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Sourdough: Silverton v. Berenbaum v. Reinhart?

I've done a fair amount of bread baking, and am pretty proficient in the kitchen, but I've never really gotten sourdough right. This year it's on my list of foods I'd like to learn to make well (along with bagels [which I have a good start on as of last week] and lox [need to start building that smokehouse], kung pao chicken, Iranian cheese, etc.). I'm interested in a straight flour-water starter—I've tried ones with dairy and whatnot, with no success. Which book should I invest in as a starting point? The Bread Baker's Apprentice seems most in line with my skill level, but would The Bread Bible be more useful in the long term? I don't know much about the La Brea Bakery bread book except that it apparently has a recipe for one of my all-time favorite novelty breads, which I'd also like to be able to make someday (chocolate–sour cherry bread; I assume this is a yeasted bread, not a quickbread? I'm thinking of the version I indulged in regularly from Amy's Bread in NYC). What's Silverton's sourdough section like? Thanks for any input you can give me. Browsing for extended periods at the bookstore is a little difficult these days with a very active 20-month-old to keep an eye on!

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  1. OK, here's what I did, and there's a great thread on the Cook's Illustrated bulletin boards where this guy (I think his name is Tim) baked his way thru the The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I made my starter from the Cheeseboard Collective Cookbook (and coincidentally enough, so did the guy on the CI board) and I use that for everything. The stuff in the CCC and BBA cookbook as well as for waffles and pancakes. The starter is just flour and water. I think Silverton uses grapes. I couldn't be bothered. And when I had questions about the started I emailed the CCC in Berkeley and they actually emailed me back. I love the BBA. Can't go wrong there. And the baguettes and Zampanos in the CCC are delicious. I've had my starter alive for almost 2 years now. Oh, and the sourdough pizza dough in the CCC is amazing.

    1. Put a cup of potato cooking water and a cup of flour in a glass bowl and give them a little mix. Cover it loosely and leave it on the counter. By the next day it should be bubbly and active. In a couple of days you'll have a sourdough starter. While you're waiting for the starter to materialize, check out this web site.
      There's plenty there to keep you going for a while.

      Living with sourdough starter:
      Once it's a starter, you can store it in the refrigerator. If you don't use it for a while, you freshen it up by taking a couple of spoons out of the original starter and adding equal amounts of flour and water to this and letting it work overnight. Never add anything to your starter except flour and water. You don't want some nasty starter with yeast or sour milk or baking powder or sugar or salt in it. When you use your starter, you take out the amount you need and add other ingredients to it. Then you add flour and water to the remaining starter and let it work for next time.

      If a book has one or two recipes you want, get the book from the library. With the information from King Arther and other web sites, you can make your own sourdough folder.

      1. with a 20-month old, consider charlie van over's best bread ever;with a good scale and processor you will produce *great* bread and have much more time for the toddler -it has retarded dough and sourdough starter recipes, you could adapt a sponge, I'm sure.
        La Brea is pretty contrived for the home baker, with no better results. The French Laundry of home baking books
        The bagel recipes in van over's book are Great and you go from mixing to into the fridge for overnight retarding in 5-10 mins flat

        1 Reply
        1. re: malabargold

          I'll look into the Van Over book—thank you. I made pretty great bagels a couple weeks ago (after returning from a trip to New York and remembering how much I miss the real thing!), but they did not get into the fridge in under 10 minutes, that's for sure. Very, very stiff dough that took all my strength to knead.

        2. I made Nancy Silverton's sour dough starter - the one with the grapes in cheese cloth. It was amazing and incredibly complex tasting, compared to all of the other sour doughs I've tried. It wasn't a lot of work at all (c'mon, sour dough isn't that much work!) - I think my kids were 1 and 3 when I made it, and I didn't kill it off for a couple of years. I could look it up, if you don't have the recipe and are interested.

