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Flat bread...Please help!

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CB85's picture
CB85

Flat bread...Please help!

I am having a really frustrating problem and I hope someone can help. I can only seem to bake flat loaves of bread. They never come close to round...just thick discs. They taste good but this is making me nuts. I am using the basic sourdough recipe from BBA which didn't seem like a terribly high hydration bread. I played around  with the hydration but I stopped that after I kept getting such flat loaves. My crumb is ok...kind of tight. It was better when I was playing with the hydration and increased it, but the lead was still flat. I have been extending the proofing times because the temperature had only been 70 at most. I think I am decent at telling when the dough has doubled now, although I have played around with this too.

My two guesses now.

Could my starter just be too sluggish? I only feed it once a day and it is active but maybe I am not letting it go long enough? Or too long? 

Maybe I am kneading incorrectly, or not enough? I have tried my fair share of machine and hand kneading. Today I thought was my best window pane so far, and still flat flat flat!

cranbo's picture
cranbo

Posting a photo will help troubleshooting a lot. 

With so little info, here's my best guess: 

  1. Your starter is too sluggish. Store it at room temp, feed more regularly (2x per day). Share more details on your feeding schedule & technique. If a 100% hydration starter (equal parts flour + water by weight) can't at least double in 4-6 hours at room temp, your starter is not active enough. 
  2. Did you proof the shaped dough in a container (banneton, loaf pan, etc), or freeform? If free form & high hydration, it's likely it will flatten, this is the nature of the beast. Reduce hydration or bake in a container (see #4 below). 
  3. Did your loaf double in volume during bulk fermentation and almost double during proofing? If not, 99% chance your dough was underproofed. Watch your dough, not the clock. Your dough will indicate when it's ready for the next step in its lifecycle.
  4. Try baking in a cast iron dutch oven or loaf pan, this will help with oven spring and better loaf volume, especially using really wet doughs. 
  5. You don't need to knead a lot to get good dough volume; you DO need to develop the right amount of dough strength. Search these forums for "stretch and fold" technique. 
CB85's picture
CB85

I thik you may be right about the starter. I will have to start paying closer attention to it and seeing how fast it doubles. It is 100% hydration starter. I usually just discard or use about half every night and feed it the same amount of flour and water I took out. So if I took out 2/3 cup for my recipe, i add back 2/3 cup water and 2/3 cup flour. The starter is about 2 months old, but I used to feed it twice a day. Could that be making a difference?

Also, when I increased the hydration before, I did try the stretch and fold technique I saw on this site, and it did help with the crumb a lot.

Thanks for replying, I really appreciate your input!

cranbo's picture
cranbo

2/3c flour and 2/3c water is not 100% hydration; it's 180-190% hydration, depending on how much your flour weighs.  This is a very runny, watery batter-like starter that makes it difficult to tell whether it's active enough, because it's tough (or impossible) to see it double. 

As I said before, 100% hydration is equal parts flour and water by weight (not volume). This yields a slower rising,  thick, non-pourable batter. Weigh your ingredients to achieve 100% hydration starter. Otherwise, use 1/2c flour, 1/4c water, and 1 heaping tablespoon of leftover starter to approximate 100% hydration starter. 

It will be much easier to tell when a 100% hydration starter is ready; it should double or triple in volume within 4-6 hours of being fed.
 

Davo's picture
Davo

Need details of qtys and times used for various stages.

I reckon more people overprove rather than under - the thought is "the more proofing, the more rise", and that's only true to a point. Once you are past that point, more rise in the loaf before the oven will equal flatter bread out of the oven. If you let a loaf rise until it is about to start to collapse and bake it then (ie at its absolute biggest) you will certainly end up with a flat dense disc - it won;t hold its structure in the oven, and gasses will leak out of it like from a sieve. The key is to bake it when it's still on the way up, but has risen enough to be satisfactorily airy.

I personally don't subscribe to doubling of dough during bulk fermentation (and yes I know many do). For me, I get higher loaves when bulk fermenation delivers around a 30-50% increase in dough size. For me, anything much more than that means there's relatively little rising capacity left for the proof. I'd rather thave a longer proof and a shorter bulk fermentation, so long as the bulk has gone for a few hours and had lots of stretch and folds through it..

