The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Why Bulk Ferment?

wassisname's picture

Why Bulk Ferment?

Under the right circumstances could I skip it?

Lately I've been questioning everything about my baking process, trying to get my bread to work around my schedule instead of the other way around.  Hardly an original goal, I know.  The catch is that I'm trying to stick to 100% whole grain and SD. 

But that led me to this question.  I haven't found much discussion on the subject.  Probably I'm missing something really obvious.

The premise is this:  I'm building a WW sourdough preferment.  I'm using a WW soaker.  The two (already at room temp) are combined and kneaded on baking day with just a little flour and salt. 

So, how much do I gain from a bulk ferment?

Could I just give the finished dough a rest, 10 min or so, then shape, proof and bake?

Seems like most of the flavor development would already have happened.  All I'm really looking for is the rise.  So, as long as the structure doesn't suffer, why not?

I'll be testing this shortly, but I thought I would throw it out there first.  All opinions welcome!


proth5's picture

You asked the wrong question, on the wrong day, and the wrong person saw it..

You are about to get a very long answer.

Question is: what does the bulk ferment really do?

It does several things.  Fermentation will create CO2 and alchohol.  The alchohol is what gives the subtle flavors and aromas in the bread.

But it does more than that, it develops acids, which give strength to the dough so that it holds its shape until it is baked.

So, in order to skip bulk fermentation, you need to develop sufficient dough strength without taking that time.  That can be done with your mixer.  You simply mix the dough intensively until you get that famous windowpane.  Then you let it rest, shape it, proof it and then bake it.

I have recently been told that there are a couple of "French Sourdough" bakeries in San Francisco that use this method.  An intensive mix oxidizes the flour  - which will detract from the flavor profile you are building with soakers and sourdough.

Will the bread be the same as if you had mixed it less intensively and allowed for a long fermentation? No.

Will it be bad? You decide.

Hope this helps.

wassisname's picture

Thank you, this is exactly what I'm looking for.  I assume something so basic and universal will have a good reason behind it, but it helps to have something specific to file in my head.  I'll see what happens.  It may not be great, but it may yet serve the purpose...

amolitor's picture

A bulk ferment does a couple of things:

  1. expands your population of microorganisms
  2. allows dough to "develop"

The first is important just to make the darn thing rise, obviously, and as proth5 suggests this is also a big deal in developing flavors (generations of yeasts and lactobacilli living and dying make a lot of interesting compounds).

Dough development is something I don't fully understand, but it includes, at least, the formation of a good gluten network to give the dough strength enough to hold a shape, as indicated in an earlier comment. You can, to a degree, trade off mixing versus total rising time. The dough develops differently, I think, with mixing versus fermenting, and one of the key differences between one loaf and another if how much was done which way.

The reasons you don't just shape loaves and proof for however long it takes to get enough yeast, and/or enough development include:

  1. the microorganisms are not particularly mobile, and will run out of food "nearby"
  2. temperatures throughout the dough will not be the same, so you'll get uneven microorganism growth, AND dough development

So, we bulk ferment with at least a little "punching down" or "french folding" or "stretch and fold" or whatever you want to call it, to give the microorganisms new food sources, and to even out the temperature and the populations of microorganisms.

Then we shape and proof for a few hours, normally.

Also, when we shape, we stretch a gluten skin out snugly over the surface, and I have the sense -- although I've never seen it said explicitly -- that this skin won't last forever. It'll dry out, or break down, or SOMETHING, so we kind of want to shape, proof, and get that bad boy in the oven in a moderately timely fashion.

One can -- and commercial bakers usually do -- add plenty of yeast at the beginning (either baker's yeast, or starter), and mix a lot for dough development. If you squash the schedule down to an hour, your bread isn't very good. 4 to 6 hours seems to be the minimum schedule for "good bread" in some reasonably well accepted sense. Longer tends to be better!

Anyways, this is really more about 'why do we go fuss with the dough every few hours' rather than 'why do we bulk ferment' but I think the two questions are pretty closely related!

wally's picture

Marcus - The responses from proth5 and amolitor are good guides.  I'd add this:  The amount of flavor development that occurs prior to the final mix depends in part on the proportion of preferment and soaker you are adding to your final dough mix.  But the gluten development of the dough is reliant on the final mix.  That takes time, unless you are making a high-proportion rye bread or using an intensive mix which proth5 warned about.

So, what you are gaining are both flavor and dough strength.  Much more than just final rise.



wassisname's picture

Thank you all for the great insights.  I suppose the bottom line is, as I suspected, if there was a simple work-around there would probably be a book about it.

Not that I'm giving up on this so easily!

I baked a test loaf last night that incorporated a number of sketchy methods as well as this one.  I definitely noticed some of the effects mentioned above.  I haven't cut into it yet, but I'll post a report when I get a chance.


Sam Fromartz's picture
Sam Fromartz

One way to get a long bulk ferment, but have it work for your schedule is to mix and fold the dough in the evening. I often do this, folding the dough twice and then putting it into the refrigerator after 90 minutes rising time. If you do this, make sure you do not have too much prefermented flour -- try 20% to start in your sourough. The 90 minute first rise gives the starter time to get going again. After two folds during this period, put the loaf in the refrigerator and continue to bulk ferment while you sleep. The flavors and aromas will develop during that time.

When you want to bake, take the dough out, let it warm for 1 hour, or enough time to let the dough relax and become more extensible.  Then shape your loaf and continue with a final rise and bake. That way you cut your time on day 2 to about 3-4 hours. 

I often do this, mixing at night and baking the next morning. Or mixing at night and baking the next night. If you bake at night, the loaf will then sit overnight until you cut into it the next day, which is especially beneficial with whole grain sourdoughs. The flavor continues to develop. The prevent a hard crust, simply drape a towel over the loaf during the night.

A cold rise will develop acidity, so if you want to avoid that, make sure you use a mild starter. The longer the dough is in the refrig the more acidic the dough will become. Acidity can tighten the gluten network, which can inhibit oven spring, and if you bulk ferment too long, the gluten network will eventually get weak and the loaf will collapse. So you'll need to experiment to see how long a bulk ferment your dough can take.

I have, however, successfully bulk fermented 100% whole wheat loaves with starter for 8-10 hours at 50F (in my basement). That is an ideal bulk ferment temperature.


wassisname's picture

The cold (refrigerated) bulk ferment was the first direction I went, and I will likely end up going back to it when this experiment fails.  I got pretty close to a good loaf, but starting with cold dough slowed down the process and I couldn't get a good rise without losing sleep.  So I decided to switch to a more bizarre approach.  That's what happens when I have too much time to think and not enough time to bake. =)