For the past few months the Bewitching Kitchen witnessed my silent struggles with bread baking.  Re-phrasing that, for the past few months the Bewitching Kitchen witnessed a full-fledged bread baking debacle!   Yes,  a few floured banettons flew across the Bewitching Kitchen.   Yes, the lives of several loaves quickly came to a violent end as crouton-material on the chopping board.  Yes, Phil received text messages stating that I would never ever EVER bake sourdough again, and I needed him back home so I could cry on his shoulder.  I was miserable, confused and frustrated, feelings  I normally associate with golf, not bread baking.  Life can be cruel.

The deterioration in my baking happened slowly.  A slightly less plump loaf here, a tighter-than-expected crumb there.   Then, suddenly, no matter what I did my boules became pancakes.   Flat, … they were flat!.  No oven spring to speak of, and scoring the surface was like make-up at the undertaker’s,  … it made no difference in the loaf.  The crumb below was actually one of my better “pancake-loaves.”  Most had a much tighter crumb, leaving me too upset and disgusted to even bother taking a picture.


At a  loss,  I posted a message to Dan Lepard’s Appreciation Facebook page, and David W. came to the rescue.  Much like a therapist holding the hand of a patient, he listened to my saga and concluded that the problem related to storing my starter in the fridge.  Slowly, the complex microbial population in the starter had changed, leaving me with a less than ideal mixture to start bread with.  Several people advised me to discard the sourdough and start all over again, but I didn’t want to consider that route.  I’m too attached to Dan, the starter I captured and kept for four  and a half beautiful years.  That explains why I threw a massive fit at Phil when he insisted that a starter “is just flour and water“.  Can you imagine hearing THAT?  I know, it goes beyond insensitive.   But David provided the light at the end of the tunnel, with a  “revival protocol” for my starter.  Guess what happened on my first loaf?

boule1White Levain Sourdough Bread, a classic recipe from Dan Lepard’s Handmade Loaf


(from David, at Dan Lepard’s Appreciation Facebook page)

For 7-10 days, discard all but a small spoonful of the starter, and feed the starter by adding 70g organic rye flour + 100 g water.  Keep it out in the kitchen, not in the fridge.

After the 7-10 days, reverse the refreshment proportions to form a dough:  175g organic rye flour + 125 g water.   After 12 hours, bake with as much as you need, by either adjusting your bread recipe to compensate for the thicker starter, or refreshing it again at the hydration level called for in the recipe.  Freeze small portions of the thick starter for future use.

You can keep your dough-consistency starter at room temperature, refreshing it weekly, or thaw one of those small portions a couple of days before baking, refreshing it daily (always at room temperature).


I was so excited about getting back my “sourdough mojo”, that the following day I baked another loaf, a recipe adapted from Tartine.


blacksesamecrumbCan you look at this crumb and not shed a tear or two of pure joy?


(adapted from Chad Robertson Tartine)

For the starter:
50g  spelt flour
50g white flour
100g/ml water at 78-80F
1 Tbs active sourdough starter

For the dough:
375g/ml water at approximately 80F (divided in 350g + 25g)
100 g starter (you won’t use the full amount made)
440g white flour (good quality all-purpose is fine)
60g spelt flour
10g salt
1/3 cup black sesame seeds

In a large bowl, mix 350g of warm water with the starter (100g of it), and mix to dissolve. Add both types of flour, mix until all flour is mixed with water, without large dry bits present.  Let the dough rest for 25 to 40 minutes.

Add the salt and the rest of the water (25g), and incorporate by pressing the dough with your fingers. Fold the dough a few times, until if forms a homogeneous mass, but don’t try to knead it.  Leave it in the bowl, folding it again a few times – no need to remove it from the bowl – every 30 minutes, for the first two hours (you will be making 4 series of folds during this period).  Add the sesame seeds to the dough on your first folding, after all the water and salt has been incorporated.  After the last folding cycle, let the dough rest undisturbed for another full hour, for a total of 3 hours of “bulk fermentation.”

