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Never saw a dough break down like this before

OldWoodenSpoon's picture

Never saw a dough break down like this before

This does not quite match the discussions I have read, and I am hoping someone might recognize what is going on here and point me in the right direction.

I recently spun off an all white flour sibling of my 18 month old whole wheat 100% hydration starter. The original starter has been fed 95% home ground hard white whole wheat flour, and 5% BRM Dark Rye flour at 100% hydration (50gm:50gm:50gm s:w:f) with excellent results since this forum rescued me and my starter back when I first joined. The sibling is about 6 weeks old and is fed on Pendleton Mills Mor-Bread (AP flour) at the same 100% hydration (50gm:50gm:50gm s:w:f) as it's older sibling. I have baked with it successfully twice before, both as the foundation for pate fermente, as well as for a poolish, in variants of Peter Reinhart's Pain Ordinaire and French Bread with Pate Fermente (old dough) from “Crust and Crumb”.

This all-white flour starter is a new experience for me, so I do not have reasonable expectations by which to measure it. It seems to me, though, to be a bit “odd”. At feeding time it has a consistency that is very fluffy, rather like well whipped egg white, and yet thick, much like pudding but with lots of gas bubbles in it. It reminds me of mareshmallow crème, and it is, of course, tenaciously sticky, clinging to anything and everything it touches, but it has a very pleasant fruity, healthy aroma. My whole wheat starter is pretty easy to break up and mix into the water at feeding, but this white starter is quite resistant to this action. It takes considerable effort to blend the water and starter at feeding, before adding the flour. It triples in volume easily in 4-5 hours, so the overnight delay befor morning feeding is a stretch at 8-9 hours.

This past Thursday morning I began the elaborations for a sourdough using 5% BRM Dark Rye, 5% Pendleton Mills Power (bread flour) flour and 90% Pendleton Mills Mor-Bread (AP flour), to provide a 30% prefermented flour inoculation to a final dough targeted for 72% hydration. The starter had been in the refrigerator for four days so I pulled it out the night before (Wednesday night), and fed it just before bed. The elaborations began first thing in the morning and I built the final dough that night (late), all from the same composition, ending up with 1500 grams of dough for two 750 gram boules.

For clarity, although it is not my point in all this, here are the essentials:

Total Preferment:

259 gm water

259 gm Flour    composed of the following:

            15 gm BRM Dark Rye flour
            15 gm Pendleton Mills Power flour
          229 gm Pendleton MorBread flour


Final Dough:

363 gm water

604 gm flour  composed of the following

            30 gm BRM Dark Rye
            30 gm Pendleton Mills Power flour
          544 gm Pendleton MorBread flour

15 gm Kosher Sea Salt (Coarse)


For the main build I combined the preferment, flour and water, but withheld the salt, and let it rest (autolyse) for 40 minutes. I added the salt and did two sets of 30 stretch and folds in the bowl at 30 minute intervals. After this second set of s&f's the gluten was beginning to shape up and the dough had come together nicely.

At this point things started to get interesting, but not in any good way.

After another 30 minute rest I came back to do another set of stretch and folds. To my surprise I felt the dough break down right under my hands as I worked on it. It literally fell apart, and the more I tried to stretch and fold it the looser it got. I finished the 30 strokes, gathered it in the bowl to rest, and tried to figure out what to do next.

I sensed that this was not a hydration issue, as the hydration seemed to be about right, but the dough was very stretchy and more sticky than any I have ever worked with. After 30 minutes I pulled the dough out onto my marble work board that I had wet down with cool water. I decided not to try to work in more flour, but this dough was so stretchy and sticky I could not be so stingy with water. Using wet hands and a wet bench scraper and the wet marble I tried to bring the dough together using Bertinet's wet dough technique. It did a little bit of good, but the dough remained essentially like highly congealed cottage cheese, and as sticky as any dough I have ever come up against. It was ugly sticky. I did probably 30 to 40 strokes of slap/stretch/fold/gather/repeat. It was after midnight and Friday was a work day so I had to put it to bed, and me too. I oiled up a dough bucket and managed to get the dough in. It puddled into the bottom of the bucket, and self-leveled. There was little evidence of gas in the dough. I thought it was dead. I put it into the fridge for the night, on the bottom, coldest shelf, cleaned up and went to bed.

