The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Flat, sour, cakey again.

ajmalton's picture

Flat, sour, cakey again.


I have made bread on and off for years using commerical yeast, but never regularly enough to be an expert. My goal is to make four 1 1/2 pound loaves once a week for family home consumption without using commercial yeast.  Sometimes to make a light rye, and sometimes wheat.  For the bread to be good enough for everyday repetition.


In August I captured a culture and have been using it since September.  However, the successes I've had are quite outweighed by the disappointments.  Generally speaking, rising is much, much slower than I'm used to with commercial yeast, the bread is sourer (that's ok within limits), the crumb is moist and "cakey", and -- above all -- the loaves are flat producing slices in the shape of biscotti.  It seems that my yeast culture produces sour faster than rise, and that the sour slackens the dough too much.  I have tried a stiffer mix hoping for more "strength" and vertical rise, but generally they rise even slower and are even sourer and moister.  None of this is a surprise from the viewpoint of using commerical yeast, but is disappointing compared to the exuberant experiences described on this forum, and others, and in the books I've consulted.


Here is the method I used this weekend:


1.  (Trying to the starter active).  Get the cold starter from the 'fridge, about 1/2 cup. Let it warm to room temperature, add 1/2 cup warmish water and 1 cup whole wheat flour.  Leave it for an hour.  Take a 2tbsp of the result and put the rest back in the fridge.  Add to the 2 tbsp a 2 tbsp of warm water and 1/4 cup of flour.  Mix.  Put it aside to activate.


12 hours later, risen but not doubled.  Do the same feeding again with 2 tbsp of the mix (throw away the rest).   12 hours later, same story.  feed, throw away excess.   12 hours later, same story.  feed, throw away excess.   12 hours later, ... doubled? well, nearly.   use all of it (around 1/3 cup) and add 1/3 cup of warmish water and 1 cup of flour in order to get enough starter for recipe.


2.  (Making working culture). acc. to recipe: mixed a cup of the above with 2 cups warmish water and 3 cups white flour.  [ recipe says to proof at "room temp" for 12 hours or "proofing box" for 6 hours – I can't be on a six hour schedule and my room is too cold (65F) so 12 hours in the electric oven with the light on (80F). ]  doubled?  probably


3.  (Making "fully active culture") acc. to recipe: mix 1/2 cup water and 2 cups flour to above, proof 12 hours again.   At this point acc. to the recipe I've added 5 cups of flour and 2 1/2 cups of water.  This is about 65% hydration by weight, I think.  The mixture is sour, smells sour, is a bit bubbly, but has no way doubled, and doesn't look good.  I am disappointed and leave it on the counter for the rest of the day.


in the evening (24 hours after mixing) the last step appears finally to have pretty much doubled, and is bubbly on the top, though not very.  Sigh.  Finish the recipe anyway.


3.  (Making the loaves).  Add 2 cups of milk and knead in 5 cups of flour.   Let it rest 1/2 hour.  Knead again.  This is looking and feeling good!  Springy, soft, a thin sheet of dough can be pulled out, etc.  Divide into 4 1 1/2 pound balls, put into bowls to rise.  [ I put a floury cloth in the bowl and cover it.  I have had no success at all with free-from rising: pancakes every time! ]  Leave in the lit oven to rise.


4. (Baking the loaves).  12 hours later (!!) the loaves seem to have risen, perhaps even doubled.  I turn them gently gently out onto a paddle, slash, and bake on a stone at 375F for 45 minutes.  Result: 




What I am hoping for is higher, lighter, and not as sour.


Any suggestions?  Am I right that there is something lazy / lacking about the culture?  Or perhaps the way of starting it?


