The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

More discouragement!

shmooey's picture

More discouragement!

Been having troubles baking- all my loaves end up saggy and flat, with decent flavor, but terrible texture. Dense and flat- dense and flat- no matter what recipe i tried. I thought that gluten development was my problem- so i S&F'ed like crazy, hand kneaded for endless sessions... And this only did so much to give dough noticeable stregnth- both in high and regular hydration.  And i thought maybe my gluten was okay, but i was terrible at shaping, or wasnt getting it. Truely, i am not getting a tense skin over my dough, and they always sag out and get wider instead of taller during their final ferment. 

Ive even put aside my starters for now, and brought out the instant yeast, the stand mixer... ANYTHING to get a decent loaf. 

I got my hands on BREAD - Hamelman, and tried the Ciabatta with Stiff Biga, tried to follow it to a T- and the only thing i can remember didnt go perfect, was my Biga probably went overnight at about 5 degrees colder than what the recipe reccomended (but i did leave it out an extra 4 hours or so to compensate). 

for those that dont have the book, i did the following:

100% flour
73% water
1.2% Yeast

Mix some flour water and yeast to make biga, let ferment 12-16 hr at 70 degrees F

Mix all ingrediants to combine, and add in biga

Use mixer to partially develop gluten

bulk ferment 3 hrs, with two Folds, one at 1hr, and one after 2 hrs.

Shape and ferment 1.5hr

bake with steam 500- then turn down to 460

I was so excited, but yet again....




What is this??


I dont know where to turn next. Im so sick of having flat, spongy to dense textured bread. Does anyone have any ideas? 

flournwater's picture

First idea  -  be patient with yourself.  From the image you posted it looks to me like you're pretty close to where you want to be, you just need to review your processes.

I assume you're weighing your ingredients.  If that's incorrect, then that may be where you need to start.

What flour are you using?  What temperature is your water?  Do you proof your yeast in warm water before adding it to the flour and water or do you mix it in as it comes from the package?  Do you use instant yeast or active dry yeast?  How fresh is it?  Do you check the temperature of your dough in the mixer at any point and, if so, what temperature do you look for?  How do you steam your oven?  Is your oven temperature accurate?  Is the loaf baked at mid oven, bottom of the oven or nearer the top?  Is this a convection oven?  Are you using a multiple rise or single rise technique?  Is your dough fermented under refrigeration for any length of time?  How long?  What's the ratio of biga to the remainder of the dough?  A lot of formulas use a 1/3 biga or poolish to 2/3 raw dough mixture.  What's the temperature of the environment when you bulk ferment your dough?

It looks to me, based on your comments, as though you're timing the various phases of your process.  Throw the clock away and learn to evaluate the dough by it's appearance, texture, and it's response to tests like the finger poke and window pane test.

Quit frankly, with the formula you're using, I would S&F every thirty to forty minutes and degass with fingertip massage after each fold until the final proof.  Also, with a slack dough, I'd provide support for the dough during the final proof (a parchment paper frame with a wine bottle on each side works) to maintain shape.  Then use the parchment as a "stretcher" to carry the loaf to the oven.




shmooey's picture

Definitly weighing ingrediants. 

Flour: Stone-Buhr Unbleached White Bread Flour

Water: about 100 degreese

Yeast: Red-Star dry active. Normally proof the yeast. In this recipe i did not- mixed in with water and added the flour. it is fresh.

- I have not taken the temp of the dough when it is in the mixer at any time- But i do proof it in the oven with the light on, and it seems to stay around 75-80

Steam: THIS recipe i put boiling water in a heated pan near the bottom of the oven. If the loaf is small enough, i invert metal pots over them for the first part of their baking. This always works better than adding water in the oven.

Oven: Oven rack that holds the dough is in the center of the oven, and i have a baking stone. Temp is spot on.  non convection. 

Ferments: normally i use multiple rises. Dough has not been refrigerated. Biga was actually 1/5th of the total weight.  Maybe this was not enough.  Bulk ferment was done in the oven about 80 degrees


I think i will try and compose myself and try this recipe again, but probably will work with it by hand more, like you suggested. The only reason i followed the directions exactly (instead of being intuitive) was because i was second guessing myself. Which i have reason to do, lol. 