Remove the dough from the bowl and shape it gently as a ball, trying to create some surface tension (for a tutorial, click here).  Let it rest for 20 minutes, then do a final shaping, by folding the dough on itself and rotating it.  If you have a banneton, rub it with rice flour, line it with a soft cloth sprinkled with rice flour, and place the dough inside it with the seam-side up. If you don’t have a banneton, any round container – like a colander – will do. Let it rise for 3 to 4 hours at room temperature.  Twenty minutes before baking time, heat the oven to 450F.

Cut a piece of parchment paper that will completely cover a pie baking dish and place it on top of the banneton containing the bread dough.   Carefully invert the banneton  over the parchment paper, using the pie plate to support the dough.  The cloth will probably be sticking to the dough, so carefully peel it off.  Score the bread, and place the pie pan over baking tiles in the pre-heated oven.

Bake for about 45 minutes, covered during the first 20 minutes, remove the cover for the final 25 minutes.

Let the loaf cool completely on a rack before slicing.


to print the recipe, click here

Comments: I’ve been working with bacteria for 30 years, and one of the things we know too well is not to store it in the fridge.  Some strains of E.coli develop a capsule, a heavy coating of polysaccharides once exposed to cold temperatures, and they become pretty tricky to work with, particularly if you study what we do: their outer membrane proteins.  We tell the students all the time to avoid keeping their plates in the fridge, if a strain is worth preserving it should be immediately frozen at – 70 C.  So, it was ironic that I never thought twice about keeping my sourdough starter in the fridge for years and years, without making a “backup” stock in the freezer.  Never again.

I hope that if you bake with sourdough, this post will help you out in case of problems.  Make a few balls of very thick sourdough starter and store it in the freezer. Label that bag, by the way… you don’t want to look at it months from now and decide it’s some unknown creature that got into your freezer when no one was paying attention.  And then proceed to toss it in the garbage!   😉

I am submitting this post to Susan’s Yeastspotting

ONE  YEAR AGO: Headed to Hawaii

TWO YEARS AGO: A yummy Brazilian cake: Bolo de Fuba’

THREE YEARS AGO:  Hidden Treasure

FOUR YEARS AGO: Avocado Three Ways

55 thoughts on “SOURDOUGH BLUES

  1. thanks for this — I’ve been baking sourdough for about a year and a half now, and black sesame bread is gorgeous, so I’d like to try it. The weather really makes a difference in how “pretty” my loaves are. They always taste good, but if it’s too cold, the yeast gets unhappy.


  2. Yaay, she’s back! It may be an ambient temperature issue – over here, if I leave the starter on the bench, it’s too sour to use within a few days. We’ve been keeping ours in the fridge for seven years now, and when it gets sluggish, I do as you did and toss most of it and start feeding it afresh with small regular feeds. And for some reason, my starter won’t freeze, the three or four times I’ve tried, it’s just turned up its heels and died! It works well if I dehydrate it as back-up though!


  3. The loaves look beautiful. Glad to hear you didn’t give up! Breads can be very challenging. My husband who makes all of our bread had a terrible bread day recently…nothing worked. Ups and downs are a part of cooking and baking!


  4. Will be trying that black sesame loaf. I am a Dan fan and have learned alot from the Tartine book too, but have heaps to learn and practise.


    • Tartine is an excellent book to study the basics – real nice, clear explanation. I am very partial to Dan Lepard’s Handmade Loaf, though, probably because it was the book that got me into sourdough baking. Plus, his recipes always work. The guy is amazing…


  5. Oh my goodness Sally! What a lovely story of redemption! My heart was breaking with you…and then to see the end result? Joy! This looks just lovely. I’m so glad they were able to revive your starter!


    • To me, breakfast is perfect if it involves just a slice of this bread and a little butter. With a touch of salt. But to be 100% honest, I usually have just a little bit of yogurt and call it a day 😉


  6. Yes I have been there before, unfortunately your post come a little too late :(. Back then I was too unresourceful about it. Luckily, I have friend that I gave some my wild yeast 5 yrs ago, so I asked to give to share hers. She gave me a 1/4 cup of it, and I start to feed it. Funny enough, now she said that hers is dying. So, she I’ll be giving her a portion as soon as she back from her vacation.

    What a bliss to know that you and your wild yeast finally revive :). But still, Phil need to go home soon, so that he can see how cheerful your face is right now :).


  7. make-up at the undertaker’s??? You crack me up!!!! That is one beautiful bread. It makes me want to get back into sourdough. My husband quit eating bread and so I do very little bread baking any more…..


