I am fairly good at a variety of things. Cooking, writing essays, taking care of children, cutting hair, watercoloring—all these things I can accomplish with a decent amount of ease and proficiency. Making bread, however, is not one of these things. For years I quietly fretted over my seeming inability to make dough rise. Cakes, fine. Scones, fine. Pizza crust, fine. But never bread.

My tendency to roll out nearly inedible and indecipherable bricks became so disheartening that I eventually just gave up. I consoled myself by becoming semi-convinced that my bodega-purchased fleischmann's was likely always around 45 years old and thus defunct. Eventually, after heeding my mother’s advice about grain bio-availability and the wonders of soaking/sprouting/souring I decided to give sourdough a try. Enter: A Whole New Era of Heartbreak.

For years I started starters, made a few attempts, and then let them die. They say you know if a starter is ready if you take a bit of it and drop it in a glass of water and it floats. Over and over again I watched, mildly devastated, as my dough swiftly sunk. It felt like some ominous premonition of the failure to come. And it was.  That being said, I have still never achieved the dough float but I have achieved good bread. So I’m calling bullshit. Don’t worry if your starter doesn’t float.

To make matters worse, I low-key didn’t want to tell anyone how bad my bread was turning out and outright ask for help. I’m a pretty good cook! It seemed like I should be able to figure it out. My friend Lauren who makes excellent sourdough coached me a little, but I never took her advice and bought a scale. Problem number 1.  I also never communicated the full extent of my problems. None if it worked, ever, from beginning to end. The starter, the leaven, the rise, the final product. Nothing. Many a jar became a disappointing fruit-fly haven, mold marring its settled un-risen surface. Yet again, I’d throw it out.

It wasn’t until I picked up Andrew Whitley’s little book Do/Sourdough/Slow bread for busy lives, that I finally started to understand. In the privacy of my own head/kitchen, I began to get it. Loaf by loaf, with only a roommate or two to witness initial flops—I finally made bread. I also finally purchased a small scale.

I’m not sure if everyone else has suffered the same sourdough-disappointment, but if you have, here are the main things I’ve learned:

-Forget the dough float. Just forget it.

-When you’re first starting, use a scale. Buy a scale.

-The water you use to make the starter should be purified because the chlorine in tap water can make it hard to get going. You can also leave a cup of tap to sit overnight so the chlorine dissipates.

-Use your hands, instead of a spoon, to stir your starter. The crucial Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis (named of course, somewhat contemporarily, after San Franciso), the lactic acid bacteria that helps give sourdough its characteristic flavor only gets into the mix through contact with the baker’s hands.

-The jar that contains your starter can have a closed lid. It’s fine, truly. It will also prevent the fruit flies that will inevitably arrive from getting into the muck.

-Have patience if it’s Winter, the colder it is, the longer everything takes. The upside of this is that if you end up being away from home longer than intended, your dough won’t over-proof as easily. When it’s hot outside it’s easy to leave the dough to rise for too long, resulting in over-fermentation and water loss.

-You don’t need to feed your starter everyday; in fact you don’t need to feed it at all. When you make your leaven or “production dough” as Whitley calls it, just make a little extra, and when it’s done add the extra back to your jar.

-You can keep it in the fridge for the off-weeks when you don’t have time to make bread. Who has time to make bread every week?

-If, like me, you live in a lovely but kind of old and shitty apartment in Brooklyn, and as such, in constant fear of vermin, you might keep your flour in the freezer. This is a great method for preventing unwanted friends like mice and moths from getting into your grains—unfortunately it is not so great for sourdough. Low temp slows everrrrrything down, and honestly freezing it kills the flour. We want this stuff alive.

-To that point, try to get your hands on some fresh local flour. Part of the reason so much bread in the US is such shit is because these big companies use old dead flour. The fresher the flour, the longer your bread will last without going hard and stale. I use a brand called Farmer Ground, based out of the Finger Lakes region. They don’t bleach or chemically treat any of their flours, and their bags are marked with “best by” dates as a reminder that though grains don’t often explicitly go rancid, they do have an expiration date.

-Don’t be that clean. Really. I was taking my starter out and washing the container in an effort to keep my Weck jar pretty. Big shocker, the smallest trace of dish soap residue I was undoubtedly leaving behind was fucking up my bacterial environment. Just leave it. It’s alive. It won’t get moldy if everything is working right. Keep a lid on it and the smell won’t bother the other people you cohabitate with. Put it in the fridge when you’re not using it and take it out just a day ahead of time to get the temp back to normal. 

