The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What is causing my Pain au Levain to fall or go flat in the oven

marc's picture

What is causing my Pain au Levain to fall or go flat in the oven

I have been struggling with my Pain au Levain and it's inability to rise up significantly in the oven. Boule's are more like flying saucers, rising up to maybe only 3 inches max on a good day.  Baguettes constructed with the same dough are more oblong in width than they are round. 

My starter is healthy. In a few instances I could attribute to fall to overproofing, but I have since refined my ability to determine the when the bread is ready for the oven.

I don't know which I'm needing more of with my dough—extensibility, or elasticity—let alone, how to achieve it.

My dough seems delicate, especially when attempting to roll a baguette, and actually, there is really no need to stretches to the length I need, with little if no spring back/elasticity. There is not resistance. And then transferring the baguettes into my linen couche stretches the baguette further, and deforms the shape. What I wind up with is a bread, that, well..."looks home made."

Flavorwise, the bread is good on most bakes. Usually there is good open crumb—sometimes the interior is a bit dry from overbaking.

I've also tried various flours: King Arthur Bread Flour, King Arthur All-purpose Flour, Giusto's Artisan Bread Flour. I have the best luck flavor and texture wise when using a mix of Giusto's Artisan and KA Bread Flour.

Any advice or pointers—greatly appreciated.

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Marc.

It would help to know what formula you are using and how you bake the bread.

Oven spring is influenced by multiple factors, and these can have additive effects. Some to consider are:

  1. Hydration of the dough. The most dramatic oven spring is with high-hydration, for example, ciabatta.
  2. Gluten development. Strong gluten contains CO2 bubbles better.
  3. Complete fermentation of the dough. This is where the CO2 bubbles develop.
  4. Shaping. Gentle dough handling to retain the bubbles, not squash them.
  5. Proofing. Over-proofing stretches the bubbles to where further expansion in the oven pops them. For a pain au levain, usually proofing to 1.5-1.8 times the original loaf volume is desirable. 
  6. Oven temperature and use of a baking stone. An initial hot oven and a well-preheated stone result in a last burst of fermentation and CO2 production before a crust forms (limiting expansion) and the interior gets hot enough to kill the yeast (stopping fermentation).
  7. Steaming the oven. This keeps the surface of the loaf moist and delays crust formation, allowing more time for the loaf to expand before the crust firms up to limit expansion.

If thinking about these variables doesn't provide a ready solution, let us see your formula and describe your baking procedures.


marc's picture

Thank for for your follow-up.

I am working from a "chef" that is 100% levain and around 68% hydration. Each time I make dough—I cut off a chunk before adding salt. It doubles in 4 hours and then goes into the fridge. I have found that this method produces the best—or at least the specific—flavor that I want in the bread.

My bread formula is: 

100% flour

62% hydration

47% starter

2% sea salt

I have had the best luck with my 100% flour (actually 680g) being broken down into: 490 Giusto's Artisan Bread flour, 170g KA bread flour, 20g whole wheat.

I have tried 100% KA Bread Flour with the result being too dense and tough.

I have also tried 100% KA All Purpose, which results in even less rise and less flavor.

I have a 5/8 inch thick stone. Oven temp preheats to 475˚ and then gets reduced to 450˚ after about the first 3 minutes.

I've tried to be very careful with the proofing and "think" I have it under control. However—while I know that high hydration is good for rise and levain growth, and bubbles, etc, etc. it also makes a dough virtually impossible to form into a baguette. Sticky dough means adding flour to the working surface which means the dough does not stick to itself when doing the envelopes and also results in great big huge holes in the bread.

I am steaming. Spraying a two intervals within the first 5 minutes of baking and also have a pan with 1 cup of boiling water in the oven during the entire bake.

In terms of "gentle" shaping—we were never gentle with the pain au levain that I worked with at a Seattle bakery years ago. The dough was so full of spring it was almost impossible to deflate. We would grab a piece of dough in each hand and slam it onto the counter and then simultaneously roll each piece into a boule. Then again—a very minute amount of fresh yeast was added at the end along with the salt—just after the master baker had cut off the "chef." Maybe the addition of a bit of yeast is what gave the bread it's strength?

Or maybe it's something to do with flour type, or the way I am mixing or kneading. Maybe I not kneading enough, I don't know. When I pull the dough out to form shapes, the dough is delicate—no backbone. Maybe I need to use less water, or do more stretch-n-folds.

I should probably take some video—or photos of the dough in process.


dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Marc.

When I pull the dough out to form shapes, the dough is delicate—no backbone. Maybe I need to use less water, or do more stretch-n-folds.

If you are saying the dough tears when you pull on it, you are describing poor gluten development. 

