The Tao of Bread: sourdough

I picked the title, The Tao of Bread quite a while ago. At the time I was not satisfied with the way my bread was turning out, so this Web page was for the future. When I reached "bread satori" and could produce bread that was close to the Acme Bread Company's [1] bread I would write this page.

One of the reasons that I love baking bread is that bread is both very simple and very complex. This gives bread baking a Zen quality. I joke sometimes that I am a follower of Bao Do, or the way of bread.

I finally wrote this Web page because my bread baking has come a long way in the last two years. My bread is now close to Acme's in texture and flavor. Originally I intended to pass on what I learned. What I did not realize when I chose the title for this Web page was how appropriate the title was. Just as Zen has an undefinable quality, so does artisan bread baking. There is no one thing or even set of things that I can point to that has made my bread better. I will try to set down some of the things that have allowed me to bake good bread. But there is no substitute for baking your own bread and following your own way in Bao Do.


The difference between great flavorful bread and the kind of bread that Safeway used to bake twenty years ago is the fermentation time. This makes yeast an important ingredient.

I use baker's yeast (e.g., dry yeast) to make "sweet" French bread. But most of the bread I bake uses a sour dough starter. When I started baking I followed Nancy Silverton's recipe for culturing a sour dough starter. The problem with culturing a sour dough starter is that you never know what you get. The yeast I got was difficult to use. It had an overly sour flavor if it fermented too long and it did not rise vigorously. I finally broke down and ordered a sour dough starter from King Arthur Flour. I am much happier with this yeast. It has a milder flavor and it rises vigorously. Even with long rise times it does not develop an overly sour flavor.

Culturing a starter is time consuming and hit or miss. So I recommend that you either buy a starter or get one from a friend.


Bread has five ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt and time. I always use a two day baking schedule, even for sweet French bread. Bread is in many ways similar to beer. With both beer and bread, fermentation creates a complex flavor.

On day one I make the bread dough and let it rise for four hours in a large mixing bowl. I then form it into loaves, cover the loaves with plastic wrap to avoid having the dough dry out and refrigerate it over night. European bakers call this the "retard". Yeast consumes the starch in the flour. The cold slows down the yeast and stops it from eating all the starch, but allows a long fermentation to develop flavor.

On day two I remove the bread loaves from the refrigerator and let them rise for four hours before baking.


Obviously flour is the largest ingredient in bread. The quality of the flour will influence the texture and flavor of the bread. I use King Arthur "bread machine" unbleached white flour and King Arthur whole wheat bread flour. In the San Francisco Bay Area this is available at Trader Joes. I don't recommend buying flour by mail order since you will pay as much in shipping as you do for the flour.

The Mixer

For about a year and a half I kneaded bread by hand. There is a certain meditative quality to kneading bread and it's great exercise. After hearing me talk about a Kitchen Aid mixer, my beloved gave me one for my birthday. This is a heavy duty standing mixer that is strong enough to knead bread without harming the motor. Using the Kitchen Aid mixer to make bread improved the texture and the flavor of my bread noticeably. High gluten bread flour takes a lot of kneading to bring out the gluten. This is hard to do by hand, but its no problem with a mixer. Also, the clean up is faster since you don't have flour all over the work surface.

The Basic Recipe

The Kitchen Aid mixer can accommodate bread dough consisting of six to seven cups of flour. I usually make a six cup recipe, which makes two loaves. Since bread has a shelf life of only a couple of days before it becomes stale, I slice the bread up and freeze it in freezer bags. The basic recipe I follow is:

The day before I am going to make the dough I take the starter out of the refrigerator and feed it (1 1/2 cup of water and 2 1/2 cups of all purpose flour). This allows the starter to become vigorous before it is used in the dough.

Even when I make "white" bread, I usually use some whole wheat flour. I like the extra flavor that the whole wheat flour gives the bread. I use 1 cup of whole wheat and five cups of white bread flour.

There are endless variations to this recipe. I just finished baking a rye beer bread made with two cups of dark beer, three cups of rye flour, one cup of whole wheat, two cups of white bread flour and a table spoon of carroway seed.

Bao Do

The artisan bread that we eat and bake is similar to the bread that was made hundreds of years ago by village bakers. There is something primal and wonderful about bread. All I've really provided here are hints. If you bake lots of bread you will find that your bread gets better over time. You will develop a feel for the bread and for the variations that you like. But each of us must find our own way in all things, including Bao Do.

Back on the Wheel

The attainment of Satori is supposed to free one from the cycle of reincarnation. In the case of Bao Do, Bread Satori is reached when one can attain artisan bread like that produced by a good bakery. I had largely reached this level in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is located in what is sometimes called "high desert", at 7,000 feet above sea level. The air is dry here and there is less oxygen. Two weeks after moving here I baked my first sourdough using the starter that I used in the Bay Area. The bread I baked was good, but not great. Where my bread in the Bay Area had the brown bubbly texture of great bread, the bread that I baked in Santa Fe had a finish more like Chiabata.

The sourdough starter is the same (in theory) and I'm still using King Arthur bread flour. So what changed? The water here is different. The house we are renting is on a well and the water is very hard. So I've tried bottled water, but it made no difference. The boiling point of water is lower here and water evaporates faster. So I've tried using different oven temperatures, both higher and lower. Still no change. I also have a similar problem with my sweet french bread made with bakers yeast. Perhaps the problem is the oxygen level, which is hard to do anything about. I still don't know. So contrary to the what is supposed to be the path of enlightenment, I'm thrown back on the wheel.

My next step is to try some new starters. A company called Sourdoughs International ( sells several different yeast cultures. Sourdoughs International was founded by Ed Wood, who is an expert on sourdough cultures.

Later: I tried the Sourdough Internatinal "Italian" sourdough culture and was not very impressed. See my comment below.

A View Backward

One of the chefs at Santa Cafe, a wonderful resturant in downtown Santa Fe, bakes excellent bread in a standard oven (e.g., he is not using a steam injected bread oven). So I know that excellent artisan bread can be baked at 7000 feet.

I did finally manage to bake good, but not great bread in Santa Fe. The problem with bread baked at altitude seems to be that water boils off the surface too fast. The starches do not have a chance to carmalize and form the bubbly texture of fine artisan bread. To try to keep the baking environment moist, I kept a pan of boiling water in the oven as I baked the bread (keep the empty pan in the oven while it preheats and then pour boiling water in the pan after you put the bread in the oven). I covered the bread with parchment paper, which helps trap steam coming from the bread. I also sprayed the oven with water during the first few minutes of baking.

The starter from Ed Wood's Sourdoughs International didn't live up to my hopes. At least to my tastes and baking style it was not as goood as the sourdough starter that I got from the King Arthur Baking Company. I baked with it for a while and eventually discarded it.

Sadly, my job in Santa Fe turned out to be the job from hell, although I loved living there. After two years in Santa Fe, I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. Bread Satori has returned!

[1] The Acme Bread Company has bakeries Berkeley and Mountain View California. Acme specializes in artisan breads.

Ian Kaplan, November 1999
Revised: December 2002

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