A Complete Glossary of Sourdough Terminology

The world of sourdough baking is both an art and science and if you're just getting started, you might find yourself facing fancy loaves and foreign terminology. But sourdough baking doesn't have to be hard!

It can be as easy as grabbing a sourdough starter and following a simple recipe you love. Let this glossary of terms be your guide as you explore the wonderful world of sourdough baking! You can do this!


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The process of creating a lively, vibrant sourdough starter either through refreshing a refrigerated starter or rehydrating and awakening a dehydrated starter. The goal of activation is to have a starter that peaks in activity and volume within 6-8 hours, indicating a high level of rise power for use as leavening.

HOW-TO VIDEO: How to Activate a Sourdough Starter



This is a step sometimes called for in recipes in which the flour and water are mixed just until combined and allowed to rest before adding salt, leavening, or further ingredients. The autolyze step provides several benefits through the hydration of the flour and the enzyme activity that follows.

These enzymes work to soften the dough while stimulating the beginnings of gluten development. It is done before any kneading is introduced, thereby improving both the flavor and the texture of the bread while cutting down on the kneading time that will follow.

Finally, the enzymes produced during this phase break the starch in the flour down into simple sugars which will feed the yeast in the sourdough starter. It is a simple step that can have huge benefits if practiced correctly.

LEARN MORE: How to Master Mixing Dough for Sourdough Baking



Bulk Ferment

This step is the first fermentation period of the dough after the initial mixing of flour, starter, and water and often comes after a period of kneading. The bulk fermentation generally takes place at room temperature, unless otherwise noted in the recipe and is a longer period of time (4 -12 hours) than the final proofing period. This step may be listed as proofing, rising, or bulk fermentation in a recipe but is always the first period of fermentation and a timeframe should be given in the recipe.




A term referring to the texture of the inside of a loaf of sourdough bread. Often based on the size of the holes produced by the carbon dioxide or the moisture (or lack thereof) in the loaf.




A dough is a mixture of water, flour, starter, and salt that is generally stiff enough to be worked by hand. Dough is most often used in reference to bread baking, even in higher-hydration breads. Conversely, a batter is generally a higher-hydration mixture that can be scraped or scooped but never kneaded or shaped by hand. Batters are often quick breads, pastries, or sweets.




The ability of a dough to hold its shape or return to its original shape after a fermentation period. Elasticity is dependent on the level of protein or gluten in the flour as well as the amount of fermentation that has occurred. Doughs can lose their elasticity if over-fermented. Also, low-protein flours do not produce as much elasticity as higher-protein flours. Elasticity is critical to the final shaping of the dough and, if diminished, will result in a dense loaf unable to trap carbon dioxide.




The process of adding flour and water to the sourdough starter to keep it active and healthy. This is usually done at least once per day, if the starter is kept at room temperature. For starters kept in the refrigerator, it only needs to happen once a week.


HOW-TO VIDEO: Feeding a Sourdough Starter


The main constituent of bread, derived from ground grain. In many recipes, all-purpose flour is generally meant when the word “flour” is used. Bread flour and various gluten-free flours are also used in sourdough baking but are generally specified as such in the recipe.

LEARN MOREHow to Measure Flour for Sourdough Baking


Fresh Starter

A sourdough starter that has been recently fed and appears active and bubbly. This is the stage most desirable going into baking with your sourdough starter.

READ MORE: How to Prepare Fresh Sourdough Starter for Baking




A mixture of two proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and einkorn. Gluten gives traditional breads their elasticity, trapping carbon dioxide that makes the bread fluffy and light. Considered a possible major allergen for those who are sensitive, including a growing population of those with celiac disease. Gluten-free sourdough starters are available for bakers wishing to avoid gluten.

LEARN MORE: Introduction to Working with Gluten-free Sourdough




A layer of liquid that sometimes accumulates on the top of the sourdough starter. It often has a component of alcohol to it due to infrequent feedings or stress on the sourdough starter. It can be poured off just before a feeding to rid the starter of any off flavors.

READ ON: Sourdough Troubleshooting FAQ



The ratio of water to flour in a sourdough starter or bread dough. The hydration is calculated by dividing the total amount of water by the total amount of flour.

READ MORE: A Closer Look at Sourdough Starter Hydration




The process of flour hydration and gluten development through movement. By stretching the dough upon itself, often on a lightly floured work surface, the gluten is activated and a smooth, elastic dough develops over a period of 5-15 minutes.




The bacteria present in many fermented foods that produce lactic acid which gives sourdough bread its characteristic tang. Lactobacilli also work to raise the bread through the production of carbon dioxide, a by-product of the fermentation process.


