MAKING sourdough bread is not a job for efficiency experts. Dough made with a starter may take up to three days, depending on the degree of sourness you want. But bread made with sourdough has a personality all its own. And the starter, once established, is a joy to have in the refrigerator--that is, if you wish to accept it as a full member of the family that needs the same loving care you give the dog or the goldfish.

A sourdough starter is a small amount--usually about 2 cups--of batter-like substance that contains yeast enough to make bread rise. By itself, a starter is not strong enough to be made into dough unless there is an intermediate step--the sponge. The sponge is nothing more than a starter--plus more flour and water--in which the yeast cells wildly multiply and become stronger.

Traditionally, a flour and water batter became starter when friendly bacteria fell into it. Because a good starter strain is hard to begin, a successful batch was a protected item in pioneer households, and they nourished it with the periodic addition of flour and water.

When a starter is mixed with flour and a liquid, it will bubble and rise in its bowl; after 5 or 6 hours of fermentation it will begin to decline in volume, a phenomenon known to bakers as "the drop" or "the break." From this point forward, the sponge will become noticeably sour. Rye sponge, for example, is left for 3 days and, after it drops, it may not rise again unless stirred. Don't be discouraged. Things are happening while the mixture is maturing. If you want a loaf that isn't sour but one made with a starter, use the sponge immediately after the drop and before further fermentation.

A robust starter (or sponge) can be frozen. I keep a portion of an authentic San Francisco french-bread starter in the freezer at all times, so if the house burns down, I will not have lost it. You do, however, have to be patient with it to revive it. It won't be quite as virile as it was when it went in the freezer.

Many starters never come to life or are sickly from the beginning. Throw them out. They are not worth bothering about. The cost of materials is minimal.

Comes now a confession.

While starters are conversation pieces, I don't really like to have them around the house because I find it tedious to have to feed and water them. My San Francisco strain is the exception because it was so difficult for me to find, and it does make beautiful bread.

In sum, I would rather not.

But I do bake breads with starters and sponges. I simply view them differently: I don't care about longevity; I care about taste and texture. A wonderfully sour sponge for breads can be made with yeast (always reliable) from scratch in about 3 days. I think a slice of its bread is far superior to one made with a starter that has been in the refrigerator since last fall.

So the first step of traditional sourdough baking (the starter) can be bypassed, and the operation begun with a yeast-added sponge that becomes sour and is then made into dough. This is practical these days since reliable yeast is widely available and reliable starter is not. It is possible to use a portion of this mixture as a starter next time, setting part of it aside, nourishing it with additional flour and water, and refrigerating it for another day. The balance of the sponge, now alive and teaming with yeast cells, is made into a dough.

Two favorite breads--the ones I would want with me in the event I were to be shipwrecked--are "Old Milwaukee Rye Bread" and "California Sourdough Whole Wheat." One whiff of the sour dough and you will understand the close relationship that has existed between baker and brewer.

This kind of sour dough is so easy to make that there is no need to carry some of it over for another day. No fussing around with jars in the refrigerator. Start fresh each time.

Rye and whole-wheat breads are not the only delicious loaves that can be made with this short-term sponge. A number of french breads get their start with flours made into a batter and left overnight or longer.

Here are three breads and their starters/sponges: "Old Milwaukee Rye Bread" (three-day yeast), "California Sourdough Whole Wheat" (three-day yeast), and "Pain de Campagne" (overnight yeast). In each, 2 cups of starter or sponge can be refrigerated and used for other breads in the same family. OLD MILWAUKEE RYE BREAD (Makes 2 to 4 loaves)

This rye can be made into 2 round loaves or 4 slender long loaves, best for the buffet. The sponge will rise and fall as it bubbles to its maximum goodness in about 3 days, give or take a few hours. For the sponge: 1 package dry yeast 1 1/2 cups warm water (110 to 115 degrees) 2 cups medium rye flour 1 tablespoon caraway seed For the bread: All of the sponge 1 package dry yeast 1 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees) 1/4 cup molasses 1 tablespoon caraway seed 1 egg, room temperature 1 tablespoon salt 1 cup rye flour 5 to 5 1/2 cups all purpose flour, approximately 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening For the glaze: 1 egg 1 tablespoon milk 1 tablespoon caraway seed

Make the sponge 1 to 3 days ahead, by dissolving yeast in the 1 1/2 cups water in a large bowl. Stir in the rye flour. Add caraway seeds. Cover the bowl snugly with plastic wrap so that the mixture loses none of its moisture, which condenses on the plastic and drops back into the mixture. The dark brown paste will rise and fall as it develops flavor and a delicous aroma. This sponge, which will resemble a wet mash that's too thick to pour and too thin to knead, may be used anytime after 6 hours, although the longer the better--up to 3 days, when it will have ceased fermenting.

