The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Breaking Bread, an exploration of bread and its many facets

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ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

Breaking Bread, an exploration of bread and its many facets

A fellow user asked a great question recently:  How does a baker tell when bulk-fermentation is finished?

Of course, I do not think we can begin to answer this question without firstly asking some other questions, like:  What is fermentation, and how does one measure it?  And why ferment in bulk in the first place?

My favourite question to ask baking classes or new baking apprentices is, what is bread?

The simplest answer I've found is that it's a paste made from the ground-up seeds or grains of tall-grasses combined with water.  Sometimes there's salt, sometimes not.  Sometimes it's leavened, sometimes not.  Sometimes it's baked, sometimes not.

For the purposes of this discussion, I think it's best to focus on one grass, wheat, as well focus on only two types of controlled fermentation, alcoholic- and lactic-acid-based.

We know that fermentation is a series of irreversible, physical changes that take place once the conditions for fermentation are met (in our case, mixing flour, water and the leavening agent).  The aim of these fermentations?  To make whatever it is we are fermenting edible (nutritious and tasty); of course, there are many other uses for fermentation (like preservation), but these are outside the bounds of this discussion.

We also know that time is completely irrelevant to fermentation.  What does matter, especially for flavour, is the type and number of physical changes that take place in the fermentative process.  We also know the elements that most affect the type and quantity of aromatic flavour compounds in a final dough come down to substrate type and condition, redox potential, inoculation percentage, the nature and condition of the sourdough culture, and the nature and conditions of the fermentation.

So, I ask this question to anybody reading, why do we ferment in bulk?  Once we answer this question, we must then answer the second one, how do we measure fermentation?  And what, exactly, is "done?"


PiPs's picture

Ok ... i'll bite ... though my grasp of the technical terms is pretty limited.

Why do I bulk ferment my doughs? well ... as I hand mix and use a small amount of levain, I like to utilise a slow bulk ferment to achieve a mature balanced dough with minimal physical effort on my part - a balanced dough that is both extensible and elastic - a dough that is a pleasure to shape and that holds its shape during the initial baking.

Would I be right in saying that fermenting in bulk would also encourage more flavour development as opposed to a lengthy proof of single loaves?

I utilise my senses to measure fermentation (feel the dough, smell the dough and visual signs) plus known factors such as the dough temperature, inoculation amount, flour type and the amount of time passed since mixing ...

"Done" for me is when the dough has matured and displays the right balance of extensibility, elasticity and cohesiveness ... but I always keep in mind that fermentation will continue on regardless ... and if I misjudge the cues then I will need to adapt my procedures to suit.

Anyhow ... have to head off ... I enjoy these questions ... it challenges my to think why I bake the way I bake ... putting these thoughts and feelings into words is quite difficult for me.


varda's picture

to see if he had anything to say about why a bulk fermentation step.   He only alludes to something which is to say that rye doughs and stiff doughs require only a short fermentation as they don't benefit from stretch and folds.    So I imagine that he is implying the reason to do a bulk ferment step is in order to be able to allow the dough to develop using manipulation in the form of folds to help it along.    He also says that stiff doughs will need to be degassed prior to shaping which would be something that couldn' t be done if one had only a single fermentation step with shaped dough.    So this would say that dough structure quality is the determinant for ending bulk fermentation.