Will putting the dough during its final proof, in a form, or support- do any good once it is removed from the form and put it into the oven? Wont it just sink back down quickly? 

flournwater's picture

Try proofing your yeast in a portion of the water than you use in this formula and, if the original formula calls for instant yeast, use 1 1/2 times as much active dry yeast as the recipe calls for.  Otherwise, follow the formula as it is printed.

The amount of biga will influence the flavor of your bread but the difference between the 1/5 figure and a 1/3 figure for the bread you're making should not be creating the difficulties you describe.  I believe you may be over proofing the dough.  Try removing a portion of the dough ball and putting it into a tall glass.  Watch the development in the glass to determine when the dough has nearly doubled in mass.  It's difficult to judge the amount your dough has increased in mass when it's laying in a great blob with much of it flowing sideways.  Then, try moving to the next step when the dough in the glass is about 1 3/4 times its original mass rather than double in mass.

The degree to which your dough slumps between the site of final proof and the oven will depend on how slack the dough is.  So that's all relative.  If it's really slack you might improve your results by reducing the hydration by 10% or keep doing as you have and see if loading it into a preheated cast iron skillet or dutch oven helps it hold its shape through its initial oven spring.  I must admit, however, that one of my favorite Ciabatta formulas uses a 76% hydration level and works out nicely.

tempe's picture

Hi shmooey, I feel your pain, my sourdough loaves look just like yours after six months of trying to make a decent loaf, I only change one process each time for the last couple of months and seem to be making some progress. Frustrating though! Hang in there, there are heaps of people here with a lot of great knowledge to help us out. tempe

wowzow's picture

I used to get really flat loaves when I wasn't properly pinching my seams down extremely tight during the folding process.  Maybe that's it?

Usually I'll fold wet loaves in 3 sessions at a minimum and each session has 5-6 folds in it.  Also, the higher the hydration, the more times I have to fold it to give it some kind of structure --- especially true with free standing leaves.

Also, Peter Reinhart folding a high hydration loaf:

good luck, dave

Home Baker's picture
Home Baker

Adjustment of pH allows me to better control rising of my naturally leavened bread doughs. Could the pH of the water in your locality be too low (acid) for proper dough development? My own experiments w/all variables of technique and ingredients failed to produce results I wanted from my sourdough breads until I started adding tiny amounts of acid powder to counteract high pH (hardness/alkalinity) of my tap water.

My guess is that your water may be too "soft" (acidic), as explained by the following short discussion of effect of pH on bread dough development:

Does water hardness affect yeast-leavened doughs?

Water hardness refers to the calcium and magnesium ions in the water. Levels will vary by locality, and sources such as wells, rivers, or reservoirs. Your local water company should be able to supply you with this information. Yes, hardness will affect yeast-leavened dough. Medium soft water (50 to 100 ppm) is considered to be the desired level of hardness. Soft water (0 to 15 ppm) is undesirable because it tends to soften the gluten and produce slack, sticky doughs and a finished product with a more open grain. The use of mineral yeast food or a slight increase in salt level would supply the hardness necessary to improve the absorption and crumb structure. Some hard waters (200 ppm and higher) are objectionable because they can elevate the pH of the dough, causing a retarding effect on yeast and enzyme activity. This prolongs fermentation and affects machinability of the dough. Additions of lactic acid, acetic acid and monocalcium phosphate are easy corrections for this problem.

SOURCE: AIB International

Caltrain's picture

That does look like how a *lot* of ciabattas end up looking. It's not an easy dough to work with, but luckily, there's lots of ciabatta infoaround here.

Check Jason's Quick Coccodrillo Ciabatta thread for tons of tips. Another good source of tips is this handy Youtube vid that shows the process from start to finish.

Good luck!

RikkiMama's picture

My ciabattas looked like that, especially since I was using formulas that didn't include a biga or poolish and were made in the mixer. 

