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Professor Calvel's Starter

This is a part of our Sourdough Starter Primer.

A quick apology - this page is being worked on, so it may change drastically every time your look at it.

After the Second World War, American GI's returning from France raved about the bread they had enjoyed there. However, after that time, the quality of French bread began to decline. There are as many explanations for this as there are people doing the explaining. By the 60's, French bread had become largely tasteless, bland, uninspiring and uninspired.

There is probably no one who had more influence on the revival of French baking than Professor Raymond Calvel. Professor Calvel not only acted as a cheerleader for the renaissance of bread in France, but also shared the techniques that allowed French bakers to again move up to the levels that had been taken for granted a few decades earlier.

One of the best baking books I have ever read is his "The Taste of Bread". It inspires bakers to seek greatness. It offers the tools to help the baker get there. The only drawback to this book is that it is so expensive. If you can find a copy for less than $75.00, grab it, it's a bargain.

In the book, Professor Calvel outlines how he makes a sourdough starter. It is worth mentioning that this is one of my preferred ways to start a starter. It is quick and reliable. It takes him about 2 1/2 days. One thing I really like about this approach to starting a starter is that there are no bumps in the road, and no judgement calls. Follow the timings, have faith, and you'll have a starter in about 2 1/2 days. It will need to still mature, but it will be usable in 2 1/2 days.


Detailed Instructions

The drawback is that at least one of the feedings will be at an inconvenient time. The middle of the day or the middle of the night. My old way of making starter was twice a day, and that didn't have to be 12 hours apart, which made it much easier to fit into most people's work schedules. You can fudge the timings a bit, but I'd definitely stay within a couple of hours. My suggestion is to do it over a weekend or when you otherwise have a couple of days off.

The process calls for rye flour. I've found that whole wheat flour works as well. Different people get different results, but it seems that starters I start with rye flour tend to go bad more quickly than starters I start with wheat flour. Your mileage may vary.

You'll need rye flour (or whole wheat flour), all-purpose wheat flour, dried malt extract (available from a brewing supply house or health food store), salt and water. Professor Calvel's starter is quite dense. A common technique when starting a starter is to use 1 part of water to 1 part of flour by weight. Professor Calvel's starter uses 10 parts of flour to 6 parts of water. As a result, mixing this starter usually involves energetic kneading.

The starter should be kept around 81 Fahrenheit or 27 Celsius. While this is not as critical as some might think, it does help the starter start quickly and reliably. However, it is worth noting that a number of papers suggest which yeast and bacteria establish a starter depends in large part on the temperature of the starter. In a natural starter, we don't ever get a "pure" starter with just one yeast and one bacteria. Many of the organisms that were on the flour to start with are still in the starter, just at lower concentrations than the dominant organisms. So, if you change the conditions you are using to maintain the starter, a different set of organisms could well take over. The sad observation that, "All my starters might start different, but they all become alike" could be because when you keep them at the same temperature, and you feed them the same flour the same way, the same set of organisms could well take over all your cultures. So, it may be helpful to create the starter at the temperature you will normally use it.

A recurring question with regards to sourdough starter is what sort of water may be used with it. Many people insist that sourdough starter can be killed by chlorinated water. Others say that it cannot be started with chlorinated water. In my experience, chlorinated water has not been a problem. I have started, fed and used starters with chlorinated water with no problems. However, I have heard that the more persistent forms of chlorine used by some cities, such as chloramine, can cause problems.

In general, if your tap water smells and tastes good it will probably work well with sourdough. If you have problems with your starters, you may want to try using de-chlorinated water. Since few home filters will remove chlorine from water, and from what I am told neither boiling nor standing will remove chloramine, I suggest that you try bottled water if you are experiencing what you think might be water related problems with your sourdough.

Two flours are used to start and build this starter. One is a dark rye flour or whole wheat flour. It should be fresh, organic and stone ground. The other is a fresh, unbleached, unbromated. organic, stone-ground all-purpose wheat flour (or as many of those qualifiers as you can find). In most recipes we just assume the flour we are using will be a wheat flour. Since this recipe contains rye flour, I feel it important to mention the all-purpose flour is a wheat flour.