    • It is hard to justify baking bread if it will be only for you, but maybe you can “share the love” with friends or co-workers or neighbors? If you enjoy the baking process, I’d say sourdough is so much fun! (well, when it works, let’s make it clear, when it works)


  8. Dan Jr. is still behaving but he is getting pretty old so the sourdough spa treatment begins today. I just started a rye bread (commercial yeast) for bacon and tomato sandwiches for dinner tomorrow. I opened a new 500g bag of organic rye flour and noticed the use by date is next month. Destiny.

    Like you, I could never toss Dan Jr. He was a gift from my bread guru and very dear friend and has great sentimental value.

    I’m interested to hear that Dan can live on the counter for a week before being refreshed. If I understand the instructions, you are not feeding during that week – correct? Also, is the weekly refreshment with rye or AP flour?


    • Dan Jr…. HOW CUTE! My starter had a baby and he is growing you a wonderful boy! 😉

      Yes, you are right, keep it at room temperature and feed it with rye once a week. Then, if you plan on baking a loaf, go through two or three daily feedings bringing the starter to the composition you want, all white flour, mix of rye and white, whole wheat, kamut flour… and then use it

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Seriously Sourdough | A Bakers Diet

  10. This is great news, Sally. I’m so glad you found someone to help and that Dan is back to his old self again. I’m saving this post. That loaf of bread looks an awful lot like the last few I attempted before I got out of the sourdough game. This Fall, I’ll start up another and see how it goes using this post as my guide. Thank you so much. 🙂


  11. My sourdough mentor is back and I couldn’t be happier!
    I know what you mean about getting attached to your starter and its only been a few months since I started mine.
    I tried drying part of my starter for back up but now I need to freeze some using your post here.
    Cant wait to try this black sesame bread. After making so many of your sourdough breads I just know I will LOVE this one.


    • Sawsan, when I made this bread I thought about you! I knew you would love to make it and eat it – you can use toasted white sesame instead, but I think the black seeds give this bread a pretty dramatic look – Phil LOVED IT. He thought the taste was wonderful – but I must say he usually says that about all my breads. 😉


    • The sesame seeds give this bread a completely different taste – going a bit in the direction of hummus… loved it!

      (we still have a few slices in the freezer, but I suspect they will be part of our meal tonight… just sayin’ 😉


  12. What pretty breads you make! Glad to hear that recovery is in progress and that your mojo is back. Sounds like you have had brilliant advice from David too. I do the drying thing from time to time, mostly to share with other people, but also as back up for me. I have a small library of ziplock bags with different people’s starters in them as well as my own. I don’t get on with the freezing method, not sure why that should be, the dried ones always seem to come back within a couple of days and I prefer them. Did I tell you I weakened and got a Brod & Taylor proofer when they were on sale based on your great review? Am almost looking forward to the colder weather so I can get it out and use it smugly 🙂


    • Oh, you got the bread proofing box! You will love it, not only to rise the bread, but also the starter in case your kitchen is a bit on the cool side… looking forward to your adventures with it!

      I might start drying my starter too – loved the idea of the ziplock bag library 😉


  13. I feel your pain – bread making is one of those things I just can’t seem to get down. I think it might be the kneading – I must be a bit of a weakling! It’s so nice to see someone do well after having trouble with it though. Makes me think all is not lost! 😉


  14. So excited to have found your blog (through Joanne’s). Great writing, so funny and helpful. I had a sour dough starter for 9 years (kept it in fridge) and accidentally threw it away during a mad cleaning spree thinking it was old pancake batter. 😦


    • Oh, I felt a sharp pain reading your comment! I “almost” did that once, almost! The worst thing that happened to me as far as starters are concerned, was Phil sticking the starter I had just refreshed back into the fridge, thinking it was yogurt forgotten by the sink. (I use empty yogurt containers to refresh Dan). I was looking for it everywhere in a complete panic…

      Nice to have you here, I love Joanne’s blog!


  15. I can only begin to imagine your frustration Sally! I would have been throwing fits too. In fact I did when I was trying to attempt my sourdough. 😉 So do you keep the starter on the counter then? Does it stay safe that way? I’ve been raising kefir grains and they stay on the counter all the time. Fascinating how for years your starter was safe in the fridge and then just got tired of it.


