don't I need a sponge?


hey there,

I recently purchased 2 awesome books on sourdoughs: "wild sourdoughs" by Yoke Mardewi, and "classic sourdoughs" by Ed and Jean Wood. Both books are very easy to use, well presented and tickled my curiosity to try new things.

Only one thing remains a question for me at this stage. Neither books include in their method the preparation of a sponge. Both preconise the mixing of all ingredients followed by resting, kneading, resting, shaping and proofing.

I made Yoke's cursty semolina sourdough (the first recipe in her book) and though I was happy with the taste of the bread, it came up very dense. too dense really. so I obviously went wrong somewhere, and I think possibly my starter, which for the first time last week I put in the fridge - I always used to keep in on the bench. I took 200g of the starter out, fed it, waited about 12 hours and used it. is this the right way to do it?

Also a change in the method: instead of proofing it for 4 hours, as advised, I allowed 1 hour proofing on the bench and then overnight in the fridge.

FInal change in the method, I used a dutch oven. the bread looked amazing coming out of the oven and tasted great. But it was so dense that I ate most of it in very thin toasted slices.

I don't think my changes in the method made a big difference, but naturally I could be wrong. I am about to send Yoke an email (generously shown at the end of her book to ask her about it as well.

another question, also in regards to Yoke's recipe book: She specify what type of starter I need for her recipes, ie white starter, rye starter, mix of different flour starters. Let's face it, I only have room for one starter in my life. Will it be a complete disaster to use my modest plain starter for all her recipes?


Many thanks,



ps on the bench now is the sponge for Ed and Jean Wood's spelt bread. I have again changed the method, which tells to mix all ingredients at the start, and have made a sponge this time, also increased water by 100ml, this loaf will be ready tomorrow. Maybe I am shooting myself in the food again by not following methods....

159 users have voted.


farinam's picture
farinam 2012 September 18

Hello Olivier,

Here is my thinking/understanding.

One good reason for making a sponge is to prove that your starter is alive and well.  This is the same as yeasted recipes tell you to mix the yeast with flour, water etc and leave to stand till frothy - just so you don't start with dead yeast and waste your valuable ingredients.  However, if you are confident about the freshness of your yeast/liveliness of your starter, it is a step that can be by-passed with no ill effect.  Although I usually make a sponge, I have made sourdough without doing so and I can't remember the last time that I 'proved' yeast.

With respect to the starter consist, there is an argument that if you change the make up of the material presented as feed too drastically, the beasties can get a bit sulky for a while - a bit like kids really.  If this happens you might not get the rise that you expect.  One method that I have used is to grow a matching starter in stages (often only over 24 hours).  You start with a small amount (a few grams) of your regular starter and feed it with the new flour (blend) to tenfold the mass.  Then after a suitable time (8 hrs), feed it again to tenfold the mass again. This will give you the amount you need for your loaf (I use 180g of 100% hydration).  If it takes to the new feed and is good and active go for it - if it is still a bit sluggish, repeat the exercise.  As an aside, I have never had to do that.

You didn't say how large a batch you were making, but you said you took 200g of stock culture and fed it.  How much did you end up with and what was the percentage of starter in your recipe?  It sounds like a fair bit.  The 1-2-3 proportions are a good basis to work on though I do know that the proportion of starter does vary from recipe to recipe and baker to baker. 

On the topic of timelines, at best the published ones are a guide, since it depends a lot on your room temperature, altitude etc.  The main things that you have to aim for is proper dough development (learn the window test) and proper shaping and proving of your loaf (learn the poke test).  After a while you get used to what happens in your kitchen and you can go by feel.

The other thing is not to give up.  Make the same recipe a number of times and as you get to know it, the quality of your bread will improve and you will use the method that suits your equipment and lifestyle.  There are as many ways to make a good loaf of bread as there are bakers in the world.

Keep on bakin'


Semolina 2012 September 19

Hi Olivier

You do not need a sponge for sourdough. I have baked many successful sourdough loaves from Ed Wood's book and can tell you that I have never seen it advised to proof a sourdough overnight in the refrigerator. While this may work well when using commercial yeast I believe sourdough needs to proof at room temperature (or warmer) to develop properly.

