Authentic San Francisco Sourdough Recipe

Using a Willow Basket with Machine Mixing

Makes one loaf

3¼ cups (400-460 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup fully active Original San Francisco culture from the culture proof
1 cup water
1 ½ teaspoons salt

This simple recipe uses our Original San Francisco culture.  It will introduce you to the three proof method and you will never bake sourdoughs any other way.  Use it to get familiar with how different proofing temperatures and times achieve your desired flavor, crust and crumb.  These directions produce what I like.  You can easily change them to do what you like and, if you prefer, do it all by hand.

The Fully Active Culture
There is no single ingredient more essential for sourdough success than the Fully Active Culture.  When it comes from the refrigerator it is semi-dormant, the degree depending on how long it has been there.  Start by checking the odor.   If less than a week, it will be bland and unremarkable and ready to be warmed and fed and used in the culture proof.  If longer, in the fridge, it may smell acidic from action of the lactobacilli and should be “washed” briefly by filling the jar with water while mixing vigorously then discarding all but about 1-2 cups.  This is then fed sufficient flour and water to form a thick pancake consistency and is proofed (fermented) until it forms a layer of foam and bubbles 1-2 inches thick.  When it does that within in 2-4 hours after the last feeding, it is ready to use in the culture proof.  If more than a week or two in the fridge, it may take several feedings and an occasional washing to do the same thing.  Plan ahead.  I’m asked occasionally “Why proof a fully active culture?  Why not just use it?”  The answer is important.  The culture is proofed because it is the first opportunity for the baker to significantly change the final outcome of the finished product by regulating the proofing temperature.  (The flour and water used to make the fully active culture are not included in the above recipe.)

The Culture Proof
Producing a massive inoculum of sourdough organisms is the primary purpose of this proof.  Mix a cup of fully active culture with sufficient flour and water to form a thick batter and proof it for 6-8 hours.  If you want a more sour flavor, the temperature should be 75-80°F for the entire time.  If you prefer a more mild flavor, proof at 65-70°F.  I prefer to do both and proof at 65-70°F for the first 2-3 hours and at 75-80°F for the remaining time.

The Dough Proof
Place the flour, fully active culture (from the culture proof), water and salt in the machine pan and mix-knead for approximately 20-25 minutes.  The dough should form a soft but firm ball which drags on the sides of the pan.  If it doesn’t, add flour or water gradually until it does.  Then cover with a lightly oiled plastic secured firmly to the pan with a rubber band (it may over flow the pan) and proof overnight at room temperature, 65-70°F, for 10-12 hours with the pan either in or out of the machine (I take it out).  You can put it in your proofing box at higher temperatures if you prefer.  The next morning remove the plastic cover, return the pan to the machine and turn it on.  In approximately 30 seconds the machine will reform a firm, uniform ball.  Tip the pan over a lightly floured board and with a plastic spatula ease the ball from the pan to the board leaving the paddle in the pan (this takes practice).  Let the dough rest for 20-30 minutes to relax the gluten.

The Loaf Proof
The willow basket is lightly brushed with rye flour to help prevent the dough from sticking when you remove it for baking.  After multiple uses the baskets may need to be cleaned with a stiff brush.

The dough on the floured board should partially hold its shape if the consistency is correct.  If it doesn’t, you may want to knead in a little additional flour until it does.  After the “rest” use a dough scraper to gather up the dough from the board and form a more or less round ball by pinching the “corners” together.  Wetting your fingers with a little cold water helps.  Transfer the dough ball to the basket with the “corners” up and complete sticking them together.  Cover the basket with lightly oiled plastic and place in your proofing box or proof at room temperature.  In 2-4 hours depending on the temperature the dough should rise above the rim of the basket and is ready to bake.  The dough is transferred to the baking sheet by first tipping it from side to side to dislodge sticking spots near the top then upended over the sheet.  If the dough sticks deeper in the basket, it can usually be dislodged by simply holding the basket upside down over the sheet until the weight of the dough pulls it loose.

There are two schools of thought and they can’t be any different.  The first preheats the oven to 500°F or more then bakes the dough on a pizza or similar stone for 20-25 minutes.  The second, “my way”, starts with the dough in a completely cool oven on a heavy cookie sheet or similar base.  I then set the oven to 375°F and turn it on to bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes.  That final 10 minutes is to compensate for how long it takes the oven to reach 375°F.  You can, of course, do it either way.  I think “my way” actually produces slightly better “oven spring” and I don’t like handling the hotter stones and pans.

Commercial San Francisco bakers have used a form of steam injection to increase the humidity in their ovens for a very long time and some probably still do.  There are a number ways we home bakers can increase the humidity, none quite as good, but better than nothing, perhaps.  Most common is the fine mist from a spray bottle which is used several times for the first 10 minutes or so as the oven heats.  It should be directed to the interior of the oven not on the surface of the dough.  Many of us also use a pan of boiling water placed immediately below the baking loaves for a few minutes.  When baking is complete the loaf is transferred to a cooling rack where it should be admired for 20-30 minutes before cutting.

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