-Tell anyone who might accidentally think your starter is trash or a dirty dish that it is not. In doing so you will avoid a lot of potential bitterness towards your roommate/spouse/mom/brother etc.

-DON’T knead your dough with extra flour to prevent sticking. The more excess flour the more likely you are to end up with a brick. I know it seems counterintuitive, but use water instead. Have your hands be slightly wet when you begin kneading, if dough sticks a bit to the counter wet it slightly. Don’t go crazy, too much water is also bad. But just a little dampness will help you along. Keep kneading, the gluten will eventually settle. Use a scraper to pick up sticky dough and add it back as you go.


Make your starter:

Day 1: 30g whole meal flour of your choice + 30g water

Stir together with your hands, put in a jar with a lid. Leave to sit out in your kitchen.

Day 2: 30g whole meal flour + 30g water

Add to your mixture from the day before, stir with your hands. Leave to sit out in your kitchen.

Day 3: 30g whole meal flour + 15g water

Add to your mixture from the day before, stir with your hands. Leave to sit out in your kitchen.

Day 4:  90g whole meal flour + 45g water

Add to your mixture from the day before, stir with your hands. Leave to sit out in your kitchen.

On the third and fourth day we lower the flour to water ratio in order to firm up the dough a bit. It’s best to start with a very liquid starter because it creates a more supportive environment for the good bacteria to start reacting. Following these instructions, you will most likely have a four-day-old starter that is ready to be made into bread. Or you won’t, that is also possible. But don’t be alarmed if it hasn’t expanded into a gloriously marshmallowy display of happy yeasty life that smells of vinegar and success. It’s ok if it’s still a little flat with only a few bubbles. What might be happening is that acids have been produced by the bacteria too quickly, preventing the yeast from producing enough carbon dioxide. At this point, feeding a dormant starter small amounts of water and flour won’t help. What you need to do is take just a small amount of the starter and mix it with a much larger quantity of water and flour.


30g starter + 90g flour +180g water

Give it  a stir with your hands and then give it a day or two. Now you have more than you need, so give it to a friend.

What now needs to happen is that you need to make your leaven or production sourdough. Basically a buffed up version of your initial starter that will sit on its own for a bit before being added to the final dough.

Production Sourdough:

150g starter + 100g wholemeal flour + 100g white/light bread flour + 120g water

Mix well with hands until all combined. Cover with a plastic bag or towel and let rest 4 hours (if you’re gone longer than that it’s OK. Timing stuff with your production dough is more flexible, think of it as the next generation of your starter).

Final Dough:

100g whole meal flour + 300g light/white bread flour + 300g water + 8g salt

Start by blending all of these ingredients together without your production sourdough to make a soaker. This helps to develop gluten in the dough without kneading. Blend until combined without any big lumps, then leave to sit for an hour or so.

After it has been left to rest, turn the dough out on the counter, using water to lubricate the surface and prevent sticking. Moisten hands and knead dough for no more than five minutes. Then add 300g of production sourdough to the mix and knead five minutes more. Shape your dough and put it in a bowl or basket lined with cloth that has been dusted with flour. I use rice flour because it helps keep the dough from sticking and because it’s gluten free it doesn’t turn into dough when it becomes moist.

Let the dough sit at least four hours. If by that time it has expanded significantly it is ready to bake. If not, let rest another hour or so.


Preheat oven to 475 degrees and line a dutch oven or large oven-safe dish with parchment paper (not wax paper!!!). Carefully transfer your loaf to the lined dish and score top however you like. Cook at 475 for first 15 minutes and then turn down to 400-425 degrees without opening oven. This allows you to get a nice crust. After about 45 minutes you can check on your loaf. A helpful step, until you get the hang of it, is to insert a thermometer into the center of the loaf. If it’s done it will be about 200 degrees at the center. If significantly lower than that, bake a bit longer.  Let cool slightly before slicing.


I hope you feel the same sense of relief I did when my bread finally turned out like actual bread. Big thanks to Andrew Whitley, whoever he is, for changing my life.

Here’s a link to his book if you want to get even more info:





← Next Post Previous Post →