Some people may want to use whole wheat flour rather than a refined white flour. I find that refined flours work better here because they do a better job of nurturing the starter without adding as many competing organisms as we'd get from a whole grain flour. Once the starter is stable, you may use it with whole wheat. Some people may prefer to use a bread flour rather than an all-purpose flour. In general, I find all-purpose flour gives a better flavor at the cost of some rise. You should try different flours and compare the tastes. Ask friends who don't know what flours you are using to taste also. You may be surprised at the results. You may want to look at our flour tests. Due to spacing issues in the chart, I'll just call the fresh, unbleached, unbromated, organic, stone-ground all-purpose wheat flour "all-purpose flour".

Notes from the current starter build feeding 1 - the starter was dry and like a thick dough. It was easy to mold into a shape. Before feeding 2 - while the starter hadn't perceptibly risen, it seemed softer, moister and almost light. After feeding 2 - while the hydration was the same as after feeding 1, the dough was wetter and softer, though still stiff.

A quick reminder - the organisms we are cultivating are already on the flour, so there is no need to expose the starter to the air. In fact, if you leave the starter uncovered, it will dry out between feedings. So, please use some clingwrap or a beautician's processing cap to cover the starter between feedings.

Time Starter Flour Water Salt Malt
0 Hours (start) (No, this doesn't have to be midnight, it's just whenever you start) 0 Grams 300 Grams whole rye
300 Grams all purpose flour
360 Grams 3 Grams 3 Grams
22 hours later 300 Grams (discard all but the 300 grams) 300 Grams all purpose flour 180 Grams 1 Gram 2 Grams
7 hours later 300 Grams 300 Grams all purpose flour 180 Grams 1 Gram  
7 hours later 300 Grams 300 Grams all purpose flour 180 Grams 1 Gram  
6 hours later 300 Grams 300 Grams all purpose flour 180 Grams 1 Gram  
6 hours later 300 Grams 300 Grams all purpose flour 180 Grams 1 Gram  

At this point, the starter should be doubling its size between feedings, and should be sufficiently mature to use. It is one of the fastest ways I know of to start a good starter. I have tried scaling this process down, and it does not work well when cut back to 1/10th the size given here. If anyone scales this process with success, please drop me a note.

Note: Since this was first published, I have received a number of emails from experimentally minded readers. It seems to work quite reliably at 1/2 the listed size. One person scaled it down to 1/10th the listed size and it worked, however others have had trouble at that size. 1/4 of the listed size has also worked for a number of people. The next time I need to start a fresh starter, I'll try 1/4 the listed size.

In each step after the first, 300 grams of starter are brought forward from the previous step. For the first few steps the rest of the starter should be discarded as it isn't yet stable and may not be entirely healthful. Once the starter is rising reliably, you may want to set the extra starter aside, saving it to make pizza shells, sourdough cupcakes, pancakes or other goodies.

This starter is considerably thicker than the starter the recipes in this web site use. In the interest of simplicity, I'll suggest you maintain this starter the way I suggest starters be maintained throughout this site (feed them no less than twice a day while the starter is at room temperature, feed equal amounts of flour and water by weight, and each feeding should be enough to double the size of the starter.) If I ever add advanced sourdough pages to this site, I'll talk about other options.

If you are curious about why malt extract and salt are used in this process, I suggest you buy the book to read Professor Calvel's explanation.


We are having issues putting thumbnails of our videos here, so we're putting in simple links instead.  You can, of course, head on over to our YouTube channel at

