Jeez! I finally posted the secret to sourdough starter this summer, and then…I swear I thought I’d posted this follow-up. But I hadn’t. And I realized it today, because I went looking for this post to send to a friend, and it DIDN’T EXIST. You guys! Next time throw something at me to get my attention!

Ah well. The good news is, even if you started a wild yeast starter allll that time ago, as long as you put it in the fridge as instructed, it’s STILL FINE. You can (probably — nothing is guaranteed in life) still use it. Amazing, right? The power of sourdough!

Here’s another piece of good news: I have found that in order to bake with your sourdough starter, you do not need to have a special recipe. I will give you some at the end of this post, but it’s NOT NECESSARY. I figured out a trick to adapting yeast-based recipes for use with sourdough, and as long as you’re okay with doing a little experimenting to get things just right for your particular starter, you can go ahead and bake your favorite recipes with your new yeasty pet.

So how do you take this wet, yeasty, slurryish beast and turn it into bread? Well….

Step One: Wake it Up

You need to wake up your yeasts for a proper result, and this step is probably why people always think of sourdough as time-consuming and difficult. It’s really not — but you do need to plan ahead.
Waking up your yeasts involves making what’s known properly as the “sponge.” It’s really just like what you did to make your starter in the first place: You’re going to feed your starter and get it nice and cozy and warm so the yeasts will wake up, eat, and — as seven-year-old P. delightedly reports — burp. The burping creates the bubbles…the bubbles create the rise. Science!

So if your starter has been hanging out in a jar in the fridge, as it ought to be, you’ll remove it and transfer the whole lot to a large, clean bowl. Again, you’ll hopefully avoid using a metal bowl — enamel or glass is best.

To the starter in the bowl, you’ll add an equal amount of flour and warm, filtered water. (How warm? Baby’s bathwater — not hotter than that!) As with creating the starter, I recommend equal amounts by volume, so just use a dry measuring cup for both the flour and the water. And again, as with the starter, I recommend all-purpose flour. You can use whole-wheat or whatever you like when you actually bake, but keep your starter and sponge pure all-purpose for the most stable results.

RRG, you say “equal amounts.” But how much????

Excellent question. The unhelpful answer is “it depends.” But I’ll try to quantify it for you: This first time, let’s say four cups of each. What matters in the end — as you’ll see — is that after you’ve used as much as you need for baking, you have AT LEAST one cup of the sponge leftover for the future. So there’s a bit of crystal-balling involved here, but I generally find four cups is ample for most needs.

After adding the flour and water, you’ll stir vigorously, then cover the bowl with a cloth and set aside in a nice warmish area for 12 hours.

At the end of 12 hours, you should have something bubbly and active-looking, much like you did when you first created your starter. Congratulations: That’s your sponge!

Step Two: Using the Sponge

The sponge is what stands in for the packaged yeast you’re probably familiar with. But of course, it looks so different from that little envelope of dry granules! And it is different. Be prepared, because that means the dough you’ll create with it will be different, too.

Before you do anything with your sponge, I want you to clear your mind of any notions that you’ll be kneading a slightly tacky dough. In sourdough baking, a wetter consistency is what you want — the wet dough creates the nice air pockets and crisp crust. For that reason, the sourdough products I bake are basically no-knead, though I do find that my stand mixer is helpful in working the dough for me.

Now here’s the BIG SECRET. I have found that — give or take — I can substitute my sourdough starter in almost any bread recipe by using this method:

Cups of sponge = 1/2 the number of cups of flour in recipe
Cups of liquid = 1/2 the called-for amount

It’s wild, but in general, it works. So that means if you’ve got a pizza dough recipe that calls for 4 cups of flour, you’ll use 2 cups of sponge in place of the yeast. If the same recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of warm water, you’ll use about 3/4 cup instead.

Step Three: Saving Your Future Sourdough

Before you continue with any sourdough baking, it’s vital that you understand something: The sponge you’ve got in front of you is STILL YOUR STARTER. That means you’ll want to preserve some of it for future baking, unless you want to go through all the tedium of collecting a wild yeast starter every single time you bake (ugh).

In order to keep your starter happy, you’ll need AT LEAST one cup of it to set aside for the future. What I generally do is keep a clean large Mason jar on the counter whenever I’m setting a sponge. Then, when I’m ready to bake, I ladle the appropriate amount of sponge into my baking bowl — and then pour the remainder into the Mason jar. I almost always have more than 1 cup leftover. But if you’re skittish at first, ladle out that crucial 1 cup into your jar BEFORE you proceed with anything else, just so you’re not anxious.

HIGHLY IMPORTANT: Never, ever, ever, EVER put anything into your sponge other than flour and water. No salt, no sugar, no honey, no NOTHING. That’s what keeps it functional as a flourishing starter for future baking. Once you’ve taken your crucial cup (or more, if you’ve got it to spare) and sealed it back into a clean jar in the refrigerator, you can add and embellish to your heart’s content with what you’re using for baking. But that jar in your fridge is sacred. Don’t be tempted to mess with it!

With your future sourdough secured in your fridge, let’s get back to baking.

Step Four: The Method

To bake with your sponge, you’re going to deal FIRST with all liquids, THEN add dry ingredients. This is a bit different from the way you’ve probably baked breads before, but it’s the best way to deal with the wet dough you’re creating.

Once you’ve ladled the correct amount of sponge into your baking bowl (for me, this bowl is the one that attaches to my stand mixer — using a stand mixer with a dough hook is an easy and neat way to handle sourdough, though you can absolutely do it by hand), add to it any liquids, such as milk or water. You’ll also add any “feeders” at this point — sugar or honey, for example, that are intended to give the yeasts something to eat other than plain flour. The only exception to the liquid rule is that I hold back any melted butter or oil until later.

Mix the sponge, liquids, and feeders well. Now you’ll add your flour. If the recipe calls for a range (such as 5-6 cups of flour), I recommend starting with the smaller amount. Along with the flour, add any salt and herbs or spices that are going into the dough. Mix until you’ve got a well-combined dough without big clumps of flour. It will likely be very sticky and wet, and that’s a good sign; but if it’s actually soupy, then you can add a little extra flour, half a cup at a time, until it’s just a thick wet dough. (Think: If you poured it out onto a board, it wouldn’t hold its shape — this is not a dough you should be able to handle easily!) Now if there’s any butter or oil to add, pour it in with the mixer running and let it work in until it’s fully incorporated.

Now you’re ready to let your dough rise. Expect that this step will take at least twice as long, and generally even longer, as you’re used to with commercial yeasts, about 3-4 hours. You can even let it go longer than that — many sourdoughs are long-fermented, for 8 hours, 12, or 24+! In my kitchen with my starter, I wouldn’t attempt that long a rise as I’m worried my yeasts would punk out on me, but maybe someday I’ll try it and report back. It likely won’t double in size, either, but that’s okay. The wetness of the dough will mean that it doesn’t become the big, puffy cloud you’re probably expecting. But it will grow some, and you’ll be able to tell that it’s gathering strength!

What happens next depends on the recipe. For pizzas, pitas, etc., you’ll be ready to bake without a second rise — but for most breads, you’ll want another rising period. My favorite thing to do with bread dough at this point is to turn it out into a well-buttered enameled Dutch oven and let it rise in there for another 2-3 hours, then bake it in the pot.


Ready? Sure you are! It’s easier than you think! Here are some of my go-to recipes for  sourdough:

Sourdough Dutch Oven Loaf
Sourdough Pizza Dough
Sourdough Pitas