This weekend, I made ciabatta using the formula that we got in SFBI's Specialty Breads weekend workshop.  It uses a poolish, is mixed by hand, and is bulk fermented at room temperature for 3 hours with 3 stretch and folds.  What a difference!  The resulting loaves were amazing ...lots of oven spring, moist and tender crumb with a slightly chewy crust, wonderful flavor.  I posted pictures and the formula here:

You might consider giving that one a try.  There actually minimal hands-on attention required and the dough handles very nicely.

Jo_Jo_'s picture

Just a comment, I noticed in your picture that your crust looks nice and brown on top, but very light on the bottom.  Are you preheating your stone?  It needs to be preheated for about 45 minutes.  That could cause your dough to spread, and overproof before it actually cooked.  It's really hard to tell in that picture, and I noticed you didn't say you were doing that.


shmooey's picture

Jo-Jo, You are correct the bottom is much lighter- this is mostly due to an excess of flour on the bottom crust. However, you make a good point that i should be pre-heating my stone much longer. I normally get impatient and a few minutes after the timer goes off that the oven is pre-heated, i pop them in. Now that i think about it, this could be having a huge impact on why i never get good oven spring. 


RikkiMama- Thanks for the link to your posting. I will try your recipe for tomorrows attempt. I would much much rather be making bread by hand than throwing it into my mixer. 

HomeBaker- Having a hard time figuring out what the PH of the water is here, I am in Seattle and normally just use tap water. I will keep investigating this. 

Thanks all for the suggestions so far- it does give me hope, and motivation to press on!

So- when you do your final shaping, and let it do its final proof- Does the loaf pretty much keep its same shape, and just get larger verically and horizontally?  (sounds like magic.)

Upon starting to read Hamelmans BREAD, i can see already that my shaping is still going to need work. 


I will update when i get to the next loaf tomorrow. 

RikkiMama's picture

Ciabattas don't require much in the way of shaping.  For the formula in my posting, you gently try to pat it into a rectangle.  After all, you don't want to lose too much of that lovely trapped gas.  Then use a metal bench scraper to cut the dough into the portions that you want.  In class, our group made lots of large roll sizes, perfect for sandwiches.  For my first attempt at home, I did 3 loaves, basically cutting the dough into 3 strips.  I proofed the 3 loaves on a well floured couche, which was enough to maintain the long strip shape.  If you don't have a couche, the suggestion of using parchment with wine bottles would work. 

I started heating my oven right after I did the 3rd stretch and fold so that my baking stone would be nice and hot by the time I was ready to bake.  Also, I set the oven at a higher temp (about 475°F) during the preheat, then lowered it to 450°F right after I put in the loaves.  My steaming apparatus went in about 20 minutes before I loaded the first loaves. 

Since I could only fit two loaves in my oven, I did the two smaller loaves first (the two ends).  The third loaf sat on the counter while the other loaves baked (house temp was about 63-65°F).  When the first two loaves were done, I raised the temperature again to 475° and put my steaming apparatus back into the oven for about 10 minutes before loading the 3rd loaf.  I turned the oven down to 450° after loading the 3rd loaf.  Considering the 3rd loaf came out darker than the first two, I'm sure the oven was hot enough.

As for shaping other loaves (boules, batards, and baguettes), I'm still working on those, too.  We just need to keep practicing.

TMStanton's picture


Ciabatta is a tough bread to get right. 73% seems really high to me - even for Ciabatta. Plus - there are lots of things about your conditions that affect whether or not you get good oven lift.

However - the hot stone is CRITICAL. If you think about it - you put the bread in the hot oven. All that heat starts forming a crust immediately; you have to get enough heat transfer (traduction in French) up into the inside of that dough to make it rise before the crust hardens and keeps it from rising. It's a tricky business in that you also can't wait too long your formed loaves can relax too much and you'll get spread instead of lift.

I'd turn down the water until you get a general shape and spring that you're looking for and then start adding water as you can repeat your steps. Don't sweat too may details - perfect dough temp and all that stuff works great in a production bakery where you've got to have product on the shelves - but at home you can be more lenient with yourself.

Good luck! Bread is for life! Once you get it you'll always have it.