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Whole Wheat Sourdough: a new quest

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davidg618's picture

Whole Wheat Sourdough: a new quest

After two years following the directions and/or advice of Dan DiMuzio, J. Hamelman, a bit of Reinhart, and a lot of TFLers, e.g., dmsnyder, SylviaH, Susan, Debra Wink, proth5, hansjoakim, ehanner, ananda, and a host of others, I'm comfortable that I can consistently bake satisfactory sourdough loaves, reminiscent of Vermont, Norwich, San Jouquin, etc., while at the same time, feel they are subtly my own.

Of late, flavor-wise, I've been leaning more and more into sourdoughs with modest, but noticeable, percentages (15% -- 50%) of Whole Wheat flour. I've been concentrating on developing flavors we like: intensely wheaty, and for me, a sour presence, not overpowering but distinct. My wife prefers those with the in-your-face wheatiness, but much milder tang.

From an enlightening discussion between proth5 and dmsynder, and proth5's replies to a question about holeyness, i.e., open crumb, my own and TFLer Syd's observation about sour development in preferments vis-a-vis bulk fermentation, and just baking and tasting I'm satisfied I'm getting the flavors we want manipulating the levain's building (precentage flour prefermented, build schedule, time, and temperature) and bulk fermentation (time and temperature).

I've also encountered subtle, and not so subtle, changes in the final dough's gluten development seemingly dependent primarily on time and temperature during bulk fermentation. Although the 100% hydrated levain has been 1/3 of the final dough in all cases--30% of the flour (so far, all Whole Wheat) prefermented in the levain builds--bulk fermentation appears to have the dominant influence on two factors: wheaty flavor, and the dough's extensibility. On the other hand, how I develop the levain, especially time between feedings  clearly controls the degree of sourness in the final loaves, irrespective of the time and/or temperature of the bulk fermentation. However, I've not found a noticeable difference in the dough's gluten development whereing three batches were bulk fermented for 3.5 to 4 hours, but the levains were built differently: 1) a single feeding, fermented twelve hours; 2) Three progressive 1:1:1 feedings over twenty four hours; and 3) three progressive 1:1:1 feedings at 8, 8, and 12 hours respectively. All were fermented at 76°F. Flavorwise, the 12 and 28 hour levains had distinct sourness, more in the 28 hour levain; the 24 hour levain was quite mild.

In one case, made with the 24 hour levain,  I retarded half the dough overnight at 55*F (~12 hrs.). The other half I fermented at 76°F for 3.5 hours, and final proofed for 3 hours. That dough was well behaved. yielded good flavor, and modestly open crumb. The retarded dough was extremely slack, and I had considereable difficulty shaping the loaf--shaping is not my strong suit. Final proof took four hours, and I may have still underproofed slightly. Slashed and in the oven, it's oven spring expended itself horizontally. The flavor was excellent with no noticable acidity; the crumb was closed but not dense.

Today I'm building a levain (28 hour schedule) timed to start mixing tomorrow morning at 8 AM. I've changed the levain build flour to a 50/50 KA AP/ KA whole wheat. This halves the whole wheat content in the final dough. Once again, I'm going to retard half of the dough. I'm specifically looking for, if not answers, at least guidance for answering two questions:

Does reducing the amount of Whole Wheat effect the acidity in the levain?

Does halving the amount of Whole Wheat seriously reduce the wheat flavor in the final loaves?

I'm expecting the retarded loaf to have less extensibility' i.e., stronger gluten, because the Whole Wheat content is reduced.

I'm also expecting that the loaves will be edible, even enjoyable, even if all I come away with is more questons.

David G





varda's picture

Hey David, I have not experimented with different feeding schedules as a way of impacting sourness and wheat flavor.   What you are saying is interesting.    Please post pictures and exact formulas when it suits you.   I know you are experimenting with taste which is harder to share online.   -Varda

SylviaH's picture

Hi David, I know it's work to please the taste buds of two people in one loaf and lots of questions do come to mind when baking and tasting.  I like tasting my levain for acidity. 

Recently bakers have mentioned how they loved the nutty flavor of toasted wheat germ.  Maybe your wife would enjoy the added little subtle nutty flavor of toasted wheat germ or cracked wheat?


proth5's picture

Just some things that I have been thinking about that you may wish to consider.

What I have found is that whole wheat tends to ferment faster than white flour - chalk it up to the  higer amount of micro nutrients or whatever - it just does. So a retarding process that may work perfectly fine for white flour may be a bit too long for whole wheat with a degradation and a slackening of the dough as a result.