For me, the best indicator of over versus under would be the poke test - does your dough have at least some degree of spring still in it when you poke a floured or wetted finger about 1 cm into it, just before baking. If it springs most of the way back and farily quickly, I'd agree it might well be under, but if it has no spring left, more likely it's over... For me, if it springs back about 2/3 and slowly, it's about right (although each to their own, a little at least).

One reason i'm sceptical of underproof is that underproved loaves are more usually dense and small certainly, but not so often flat. They more often burst and tear and spring vertically, but just aren't as big as they should be. They tend to be small and heavy, and torn in places beyond any slashes.

I wouldn't muck around too much with hydration - it's tempting to make dough drier to avoid collapse, but this will also limit the hole sizes you will get - dry dough is harder and the gas bubbles made by the bugs will produce smaller holes. I wouldn't drop below 65%. The airiest loaves are usually more like 70% or so.

I typically make bread/bulk ferment at around 67-70 deg F, so that wouldn't bother me.

CB85's picture
CB85

Thanks for replying! My basic recipe is:

Firm Starter: 2/3 cup starter, 1/4 cup water, 1 cup flour (Usually bread flour, sometimes semolina or rye) Combine and leave at room temp for about four hours or until puffy and "bubbly". Refrig overnight.

Final Dough: Firm starter, 12 oz water, 20 oz flour (again usually bread flour, sometimes some spelt or semolina or rye mixed in), 1/2 oz salt.

Mix up, leave covered for about a half hour, knead for as long as I can stand until I get a decent window pane or close. Bulk proof for 4-5 hours depending on when I think the dough is doubled at about 70 degrees. 

Shape dough which I do by rounding, popping any huge bubbles on top and trying to stretch the surface by pulling the edges down while turning on a counter. 

Proof in baskets at the same temp for 3-4 hours depending again on if they appear doubled. I have tried the poke test as well, and it usually springs back slowly but leaves a slight indent (very very slight, but visible) which I can't tell if it is just from it sticking to my finger slightly. 

Bake in a preheated oven on a preheated stone at 500 degrees for ten minutes and then 450 for another 20 or so. 

I don't think the loaves are underproofed because the loaf is still relatively light despite the denser crumb, and it never tears at all. I could be over proofing, especially in the bulk proof as you said. I never really considered that as a factor before I guess. If I cut that down a little I could still have my loaves double before baking and maybe have a little extra power for the bake. I will try that tomorrow. Thanks so much!

Davo's picture
Davo

OK that all looks sort of OK to me, although I don't know about volumes and weights being mixed! Oh, well.

One bit i don't get is why you would do all that work to get a starter/levain active... and then refrigerate it??? I retard shaped loaves myself, but never a levain. If you need the levain in the morning and you think leaving it on the counter will see it waning well before then (which might well be right with your ratios), then just put in less seed starter and add more fresh flour/water, and just leave it on the counter. This might take a bit of trial and error.

For instance, when i make a (firm) levain (about 1 kg of levain to go into  3.7 kg of final dough, for 4 loaves a bit over 900 g each), I ferment the levain about 8-10 hrs give or take, and I use 100 g of active firmish starter, into 540 g of flour and 400 g or so of water. The smallish seed starter amt works for the longer ferment time - which is when I am at work. People say stuff like "my starter doubles in 4 hours", but that depends on how much is in the mix - you put 10% starter to 90 %new food and it ain't doubling in 4 hours.... Use 5% and it'll take much longer again. So you have ways to match your ferment time without resorting to the fridge. I use the fridge to retard shaped loaves, but I would not slow down the levain.

By comparison to what I do you are using a similar amount of seed starter (presumably active from a couple of refresh feeds???) into a far lesser qty of levain (your "firm starter"). There's no right or wrong here - not saying you should do what works for me, just noting the difference and why (it seems to me) you need to add a fridge step that I think might actually hinder your process.

If your "firm starter" is a dough-like consistency, then adding 12 oz water plus 20 oz flour will make quite a low hydration bread dough??? Do some calcs and make sure it's at least 65-68%. Maybe a few more oz water in the final dough? I actually suspect this might be why your bread is a bit tight, although I might be wrong of course! Along with slight overproof which gets you flattish loaves.

Dough sticking to finger on poke test is why you flour or wet that finger - prevents sticking!

