17 easy ways and tips for making your homemade sourdough bread less (or more) sour while still preserving its delicious tangy flavor.
I often get asked how to make sourdough less sour. Or if you are like some people, you might like your bread to have a more sour taste.
I personally like my bread with a balanced, not too sour taste. But I often get asked about making bread more sour. As in San Francisco extra sour sourdough bread.
In this blog post, I am describing some basic principles of sourdough. Knowing these, you can then easily manipulate the sourness of your sourdough bread to your liking.
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What is sourdough?
Sourdough is a leavening agent. It consists of flour, water, lactic acid bacteria, and wild yeasts. This fermentation produces carbon dioxide that makes your bread rise. If you use sourdough in your bread recipes, your bread will be easier to digest, has a better aroma and flavor, and stays fresh and lasts longer.
Lactic acid bacteria feed on the simple and complex sugars of the flour. In doing so, they produce lactic acid and acetic acid, usually in a ratio of ⅔ to ⅓. The fermentation of the natural yeast produces small amounts of alcohol that are also converted to acetic acid. While lactic acid is milder with a more yogurt-like flavor, the acetic acid tastes more like vinegar.
Here are the various ways in which you can influence your sourdough to make your bread either less sour or more sour:
1. The flour
The type of flour you use does influence the sourness of your bread.
If you like your sourdough bread to be less sour, use more or mostly white flour or all-purpose flour. The more whole-grain flour you use the more sour your bread will be.
Of course, you can mill your own flour which will be even better. This is the grain mill I recommend.
2. Rye flour
If you want your bread to be even more sour, add rye flour to your sourdough recipes. Knowing this, you can play with the types of flour and amount of whole grain to white flour until you achieve the flavor that you like.
3. Oat flour
Also, in my whole grain sourdough bread, I have found that adding some amount of oat flour makes it taste very mellow and less sour.
4. Fermentation Temperature
The fermentation temperature probably plays the most important role in sourdough baking. Warmer temperatures encourage lactic acid production making your bread less sour. Cooler temperatures (such as room temperature) on the other hand favor acetic acid production and make your sourdough more sour.
This means that you may have to adjust differently whether you’re baking in the summer or in the winter. Pro Tip: You can check out my review of the Sourhouse Goldi that keeps your sourdough starter at an ideal temperature.
If you place your bread dough in the refrigerator, you are “retarding” your dough and thus giving it an even more complex flavor.
5. Water temperature
Playing with the temperature of the water that you add to your recipe is one of the best ways to affect the sourness. It is also easier to control than the ambient temperature.
If you like your bread to be less sour, use water at about 80˚F. If you like to increase the sourness, use warm water at about 90˚F to really get the yeasts and acid producers going.
6. Fermentation time
The temperature during the fermentation process also affects a more or less sour flavor.
The longer you let your dough rise, the more sour it will be while letting it rise for less time, makes it milder in flavor. This goes hand-in-hand with the fermentation temperature. The cooler the temperatures, the longer it takes, and the more sour your bread will be. Some people like to do the bulk fermentation in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.
7. The age of the sourdough culture
A fresh starter will produce milder bread while a more mature sourdough starter will create a more sour dough.
8. How often you use/feed your sourdough starter
If you feed or use your starter more often, it will be milder. If on the other hand, you leave your sourdough starter in the refrigerator for a long time, it will become more acetic and sour.
9. The hydration of your starter
To increase the sourness, use a stiff starter at a lower hydration but if you like your bread to be less sour, use a wetter starter.
10. The amount of sourdough starter you use
If you use a small amount of starter, it will make the bread more sour. Conversely, you can make your bread less sour if you use a bit more starter than in your sourdough bread recipe.
11. The type of starter
Many bakers like making and using a 100% rye starter. Rye flour will give you a very active that will make your bread rise better – and taste more sour.
12. Sourdough starter feeding
This might get pretty scientific and very specific but this is another good way to affect the sourness of your bread.
Every sourdough culture will rise to a peak and then slowly deflate again. To experience this, it is a good idea for you to observe your sourdough culture to get a feeling for this cycle.
Feeding your sourdough starter before its peak will decrease the sourness of your bread while feeding your starter a few hours after it has peaked will make your final bread more sour.
When I teach people how to make a sourdough starter, I will recommend that they stir it vigorously. This will add more oxygen to your starter which will also encourage the acetic acid bacteria thus making it more sour. For a less sour bread, I recommend you don’t go overboard here.
Many sourdough bread recipes call for a preferment, leaven, mother culture, or levain. Essentially it is a mixture of some good starter, water, and fresh flour. You then let that sit for some time before adding the remaining ingredients. This preferment will do a few things:
It will really get your bread dough going and give it a good rise. But it will also make your final dough more acidic and sour.
Salt will slow down the fermentation of your dough and make it less sour. Typically, we add about 1-2% of salt to the dough. High-quality sea salt is always my choice. If you like a more sour bread, you can add just about 1% or a tad less salt to your dough.
16. Adding milk or fats
What else you put in your dough, can also affect the sourness. A simple sourdough bread recipe only calls for flour, water, salt, and a starter which will give it its unique flavor.
If you wanted a milder bread, you could add additional ingredients such as butter or milk. Adding olive oil will give you a softer dough structure and softer crust. Sourdough foccacia is a good example of a recipe where that is actually a desired outcome.
17. Adding baking soda
Adding a pinch of baking soda makes your coffee less acidic. Likewise, it makes sense that adding a bit of baking soda to your bread dough will also decrease the sourness of the final bread. As an added benefit, it will help make your dough rise more (check out my sourdough soda bread recipe).
What about San Francisco sourdough?
San Francisco is famous for its often very sour sourdough bread. Every sourdough bread contains over 180 different species of lactic acid bacteria (source). The most common one is Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis and it was first identified in San Francisco sourdough. It grows particularly well in that Northern Californian city climate but pretty much exists in sourdough all over the world.