          I haven't made any of the others you mention.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jeanmarieok

            jeanmarieok: I'd love the recipe, if you have a moment to paraphrase it here—thank you. (I suppose I'd have to wait till fall to do a grape starter, though, right? Hmm. I wonder if the local muscadines/scuppernongs would have interesting yeasts . . . ) And no, I don't think sourdough is a lot of work or time-consuming (active time, that is); it's going to the bookstore and having a few minutes to read quietly without chasing after the kid that's the hard part!

          2. From my viewpoint, there are three parts of sourdough bread baking: acquiring the starter, maintaining the starter, and finally baking. The first two involve microbiology skills (cleanliness, temperature contol, measuring), and the last involves, well, baking skills (baker's math, gluten development, proofing steam injection, etc.) You can 'make your own' starter if you want, but the results are not easy to predict. You are depending on the yeast that was on the grain when it was harvested, or on the grapes when they were picked. Rye is a popular flour to develop a starter with; it apparently has a lot of yeast to begin with. The thing is that you only start with wild yeast once to make a starter, so it's challenging to know what is going on or what you did wrong. You will get plenty of home microbiology experience when you go to preserve your starter and refresh it. An alternative is to get a starter from a friend (my personal recommendation), or google 'friends of carl' for a free, genuine pioneer Oregon sourdough starter. While you're on that page, start following the links to Dick Adams' site for a lot of useful information and interesting attitude. He has a great way of keeping the starter going without a lot of refreshments and resulting wasted starter. (My variation is to make a stiff, dryish starter, let it grow till it's very active, then chill it and store with some extra flour around it for food.)

            Finally baking with a sourdough starter is different because the yeast hasn't been selected/bred for explosive growth, so proofing times are a lot longer than for normal baker's yeast. You are already a proficient baker, so you might want to experiment with starting with a very small amount of yeast, as in the No Knead recipe, and letting it proof for several hours to develop the more interesting taste. Not sourdough, but not your ordinary bread either. My idea of sourdough is the SF french bread with a hard crust, and only 4 ingredients, and a long rise with commercial yeast is pretty satisfying while you're waiting for your sourdough starter to arrive.

            As far as instruction, the CI centerfold from last year is very good, but for books, I like Joe Ortiz 'The Village Baker', and Hamelman's 'Bread: a Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes.' Ortiz is fun reading and is encyclopedic in its scope, and Hamelman has the insight of being King Arthur Flour's expert baker. Have fun.

            Let us know how it works out for you.

            17 Replies
            1. re: Leucadian

              Leucadian: Yes, I was also considering the Ortiz, but I hadn't seen much about the Hamelman. I have made the no-knead bread and others like it with very little yeast and a long, cool proof; they're good, but I'd like to achieve that wonderful tang.

              1. re: Liana Krissoff

                The tang in sourdough comes from the bacteria associated with the particular yeast you have. Some yeasts have a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria, and it's the lactic acid produced by the bacteria (lactobacillus) that makes sourdough sour. Not just any wild yeast will be friendly to the bacteria, so your homemade starter may not (probably won't) have the sharpness you hope for.

                By the way, lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, the bacteria that is in my favorite sourdough, has never been observed outside of bakeries. It's not the only LB that makes sourdough, but it's the tangiest, and you won't get it in a homebrew.

                This relationship between yeast and bacteria is what I was referring to as the microbiology part of the process, that if you acquire a known starter you don't have to worry about. But then, making your own starter is fun and not hard and a good education to boot. So have at it.

                There's a lot of literature on this topic, and the following link is just the very tip of the iceberg.

                1. re: Leucadian

                  Interesting! I didn't realize that only specific kinds of yeast result in the acid that makes sourdough sour.

                  I mixed up a rye flour–water–high-gluten flour starter the other day. So far it isn't doing much of anything. Could it be because my rye flour (organic whole-grain) was too old?

                  1. re: Liana Krissoff

                    sounds like the starter i made from cheeseboard. i'm not sure of the age of the flour, but the amount of wild yeasts in your kitchen and the water have something to do with it. i've heard that baking other things (especially bread) while concocting your starter helps with the release of the wild yeasts in your kitchen.

