Tassajara Sponge Method for Sourdough Bread, with Optional Autolyze

Sliced loaf

Sliced loaf

By Cat, May 2011 and July 2011 (Photo and bread, right, by Cat)

The sponge is a means of ensuring your starter is very active, with strength to rise the bread dough. In this version, part of the sponge is removed after the rise, to be used as starter for next batch. The sponger is the first step in the bread recipe, and includes an overnight rest. All sponge methods produce a lighter loaf with better rise. And – big bonus – the sponge does a lot of the work, so you don’t have to knead as much for a lighter result!

This method is from The Tasssajara Bread Book by Edward Epse Brown (1). The sponge includes: 1) starter (should be an active starter – lots of bubbles); 2) all of the warm water required for the recipe, and 3) roughly half the total flour for the recipe. After the rest, the original amount of starter is removed to be used as starter for the next batch. The remaining flour plus salt and oil are added after the overnight sponge rest.

Tassajara Whole Gran Sourdough, Sponge Method

I’ve been a fan of the Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown, ever since it was first published in 1970, and now in its 3rd edition. It includes a section on sourdough. I tried this in August 2011 with mixed results; however, subsequent to that trial I realized my starter was contaminated, so I made a new starter using all whole-grain spelt flour and have had better success. See testing, below.

This method is very similar to Carla Emry’s method, differing mainly in the method for preserving the starter, and the amount of starter used (Tassajara uses a larger amount of starter than Carla Emry). You make up the sponge, some of which will replenish your starter and the remainder will be used to build the bread.

An autolyze is a resting step for the dough that allows the dough to hydrate, before salt is added to stop the autolyze. See second recipe below.

The original version makes 4 loaves, or individual dinner rolls or English muffins. I halved ingredients for 2 loaves. For testing, I made only 1 loaf. Per testing, I conclude that adding an autolyze step gives a better result. I’ve updated ingredient amounts per testing, but include original amounts crossed-out & in parenthesis).

Recipe for 2-loaves

  • Sourdough ingredients for 2-loaves:
  • 1 ½ cups starter (4 of my ladles-full)
  • 4 ½ cups whole wheat or spelt flour (5 cups)
  • 2 ¼ cups lukewarm water, plus up to 8 Tbsp for spelt; OR 2 ¾ cups plus up to 8 Tbsp for wheat (3 ¾ cups)
  • After sponge: 
  • ½ cup oil (optional)
  • 3 ½ – 4 cups whole wheat/spelt flour (5 – 6 cups)
  • After Autolyze:
  • 1 Tbsp unrefined sea salt
  • up to ½ cup unbleached white flour for kneading

Recipe for 1 loaf 

NOTE: amounts in red are as adjusted per testing

  • Sponge ingredients for 1-loaf:
  • ¾ cup active starter (2 of my ladles-full)
  • 1 cup warm water, plus up 6 Tbsp for spelt, or 10 Tbsp for wheat, added 1 Tbsp at a time.
  • 2 ¼ cups whole wheat or spelt flour
  • After sponge:
  • ¼ cup olive oil (optional)
  • 2 tsp unrefined sea salt
  • 1 ¾ – 2 cups whole wheat or spelt flour
  • up to ¼ cup unbleached white flour for kneading

Original Method (without autolyze)

  1. Sponge: Sift flour into large mixing bowl. Add starter without mixing. Then mix together while adding water gradually, until thick and pasty. Beat well (100 strokes) to develop the gluten. Cover and let rest overnight. [If using spelt flour, you may need less water, and limit rest to 7 hours; see Tassajara Sourdough Sponge testing]
  2. Next morning: Remove same amount of sponge as starter you’d used originally (1 – 1½ cups), to replenish your starter.
  3. Sprinkle oil and salt over sponge, then stir to combine while adding flour a bit at a time until incorporated. Allow it to rest about 5 minutes if it gets hard to work. When it comes away from the sides of the bowl, remove to a floured board to knead about 5 minutes. It will be softer and stickier than yeasted bread.
  4. Divide kneaded dough into 2 loaves (or use all of kneaded dough for 1 loaf), putting each into a greased/buttered loaf pan. Each should fill ¾ of space in the pan. Cut diagonal slits in top of each dough. Let rise in a warm place, until almost doubled in bulk, or until it is a little above the top of the pan, 2 – 8 hours [If using spelt flour, it will take less time, about 2 hours; see Tassajara Sourdough Sponge testing).
  5. About 30 minutes before the rise is finished, preheat oven to 425°F. When hot, spritz loaves with water (or brush it on), and place in hot oven to bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°F and bake about an hour longer, until internal temperature of 190°F.
  6. Remove bread from pans to cool thoroughly on rack before slicing