Leaven / Levain

A sourdough leavening agent made from a sourdough mother culture. This technique is often employed to boost the yeast activity of the sourdough starter by feeding a small amount of starter a larger quantity of flour and water.

For instance, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of sourdough starter, a leaven can be prepared 8-12 hours before the dough will be mixed by combining 1 Tablespoon of sourdough starter with ½ cup flour and a scant ½ cup of water. This leaven can then be used as the sourdough starter and will be quite active come baking time.


Long Fermentation

Refers to a slower, cooler fermentation over a longer period. This is often 8-24 hours but, with refrigeration, can be even longer. Preferable for those who prefer a tangier bread or the health benefits that go along with a longer fermentation. Often coincides with a small quantity of starter being used in the recipe.

LEARN MORE: Tips for Manipulating the Sourness of Your Sourdough



Maintaining a Starter

The act of caring for or feeding a sourdough starter in order to maintain its health and vitality. Because a sourdough starter is a living entity with bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms, starters need regular feedings and temperature considerations in order to stay alive and healthy.

HOW-TO VIDEO: Feeding a Sourdough Starter


Mother Culture

Another term for a sourdough starter.



Oven Spring

Refers to the final burst of expansion of a dough upon being introduced to a hot oven. At approximately 140 degrees the yeast is killed off but up until that point, a dough can expand in the oven in the first phase of baking. Many factors can impact oven spring including the length of fermentation, the gluten development, and the hydration of the dough.



Pastry Flour

A wheat flour generally lower in protein content than all-purpose or bread flour. This type of flour produces a tender crumb and is more suited for pastries like pie crusts, pancakes, muffins, and cookies than high-elasticity bread loaves.



Sometimes referred to as a sponge, a pre-ferment is a mixture of flour, water, and starter allowed to ferment before being mixed into the final dough. The subtle acid and yeast notes found in sourdough breads are what give it irresistible flavor but these are only possible after a period of fermentation. Pre-ferments are therefore often used to add flavor and depth to doughs which require a shorter bulk ferment or proofing period.



This is the final rise of the bread before it sees the oven. It generally, but not always, happens after the final shaping of the loaf.


Quick Breads

Those breads, often sweet in nature, that are usually leavened with chemical leavening agents such as baking soda or baking powder. Pumpkin or banana bread loaves, muffins of all types, and pancakes are common baked goods known by this name. Using sourdough starter, these breads can be made with or without a period of fermentation.




A common step in bread baking, often occurring directly after a kneading or shaping of the dough. A rest period allows the gluten in the dough to relax before a final shaping. This is especially important for stiffer doughs like those used in making pizza and bagels. May also refer to a period of fermentation or an autolyze step in which the dough is left alone, covered, at room temperature.



Short Fermentation

Refers to a faster bread fermentation of 3-8 hours. Preferable for those looking for sourdough bread in a hurry, those in warmer climates, and those who prefer their sourdough with a bit less tang. Often coincides with a larger quantity of starter being used in the recipe.



Cutting the outside of the dough with a very sharp razor or knife just before baking. This practice accomplishes two things. First, it can be used as a decorative element on breads, to create a signature look, or to create a design to help bakers of many loaves to tell one from the other. More importantly, however, slashing is used to help a bread expand in the oven without exploding, cracking, or creating unsightly bulges. Slashing both reduces the unpredictability and increases the loaf’s ability to expand once it meets a hot oven.



A type of bread made from a natural leavening agent known as a sourdough starter. Sourdough is made tangy by the lactobacilli present in the sourdough starter, hence its namesake.


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Starter / Starter Culture / Sourdough Starter

A mixture of flour and water used to leaven bread that contains bacteria, yeast, and organic acids. Made either by inoculating with an established colony of bacteria or by capturing wild bacteria and yeasts over a longer period.



An alternative to traditional kneading used to develop gluten. This method is often used in high hydration doughs and is performed periodically throughout the bulk fermentation. The concept is to take a corner of the dough, fold it upon itself, rotate the dough, and repeat. Once all four corners of the dough have been stretched and folded, gluten development and a smooth, elastic dough are underway.




A component of the sourdough starter contributing lift to breads. During the fermentation process, yeasts and bacteria feed off the starch and oxygen present and create carbon dioxide. This gas is trapped in the matrix of the bread dough, creating a risen bread dough.



Now that you know more sourdough lingo you're ready to dive into sourdough baking. Check out our sourdough baking ebook for more on the wonderful world of sourdough.

Happy Baking!