HelenF 2012 September 19 so much that I find it difficult to stick to a straight recipe.  However although I am only new to sourdough baking I am not new to baking with commercial yeast so I understand dough to a degree.  The first loaf I made was the light rye/spelt sourdough from Yoke's book- the recipe for which I followed as written and it turned out really well.  It would have been much better had the dough not stuck to the cloth when I turned it out and collapsed somewhat.  Given this small disaster I was very surprised how much my dough had still risen.  Did you do the 'poke test' to see if you had given the bread an ideal proof?  Had it doubled in size overnight?  If not, I probably would have left it on the bench to wake up a bit and get moving again so that it is proofed correctly before baking. I  haven't much experience with baking in a dutch oven but I wouldn't leap straight into that-but that's just me.  I'd like to see a good amount of direct heat and steam getting to my bread as soon as it's in the oven.  I think it's great to experiment but the real lessons can be learned by only altering one variable at a time and that way you've got more of an idea of at least what might have gone wrong.  I have a batch of dough for Yoke's Pain au Levain recipe sat in the fridge ready for a bake today (retardation method).  It's been sat there for a few days and definitely hasn't doubled so I'm expecting that once it's out and shaped that it will need a good few hours to rise again (if it's going spidey senses telling me I might be in for a dissappointment with this one).

Looking forward to following your progress.



SlackerJohn 2012 September 19


           A sponge is just an intermediate stage between the active starter and the final dough.  I have never used one (but often wondered why anyone does!) and the results are very acceptable. 

I too have Yoke's book, which I mainly use for the ingredient ideas and proportions (which are great), and the oven handling.  In between, I just do my own thing.

I am with you on the starter - one white flour starter is enough, and works for everything!

I once baked a loaf like the semolina sourdough.  Short proof on the bench then overnight in the fridge (supposedly equivalent to 2 hours in the kitchen.)  It also seemed to pass the poke-test, and there are those here who bake straight from the fridge.  So I did too, and it was an absolute brick!  I struggled through it but did not force my wife to join in.  Worst loaf ever.  So, beware of under-proofing!


Olivier 2012 September 19

heaps of really useful comments from  bloggers. Thank you so much.

Just an update on yesterday's effort. It ended up in disaster unfortunately. about 10 mins after writing that entry, I started seeing flashes. For those who suffer from migraines - I mean the true blue head splitting bastards - and dispite a coktail heavy meds, 30 mins later I was in a very bad state. I just had time to put the sponge back in the fridge and go to bed with a bucket.

This is now the next day. I have got the sponge out of the fridge for the second time, added the rest of the flour, kneaded it and it is now resting on the bench. I take it as advised that a sponge is not a necessary step, so I have made a second loaf this morning, omitting the sponge. my starter was at its best. 8 hours still to wait for the dough to double in size.

I am aware as well that this sounds like I am in love with the fridge, but the second proofing needs to happen there. Past experience have shown great result, better sour taste and easier handling of the dough. Also, I am not going to proof the dough starting at 8pm, as I have an 8 month old who will wake up once or twice a night. - you know you have been taking care of a small child for a few month when you are woken up at 4am thinking that was a great night.

Semolina, I still take on board you comment about proofing in the fridge. Can I ask you if you are talking about the second proofing as well? I know that a lot of people like the idea of retardation to fit baking into their lives. my wife tells me: "I hate living by the bread". Hence my effort to make it more seemless. Are you saying that the second proofing is better at room temperature?

Farinam, I used 240g of starter, 300ml of water, 85g of rye, 100g of spelt and 240g of white. Because I made a sponge first though, I only used half the amount of rye and white, then added the rest earlier today. The sponge was quite bubbly, though not as much as usual. the recipe also calls for a bit of salt, sugar and oil which were mixed in at the sponge making stage.

I know of the window and the poke tests, though I almost never do them. I normally trust 'the way it looks'. I should do them though, as they are easy and give me a good indication.

John, thanks for the reassurance on my white starter. It's also very reassuring that bloggers who seem more experienced than me still have ups and downs with their loaves. It's akin to waiting for a test result when you know you have struggled, but all in all you are doing well. as a side comment, my wife came home from work starving. She ate the rest my one day old semolina brick - I don't know how. That said, I really like Yoke's book and will attempt many of her recipes.

will let you know how my loaves are going later today or tomorrow.






farinam's picture
farinam 2012 September 19

Hello Olivier,

I'm not sure exactly what you are calling a sponge.  I had assumed that you meant taking an aliquot from your stock and feeding it with flour and water then leaving it for a time to get active, then you mix it with the dry ingredients and liquid ingredients to make your dough.  As a for instance, I keep my stock at 100% hydration.  The night before (say) I take 90g of that and feed it with 45g flour and 45g water that gives me 180g of starter/levain/sponge/whateveryouwanttocallit.  That then is used in its entirety to make the dough, typically with 500g flour, 320g water and 11g salt.  My stock also gets a feed of 45/45 and goes back into the fridge. 