    • Yes, Kristy, you can keep the starter on the counter – I actually kept mine for the past week, then yesterday decided to dry some, inspired by Celia and Joanna – it is taking forever to dry, but it will get there. I spread it pretty thin on a parchment paper.

      Kefir grains.. how interesting! I’ve been reading about it too, I just don’t see myself taking care of any other little being apart from my starter and the countless bacteria in the lab 😉


  16. Oh, I feel your pain. The last few months I have barely looked at my starter, only to barely bring it back from the brink of death. I haven’t even attempted to make a loaf of bread with it, because I know it will be terrible. This is a good post to remember, and a few gorgeous looking loaves, too!!! 🙂


  17. Pingback: Dried Sourdough | yum vee

  18. At last, a reason for my loaves looking so depressed. Like you my descent into baking despair was slow and I made many changes of technique and ingredients with only limited success. Now thanks to you I have hope of a brighter and crustier future. It seems that my problem has been that Felicity who is now six years old has become unwell through being kept in the fridge between bakings, which due to domestic circumstances is only once every 10 to 14 days. I have had some limited success by feeding a portion of Felicity once or twice before baking but now she will be treated with much more care and kindness and has been put on your sourdough recovery programme. I will also freeze a portion to see how well that will work for me. Now looking forward with some real oven spring in my step.


  19. Aloha! When you say keep dough-consistency at room temp and refresh weekly, do you mean refresh once a week (not everyday) and at what ratio S/F/W (the same dough-consistency)? Then, if you pull out a frozen one and refresh daily, at what ratio? I think I have the same thing happening to my sourdough which is kept in the fridge but was more robust before I started keeping it there.


  20. Those loaves look beautiful! What a comeback! I might have to try the black sesame loaf next week.
    The information about how the bacteria react in the fridge is interesting, I’ve never heard of that before (clearly either my school cookery classes weren’t very good or I was too busy eating my ingredients to pay attention to the health and safety briefing). I never keep my starter in the fridge, unless I’m going away or we have a heatwave. I’ve never seen the need as mine has always bubbled away quite happily at room temperature.
    Thanks for the useful notes on reviving it though, I’ll be saving those in case I ever suffer a lethargic starter too.


  21. You kept your starter in the fridge and then took it out and fed it when preparing to bake. Did your starter seem alive, even though it wasn’t? I keep mine in the fridge and it seems to have no problem refreshing for a recipe, but maybe it is having problems? I guess I will have to try your refreshment program and see if I have better results.


  22. I too have been having for some years the same problem of tight crumb. I have followed Nancy Silverton’s method for white boules for 12 years. For the first few years my boules were great but some years ago I ended up consisitently with a pretty tight crumb. The taste is there and I am able by tweaking the temperature of the loaf at the time it goes into the oven (keep below 15C) to get a nicely risen boule but the crumb never looks anything like your beautiful photo.
    I have just finished trying to restore my starter firstly using the method David gave you and secondly by using white flour instead of rye to revive my starter but neither approach has made the slightest difference.
    I wonder if you use your starter fed on rye directly to make a white loaf or whether you feed it on white flour for a few days beforehand?
    Clearly Dan Lepard’s Handmade Loaf is a great book but the photo of his White Leaven slice on page 29 is no better than my disappointing efforts, I also am not happy about his approach which means having to be popping into the kitchen from 0800 till 1130. With Silverton’s method I start at a little after 0800 and by 0915 latest the bread is proofing on its own till about 1300.
    The only thing I can now think of trying is to start all over again to create a sour dough leven and though I think Silverton has as much knowledge as anyone I intend to buy the book Tartine Bread having learnt of it through your post and looked at it on Amazon and try to follow it precisely.
    I recently in France managed to get myself invited into the kitchen of a chain baker Moulin de Paiou) that makes the most superb sour dough bread and was shown all the steps of its process. A little different of course when one is starting off with 50 kg of flour and I was intrigued to find that they also added a small amount of commercial yeast to the natural one. Perhaps Silverton would not approve but it certainly works for them,


  23. Looks good. I’m going to try this. Have you considered or tried a retardation step in the refrigerator overnight instead of a room temperature rise?


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