Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Welcome to the Baker’s Corner, our first column! We are Karen Mitchell and Sarah Mitchell Hansen, proprietors of the Model Bakeries in St. Helena and in Napa at the Oxbow Pubic Market. We are excited to partner with the Napa Register twice a month as we take you through the magical and sometimes mysterious world of baking. With decades of experience, we hope to be able to make bakers out of some of you, and help encourage those who already have a love for baking.

When we were approached to do this bimonthly column, we immediately thought that our inaugural effort should be about what we are most known for, our sourdough bread. There’s really nothing like a warm loaf of sourdough to accompany your meal, be it breakfast for toast, lunch for sandwiches, or as the ideal bread to share at dinner with family and friends.

Sourdough has a special history in the San Francisco Bay Area and the North Bay. Sourdough was the main bread made during the California Gold Rush, and it remains a part of the culture of the San Francisco Bay Area today. The bread became so common that “sourdough” became a nickname for the gold prospectors, and pioneers brought it from place to place in their backpacks.

Sourdough so much represents the Bay Area, even the San Francisco 49ers mascot is named “Sourdough Sam.” The San Francisco variety has remained in continuous production for nearly 150 years, with some bakeries like Boudin Bakery able to trace their starters back to before California’s statehood.

What makes sourdough unique? Sourdough is a dough containing a lactobacillus culture, usually in symbiotic combination with yeasts. It is one of two principal means of leavening in bread baking, along with the use of cultivated forms of yeast, producing a distinctively tangy or sour taste, mainly because of the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli. The actual medium, known as the “starter” or “levain,” is essentially an ancestral form of pre-ferment, and is made with a small amount of old dough saved from a prior batch, which is often called the “mother.”

This small amount of old-dough starter contains the culture, and its weight is increased by additions of new dough and mixing or kneading followed by rest or leavening periods. A small amount of the resulting dough is then saved to use as old-dough starter for the next batch. As long as this starter culture is fed flour and water weekly, it can stay at room temperature indefinitely. The starter typically makes up about 20-25 percent of the final dough, though it can vary.

It is not uncommon for a baker’s starter dough to have years of history, from many hundreds of previous batches (our starter was actually born straight from our family’s vineyard). As a result, each bakery’s sourdough has a distinct taste. The combination of starter processes, refreshment ratios and rest times, culture and air temperature, humidity, and elevation also makes each batch of sourdough different.

At the Model Bakery, we make several different types of sourdough — our pain levain is a European-style sourdough made with levain starter and small amount of whole wheat flour; a sour rye, which is an American-style rye bread made with sourdough and a rosemary sourdough, which is a traditional sourdough made with fresh rosemary grown in our gardens.

For this column, we’ve included a recipe for our traditional Bay Area-style sourdough bread. The recipe included is a home version of the one we use to make the hundreds of loaves daily to sell in our shops and deliver to restaurants here in the Napa Valley and other parts of the wine country.

A few important tips.

Number one: Don’t rush it! Wait for dough to double in volume, which can take longer than two hours, depending on room temperature. Finger test your dough — press side of loaf and if it holds the indentation it’s not ready; the dough has to spring back.

Slash the top of the bread before putting in oven with a knife or razor blade so it can expand, and finally, don’t forget the steam! Make sure to use a spray bottle in the beginning to help the dough expand, then, when the steam dissipates, the dry heat creates the thick crust, which makes the sourdough so uniquely crunchy.

Here’s to your baking success and we hope you enjoy our version of the classic sourdough bread.

Model Bakery Sourdough Bread for the Home Baker

Yields 4 pounds of dough

26.4 oz. (3 1/3 cups) unbleached bread flour (90 percent)

3.2 oz. (1/2 cup) whole wheat bread flour (10 percent)

18.4 oz. (2 1/4 cups) water at 80 degrees (64 percent)

16 oz. (2 cups) starter/levain (50 percent)

.72 oz. (1 1/2 Tbsp.) fine sea salt (2.5 percent)


If you do not have a starter, we will need to make one.

Enjoy food? Get dining and recipe ideas sent to your inbox

First, we must make a culture. To do this you will need, 1/2 pound of whole wheat flour and 1/2 pound of white bread or AP Flour, plus 1 pound of water (2 cups) and a clear bowl or container.

Mix these three ingredients together until there are no clumps and it is the consistency of a pancake batter. Cover with plastic and place in a cool area in your house. Let sit for 2-3 days. After 2 days, check your mixture for bubbles. There may be a dry film on the top of your mixture. If so, remove and if you can smell a funk or acidic smell, you are ready. If not, let sit for another day. However, if you have bubbles or a funky smell, you have successfully made a culture.

Now you are ready to build your starter.

To do this, you will again need your culture, 1 pound of flour, 1 pound of water and a bowl or container. Remove all but 1/4 of your culture, about 1/2 pound. Mix with equal parts flour and water — 1 pound of each.

Do this around the same time every day. It is important to keep your living, breathing starter on a consistent schedule. Use 1/4 pound of your starter and 1 pound flour and water to feed it on a daily basis. As soon as your starter is rising and falling on a consistent and normal basis (about a week), you are ready to start making bread.

In a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, combine your starter and water. Gently stir together until ingredients are blended together. Add both flours to your mixture and combine until you have a shaggy mass, about a minute. Scrape down bowl and let rest for 10 minutes. This is called autolysing. Autolysing will fully hydrate your flour and give strength to your dough, as well as crossing out an extended mixing time.

After 10 minutes, turn your mixer on first speed and add salt. Mix until dough starter to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Once this has happened, switch from first to second speed for about 1 minute or until dough starts to look smooth. If you feel the dough needs more mixing, you may knead by hand till dough is fully developed.

Place dough in an oiled bowl and let rest for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes punch down your dough and place in the fridge overnight.

The next day remove bowl from fridge and let sit at room temp for about 1 hour or until the dough feels workable. On a lightly floured work surface, divide your dough into two equal parts and shape into balls. Spray two bread pans with spray or oil. Shape both balls into loaves. Cover with a tea towel and let proof for 2 hours. Check your dough after the 2 hours. If they are soft to the touch and have doubled in size, you are ready to bake.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Place a pan of hot water on the bottom rack of your oven to steam while baking. Mist loaves with water and put in the oven for about 20 minutes. At this point you can drop your oven to 400 degrees and open just a crack to finish the baking process, about 15-20 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow after tapping the bottom. Let cool, and enjoy!

For close to 90 years, the Model Bakery has been part of the Napa Valley culinary scene, providing breads, pastries and coffee at the flagship location on Main Street in St. Helena. Karen Mitchell has been proprietor of the Model Bakery for nearly 30 years. Karen’s daughter, Sarah, works with her mother as managing partner of the bakery.