You are already using a pretty low-hydration dough, for a pain au levain. I wouldn't make it any drier. More stretch and folds may be all you need to solve your problems.

 a very minute amount of fresh yeast was added at the end along with the salt—just after the master baker had cut off the "chef." Maybe the addition of a bit of yeast is what gave the bread it's strength?

The added yeast would increase fermentation and, thereby, gas production. This would compensate some for the rough handling. The salt would strengthen the gluten, but it can only strengthen gluten that has been developed, as I understand it.

while I know that high hydration is good for rise and levain growth, and bubbles, etc, etc. it also makes a dough virtually impossible to form into a baguette. Sticky dough...

Now, a high hydration dough (75% or higher) will be sticky compared to a low-hydration dough Under-development of the gluten will also leave the dough sticky. I have shaped 75% hydration dough into very respectable baguettes, and I'm far from a master. Again, the evidence points to under-developed gluten.

The steaming method you use may be a problem, but I don't think it's contributing to your lack of rising and oven spring.

There are many ways of mixing dough to develop the gluten by machine or by hand. Let's turn to that next. How are you currently mixing? 


marc's picture

A trusty Kitchen Aid Pro that my wife bought me almost 15 years ago.

DiMuzio Improve Mix Method: Autolyse 20 minutes. 5 minutes speed 1. 4 to 5 minutes speed 2. Now that I think about it, when DiMuzio refers to speeds, is that home mixer, or commercial mixer. Certainly the giant hobart I used at the Metropol had much more torch at speed 1 than my kitchen aid.

By no backbone, I mean the dough is just wimpy. It does pass a window pane test, but if I plop the dough onto my butcher block, rather than sitting there in a heap, it slowly starts to spread outward. Stretch-n-folds do seem to have a major affect on the consistency of the dough though—or should I say the strength.

One note: When I use my mix with Guisto's artisan or any all-purpose, I do do an autlyse for 20 minutes.

From what I understand, one can either knead bread more—or use more water and allow the long fermentation to do the same thing that kneading does—this according to Harold McGee.

I think you are correct about the underdeveloped gluten. I might just have to knead more.

Additionally—please allow me to interject a big thank you for your response and feedback. My wife thought we were having a "bread free" day today. But I feel like I'm on the fringe—almost there—and don't want to lose a day lest I forget where I was with the process. So, thank you for your kind response.

marc's picture

Assuming that I am hitting the mark in terms of your 7 points—Can you maybe, please give me a description of the dough during and after kneading:

Should the dough be sticking to the sides and bottom of the mixer while kneading, or just to the bottom, or neither?

When the mixer is stopped, should the dough stay wrap around the dough hook, or should is be slowily oozing back to the bottom of the bowl (as it is in my case)?

Should the finished dough, before bulk fermentation be tacky, sticky, tight and muscular, etc. Mine is sticky and has to be scooped out with a spatula. Impossible to handle without a heavy floured hand. It does pass the window pane test though as far as I can tell. I'm almost wondering if I should knock the water back to 50% and see what happens. On paper, I'm thinking closed crumb, dense loaf? Maybe longer rise? Could me more sour flavor?

One other note: I mix 5 minutes on speed one. Then cut off the chef amount and then add salt—and mix on speed two for another 4 or 5 minutes. I'm using DiMuzio’s improved mix method. I'll then do a stretch-n-fold at 45 minutes. When using KA All Purpose, I do 2 maybe 3 stretch-n-folds. Maybe I need to mix dough and knead by hand to get a better feel.

I have received some prior feedback about holding back on the water. While I can understand that humidity, flour type, and other factors can affect the need for varying hydration. However, when I bake cakes, I don't hold back on the eggs, or the buttermilk or constantly vary the recipe from bake to bake. The recipes I use for my cakes are precise—and thus result in a consistent end product. I'm trying to I guess, not only improve the rise and finished look of my bread, but also making a consistent bread. At this point, I'm terrified to give one of my loaves (I always bake two) away to neighbors or friends because I am not confident in what I am actually giving to them.

Another note: I do not wait for the dough to double in bulk fermentation. I wait 3 hours. Usually by then it is showing some substantial growth, but not doubled. Certainly by the time my dough doubles, I could not imagine making baguettes with it. Forming boules and placing into bannetons seems to go OK. but the dough is entirely too delicate to form a baguette. By the time I get the baguette shapes, the dough has almost no strength or elasticity.

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Marc.

Okay. You are machine mixing.

I suggest you do an autolyse. Mix all the flours and the water for 2-3 minutes using the paddle at Speed 1. Remove the paddle. Cover the bowl tightly and let the dough rest for 20-60 minutes. Then add the levain and salt and, now with the dough hook, mix at Speed 2 until you have moderate gluten development. At this point, with a 62% hydration dough, the dough should all be on the hook. The bowl sides should be clean. Little or no dough should still be sticking to the bottom of the bowl. You should have some window paneing. The dough should be tacky, not sticky.