Sponge-Autolyze Method: Recipe for testing 1 loaf

I wanted to test adding an autolyze step to the Tassajara recipe. I used my new whole spelt starter for this test, and followed Tassajara method (detailed above), but modified for autolyze process (per Northwest Sourdough’s Autolyze Experiment #1 (4) and Sourdough Baker, Sponge method with autolyze (3)).

Because I used spelt starter and spelt flour for this test, I had to shorten the sponge-rest time to 6 hours (spelt works up faster than wheat).

1-Loaf Testing Recipe 

  • Sponge: 
  • ¾ cup active starter (2 ladles-full)
  • 1 ¼ cup + 2 Tbsp warm water
  • 2 ¼ cups whole spelt flour
  • Autolyze:
  • 1 ¾ – 2 cups whole spelt flour
  • After Sponge:
  • 2 tsp unrefined sea salt
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • up to ¼ cup unbleached white flour for kneading


  1. Sponge: Combine water and starter to make a slurry. Add flour for sponge and mix it in. Place bowl in moistened plastic bag and let rest 5 – 6 hours.
  2. Remove ¾ cup starter (2 ladles-full) to perpetuate starter.
  3. Autolyze: Work in remaining flour, kneading as necessary.
  4. Let rest 2 hours, to hydrate the dough.
  5. Finish Bread: Add salt and oil, and mix into dough, kneading as necessary.
  6. Place dough in oiled bowl, rotating to coat all surfaces with the oil. Place bowl in moistened plastic bag and let rise until doubled (use finger indent test after 1 hour, then every 30 minutes after), about 2 hours total.
  7. Punch down, flatten to about 1” thick, roll into a cylinder and seal the seam. Place in buttered pan (seam down). Spritz/brush with water and cut slits on top.
  8. Final rise: Place again in moistened bag and let rise again. It should at least rise to top of pan; can also do a finger test in pan (see below). Preheat oven to 425°F about 30 minutes before end of rise.
  9. Bake: Spritz again with water. Place in preheated oven and bake 20 minutes. Reduce oven to  425°F and bake about 45 – 55 minutes, to  425°F internal temp.
  10. Remove from pan to cooling rack.

Finger tests for rise

  • In bowl: Poke it with 2 fingers (apart), about 1/2” deep; if it holds the indent, it’s ready (per Bon Appetit (5)Choosing Voluntary Simplicity (6)) or if it mostly holds the indent but springs back a little (per Fresh Loaf (7).
  • In pan: With one finger, make a SMALL dent in the dough near the side of the pan. If dent remains it is ready to bake. (from Choosing Voluntary Simplicity (6)).


  1. The Tasssajara Bread Book by Edward Epse Brown
  2. Epicurious, Bread Basic Steps including autolyze (www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/howtocook/primers/breadbasicsteps)
  3. Sourdough Baker, Sponge method with autolyze (sourdoughbaker.com.au/baking-methods/pre-ferments-in-doughmaking/sourdough-sponge-method.html)
  4. Northwest Sourdough, Autolyze Experiment #1 (northwestsourdough.com/discover/?p=2558)
  5. Bon Appetit, on finger test (bonappetit.com/tipstools/tips/2008/04/letting_yeast_dough_rise)
  6. Choosing Voluntary Simplicity, on finger test (choosingvoluntarysimplicity.com/how-do-i-tell-when-bread-dough-has-risen-enough)
  7. Fresh Loaf, on finger test (thefreshloaf.com/node/15368/second-rise-proofing-tests_

About Cat

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