On Friday morning I looked at the dough and it was still just a puddle in the bottom of the bucket. I left it in the fridge till afternoon when I could leave my desk to work on it. I pulled it out early and let it sit on the kitchen counter (between 66F and 68F all day) to warm up, and to see if it would come alive. After 90 minutes or so of letting the chill warm up, I could see at least a few nice gas pockets in the dough, but it still appeared very slack and loose. I heavily floured my bench and poured the dough from the bucket. I had to scrape it out to get it to let go of the oiled bucket, and remnants clung tenaciously to the bucket even then.

Even on a heavily floured board this dough stuck to everything, and by the time I finished my hands, bench scraper, board, apron, everything had dough stuck to it. I divided the dough in half, and succeeded in herding each portion into somewhat of a roundish blob, but it wanted nothing to do with holding any shape at all. I used both well floured hands cup-like to gather the blobs and drop them into heavily floured linens in some small plastic colanders I bought at the Dollar Store for just this purpose. I set them to rise, stuck my La Cloche in the oven and set it to preheat to 525F, to let the oven warm the kitchen up and hopefully prod the “loaves” to rise some.

One loaf actually passed the poke test after 90 minutes or so without clinging permanently to my finger, so I started my baking. The first loaf held some shape, although it did flatten noticeably when I turned it onto parchment on the peel. I should not have slashed it so deeply, and that spoiled what shape it had. It behaved as if over-proofed, but I don't believe that to be true. The second loaf I scored only very lightly and with short cuts that did not go all the way across the top of the loaf. This loaf held shape somewhat better, and exhibited somewhat better spring in the oven, but neither loaf performed even marginally well.

I baked both loaves in succession, with the preheated dome on for 12 minutes, turning the oven down to 475F after 7 minutes and removing the dome at 12 minutes. I baked each for an additional 18-20 minutes after removing the La Cloche dome. Neither crust shows a very markedly bold bake, although both loaves finished with internal temperatures up in the 208F-209F range.

Here is a picture that will help visualizing the results.

The light coloration is, I believe, due to all the flour on the surface.  The crumb has good appearance, and shows some variation of hole size, but if you look closely you will see some darker areas of the crumb.  Those are quite gummy/chewey, and the whole loaf is quite heavy, even after cooling over night.  The loaves, under "normal" circumstances should be nearly twice as tall as this had they taken/held any shape, but they lacked any structural integrity.  Hence the very flattened profile.  The whole loaf on the bottom of the stack is the second loaf, which "sprung" about 1/2 inch higher than the other.

I have read Debra Wink's excellent and informative posts on Thiol degradation here. I have read the thread originated by foolispoolish with contributions by Debra Wink and Eric Hanner and others regarding transition of firm starters to white flour here, and the trials of many with super elastic dough.  My evidence does not seem to fit these cases very well, but I don't have the experience or expertise to judge it myself. It is a transitioned starter (whole wheat and rye to white flour), but not a brand new one. It is performing well between feedings, and appears to have made the adjustment to white flour satisfactorily, in the storage jar at least. It seemed to be okay in the first couple of bakes as mentioned above, and not until now, some 6 weeks or so later, has a dough from it just disintegrated.  I really don't know what is going on here.

So, I'm left trying to determine a course of action without any real knowledge of what I am fighting. Until I get better advice I am going to try Debra's recommendation to “feed through it”, in the hope that it is some kind of contamination or invasion and that in time it will be worked out as hers was.  I've started that regimen by reducing quantites to 10 gm:20 gm:20 gm (s:w:f) and will stay as close to three evenly spaced feedings a day, and see how it goes for 10-12 days.

