I've tried to make Hamelman's Pain au Levain with Whole-Wheat recipe from "Bread, A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes" three times, and I have yet to achieve a truly pleasing loaf. I also tried a very similar recipe that I found on the internet, with similar results.
It's not all bad news. The flavor of the bread is quite good. I'm happy enough so far with the degree of openness of the crumb and the texture of the interior.
Now for the bad.
1) The crust is too chewy and leathery. I don't think that is right for this bread. I think it should be at least a little bit crisper.
2) At the end of the second rise when it's time to go in the oven, the loaf is a puffy, gelatinous mass that wiggles like jello when you touch it. I can't get it on a peel or board without deflating it, and I can't get it off the well-floured peel and onto the oven baking stone without it sticking to the peel and deforming upon landing. I've had batards in the shape of a boomerang, and boules that looked like deflated footballs.
3) I don't get much oven spring. My cuts don't open up very much either. They just look like the stretch marks on my belly. :-) I cannot get an ear.
High hydration dough is a new thing for me, and I'm finding it difficult to deal with. I do stretch and folds in the mixing bowl, but when I go to shape the loaves after bulk fermentation, I find that the dough is still so sticky that I have to use quite a bit of bench flour to handle it without sticking to everything.
Here is the process I've been following:
1) Mix the flour and water by hand in the mixing bowl until all of the dry flour is wetted, more or less. Autolyze for 30 minutes.
2) Put the bowl on the mixer. My mixer is a Hobart N50 5 quart planetary with three speeds. Low speed is quite slow, but medium speed is pretty fast. High speed is not usable for dough. I mix at low speed while adding the salt first, and then the levain, for about two minutes total. I switch to medium speed and mix for 4 minutes.
3) Take the bowl off the mixer, cover with plastic wrap, and bulk rise for 2.5 hours with two stretch and folds, in the bowl, at 50 minute intervals. I haven't tried doing the stretch and folds on the bench because the dough is quite wet, and it sticks too much to my kneading board. It sticks to everything it touches. I have tried transferring the dough to a wider bowl with more sloping sides to make it easier to do the stretch and folds. It was easier, but there was no change in the final result.
4) At the end of bulk fermentation, divide and shape the loaves. I have mostly shaped the dough into batards, but today I used a brotform basket for one of the loaves. Rise 2.5 hours. Preheat oven to 440 degrees during the last hour of second rise.
5) Pour hot water into a pan at the bottom of the oven, close the door, then quickly, one loaf at a time, move the loaf to a well-floured peel, slash it, and transfer it to the oven onto a Hearthkit oven insert stone. When I move the loaf to the peel, it feels gassy and jiggly and fragile. Even if I'm very gentle, it often deflates when rolling it or flipping it onto the peel. It almost always sticks badly to the peel and ends up in a deformed shape in the oven.
6) Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. I measured the interior temp of the loaves with my Thermapen after 35 minutes in the oven at 440 degrees, and they were 206 degrees. I have never gotten much oven spring, an ear, or even a well-opened cut, with any of these loaves.
I've been very careful to stick to the exact quantities of ingredients specified, and the overall instructions. I don't think I'm over-hydrating, but I've had to add one or two tablespoons (15 to 30 grams) of additional water during initial hand mixing because there seemed to be insufficient water to wet all the flour. Perhaps I should avoid that and see if the autolyse will take care of it.
My best guess is that I might be overfermenting, either during bulk fermentation or second rise, or both. But I don't want to prejudice the jury, and I suspect I have more than one problem area that needs to be addressed.
I hope some of you have suggestions for me. What can I do to get this heading in the right direction?