I reckon don't be too obsessed with window pane esp if you are adding any rye and esp wholemeal rye - it will never window pane! (well not for me anyway)

But if with everything you do the dough doubles in the bulk after 4-5 hrs, try shaping your loaves at 3 hrs and with a fair bit less than doubling. Then proof for 4 hrs and then bake (subject to poke test - if very springy and dense, by all means let it keep going a bit). Also, maybe hold that high initial bake temp for say 15 mins - as I reckon loaves intially slump and then rise in the oven up to about the 15 min mark.  Turning down before 15 mins might ake some "oomph" out of the rise following that initial slumping.(And make sure that your pre-heat is an hour so the stone is really hot.)

CB85's picture
CB85

I see what you mean about the firm starter. I will have to try to try that next time. I don't mind trial and error because I bake a lot.

The formula says 12-14 ounces water, but also that it should be firm and tacky, not sticky. I did get better crumb when I tried 13 ounces.

Thanks for your help! I will try again tomorrow! 

Davo's picture
Davo

Now I may be way off the mark here, but if I'm right2/3 cup of 100% = about 160 g or 80 g flour plus 80 g water.

add 1/4 cup water = 60 g plus 1 cup flour = 130 g (approx0

add 12 oz water = 340 g plus 20 oz flour =565

so, water = 80 g +60 +340

flour = 80+130+565

flour = 775, water = 480

about 62%. ????

I reckon you will do well to get anything very airy at that low a hydration; it must be a pretty firm dough, esp if there is any rye in it (rye likes more water than white wheat flour).

This might explain why the dough still feels firmish/resilient when it's potentially a tad overproofed.

Try adding another 1.5 oz water in that final bread dough. It should be a softer dough. It might feel a bit sticky initially if you knead by hand. that's OK, just use wet hands. At 62 % I doubt you could slap/fold knead it? At high 60s it should work OK. It should ferment/prove a little faster as well, so keep a close eye on how it behaves. Try that 3 hr bulk, and monitor the proof. Hopefully the softer dough makes airier bread, and a bit of focus on not overproof will stop it slumping flat.

Also be real fast inverting the ripe loaves onto a peel, slashing and getting into oven. It should happen in about 10 secs, ideally.

CB85's picture
CB85

When I have increased the hydration a little, I did get a more open crumb. That makes a lot of sense about what you said about the dough still feeling firm firming maybe over proofed. Whenever I read that the dough should be puffy in any recipe, I always think mine would never be that way!

Davo's picture
Davo

Well if you have any rye in it it will be sticky! I mix by hand using a steel serving spoon, leave for 20 mins, then do a short knead by slap and fold with wet hands on a slightly wetted bench - like two mins. The dough will be sticky. Don;t worry about that, use a dough scaper to pick it up if needed. Scrape off any stuck to your hands and let it rest for 10 mins. Then do another few slaps and folds, maybe 5 or six. Rest for another 10 mins. Maybe one or two more goes of slap and folds - you will notice it isn't so sticky any more. Now, without bothering to window pane it, rest in an oiled bowl, and move to stretch and folds (now using a floured bench rather than wet) at 30 min or so intervals, til your bulk is finished.

Let us know if that works at all for you. Hydration is something that varies batch to batch with flour type and humidity etc - but for me, if I can't slap and fold the dough half a dozen times, it's too dry.

Davo's picture
Davo

Whoa I just saw the stuff about how you maintain your starter - which is itself well below 100% per Cranbo's advice, So your final dough is probably more like high 50s hydration! Per Cranbo, get that starter 100 % by wieght not volume, then STILL add the extra 1.5 oz water in the final dough. You will learn to deal with dough that is a bit sticky, with fast hands and use of water/flour at times.

CB85's picture
CB85

Well, I just wanted to give an update. I have followed all your advice, but still haven't quite figured this out. I am almost positive it is a weak starter or I am overproofing. I tried my recipe again and shortened my proof times and still did not get great results. I tried again today and the bread was slightly higher but not a ton. 

I also tried once more, this time with the same recipe except 1 1/2 tsp ady added. And ....puffy loaves! So I conclude either my starter is too weak to fully rise the bread, or I am doing a poor job at deciding when to bake and the added yeast just sped up the process, making it easier for me to decide when to bake. I have started feeding my starter 2x a day and will keep trying. 

CB85's picture
CB85

I did it! Thanks everyone for your advice. I tried out my newly active starter in a new to me recipe last night/today and I have a really risen loaf! I haven't sliced it yet, because it's still hot, but it looks so much better. Thanks to you all, and my new bff Jeffrey Hamelman! ;)