Has anyone else been through this recently, or have any other thoughts, observations, suggestions, reccomended reading?

Thanks for stopping by


Note: a follow up thread can be found here:  Follow Up to "Never saw a dough break down like this before"



teketeke's picture

Hello, OldWoodenSpoon

I am not the person who can suggest you who is well experienced about this and I am kind of begginer for wild yeasts, but your loaf reminds me of Mebake's .

I am sorry about your starter is not doing well, I hope that yours will be fine soon.

Best wishes,



OldWoodenSpoon's picture

Thank you Akiko. 

I will read up on proteases as well then.  Thanks for the link and the kind thoughts.


dmsnyder's picture

I have no personal experience with this problem, but then i've never converted a whole grain-fed starter to all white flour-fed. I hope to continue missing this particular experience.

Reading your description and then the threads to which you linked, your problem sounds exactly like that attributed to thiol degradation in Debra's post. I hope she sees this and comments herself.

What is it that doesn't seem to fit?


OldWoodenSpoon's picture

This is the most unpleasant bread baking experience I've had thus far.  I hope it stays that way, and that there is nothing worse to come some day.

I concluded this does not fit (exactly at least) the Thiol model because of timing, primarily, in that it did not manifest right from the very beginning of mixing the dough.  That, and the fact that I definitely had some gluten development after the second set of stretch and folds.  My understanding was that the thiol interference would prevent those gluten bonds from forming in the first place.  I based this, in part, on the reference to protease and milk proteins interfering in (I thought) similar ways and to similar effect.  Here in my kitchen it was more like something that broke down already existing gluten protein bonds, causing my partly developed dough to reverse course and disintegrate.

I will read Debra's threads again tonight (gotta go spray weeds right now), and I too hope she might see this and make some comments.

Thanks for your comments David.  Definitely keep your distance from this one.

dmsnyder's picture

My understanding is that what others described is exactly what occurred with your dough. I'll read the links again myself.


OldWoodenSpoon's picture

I must agree, they are very similar.  They are similar enough to conclude that thiol degradation is what I am working against.  It is somewhat dissappointing that there is no way to get a definitive diagnosis of the organism responsible, and I wish I knew what I was looking for, but Debra assures that:

In the meantime, my advice is to keep your starters on a healthy feeding routine at cool room temperature. The tunnel may seem very long, but there is light at the end. My sticky, stringy problems spontaneously cleared up between days 9 and 10. It was a noticeable turn-around, not a gradual thing. The starter had been in a holding pattern for 9 days; on day 10 it was completely different. And today, my starter made a very nice dough.... with elasticity!

I'm game, and I'll try it for a couple of weeks and assume I will recognize it when it happens.  Rest assured I will report back here with the results.

Thanks again

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

Your description sounds almost exactly like what I experienced. For me, the effects were apparent in the mixing bowl, but the timing could be different for you. Thiol compounds can be oxidized or reduced, and can go back and forth between those two states, depending on what kind of fermentation is going on.

Heterolactic fermentation reduces oxidized thiol compounds, contributing to slackness; homolactic fermentation has no effect, but enzymes naturally present in the flour favor oxidation of the reduced form, promoting elasticity. Just kind of depends on what's happening when, and to what degree.

I found that extending fermentation time (at room temperature) helped bring some of the elasticity back. Had the gluten actually been breaking down, such as through proteolysis, that would not have happened.

If you can summon the faith, and find the patience to feed it through, I'm sure things will turn around for you too.

I sympathize...

OldWoodenSpoon's picture

Thanks for the support, and the sympathy too, Debra.  I will see it through to whatever end is in store for me, and report it back here.  It is reassuring to have you confirm the diagnosis originally advanced by David Snyder.  I'm sure he would agree that a second opinion is a good idea.