                    1. re: eLizard

                      Hmm. I made 4 batches of bread the day I mixed up the starter. Will keep trying.

                      1. re: Liana Krissoff

                        Here is my experience with starters: I bought the dried Italian sourdough starters from Sourdoughs Inc., and revived them per instructions. I had an initial expansion within a day, so I thought all was well. Then with the next refreshment, there was no activity for several days. I though I had killed the yeast, but apparently this lag is not uncommon, and within a few days there was activity in both strains. But I am haunted by the possibility that I actually grew the yeast that was in the flour that I revived the dried yeast with. I can't tell any difference between the two strains when I bake with them, although they smell plenty sour.

                        I believe that the yeasts in most (all?) homemade starters come not from the air in the house, but the flour (or grapes or potatoes or whatever) that is used as a medium. I'm pretty certain that there is no yeast in your water, although there might be chemicals that will harm the cultures (chlorine for example). Many SD bakers use only water that has 'stood' for a day, allowing the chlorine to escape into the atmosphere. The interesting thing about a SD culture once it's up and running is that it's pretty resistant to contamination. The yeast and bacteria are suited to one another and create an environment that is hostile to other yeasts and bacteria. Of course, you can kill it with high temps or lack of food.

                        Two articles about sourdough yeasts and how they work:

                  2. re: Leucadian


                    My understanding of sourdough’s yeast and lactobacillus sanfranciscensis is slightly different from yours.

                    At least in the San Francisco Bay Area, l. sanfranciscensis is AIRBORNE, as is the yeast candida milleri, otherwise San Francisco sourdough wouldn’t exist. L sanfranciscensis isn’t only INSIDE bakeries, as you state, it’s everywhere. Everywhere in the air in the Bay Area.

                    It was the scientists T. F. Sugihara and Leo Klein who discovered the bacterium in the Bay Area’s air and the reason why San Francisco sourdough tasted differently from all other sourdoughs.

                    The lactobacillus does most of the work to make sourdough bread rise and taste sour. The bacterium eats maltose (sugar) in the flour and gives off carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise. But it also gives off two kinds of acid: lactic acid (hence its name), as you say, but more importantly, acetic acid. Yep, acetic acid as in vinegar. That’s what puts the sour in sourdough.

                    As you say, the lactobacillus does its sourdough work in concert with a yeast, and in the case of San Francisco sourdough, it’s candida milleri, named after the scientist Martin Miller, with whom I have had several discussions. Candida milleri is unusual in that it can survive in an acidic environment, the very one the l. sanfranciscensis creates. The two are able to co-exist—an odd feat, really, in the microbiological world—and together they make sourdough, the wild yeast churning out its own carbon dioxide to further leaven the bread.

                    These days, l. sanfranciscensis is synthesized for use in commercial bread baking operations, and that’s where it’s usually found. I think that’s probably what you meant when you said the lactobacillus was found only inside a bakery. I believe it may be in those souvenir SF sourdough starter kits as well. Of course, the lactobacillus is all through the air in the Bay Area.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Maria. I agree that our understanding is different, and I also confess that I am neither a biochemist nor a professional baker. I'd really like to hear more about your conversations with Mr. Miller.

                      Let me try to lay out my understanding. I still maintain that the starter is not easily obtained from airborne microbes. In the original 1970 Sugihara, Kline and Miller paper, all the tests were done on starters from bakeries, not spontaneous starters from airborne microbes. And generally bakeries are jealous/proud of their starters and maintain them rather than starting fresh every so often, indicating to me that it's not so easy to acquire a true SF sourdough starter except from an existing culture. I recall that in the 60's when Larraburu went out of business, they claimed to have stored the culture in various stongholds around the world so it would not be lost. Obviously they felt they had something special, whether true or not. Unfortunately, I can't find the reference that I read about the bacteria not being found in nature, but I'll keep looking.