I've been considering from time to time that a lower hydration pre ferment will add strength to an otherwise weak flour.  I think about this a lot when trying to balance dough strength and extensibility in my larger loaves (and yes, I am working on other formulas beside my panned bread - I find these more anxiety producing and don't like writing them up unitl I've got them well in hand - which takes me forever...).  With a liquid pre ferment, it does not come as a forgone conclusion that extensibility will suffer because you have used white flour.

Again, things  I think about...

varda's picture

I have been struggling with a Gerard Rubaud formula (in fact making it right now) and several of the things you are saying seem pertinent.   I have had a lot of problems with the dough degrading - it is not that high percent whole grain but perhaps enough that I've been overproofing.    Also it uses a very low hydration starter - 55% - perhaps exactly for the reasons you are outlining.   Interesting to read this right now, while I'm smack in the middle of it.   -Varda

davidg618's picture

Your thoughts are timely. I wound up just making two loaves identically, discarding the idea to retard one loaf.

The levain build went as expected. I used a 50/50 mix of AP and Whole Wheat. Three 1:1:1 progressive feedings at 8/8/12 hour intervals, at 76°F. It had a sharp, fruity smell at completion--what I've come to recognize as a mildly acidic state.

The final dough was 15% Whole Wheat, 42.5% AP and 42.5% Bread flours, all King Arthur. 68% Hydration. 30% of the flour (15% AP, !5% Whole Wheat) was pre-fermented in the levain build.

I autolysed the mix for 1 hour. While I was doing bowl turns incorporating the salt, I noticed the dough was already slack. I'd intended to make two equal weight loaves at this point, but, in the moment, because of the slack dough I decided to do a 76°F bulk fermentation. I did reserve the possibility to divide and retard half the dough if the gluten developed strongly over a planned series of S&F's. It didn't. I did four S&F at 45 minute intervals, handling the dough especially gently. The gluten did strengthen, but not nearly to the degree I'm used to. For more than a year my weekly sourdough has been a 10% Whole Rye, 45% AP, 45% Bread flour, 68%Hydration dough that quickly develops strong gluten resistance, and ultimately extensibility in the late S&Fs. This dough began slack, and never developed more than whimpy strength. It didn't behave much like what I've come to know.

I'm happy with the flavors I'm experiencing. In fact, we're loving them. I'm trying to create more voluminous loaves, with good eye appeal, without giving up the flavors.

The only two variables I can think of effecting the dough are acid in the levain, and the shortening effect of the whole wheat bran.  I'm open to any and all suggestions.

David G

proth5's picture

in the levain should have a strengthening effect on the gluten.  My only thought would be to change to a firm pre ferment which would give more strength to the dough.

I've never used the method that you do for feeding the levain, so I wonder if there is an issue of the gluten in the actual build being degraded.  The method I use (and I'll admit that there is not "one true way" of doing this, I'm just describing "what I do") is to take a small amount of my storage starter (say 12% of the weight of the flour in the pre ferment) and use it as a seed in the pre ferment.  When the pre ferment is ripe - it gets used. 

I have had issues where I left my pre ferment get over ripe and I've had trouble with slack dough.

The only time I've done multiple feedings to increase the size of a build is with rye, with the Detmolder method.

I've been instructed to put some muscle in my stretch and folds as a way to give strength to slack doughs, but these are doughs that are slack because the hydration is high - not a 68% dough with mostly white flour and just a bit of whole wheat (15% whole wheat really isn't that much...)

I fixate on the percentage of flour you are pre fermenting and your build process because at the end of your mix the dough is slack and it shouldn't be.  My speculation is that something has gone wrong there.  Your pre ferment - even at 100% hydration - should be showing some pretty good elasticity - it should fight you a bit when you remove it from the container.  You don't mention that aspect of your pre ferment, but i would look there first.

Some things to think about...

davidg618's picture

I too have been thinking about preferments I've tried (levain builds). Wnat I do isn't much different than one feeding. Like you, I start with a mere 20g (3.7%) of 100% hydrated stored seed starter, and build 540g of levain feeding every eight hours approximately/ (I actually feed at the peak of activity which occurs regualrly between 7 to 8-1/2 hours at 76°F). I've used this method for about two years, and it has served me well. However, my levains, while very active, are also very mild, i.e., they produce either no discernable sourness, or only slight hints.