I must add that I appreciate all that you have contributed to us here on The Fresh Loaf.  I won't pretend that I understand all of it, but I do understand your generosity in sharing it with us so freely.  Although I missed the diagnosis myself, I at least had the material available to read, so when it finally came along it was not totally foreign to me.  That is worth a lot to all of us here.

With appreciation

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

"...confirm the diagnosis originally advanced by David Snyder.  I'm sure he would agree that a second opinion is a good idea."

Especially when they are in agreement ;-)

Thank you OldWoodenSpoon, your kind words are much appreciated.   -dw

judsonsmith's picture

What was the flavor of this bread like? My guess is that the dough pH dropped too low at some point into the fermentation. In "The Bread Builders" Dan Wing writes that "Dough may begin to become slack as dough pH drops below 4 and the gluten takes on excessive water" (63). This may be due to your starter spending a little too long in the refrigerator, too large a quantity of the total dough flour prefermented, the use of mineral and sugar rich whole grain flours in the starter or the combination of all those things. Many of your results seem in line with Wing's warning to avoid using an overly acidic starter. One of the easiest ways to judge this is too frequently smell and taste your starter. The taste test at least will quickly tell you if its too acid or not! Hope that helps and happy baking.

OldWoodenSpoon's picture

"The Bread Builders" book and Dan Wing's descriptions of baking ingredients and processes were a primary force in renewing my baking enthusiasm a couple of years ago.  I thank you for reminding me of that excellent resource, and for your thoughtful advice on my case.   I don't think my case is one of low pH though.  My bread is only mildly sour.  It is not as strongly sour as many of the weekly sourdough loaves I bake from my whole wheat flour starter on which this white starter is based.  Further, as noted in my original post, this white starter has a nice fruity, healthy aroma, and by appearances at least, is not starving or under-performing in the jar.

Also, in my kitchen a 30% preferment works out well for me as long as it stays cool.  In these winter months my kitchen rarely gets above 68F unless the oven is on, and overnight it is down as low as the mid 50's.  I use a 30% preferment under these conditions in order to keep things moving along.  This seems to yield acceptable loaves with the same processes and proportions when I use my whole wheat starter.

Thanks for thinking it through and offering advice.  I do appreciate it.  If Debra Wink's advice on feeding through this does not work out I will revisit these thoughts.


Syd's picture

This happens to me a lot in the summer.  And we have a very long summer here in southern Taiwan.  It lasts about 8 months.  I thought it was referred to as proteolytic breakdown but I could be wrong as what I know about the science of breadmaking is at best misinformed and at worst, dangerous. 

At any rate, it always happpens when the acidity of my starter is too high.  It happens just like you describe it, too.  It degenerates into a shapeless, sticky glob which shows no signs of extensibility or elasticity whatsoever.  There is no way that I know of to rescue it.  Either bake it as is and expect an inferior loaf in terms of crust colour, volume and shape, or toss it and start again.  It should have a markedly sour taste, though.  Did yours taste sour?

Some of the ways around this problem for me are: 

  • feed the starter more food.  Like you, I also used to feed mine 1:1:1 (swf) but (like yours) it would also triple in three to four hours and then it would start to get very sour (smell like nail polish remover).  I think you are on the right track by altering your feeding regimen to 1:2:2.  See how that goes first but be prepared to experiment as high as 1:5:5 (swf).  
  • add up to 2% salt to your starter.  This will slow down both yeast and enzyme activity.
  • autolyse in the fridge without the preferment
  • keep your starter in an airconditioned room.  Do bulk ferment in airconditioned room, as well.
  • shorter bulk ferment times
  • keep all your flour in the freezer and use iced water for mixing up doughs
  • don't overknead and opt for more s&f's instead

As a general rule, my preferment is always somewhere between 15 and 20% of the final dough weight.  If you are experiencing problems at 30% maybe you could try and reduce the preferment.