If your sponge is 'stock' starter plus the water and half the flour, then maybe you would be better to leave the other ingredients (salt and oil) until the main mix

Assuming that your 'starter' is 100% hydration, the recipe that you give works out to 77% hydration for the dough which I would imagine should be reasonably soft and would need some work to develop the strength but certainly not impossible.

In terms of the dough testing, I was not sure how confident you were with dough handling and if you are happy with your feel for it then don't feel obliged to have to do it. 

Stick with it, it's obviously tasty enough if even a brick gets eaten.

Keep on bakin'


HelenF 2012 September 19

just an update...the dough I had proofing in the fridge was an absolute disaster!  Worst loaf I have ever made- it seemed like it was almost liquid when I turned it onto the peel.  That was following yoke's proportions so I've got no idea what happened.  I thought the dough did seem a bit soft.  Next loaf I am just going to wing it and see what happens.  All part of the learning process I guess : )


Olivier 2012 September 19

Hey Helen,


I am sure you will master those in no time.

I have proved and shaped my 2 loaves an hour ago. both of them doubled in size, which is great. but the first one (the one I had made a sponge first and spent 2 nights in the fridge) was definitely not a dough. It was so slack that it was almost liquid. I added a massive amount of flour to it just so that I could turn it on the bench. it's now in the fridge for the night for the second proofing.

by the way, I have used proofing in the fridge and just before baking for a few weeks now and I am very happy with the result. I asked how to do this a few blogs ago. I also asked about dutch oven a couple of month ago. I will not go back on this one. it's great. do try it, I am sure you will be very happy with the result. you preheat the oven with the lecreuset or lacloche or any cast iron casserole at 250C for at least 30 mins, with the lid on. Take the dough out of the fridge, turn in on a piece of baking paper, get the casserole out, leaving the lid in the oven, slash the loaf and place it carefully in the casserole. put the lid back on, and in the oven for 30 mins with lid on, and 15 mins with lid off, leaving the temp at 250. I put a water bath in the oven as well. it gives me great oven spring and nice crust.

good luck with future bakings and let me know how you go in your next endeavor!



Olivier 2012 September 21

both loaves were baked yesterday, and both are fine. in fact, they are really similar. I am a bit surprised since the method used for both differed completely. Anyway, we ate the first one pretty much straight away. the air bubbles were not as large as I normally get them, but I wasn't surprised. That's the loaf that went to the fridge twice.

also, I received the third and last book I ordered, Tartine Bread. really beautiful. I have decided to go back to a mostly white bread to work out Chad's technique.





HelenF 2012 September 21

that's what happened with the dough I had in the fridge-turned almost liquid!

I've since made another loaf that was most acceptable although I still struggled a little getting it onto my 'peel' without damaging the dough somewhat.  Problem is that my peel is only the bottom of a tart tin.  I actually consider myself a dab hand with a pizza peel but can't quite make this makeshift solution work.  I will give the dutch oven a go soon and am working up to a fridge final proof next so hopefully that will give good results as it seems a lot of people here swear by it. Unfortunately my baby son seems to be sensitive to wheat or bread (aggravating his eczema) so I end up giving most of baking efforts away as I'm still breastfeeding.


Olivier 2012 September 21

My 8 month old, breast fed, also sufflers from eczema. the doctor got my wife on a wheat free, dairy free diet a few month ago. we now think that cow milk protein was the issue, though he still has eczema. We just keep control of it with steroid cream. We hope that he will get over the eczema naturally as many baby do, in time.

I hope your son gets over his sensitivity to wheat. Good luck with everything!


HelenF 2012 September 22

Hi Olivier,

As Thomas' eczema was so bad and I wasn't satisfied with the side effects of using steroidal creams, I had him tested for allergies and he has come back positive to eggs, dairy and peanuts.  Eliminating these from my diet has made the world of difference (he just has a bit in his limb creases now) but I do notice a deterioration after I have been eating bread or drinking wine (always feeding expressed milk if I have a glass) but not necessarily after eating couscous so it makes me think it might be a yeast intolerance.  It's such a releif to have it under control.

Looking forward to following your progress.





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