleached white flour), by flattening it into a rectangle then rolling and pinching it closed.

Shaping the Loaf

I let it rest a bit while I buttered my loaf pan, then set it in the pan for the second rise. I remembered that it helps to cut a slit along the top of the loaf so it doesn’t crack in the oven, but I forgot that you do that AFTER it rises. So here it is, not yet risen, with it’s slit.

Formed Loaf in Pan

After an almost 3-hour second rise, it had again doubled in bulk – the center of the top had risen about 1/4″ above the top of the baking pan. I cut another slit in the top, since the first slit was mostly lost. I also sprinkled a bit of water on top of the loaf, then put it in my preheated 400° F oven to bake.

Baking in Oven

The back and left sides of my oven are hotter than the front and right sides, so after 15 minutes, I rotated the loaf 180° and then another 90° after another 15 minutes. It reached an internal temperature of 190° F after 50 minutes in the oven (It would probably have been done in 45 minutes, but the oven cooled a bit each time I opened the door to turn the loaf). I removed it to a rack to cool.

Cooling on Rack

Total flour used: 3 cups + 1 tsp; total water: just shy of 1 cup. Total rise time: 11 hrs, 50 minutes; total baking time: 50 minutes. Texture: dense but not heavy; taste: DELICIOUS! and barely sour. Hooray! I wish you could taste it from this post, but alas, technology hasn’t figured out how to insert a sniffer mechanism….

Keys to less-sour bread

  • Use more starter (I doubled from 1/4 cup in the original recipe to 1/2 cup for batch #4);
  • A cool rise is less sour than a warm rise because cool promotes formation of lactic acid; warm promotes formation of acetic acid. Lactic acid is sweeter and less sour than acetic acid.
  • Keep total rise time to under 12 hours.

Note that I had to set my rising dough in a warmish spot (about 68 degrees) to get it to rise at all. But on the earlier batch #3, I’d set it on top of my stove when the oven was on, so it was at least 72 degrees around the bowl, and that, along with the fact it rose 3 times, led to the way-too-sour flavor.

It is hard to balance a cool rise and a shorter rise time – tricky business.

What’s next?

Since I am avoiding wheat, I’ll convert to all whole-grain spelt. This will be a challenge because spelt needs much less water than wheat, so I’ll add only 1/2 cup with the first addition, and then add 1 Tbsp at a time until it feels right.

I’d also like to try a spelt & rye combo (Bohemian Rye, using spelt instead of wheat).

And I think I’ll try a quick bread. I have some bananas that are getting ripe…

Related ESP articles on Sourdough

Sourdough info and recipes


10 Responses to “Cat’s Sourdough Learnings (How not to get a too-sour bread)”

  1. Veronica H says:

    I sure would like to know if rye starter actually has less phytates than wheat starter. As far as we know the phytates are zapped in the fermentation process.

    The only real answer to our questions will lie in someone we know marrying a chemist and we then can have all of this stuff tested in the lab. Up until then it is a lot of conjecture.

    OK, here is the Craigslist ad:
    Wanted: Chemist for short term marriage. Must have own lab, be very tolerant of old ladies wanting answers for obscure question. Three year commitment will be sufficient.

  2. Veronica H says:

    [Regarding which grain to try next:]

    There are so many variables [that affect the making up of the bread, and the baked result; my preference is] to use my senses rather than a struck formula [or recipe] in order to get it right. Some possibilities:
    -the humidity (info from a pro baker)
    -the barometric temp
    -when the flour was ground
    -the exact flour grind
    -what field the grain came out of
    -what yeasts are in the air on the day of baking (info from a professional baker)
    -bacteria and other contaminants in the grain
    -water composition
    -verve of the starter on that particular day
    -how old is the grain (the grain we buy can be years old)
    and the list goes on!!!!!!!

    So once again it come to balance. The science and the intuition. A fun dance. But since I cannot control all of the variables I need to be very tuned in energetically to get things right.

    [NOTE: comment edited by Cat from one of Ronny’s emails in our discussion about my sourdough experimentation.]

  3. linda christensen says:

    i have to say that my sourdough bread is really sour too, but i have been bragging about that as i just love that real sour taste. i am just so thrilled to have gotten what i call real sourdough for the first time. i am so grateful to Veronica for a scoop of her starter. my dad used to bring home sourdough bread from san francisco when i was a kid. i recall that i loved it more than anyone else in my family. i am now also addicted to the sourdough pancakes, using Kathie’s recipe, but cutting it in half except for the egg (my chickens lay small eggs anyway), plus i add hucks… thank you all for this great change in my life.. cat, i can’t wait to try your version of bread to see the difference.

  4. Catherine says:

    Thanks, Linda, for your great comment. I hope others will post their results with sourdough bread too!

    I’m not sure whether I was clear on what exactly I did to have it be less sour, so I updated the post to clarify (see new section Keys to less-sour bread):

    1. Double the amount of starter;
    2. A cool rise is less sour than a warm rise because cool promotes formation of lactic acid; warm promotes formation of acetic acid. Lactic acid is sweeter and less sour than acetic acid.
    3. Keep total rise time to under 12 hours.

  5. Patricia says:

    Okay, so I read somewhere that you can add 1 tsp of baking soda to “sweeten” sourdough. I did that last night and it works. My question, tho’, is does the soda impact the lacto-fermentation benefits. My husband has Type 2 diabetes and I love the sourdough because it’s the best for him. However, my starter tends to run a little too sour for his taste, but I don’t want to lose the benefits of the sourdough by adding the soda. Anyone know? I have googled and googled and can’t seem to find this out. Thanks.

  6. Catherine says:

    Excellent question Patricia.

    If you are making sourdough leavened bread (the sourdough is the ‘yeast’), adding baking soda will likely not reduce the benefits provided by sourdough with the following clarification: you do not want to add the baking soda until after the first rise. This is because the yeast needs the acidic environment to do its work and if you neutralize the acid with baking soda, it will weaken the yeast.

    When you make quickbreads (banana bread, muffins, pancakes, etc), the sourdough does not have time to act upon the grain to produce much of the benefits, but instead is used to acidify the dough so that the baking soda will produce CO2. However, it’s possible the microbes in sourdough continue to live after the batter has been cooked; if this is indeed true, then you would still get some of the benefits of sourdough. My take is that it is better to use sourdough than not in quickbreads, but you don’t get as much benefit as you do with sourdough-leavened bread.

    The better way to get the benefits with quickbreads is to pre-soak (ferment) your flour overnight before finishing the batter. I’ve written 2 examples of this for the ESP site, one on ‘Sourdough’ Pie Crust and one on ‘Sourdough’ Oatmeal Porridge. Sally Fallon has a lot of examples of this technique in her Nourishing Traditions cookbook – that’s where I learned how to do it.

    Let me know if this opens more questions for you.

  7. Ronny says:

    I am an old traditional purist and just could never add the NAHCO3 [Sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda] in my bread. Taste buds develope and most folks get to love the “sour”. Sorry, Cat, but you must be an incurable pansy. But….we do love you.

    You can also just save a short teaspoon of starter and add mostly flour each time you feed your starter. That will make it a bit less sour.

    I know most of you want the least sourness, but I think the longer overnight rising makes a better texture.

    Let the fun continue, the experiments inspire, and most of all we stay happy and healthy.

  8. K Fabian says:

    I absolutely love your sourdough starter CROCK!
    Do you have any idea where it was purchased, or where
    I could inquire about it further? Thanks!

  9. Catherine says:

    One of our presenters for the sourdough panel made and gave me the crock. I love it too, and so does my Mom.

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