ArieArie's picture

I am not familiar with this method of making sourdough, but it looks to me like it is over fermented. I find that when the dough is over fermented, it looses structure and the shape doesn't hold.  maybe the flour is too soft? Oven temp too low?

ajmalton's picture


I also think that it's over-fermented.  The problem is, that if I leave it for less time it scarcely rises at all.    I've never managed to get a sourdough loaf to rise, after shaping, in less than half a day, nor the starter / ferment / etc to double in less than about 8 hours.  It seems that if I wait long enough for the yeast to push up, the sour is so strong that it softens the flour, which is an unbranded all-purpose unbleached wheat flour from the local Superstore that works well enough for all my other baking.


I think the (only) hope is to get my culture to rise faster and be yeastier, so that the bread can be lighter and higher without slackening in the acid.   However after several months of weekly batches we are all rather tired of eating the experiments!  Probably I will go back to commericial dried yeast soon, before rebellion sets in.   But how?


occidental's picture

If I read it correctly you are maintaining a 100% whole wheat starter, is that correct?  I have never tried to keep a whole wheat starter, I do have a starter that I add up to 10% whole wheat when refreshing so I can only speculate here.  If you are willing I'd urge you to take a tablespoon or two from your whole wheat starter and follow the same steps but refresh with bread flour instead of whole wheat.  My guess is that your sluggish starter is due to the whole wheat starter, which in turn is slowing down the doubling.  Doubling would be dependent on the co2 being trapped by the gluten that develops, however a whole wheat starter isn't going to develop much gluten, so doubling would be difficult.  You can still make good whole wheat breads from a starter maintained with white flour by adding a percent to the final build. 

cholla's picture

Hi ,

I have been making sourdough for about a year now, since I found this site and I think that I have it dialed in. It appears to me that you are overproofing, thus the brick like shapes

There is a thread in here called 1 2 3 bread or some thing with 1 2 3 in the title. If you read that one it addresses all the issues that you are having.


If you search for this thread, I am sure that your bread will improve dramaticly.



ajmalton's picture

occidental, the reason I feed the starter 100% whole wheat is that it apparently can't digest my unbleached white flour.  I raised it originally on rye and whole wheat flour.  Whenever I switched to feeding it with unbleached white flour it would seem to die: bubble a tiny bit for a couple of days and then smell.

I'm trying again to feed it up with white flour - in the end perhaps I'll just be capturing a new starter... 

ajmalton's picture


Well, I tried twice more.   Following the insturctions from Beranbaum's Bread Bible.


I fed the starter up twice a day from 1 tbsp of starter, 1 tbsp of water, and 1/3 cup of white flour.  After a couple days it was doubling in 12 hours: though not more.  


Next I began to expand it, using: 50g of starter, 50g of water, and 100g of white flour.  The recipe proposed that this would take 6 hours to double: after half a day 12 hours it was more-or-less doubled, but very soft.  (It certainly didn't rise to double and then fall back.  It simply rose very slowly.) Still following the recipe I took most (150g) of this ferment and made a dough with 150g of water and 200g of flour.  This was very sticky and I added 50g more flour while kneading.


I believe this is 68% hydration.  The resulting dough again felt ok, if a little soft, but after 6 hours of rising including a couple of turns-and-folds in the first 2-3 hours, it was so sloppy that I put it into tins to finish.  When I baked after 12 hours it it was, perhaps, 75% of doubled but very, very sloppy.  It rose in the oven to make ... cakey, sour, stiff, but edible, bread.


I then tried again reducing the water by 25% in the above method, all through.  The dough was quite a bit stiffer and rose higher during the fermentation stage.  I could see big bubbles.  However, the texture was still gooey, just stiffer, and the (by now characteristic) smell was not really very pleasant -- sour rather than yeasty.  The final dough was much stiffer, but workable.  However, after 6 hours of rising and folding, after shaping (into oval shapes) and 6 more hours of "final rising" the loaves were flat, sour-smelling, and slack.  I left them for the day (8 more hours) but of course when I got back from work they were just the same, so I dumped without baking them.


No pictures this time.


