The Fresh Loaf

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Need help diagnosing condition of crust

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Busche74's picture

Need help diagnosing condition of crust

I am a serious home baker in need of some help from all of you out there in bread land.  I am in the middle of doing some experimenting with levain and baking method and would appreciate help diagnosing the  difference in my bread.

While reading on levain I was surprised to find that after feeding my levain might be reading to bake within a as little as 2 hours( I have lways given the starter build 6 hours before mixing my dough.

While I was at it, I also thought I would make my stiff levain more liguidy( to see if the flavor really did change with more liquidy statrter) and compare the end products.  And I also wanted to compare using a cast iron pot with cover  ( lots of people swear by this method)  to steaming my oven(my usual way of baking-I use 2 baking stones and a pan of heated stones on the bottom of my oven , which I add 1 1/2 cups of water to after the loafs are in oven).

So this  is what I did..

at 8am I built 2 levains..I like chewy bread so I use alot of starter in my levain

1)  my normal levain, which  has 80% hydration( 125 grms of water to 155 grms of flour)and 161% starter(250 grams)

2)  I converted my normal levain to a more liquidy one by changing hydration in starter build to 150%( 232 grams), 155 grams of flour( 100%) and 200% (starter 310 grams)

by 10 am the more liquidy starter was ready( based on drop some starter into water test), but the stiffer one was not

by 11am both starters were ready

at noon I mixed both doughs...I used the same recipe, (the one with liquidy statrter was obviously much looser because of the increased hydration in the starter).  I mix by hand( very quick mixing of ingredients, no knead) and then autolyse for 15 minutes before adding salt, I then stretch and fold a minumu of 4 times over the next 90 minutes, at which point I bulk ferment for 1 hour, stretch and fold once more  and then complete bulk fermentation for 2 hours.  I made 2 loaves of bread from each starter so that I could compare the cast iron pot to the steamed oven , as well as the flavor difference.

at 4:30PM I shaped the loaves( I never bench rest this bread) and put them into bannetons, covered with wrap and plastic bags, and then set them in my garage for overnight fermenting( my garage is heated at 45 degrees- in northern minnesota that means from Oct thru April I have a very large retarder). 

Beginning at 7:30am the next day I removed loaves as I baked them from my garage.  A note here...typically I mix my dough later in the day so that I can shape it at 10PM and then bake right away in the morning..a 9 hour retarding, where these breads were retarded for 15 hours( I had a date with my husband that occupied my evening)

Each dough was baked in 2 ways( either in cast iron pot or steamed oven).

The bread with the more liquidy levain was a bit challeging to work with because it was so loose, but I wanted to stick to the same procedure so scored it just like I might usually score the bread( if I hadn't been experimenting I don't think I would have scored it at all). When using  both my paddle for the steamed oven and putting it into the cast iron pot, it became alittle mishaped, but nothing too serious or unusual , expecially with this loose of a dough.

Here's what the 2 loaves looked like:

 I often have beautiful reddish color to my loaves, but this seemed almost too just happens to be the loaf that is from a more liguidy levain and also baked in my stemed oven not the cast iron pot).

Any suggestions on what may have caused that over the top red color?  I rember reading something about this before, but forgot what I read..I know its an indicator of something..  could it be that the fermentation period was too long?  But if thats true, why is it that the bread with the stiffer levain doesn't have that same super reddish color, its  a beautiful brownish reddish...could it be that the stiffer levain slowed down  the fermentation process so that even though the stiffer levain loaves were baked after the looser levain loaves, they were not over retarded, while the looser levain, which was more active from the beginning was over retarded when I baked it...and if thats true then why did the looser levain loaf baked in the cast iron pot not show signs of the extreme reddish, while the one that was steamed in my oven did?

Here's what the loaves from my stiffer starter looked like..they have that nice golden color I am accustomed to,  but not the over the top red of the top loaves....














Lots of questions, would appreciate any help I could get ...

Thanks...I love this forum..


wayne on FLUKE's picture
wayne on FLUKE

See that little icon just above where you type to make your entry that looks like a tree (just to the left of the quotation marks), just click on it and follow the prompts. Be sure to resize your photos to something around 640 pixels on the long side. You can also type "post photos" into the search box.

As for your bread, I was surprised you didn't compensate for the extra liquid in the start/levain by reducing it in the final dough to keep the overall hydration constant.


Busche74's picture

Yes, I know...but I wanted to keep the experiment clear...too many variables....

thanks for help on photos, but I did follow tree and did follow allowed me to download photo, but then would not insert into post


wayne on FLUKE's picture
wayne on FLUKE

Are you trying to upload a photo from your system or one that is on a photo sharing site?