On baking day, uncover the sponge bowl, sprinkle on the new yeast and add water. Blend well with 25 strokes of a spoon. Add molasses, caraway, egg, salt, rye flour and about 2 cups of the white flour. Beat till smooth--about 100 strokes. Add shortening. Stir in the balance of the flour, a half-cup at a time, first with the spoon and then by hand. The dough should clean the sides of the bowl but it will be sticky due to the rye flour.

Turn the dough out on a floured surface--counter top or bread board. Knead until the dough is smooth, about 5 minutes. It may help to grease fingers to keep the dough from sticking.

Return the dough to the large bowl, pat the surface well with butter or shortening and place plastic wrap tightly over the top of the bowl. Put in a warm place (80 to 85 degrees) for about 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in bulk. Punch down and let rise 10 additional minutes.

Divide the dough with a sharp knife. For 2 round loaves, mold each into a smooth ball and place on a greased baking sheet. For the long slender loaves, roll out a long rectange of dough with a rolling pin. Starting at one long edge, roll tightly and pinch together firmly at the seam. Place these side by side on a greased baking sheet.

Cover the loaves with waxed paper supported on glass tumblers so that paper will not touch the dough. Return to the warm place until loaves have doubled in bulk, about 40 minutes.

With a sharp razor carefully slash 3 or 4 diagonal cuts on the top of each loaf. Brush the tops with water (for an unglazed crust) or a whole egg mixed with 1 tablespoon of milk for a shiny crust. Sprinkle the moist glaze with caraway seeds.

Bake the loaves in a 375-degree oven for about 40 minutes. When tapping the bottom crust yields a hard and hollow sound, they are done. If the loaves appear to be browning too quickly, cover with a piece of foil.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on metal racks. This bread keeps for at least a week and freezes well. CALIFORNIA SOURDOUGH WHOLE WHEAT (Makes 2 loaves)

During the three days the sponge is fermenting in the bowl, a whiff under the plastic wrap will be strongly alcoholic. I occasionally use a 1/2 cup of bulgur (soaked in water to cover overnight) to give the bread the texture of a country loaf. For the sponge: 2 cups warm water (105 to 110 degrees) 2 packages dry yeast 1/3 cup non-fat dry milk 3 cups whole-wheat flour 1 cup whole or cracked wheat grains (optional) For the dough: All of the sponge 1/4 cup dark molasses 1 tablespoon salt 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening 2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour, approximately

Begin the sponge 3 days before baking day by blending in a large bowl the warm water, yeast, milk, whole-wheat flour and the wheat grains. Stir well. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so moisture will not evaporate. Put in a warm place--80 to 85 degrees. Once each day, stir the mixture briefly and replace the plastic wrap.

On baking day remove the plastic wrap and set aside. Stir in the molasses, salt and shortening. Stir in the all-purpose flour, a half-cup at a time, first with the spoon and then by hand. The dough will be heavy and moist but when it cleans the sides of the bowl it is ready for kneading.

Turn the dough onto a floured work surface, counter top or bread board, and knead with the rhythmic 1-2-3 motion of push-turn-fold. It is a heavier dough than an all-white but presently the gluten will begin to form and the dough will become soft and pliable. Continue kneading. (The dough hook on large mixers does not work well in this dough.) Add small portions of flour (a teaspoon or so) to control the stickiness, if necessary.

Place the dough back in the mixing bowl and pat with buttered or greased fingers to keep the surface from crusting. Cover the bowl again with the piece of plastic wrap and move to a warm place (80 to 85 degrees) until the dough has risen to about twice its original size (judge how high it creeps up the sides of the bowl), about 2 hours. Because this is leavened with only the three-day-old sponge, it will not rise as fast as if it had been made with a fresh charge of yeast.

Punch down dough. Knead for 30 seconds to press down the bubbles. With a sharp knife divide the dough into 2 pieces. Shape into balls, and let rest under a towel for 5 minutes. Shape by pressing each ball--under the palms or with a rolling pin--into a flat oval, roughly the length of the baking pan. Fold the oval in half, pinch the seam tightly to seal, tuck under the ends, and place in a greased 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan, seam down. Repeat with the second loaf.

Place the pans in the warm place, cover with waxed paper and leave until the center of the dough has risen even with the edge of the pan.