                      You are right about the interaction of the yeast and bacteria, but I believe that the LB contribute mostly acid, not CO2 to the bread. The paper by Henry Ng in 1975 states that 'the leavening function is performed mainly by a yeast found in the starters of several bakeries in the area.' And in the Sugihara/Kline/Miller paper, the subtitle is 'Yeasts Responsible for the Leavening Action'.

                      The bacteria are symbiotic with the yeast in that C. millerii (or S .exiguus or T. holmii as it was previously called or maybe still is)does not metabolize maltose, which the L. sanfranciscensis does very well. Harold McGee says that one of the problems with sourdough is that the bacteria might grow too fast, inhibiting the leavening action of the yeast, and for that reason SD is typically fermented at lower temperatures which favor the yeast.

                      Finally, there's a great 1998 paper by Ganzle, Ehmann, and Hammes that describes the dependency of the sourdough process on temperature, pH, and nutrients. You might enjoy it.

                      1. re: Leucadian

                        I almost forgot my main points, that sourdough starters are not all the same, and that the main source of the yeast and bacteria in a fresh starter comes from the grain, not the air or water.

                        1. re: Leucadian

                          Greetings, Leucadian,

                          The SF sourdough starter is quite easily obtained naturally from the air in the Bay Area. It's especially easy to get a starter going if you live near the ocean, at least that's been my experience and that of many artisan bread bakers (both professional and home-based) with whom I've spoken.

                          The only reason that the studies in the early 70s by Sugihara et alia were first done on bakery starters is that bakeries were wondering why the sourness of the bread varied from day to day when the recipe stayed the same. The same variations could have easily been found in home starters.

                          I miswrote/misspoke slightly: the lactobacillus does provide some leavening action, but it's mainly the yeast (c. milleri and others) that provide most of the CO2 for the rise. C. milleri is known to be the most active CO2 producer among the sourdough yeasts, IIRC, and there is at least one scientific paper on this. But there's also c. humilis and several others, and several different sourdough yeasts often co-exist in a single starter.

                          My sense is that the reason sourdough is fermented at lower temperatures is simply to allow flavor development to take place. Higher temps gallop the fermentation along, and loss of flavor is the result. Eeking out all that acid takes time.

                          I'm glad you're interested in this stuff, Leucadian, because I'm fascinated by it. And I love your screen name. Happy to continue the discussion, but it will probably force me to go deep into my notes from a few years back when I was heavily researching this.

                          1. re: maria lorraine

                            Maria Lorraine, I really enjoy this stuff too. Sounds like you have had some interesting experiences. I had some of the old Sourdough Jacks starter in the 60's, but only recently revived my interest. I was glad to find the paper on modeling the sourdough process (it's one of the links in my replies above), since it gave curves for growth rates of both the yeast and the LB over temperature. Now that's practical information. I'd like to hear more about your notes.

                            1. re: Leucadian

                              Perhaps you and others will be interested in today's Los Angeles Times story on sourdough starters, titled "Scaling Mt. Sourdough":

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  Has anyone here tried the pineapple juice starter? I'm intrigued.

                                  1. re: Liana Krissoff


                                    As I wrote previously, I learned everything I know about sourdough from Maggie Glezer. Glezer learned in a course she was taking with Professeur Raymond Calvel, the GURU of bread. Prof. Calvel recommends using grains for the original starter (rye, to be precise) because the microorganisms are already adapted to growing on grain. If you take some fruit or other medium for your starter, you will not have anything of the original medium left in it by the time it is useful for raising dough.

                                      1. re: Father Kitchen

                                        Isn't the point of the pineapple to acidify the starter to prevent the growth of organisms that are not acid tolerant? And I always thought that the grapes were there to provide a higher concentration of yeast, despite what Silverton says.

                                        In other words, I suspect that these two additions are not there to provide the medium (sugars), but to protect or inoculate the culture.

                                        That said, my hat's off to bcc's baking lineage.