If your system,

  1. click on "tree", this pops up the "Insert/Edit Image" window.
  2. click on "browse" box to right of URL field, this opens new window "File Browser"
  3. in "File Browser" click Upload (top left, above "Navigation") and browse to file on your computer, then "Upload".
  4. back in "File Browser", select the file you want (there can be many after you have uploaded multiple) and "Insert File" (top).
  5. that will bring you back to the "Insert/Edit Image" window where you can select alignment, borders, spacing
  6. click "Insert", bottom and picture will show up in the text entry box where you are typing.

If you have pic on photo site, grab the URL and paste it in the "Insert/Edit Image" window and goto step 5 above.

As for variables in your experiment, hydration is one of most significant variables and you wanted to experiment with levain feeding/hydration. Keeping the overall hydration constant would give you less variables.


Busche74's picture

Thanks Wayne..I had followed those steps last night, but it appears that the window where I sized and inserted had been hidden behind the window where I was addingcontent.  With your help I have added my photos.

Point well taken on the hydration...  do you have any thoughts on why I got this super red look on loaf on top right?

wayne on FLUKE's picture
wayne on FLUKE

But it doesn't look that red on my screen!

teketeke's picture

Very interesting post, Kathleen. Thank you for posting this.  I have never tried such high hydration levain because I am not a keen sour seeker.   How was the difference of the taste from the 2 loaves?   Does the taste tell you the difference of the appreance? This is the different story but I had a very shiny looking crust when I made David's miche. David told me that more likely that was used a lot of steam while baking.  It was true.    I have no clue with your reddish crust, but I'd like to see you solving the fact of the crust color.



Busche74's picture


Thanks for your interest...One of the reasons I did this experiment is because I had been reading Tartine and it said that a more liquidy levain would create more lactic acid or sweet flavors than a thicker or firmer one.  This did not make sense to me becuase I had been using a firm levain that I refrigerate between uses and then only refresh one day before I mix a dough with it( my work life is very demanding)..  the flavor of my breads are not sour, they are pretty well friends tell me that they are surprised because I call them a sourdough bread, but there is no sour thats why this comment in Tartine was confusing and why I conducted the experiment.. I had believed the opposite to be true.. So in the pursuit of understanding I thought I would try to create a more liquidly levain and see if there was a difference( this is why I made the 2 breads side by side).  Here's what I think I discovered:

The flavors of both breads were not as good as my normal bread..I attribute this to the fact that the starter build was only given 4 hours to ferment( it was ready to raise the dough , but the flavors that come from the bacteria action were not present....I found the flavor from the liquidy levain to be almost bland.  The bread made from the firmer levain was better, but nothing like my normal bread.   lesson:  always make sure you let the satrter build ferment a minimum of 8 hours.

I did not accomodate for the difference in the "yeast action" between the 2 levains.  The liquidy levain was ready to raise bread in 3 hours, but the firmer levain took another hour to be ready..25% longer...looking back on that fact it also makes sense then that after the loaves were shaped they should be retarded at different periods as well...I didn't do that, so that may be the reason the firm levain bread was a superior product than the liquid levain product( I wonder if I had retarded the liquidy levain loafs for 75% (11 hours) of the time the others were retarded(15 hrs) would I have had similar not overproofed, which is what I think happened to the loafs made with the liquidy levain).  Lesson:  The liquidy levain is more active- do not let  loaves with a lquidy levain ferment overnight more than 9 hours.

I think the next step to my experiment is to : Make the two different levains , let them both ferment 8 hrs, mix dough( adjust hydration in liquidy levain dough) and bulk ferment and then shape and retard for no more than 9 hours( which, in theory, should be in the middle of the optimum period for lquidy loaves and the beginning for the firmer levain loaves).

Your comment about shiny crust is interesting because the loaf that was so red was also very shiny ...It may be that I oversteamed my oven and overproofed.

My confusion over whether a liquidy vs firm levain has led me back to my bread books to discover what I would consider conflicting infortmation, but maybe I am missing something:

On page 72 of  "Tartine", the author, Chad Robertson, writes:  "Starters that are stored at higher ambient temperatures( not refrigerated) and are more lquid favor lactic actic production over acetic acid production.  The overall acid load, or concentration of acid, in the final loaf is responsible for the sour flavor."

On page 73 of "Crust and Crumb", the author, Peter Reinhart , writes: " The thicker sponge encourages more of the sweeter lactic acid, while still promoting sourness.  As a rule, lactic-acid producing organisms prefer dried sponges and acetic acid(sour) producers like wetter, looser, more oxygen-rich sponges."

Doesn't it seem that these 2 quotes say completley different things about the same issue?



teketeke's picture

Thank you for taking the time to write up your experiments, which makes sense to me. I agree with Peter Reinhart's thought about the levain.  Here is my thought about liquid and stiff levain.

I completely understand your thoughts because I had been really annoyed with the stuff for a long time.  

Best wishes,