Your description of your white starter is exactly how a healthy starter should behave in my experience.  It should be gassy with a lot of long gluten strands as you describe.  It does take quite a long time to dissolve in water.  It should be on the rise and should never have collapsed (unless you want your bread to  be sour or run the risk of ending up with gluten breakdown). 

Is it not possible that your starter got too acidic from being out the whole of Wed night so that when you started your elaborations on Thurs morning the rot had already set in?  How much starter did you innoculate your preferment with?


This never happens in winter.  Recently we have been having glorious days with temps ranging between 21 and 25 degrees C and the loaves have been coming out perfectly.  Not even a hint of gluten breakdown and I can keep my starter at room temp for almost 8 hours without it peaking.  I don't want this weather to end but it will only last for another 3- 4 weeks at best.:(



OldWoodenSpoon's picture

Very thorough Syd, thank you. I am truly sorry to hear this happens to you a lot.  I'm not sure what I would do if that were my situation.  I already cannot wait for this to be resolved.

If you have read my response above to judsonsmith then you know that my bread tastes only mildly sour, and that my starter does not appear starved or overly acidic.  You also know that I am currently using 30% preferment because my conditions are the reverse of your own.  Here it is the middle of winter and the kitchen is cold, so I need a little acceleration.  Where you are it is hot (nearly all the time apparently!) and you need to keep the brakes on.  During our summer months I reverse course and use preferments of smaller proportions, for the same reasons you do so now.

My original post points out that I fed the starter Wednesday night just before bed, so that would have been about 11:30PM.  I started the elaborations next morning at roughly 8AM.  At 8.5 hours this is an hour or so shorter than the usual overnight span for the starter, and it was fully awake that morning, bubbling and frothing very nicely.  I used 58 gm of starter plus equal weights of flour and water in the first elaboration, and that elaboration peaked in less than 5 hours.  I don't think it had enough time, especially in my very cool temperatures, to become highly acidic.  The next elaboration tripled the quantities again, so the original innoculation was only about 11% of the ending total preferment.  Any acidity it brought along would have been significantly diluted in the total.

Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts so clearly, Syd.  And enjoy those glorious days!  We had one ourselves today with a high this afternoon of 72F and an absolutely gloriously colored sunset.  I hope your weather holds for you.

Thank you

Syd's picture

You are welcome, OldWoodenSpoon.  Under the circumstances, Debra's advice on feeding seems the best course of action.  Let's hope, then, that whatever organism that is causing this gluten breakdown will be flushed out by regular feeding under cool temperatures. 

I hadn't read your reply to judsonsmith before I wrote mine, but now that I have, your situation is much clearer.  It is puzzling, though, that your starter smells right, looks right, is not overly sour, but the gluten still ends up being degraded.  I appreciate how frustrating this can be.  Imagine what it would be like if this happened to you and you were running a bakery! Hope it sorts itself out in time.



OldWoodenSpoon's picture

I think I would be going out of my mind if I were responsible for a bakery with this going on!

Thanks again Syd

ehanner's picture

I've been reading along in this thread with interest as I have also run into the degrading of the dough on occasion. I first found myself dealing with the rapid degradation of the structure and stickiness when experimenting with using a blend of whole grain flours along with AP for starter feeding. I believe it was Leader who suggested such a blend would build a more vigorous activity. I did get more activity but in my experience, I had to watch very closely the condition of the starter and not miss or delay the feedings. Once I got behind the schedule and the starter became more acidic, any dough created from this starter would be equally sensitive to breakdown. There appears to be a bacteria that thrives in the increased acidity that contributes to the rapid degradation of gluten. Pushing it back to smaller numbers requires a change in feeding.

In general, the way I have avoided this condition all year long is to keep my starter at a firmer hydration, use a lower percent of inoculation and only use mixed whole grain feedings for the elaboration required in the formula by the author. What ever bacteria that is causing this condition seems to thrive in higher pH conditions and higher hydration.