                2. In the past, I've bought starters from sourdo.com, and been pleased with the results. It's fun to experiment with the different flavors. If you bake with whole grains, they have a starter that works particularly well with these.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: pikawicca

                    I'd been eyeing those starters for a while. Thanks for the recommendation, pikawicca.

                    1. re: yayadave

                      Thank you, yayadave, for all the links. This is all fascinating to me—I wasted hours last night reading these. (Maybe it is too much to handle, but what else am I going to do?)

                      1. re: Liana Krissoff

                        If any of it helps you make your own starter and then some sour dough bread, it wasn't wasted.

                      2. re: yayadave

                        I don't know about you, but I don't like having a quart jar that needs feeding and emptying every week or so (sounds like another pet, doesn't it?) So I was really pleased when I read about a method that doesn't use much space, time or flour. It's called frugal starter management and it involves making a 'mother' that is kept in the refrigerator and will last for months without additional attention.


                        It's like having a block of yeast in the fridge, from which you hack off a piece and grow that into your starter for your baking. The method is to make a very active starter, at around 100% hydration (equal weights water and flour, plus some of your original starter of course). When it's bubbling happily, it is in its highest growth phase. Then add more flour to make a very stiff dougn, and refrigerate it. Now you have a lot of live yeast cells surrounded by lots of food, but the yeasts have been chilled so their growth rate and appetite is significantly reduced (think hibernation), and they can go for a long time without attention. I keep mine in a little disposable 1/2C stacking container that doesn't take up any room at all, and it lasts of months. When I feel like baking, I hack off 50g, add 100 g flour, 100g water, and let it sit overnight in a warm spot. Next morning I have 250g active starter, and I didn't have to throw anything away or clean another jar. I really like this method.

                        By the way, the second link in yayadave's post recommends putting commercial yeast in the brew when you're making a starter, as a 'boost'. That's fine if you want to culture the commercial starter, but I don't think your extremely small population of wild yeasts in the flour are going to be able to compete with an onslaught of fast rising commercial critters. Likewise, I suspect that Nancy Silverton's method of initiating a starter is actually growing yeasts from the grapes, more than from the wheat. I have great respect for her as a baker. I have her book and like her bread, but I just think that she confuses the source of the yeast in her starter.

                        1. re: Leucadian

                          Understood about adding commercial yeast, which I guess is just kind of like using regular yeast anyway, with a long rise or a sponge. I resorted to that a few times when I was in my twenties, but I'm older and wiser now.

                          I like the idea of an easy-to-hack-off chunk of starter. Will definitely try that once I have something going.

                          Speaking of which, the one I mixed up four days ago (old-ish rye flour, water, then bread flour) and kept adding to each day has finally started bubbling. And they're off!

                      3. I took a five week bread baking course with Peter Reinhart. The bread was delicious. He's a fantastic teacher. I like the book too.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Romanmk

                          ...and speaking of which, Reinhart's in the middle of a tour teaching at the Sur La Table stores as part of their culinary arts program. The course is titled "Whole Grain Breads, New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor", based upon his latest book.

                          Had it focused on sourdough breads, I'd take it in an instant...

                          1. re: cgfan

                            Good. I went ahead and ordered the Reinhart and the Berenbaum. They both looked so useful!

                          2. re: Romanmk

                            Would you tell us more about this course? Where, when, topics, facilities, cost etc. I don't see anything like this after a cursory search on his website.

                            1. re: Leucadian

                              Back in 1998 he was teaching at the California Culinary Academy. His class was part of the Baking and Pastry Arts program. Many of the recipes in Crust and Crumb and Bread Baker's Apprentice were covered. We made pizza for a week. I gained experience and bought a larger belt. Definitely some of the tastiest things I have ever learned.

                          3. Hi Liana,

                            I bake sourdough bread each week. Everything I know about sourdough I learned from Maggie Glezer's excellent 'A Blessing of Bread' and 'Artisan Baking', both of which I highly recommend.