Here are our videos -

Day 1, noon - the first mix or feeding -

Day 2, 11:00 AM - the second feeding - 

Day 2, 5:00 PM - another feeding - 

Day 2/3, Midnight - It's ALIVE!!! - 

Day 3, 6:00 AM - Morning ALREADY? -

Day 3, Noon - Almost there! - 

Day 3, 6:00 PM - BREAD! (almost) - 

Day 3 (yet again!) - BREAD! (AGAIN!) -



Baking Bread With a 2 1/2 Day Old Starter

Baking Bread With a 2 1/2 Day old StarterA little mangled but still nice

There are days I shouldn't be allowed in the kitchen unattended.  I haven't burned a house down - yet - but there is little limit to the mischief I can get into.  Orr the careless blunders I can blunder into.  This bread was supposed to demonstrate that you can make a decent bread with a 2 1/2 day old starter.  All was going well until it was time to bake.  The Dutch oven had been heated in the oven at 500F/260C for an hour.  It was ready and waiting.  I put some parchment paper on the counter and tried to get the dough to leave the banneton and get on the bakers parchment.  Nope. Wasn't gonna happen.  My attempts to get the dough out worked, but I had a mangled dough ball.  At that point, there was nothing to do but bake it and see how it came out.  And the answer was, not well, but better than expected.  Somewhat mangled shape, decent crust and not as open a crumb as one might like.  Oh well, what of that?  The bread was a decent bread.

Our plans are to start a new starter and film the baking of this loaf early next week.  We'll update this sad text and the photos at that time. *sigh*  I tried to rush making the second starter and it rebelled.  The first 22 hour period is critical!  About the time I was ready to try again our air conditioning died.  In Texas,  In August.  Maintaining the starter at 81F became problematical.  So, I waited.  Now, the A/C is fixed!  And a new starter is underway.... stay tuned!

This recipe was based on one from Sune, The FoodGeek on Youtube.  It's a nice light rye recipe, and it lets you use up some of the whole wheat or rye flour you used to start the starter.  Most of this is covered in the video.  I'll let you know where the video stops.

Ingredients for two 1 1/2 pound loaves:

Volumetric Measure (Cups)IngredientGramsBaker's Percentage
4 2/3 CupsWater62077.95%
3/4 CupActive Sourdough Starter16020.04
4 7/8 CupsFlour, Bread63079.96
1 1/4Flour, Rye16020.04
1 TBSPTable Salt19.32.43

Mix the ingredients by hand until all the flour is incorporated and wet.  Cover and let the dough rest for 30 minutes.

Stretch and fold the dough.  I prefer to dump the dough on the counter the first time and tease it until it is about 1/3 it's original height.  You can see this in our Stretch and Fold post.  This lets me look for flour that didn't get incorporated into the dough and mush it until it is part of the dough.  Fold down from the top, up from the bottom, and then in from the sides.  If the dough seems weak, gloppy and sloppy, just give it another stretch and fold.  Put it back in the bowl, cover it, and let it rest for 30 minutes.

After the 30 minute rest, stretch and fold the dough again.  I am leaning towards the coil fold.  Cover. and let rest another 30 minutes.

After the third rest, do another stretch and fold, cover and let it rest (you guessed it) another 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes check out the dough.  If you can't pull a clean windowpane, give it another stretch and fold, cover and let it rest.  Repeat this step until you do get a clean windowpane.

Once you have a clean windowpane, transfer the dough to a bulk fermentation container and let it rise 25 to 50%.

Once it has risen, divide into two equally sized loaves.  Round the loaves cover with a floured cloth and let them rest 20 minutes.

After the rest, shape them into boules, put them into bennetons, cover them, and put them into a refrigerator or wine cooler to ferment overnight.  I let them rise overnight in a wine cooler at 41F/5C.  I prefer the warmer temperatures of a wine cooler to the lower ones of a refrigerator.  We talk about temperatures in this article about Retarding Dough.

When you are ready to bake, put your Dutch oven into your oven and preheat for an hour to 500F/260C.  Pull the Dutch oven out of your oven, close your oven, pull one of the loaves out of your cooler, and put it onto bakers parchment, slash the dough, and using the baker's parchment as a sling, lower it into the Dutch oven.  Cover the Dutch oven and put it into the oven for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, uncover the Dutch oven and reduce the temperature to 425F/218C and bake for another 25 minutes.

Remove the bread from the Dutch oven and put on a cooling rack.  Close the Dutch oven, put it back into your oven, raise the temperature back to 500F and let the Dutch oven heat for 1/2 hour.  At this point, repeat the steps above, starting with "When you are ready to bake".

Try to let the bread cool before you slice into it!

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