With a sharp razor, slash each down the center just before placing the loaves in the oven. This allows the bread to expand without raising up the crust and gives this loaf an identification of its own. Bake in a 375-degree oven until deep brown and crusty, about 40 to 50 minutes. (If using glass pans, reduce baking temperature by 25 degrees). Turn one loaf out of its pan and tap the bottom crust with a forefinger. A hard hollow sound means the bread is baked. If not, return to the oven--without the pan--for an additional 10 minutes. If the tops of the loaves appear to be browning too quickly, cover with a piece of foil. Midway in the baking period shift the pans to different parts of the oven or simply exchange positions.

Remove bread from the oven. Turn the loaves onto a metal rack to cool before serving. This bread will keep for at least two weeks, tightly wrapped, and can be frozen for six months or more. Toasting brings out the special flavor and aroma of this delicious bread. PAIN DE CAMPAGNE (Honfleur Country Bread) (Makes 4 1-pound loaves or 1 large hearth loaf)

This begins with a versatile, all-purpose sponge that can be used for many breads. If to be used for a white loaf, drop the cup of whole-wheat flour and add one more cup of white flour. The whole-wheat is in the recipe because the combination of the two flours has the baking quality of French flour. The sponge can be left for up to three days to develop an exciting sourness. The sponge is enriched with honey, which the yeast loves. For the sponge: 1 tablespoon honey 1 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees) 1 package dry yeast 1 cup bread or all-purpose flour, approximately 1 cup whole-wheat flour For the dough: All of the sponge 2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees) 1 tablespoon salt 2 cups whole-wheat flour 2 to 3 cups bread or all-purpose flour, approximately

In a large bowl, dissolve honey in 1 cup warm water and add yeast. Stir to dissolve and let rest until creamy. Add 1/2 cup each white and whole-wheat flours to make thick batter. Add balance of 2 flours to make a shaggy mass that can be worked with the hands. Knead for 3 minutes. Toss in liberal sprinkles of white flour if slack or sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature (70 to 75 degrees) for at least 4 hours. Left overnight, it will develop even more flavor and strength.

To make the dough pour 2 cups of warm water (105 to 115 degrees) over sponge. Stir with large wooden spoon or rubber scraper to break up dough. Add salt. Place 2 cups each of white and whole-wheat flours at the side of the mixing bowl--and add equal parts of each, 1/2 cup at a time, first stirring with utensil and then working it with the hands. It may take slightly more white flour to make a mass that is not sticky. Lift from the bowl with the hands.

Place the dough on floured work surface and begin to knead the dough aggressively with a strong 1-2-3 motion of push-turn-fold. Once in a while lift the dough high above the work surface and bring it down with a crash to speed process. Do this 3 or 4 times, and then resume kneading. Dough will be moist, solid and a pleasure to work. Return the dough to the bowl (washed and greased), cover tightly with plastic wrap, and leave it at room temperature (70 to 75 degrees) to double in volume, about 3 hours.

Push down dough and turn out on well-floured work surface. Divide dough in desired number of pieces and shape with cupped hands into tight balls. Reserve 1 cup of dough to make wheat stalks later, if desired. Place on 1 or 2 baking sheets that have been greased and sprinkled with cornmeal. (Number of baking sheets will depend on number of loaves made and size of oven.) Press tops down to flatten tightly. The loaves are left under waxed paper to triple in size, about 2 1/2 hours at room temperature (70 to 75 degrees).

To decorate: Make wheat stalks. These need a large, round hearth loaf that measures at least 12 inches across. Shortly before the loaf or loaves are completely raised, divide the reserved cup of dough into 3 pieces. Roll each into a long strand 12 to 14 inches long. Place them parallel and beginning 4 inches from one end, braid to that end. Turn strands around and separate to make it convenient to cut the wheat design on each. With sharp-pointed scissors, make small cuts down 5 inches of strand--alternating right, center and left--to create grains of wheat protruding from the stalk before harvest. Leave remainder of stalk uncut and bare. Repeat pattern for each strand.

Lightly brush top of the loaf with water and carefully position the wheat decoration. Fan the upper stalks apart.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees 20 minutes before baking and place broiler pan on the bottom shelf. Five minutes before the bread goes in the oven, pour 1 cup hot tap water in the pan to create a moist, steamy oven.

Place the loaves on the middle shelf. Midway through the baking period shift loaves to balance the effect of the oven's heat.

Loaves are done when golden brown, about 50 minutes. Bottom crust will sound hard and hollow when tapped with a forefinger. Place on metal rack to cool before serving. Freezes well.