                            Glezer recommends a firm sourdough starter because it doesn't need constant care if you don't bake every couple of days, and because you can judge its strength by its appearance: it's strong enough if it quadruples in 8 hours.

                            If you would like to look at Glezer's sourdough starter recipe, you don't have to buy the book. It has been posted on The Fresh Loaf by user zolablue, apparently with Glezer's blessing. Highly recommended. http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/2390...

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: bcc

                              I just looked. That's a nice site. Thanks for posting it.

                              1. re: bcc

                                Thanks so much for the link and for the book recommendations. I went ahead and ordered the Beranbaum and Reinhart books; they've just arrived today. Meanwhile my first attempts (six loaves baked this morning) turned out okay but not great. Lots to learn!

                                1. re: Liana Krissoff

                                  While I don't follow Silverton's method for starting a sourdough starter (no grapes for me), I do follow a lot of her recipes, which I find to be the best around. It's a great resource for all sourdough recipes.

                                  1. re: adamclyde

                                    I first discovered Nancy Silverton's sourdough starter on Julia Child's TV program with master chefts and then in the companion book.

                                    I first made sourdough starter using Silverton's method about 10 years ago. I used organic grapes. I don't find her starter to be too much work. It's not like one has to stand over it and perform complicated operations for hours at a time. The thrill of seeing it change and develop is worth the small amount of work and attention IMHO.

                                    I finally killed off my original starter a while ago, leaving it alone in the fridge for way too long. Now I'm starting a new one.

                                    The focaccia I made using the original starter was the best bread I'd ever made. Even better than BitLay. As someone above says, the complexity of the taste was wonderful and made even better by being the result of my own work.

                                    I realize that the OP has now ordered her books and that they don't include Silverton's, but I just wanted to say that her bagel and biscotti recipes are also great.

                                    At the risk of sounding re-re- repetitive, I find that tasks like making the starter, like making chili lime pickles or something else that takes some time and effort to develop, is one of the great thrills of cooking. Well, I do make an exception of the hugely complicated cake in the Alice B. Toklas cookbook that I will NEVER undertake again. Can't even remember it's name.

                                    1. re: oakjoan

                                      don't get me wrong - I LOVE silverton's book. for me, the starter with grapes and the one I did without were nearly the same, but the one without grapes was up and running more quickly. But, I killed off both of my starters this past year and haven't started a new one. Maybe I'll buy one of those Carl starter and do silverton's grape one for a new side by side comparison... that would be interesting

                                      1. re: adamclyde

                                        I bake a lot of sourdough bread and I have used books by all the authors listed as well as a few others. Just about all the methods published by the likes of Reinhart, Beranbaum, Silverton, Leader, Hamelman, Glezer, Ortiz, and others work. John Thorne has a great essay on the subject in his book Outlaw Cook. Glezer's discussion, based on Raymond Calvel, was what helped me most to make sense of it. Calvel's "The taste of bread" may still be available, but it is more technical than most home bakers would want. The best most accessible discussion of the microbiology and some aspects of production can be found in Scott and Wing's "The Bread Builders." My current favorite book on sourdough, if I had to choose one, would probably be Leader's "Local Bread." I dearly wish Thom Leonard's little book from East-West Press was still in print, but much of its information on home mills is out of date. The definitive book hasn't been written and probably never will, since so much depends on tastes and on comfort levels with alternative procedures. So I would say to anyone interested in baking sourdough bread to get one of these as a basic reference and try the recipes. Borrow the others from the library, if you like, and try to grasp the underlying principles. And then do what your ingredients and taste tell you. In the final analysis, it isn't much more difficult than making scrambled eggs or a good omelet.

                              2. I just found an unopened envelope of Sourdough starter that I bought in San Francisco about 15- 20 years ago. I realize some starters are passed on through generations, but I'm not sure if that's just starters that have been activated already.

                                Will it still work?
                                Will its age have a negative effect on the bread?

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: phoenikia

                                  Probably not. Coincidentally I just had the same experience.
                                  Be sure to proof it first in warm water with a little sugar.