Then, bulk ferment with folds as you describe. I would allow the dough to double after the last stretch and fold. You will get a better crumb structure if you do.

Now, I have to say that the information you have provided is confusing. If you are mixing 5 minutes at Speed 1 and 5-6 minutes at Speed 2, and if you have a 62% hydration dough with the flour mix you described, ain't no way it should "slowly ooze" anywhere!

Something is very screwy. Are you, in fact, using 422 gms of water in this formula? (That would give you 62% hydration with 680 gms of flour.)



marc's picture

425 grams of water.

Here is my recipe:

490g Giusto's

170g KA Bread Flour

20g Whole Wheat Flour (100% Total flour)

325g Levain/chef (47%)

425g Water (62%)

2.5t salt (2%)

Unless my scale is defective. I usually zero it out for each addition. Currently looking for one that measures in 1 gram increments instead of 5.
dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Marc.

Our messages are crossing, so you are anticipating some of my questions and it looks like I'm not reading your messages.

It's my understanding that Dan's mixing times are for a KA (unlike Hamelman's times, for example).

The dough consistency you are getting still doesn't make sense to me, unless there are errors in your ingredient measurements. (Are you sure this isn't an 82% hydration dough, because that's the behavior you are describing?)

I'm "stealing time," too. I have to leave for some errands pretty soon (like 2 hours ago!). My wife is not "She who must be obeyed" exactly, but, if she is happier, I'm happier.


marc's picture

I usually just do what I am told. Life is easier that way.

You description of how the dough should be is helpful, it give me more of a mental picture of what I am aiming for. I'll make another attempt in the am and let you know the result.


Thank you tons.

marc's picture
marc I just went and pulled some espresso shots and was thinking about what Dave was saying about more frequent stretch-n-folds, and until the dough felt right. Then, a memory popped into my head from when I worked at Boulangerie in Seattle. The bread was mixed in one of those huge flour mixers with the long and short tongs on the side that spun as the mixing bowl rotated. Mr. Xon would mix the dough—cover it, and then come back to it and turn the mixer on for a couple of revolutions, then feel the dough. I never paid much attention to how many times or how often. But now I know! He was essentially doing stretch-n-folds in the mixer until the dough achieved the right feel. Then at some point later on—chunks of dough would be tossed my way and I would start forming the boules. 


I wonder if I could accomplish the same with my kitchen aid. Just leave the dough in the mixer. It would sure save having clean up the counter after every stretch-n-fold. Everything done in one tidy place. I could probably even do the bulk ferment in the bowl. Even less dough mess to clean up. Unless of course those myths are true about metal causing a negative reaction to the levain.

wally's picture


I'm with David here; the numbers don't make sense.  For one thing, if your 325g levain is actually 68% hydration, (i.e., 221g flour, 104g water) then your final dough's hydration is about 58%, not 62%.  So it should be very dry, not oozing.



marc's picture

I have been working from the chef for this particular bread for a couple of weeks now. But initially—to make that chef I combined roughly 114 g levain, 75g  water (6T) and 128 g flour. So I guess that is actually more like 60% hydration to begin with.

With my dough though I am pulling of about 325 grams of dough that is made with: 680g flour, 425 g water making the hydration of the new levain/chef: 62.5%. At 58%, yes the dough would probably be pretty firm. I know that the hydration percentage will vary depending on the hydration of the levain, plus how much of that levain is used in the bread. But, since I have been working from a piece that has been cut from the actual bread dough before adding the salt, I can safely determine that the hydration of that chef is exactly whatever I put into the bread.

I actually arrived at the 325 g water amount as a way of cutting back from 68% which is where I had started at a couple of weeks back. Since the dough was way too wet and not producing the target bread I was looking for—of course my instinct was to pull back on the water. Now, after reading some of the recent feedback, I think the next course of action is to maybe add back a bit more water, but mainly work more with the dough by turning it/stretch-ln-folds to build up the strength.

I'm feeling hopeful in this direction and appreciate the feedback. Will post results tomorrow.

marc's picture

Much better rise—texture—and flavor. I think I could go for the crumb being just a bit looser, but all in due time. The tips about the stretch-n-folds and consistency of the dough really helped. The loaf on top was a small portion of dough. The flavor is perfect. The texture is delicate and spongey.


Now....if I could only figure out how to get those perfect, white spiral rings around the bread. I used to spray pam into them before flouring, and I'm wondering if that has ruined them. I only wind up with clumps of partial rings. I'm using a 50/50 rice flour and bread flour. No more oil though.

Thanks again to all for the feedback, suggestions and overall encouragement.