So, my remedy for this condition has been to provide more food and cut down the population that has access to the new flour. This seems to encourage the individuals we want and discourage those we don't want.


OldWoodenSpoon's picture

I appreciate your comments Eric.  I was hoping I might hear from you on this, having seen your comments in my research in other threads.

If I understand you correctly then: 1.  this is an acidic (low pH) starter condition as it relates to creating conditions where this adverse bacteria gets a toehold, but it is the bacteria, not the pH, that causes the breakdown.  2.  the renegade bacteria does not do as well in firmer starter environments, and 3) once it has a toehold it is difficult to force out, requiring much more than just a short term change in pH to eradicate it.

Where did you learn of the connection to pH in this issue?  I certainly overlooked it if it was in any of the material I read.

What ratio do you use then to feed your starter?  You mentioned using a small inoculation.  How small is small, and have you identified any thresholds of danger?

Finally, you mentioned to "only use mixed whole grain feedings for the elaboration required in the formula by the author".  I assume this means you maintain your starter entirely on white flour, and only introduce other grains when you elaborate for a particular formula.  If so, is that because of the higher activity that seems to be common when whole grains are used?  If that is so, why?  Is it because it is easier to miss a peak in a more active starter, and thus miss a feeding, only to fall back into this mess again?

Thanks again Eric for all this excellent information. I do appreciate it.  I am sorry (for both of us!) that this is something that comes back now and again.  I really hoped it was more rare and unusual than that.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I found Dan DiMuzio's write up when I googled: degradation in bread dough.  I believe it is right out of his book:

Bread Baking: An Artisan's Perspective, 2009.

It is copywrited material and starts at the bottom of page 110.


It is also very possible you hit the sweet spot for starch degredation which could be avoided if the pH was lower or more fermentation before retardation.  Check into starch amylase pH.

OldWoodenSpoon's picture

Thank you for the tips, Mini, and for the interesting material.  (Thank you too, dghdctr) 

Okay, I will now add starch amylase and the impacts of ph to my reading list.  I feel like I'm earning a minor degree in microbiology and organic chemistry all at the same time.  Ouch, brain cramp!  There is a reason I went into computers, after all...

Thank you for the assist.

Mebake's picture

I believe What Eric says is Very True.. Starters are more stable in Firm form. Liquid Starters tend to invite unwanted bacteria from within the culture or from outside. Not to mention the hectic feeding schedule of a liquid starter.


Home Baker's picture
Home Baker

An unexpected respite of cooler weather after an early, long heat wave gave me the opportunity to get in a few days of bread baking. Sadly, each of the batches of bread I've made has given me problems. Flavor balances seemed off, color was dull and the proofing times were just plain nuts -- way too fast with not enough margin for error to get the both first and last loaves of any batch baked properly. Only, possibly, the middle loaves were "just right."

The photos accompanying this blog post might as well have been taken of a loaf I baked on Sunday -- and it got worse from there. I baked about ten loaves of a never-fail variation of a popular Deli Rye last evening. Not knowing how I could have screwed them up so badly,  I was about ready to hang my head in shame and post photos of some of the ugly loaves that came out of my oven. Same pattern of errors as before even though I had literally stayed with the bread from the time of intital mix until the last loaves emerged from the oven. Only, maybe, one of the ten loaves --like, the fifth one-- was close to good. All the rest were almost comically bad looking. All seemed over-proofed even though the bulk ferment and final proofs were only half normal time and I used fans to make sure the kitchen temps stayed close to 75°F--same as last time I'd made this formula. 

Weather forecasters say the lovely cooler temperatures will be gone by the end of today, so I'll have to spend the next couple of weeks tending to the starter instead of baking anyway. With luck --and these excellent suggestions-- hopefully the starter will have purged itself of the nasty thiol compounds by the time the next wave of scorching summer heat relents so I can get in another day or two of bread baking before Fall.

Thanks to all!