The past two whole wheat attempts have produced the best flavors, but conversely the slackest doughs. The most recent attempt is, of course, the one described in the posting above. I stretched the final feeding to 12 hours, even though it peaked at about 8 hours. The previous one, I built the levain (540g) in one feeding--all Whle Wheat Flour, 30
% of the final dough's flour. starting with 20g of seed starter, I fermented it for 12 hours.. I didn't observe its peak, but it was collapsing when I used it.

In both cases the twelve hours were my attempt to build a more acidic preferment ala dmsnyder's reported SFBI experience, and Robertson's cautions about long preferment times leading to sourer flavors. It seemed to work in both cases. The most recent case was less sour than the previous one. That made sense to me, because of the reduced amount (15%) of whole wheat flour. The previous attempt, however, yielded an even slacker dough.That was my motivation to try the latest iteration.

I feel I'm making progress, but, as I said, I was disappointed in the volume achieved, despite it being greater than the previous two loaves.

Next attempt (next week) I've tentatively decided to 1) build the levain in one feeding, 12 hours long, all white flour, and 2) try nicodvb's suggestion of soaking the whole wheat flour with salt. I know, that's two major changes, but patience has never been a long suit, and in early April we are having our fifth annual "Open House" party-- --  wherein I serve my lastest latest wines (I love fermenting), and the past two years my much improved bread baking. This year, I want to show off my Whole Wheat bread.

I say tentatively decided because I remain open to any and all suggestions including, "Why would you want to do that!?".

A related question. I've been following your most recent postings. How does one achieve a neutral hydration making a flour soaker?

Thanks again,





proth5's picture

with nicovd (did I get that right?) you are allowing a very long ferment with whole wheat flour.  He puts in more scientific terms, but I'll just say that your pre ferment is over ripe and an over ripe pre ferment will give you slack dough and low volume.  I promise you it will because I've learned that one the hard way.

I've been fooling around whole my home milled in pre ferments and as long as I use a firm pre ferment (which slows down the process and adds strength) or make absolutely sure the preferment is not over ripe, I don't seem to have problems.

This doesn't seem to be something that you can skate on.  If been told that if you allow the pre ferment to go over ripe that you should discard it - or use it as a lower percentage of the flour than you intended.  I've also been told that some instructors make their students use an over ripe pre ferment as a lesson.  Between those words and my own experience, I'm pretty careful to use my pre ferments only slightly before or at their peak.

What I haven't yet learned is how to make a "hydration neutral" soaker - and frankly if I were soaking flour, I wouldn't worry about it.  Really the intent of the hydration neutral soaker is so that you can mix a dough at a certain hydration and then add a soaker which will not upset the hydration.  Since hydration is always calculated against the flour no sense in putting yourself through that heartache if you are soaking flour.

I have put my little soaker in a sieve and had no water drip out only to find that when I mix it in the hydratiuon is, impacted.  Maybe the whole thing is just a matter of degree...

nicodvb's picture


I guess that the slackness of the dough is due to an excessive amount of proteolitic activity stemming the from the use of whole wheat flour in the levain build.

You are fermenting for more than a day the flour richest in enzymes. It doesn't surprise me that you are seeing a degradation of the gluten structure the very moment you build the dough.

If were in you and if I wanted to  have more volume I'd use only bread flour for the levain build, use the AP only in the final dough and use the whole wheat in a salted soaker. Salt has the power to block or drastically reduce protease, while having no effect on amylases. With a soaker you would still get a lot of flavor and at the same time you would be wetting and softening the bran.

I realize that what I proposed you is drastically different from what you are doing now and possibly would lead to totally different flavors, but I hope to help you to get to what you want.

davidg618's picture

You may be on to something, I'm going to try your soaker idea. Please read my reply to proth5's posting above, for more details.

David G

nicodvb's picture

for some reason I never remember things all at once.

David,  another possibility is adding some protease inhibitor to all of your your whole wheat levains, either soya flour (2-3%) or a tiny touch of salt (at most 0.5% respect to the amount of flour). Soya flour works quite well and in those small amounts it doesn't affect the taste. Salt works very well, but if you add too much of it the levain won't rise; moreover I guess it will also compromise somewhat the fermentation, thus the sour taste you want to get.

For some reason my rye levains (100% hydratation) seem to be totally indifferent to salt even if I use 1% (or just a bit relented if I get to 2%), but my wheat levains in the same condition don't really like salt above 0.5%.


Both ingredients worked well in my experiments.