I'm hoping that the best explanation is that the starter I captured in August is no good, either no good for wheat bread or no good at all.  (No good for wheat bread because I had marginally better success with 40% rye flour, in the summer, using this starter, and it was raised on rye flour in the first place.)


If anyone experienced reads this -- can you say, is there a possibility that a wild culture could be "just no good"?  Or good for one kind of grain and not another?  Is there a chance of capturing a better one, or is there probably only one "strain" in my kitchen? In which case is there any point buying a starter, or won't that just eventually revert to whatever I have now?


Another data point: the jar of waste (i.e. the leftovers from feeding up 25g at a time) is still ailve and a little bubbly, not throwing hooch at all, after a week and a half unrefrigerated.  To me that suggests a culture that works so slowly that it still hasn't finished fermenting the flour it contains.  Is that further evidence of having a strain that's too "slow" to be useful for bread?)


Is sourdough always this exacting and failure-prone?  I like taking trouble over good food, but the texture and crumb of the commercial-yeast bread we made this week (instead) is so much better that it hardly seems worth the trouble trying to care for and bake with wild sourdough.  


LindyD's picture

Sorry about your frustrations.

The wild yeast you write about are not "captured" from the air - they are present in the grain.  Thus, you need not worry if the yeasties floating about in your kitchen are the source of your troubles.  They're not.

Are your using unbleached, unbromated flour?  Have you tried using organic flour?

How about your water?  What's the source?

I think you will helped by reading this link as well as part two (linked at the end).


ajmalton's picture

Well, I was more worried about the yeasties which come with the flour I use, which I would be using to maintain a starter after getting it from wherever.

The flour I use it unbleached but not organic.  It contains ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, and l-cystene hydrochoride, which are all normal for commercial unbleached flour afaik.  Currently I use Brita filtered tap water, which is chloramined : but I have had exactly the same experience over these months when using bottled spring water.


LindyD's picture

Your flour is bleached.  Azodicarbonamide is a bleaching agent.  I'm not sure what, if any, affect that chemical has on your sourdough attempts, but it certainly isn't good for your body.

As stated by the World Health Organization:

Case reports and epidemiological studies in humans have produced abundant evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers.

Edith Pilaf's picture
Edith Pilaf

Unbleached flour does not contain the chemicals you list.  Try flour that has a higher protein content in your starter.  I use bread flour with a pinch of whole wheat and rye to feed.  For white sourdough bread, I like to use KAF all purpose at least in the sponge, and sometimes a less expensive AP flour in the final dough.  My starter sulks when it is fed store brand AP.

ajmalton's picture

Cool!  I learned something about flour additives today.

I guess in Canada "unbleached flour" is allowed to mean "flour that hasn't actually been mixed with lanudry detergent" or perhaps "flour that has had some yellow stuff mixed with it to make you think it's more nutritious".


I bought some organic rye and hard wheat flour this evening and mixed up some of the starter with it, carefully measured 50g + 50g water + 50g flour. We will see what we will see.  It certainly smells more interesting than with the "unbleached" flour.

LindyD's picture

Scary, isn't it?

But I do love your sense of humor!

ajmalton's picture

Well, I changed flours, and am still amazed, as apparently that was the whole problem all along.

Now, I keep the starter at flour:water :: 1:1 by weight.

To make a "pre-ferment", I mix (really unbleached!) flour:water:starter :: 5:5:10 and leave it for 12 hours.

At the same time, separately, I mix rye-flour:water :: 8:20 and leave it for the same period.  (Totally soaked rye flour seems to be much less characteristically sticky during kneading.  At this point I have added all the water I need.)

I mix the above and leave it for a couple of hours more.

Then I add 28 units of of unbleached (and salt, 1 1/2 tsp / kilo of dough).  (It's now flour:water :: 46:30, i.e. 100:65.)  Knead, then three hourly foldings, then form 1-kilo loaves and proof overnight (7 hours).

This produces exactly the bread I wanted.