The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

How long is too Long for bulk fermentation?

Alvaremj's picture

How long is too Long for bulk fermentation?

So I believe I have a good starter. It rises regularly when fed and seems to rise any loaf I make in a reasonable amount of time. Oh and it tastes good in the finished product, at least to me. I am kind of puzzled at the bulk fermentation time. I've seen everything from 1 to 12 hours at room temp. At what point does the starter run out of food and cease to rise? I certainly get tired when I don't eat. Recently I have limited my bulk fermentation time to under 2 hours depending on how well it seems to be going that day. My kitchen is around 65 degrees in the winter (yes I'm cheap and don't like to turn on the heat) and probably closer to 75 under my cabinet lights and on top of a pitcher of hot water. I guess, also too cheap/broke to buy a thermometer.

So how long is too long? Has anyone had an experience where after bulk fermentation and shaping the loaf didn't rise? I don't know why I'm even trying to figure the wonder of sourdough. It still seems a little like magic to me. The stars will have to align for me to make a "perfect" loaf of bread. As a side note I consider any loaf of bread my kids eat a success. Fortunately they arn't that picky when it comes to bread or anything that resembles bread. I am still trying to make 100% whole wheat sandwich bread tasty enough for us to stop buying the stuff from the store that is loaded with high fructose corn syrup. oh and it would be cheaper. Can you sense a theme here?

Thanks in advance!


hanseata's picture

when your starter caves in, looks really dark, has a watery puddle on top, smells like cheese, or, worse, sprouts little fuzzy hairs. But even then it's usually salvageable, if you remove the top layer with a spoon down to where it still looks good.

I do not maintain a starter on my countertop, anyway, I keep my whole wheat and my rye starter in the fridge, and don't have to feed them every day, but once a week or even less often.


LindyD's picture

Two hours at 65F certainly is not too long, especially with sourdough.   Most likely not long enough.

The easiest way to gauge the bulk is to keep your dough in a glass container, preferably one with straight sides.  Stick some tape on the outside of the bowl marking the top level of the dough.  You want the dough to just about double during the bulk.  You could do a stretch and fold (depending on dough strength) at 45-60 minute intervals.  

Folding the dough redistributes the yeast, equalizes the dough temperature, and degasses the dough - which all benefit fermentation.

Watch the dough and your tape mark.  Forget about the clock.....although I usually set my timer to buzz at  hourly intervals, just so I remember to check the dough.

Maverick's picture

This is good advice. I would like to address the 100% whole wheat comment. Have you tried white wheat flour? It has the same nutritional value, etc. as the traditional (red) whole wheat flour, but is not as nutty and tastes more like a white bread. I try to substitute at least some of this into any bread/cookie/brownie recipe. It is really good for quick breads like banana bread where my kids cannot tell the difference at all.

wally's picture

How long bulk fermentation should proceed really depends on any number of factors: temperature, humidity, type of dough, desired flavor, amount of yeast or leavening, etc.

For many - if not most - doughs, bulk fermentation (where flavor is developed) lasts anywhere from 1-2 hours, as you indicated in your post.  That said, there is a tradition of slowly developing flavor during bulk fermentation where retarding the dough may go up to 12 hours or more.  The time depends on the temperature at which you are retarding your dough.

But even with a consistent temperature, different doughs need more or less time to develop.  Ciabatta, for instance, may require 3 hours with a couple of folds during that period; baguettes typically 2 hours with a single fold, and brioche in as short a period as 1 hour with no folds.  And all of this can be upended if temperature is higher or lower, or if you decide to retard your dough.

Hamelman recommends that you allow dough to go no longer than 1.5 hours without a fold during bulk fermentation (in an unrefrigerated environment).

Beyond that, I think there is no definitive answer to your question, other than the knowledge of a baker who has been at this for many years and can tell by look and feel.  It depends on a lot of factors. 



Alvaremj's picture

Thanks for all your comments. I think the answer is the same as the one I learned in music school. "you just have to feel it" I think I will try and stretch it out a bit and fold along the way.

Thanks again,


markwhiteff's picture

Too long is when the yeast have run out of food and the gluten structure begins to weaken. But it is not easy at all to tell when this is happening. By the time the obvious signs come along (water and smell), it is way too long. And of course, it is impossible to say, hour-wise, when too long is because it is dependent on the amount of water, the ambient temperature, the kind of flour, and most importantly the percentage of yeast and/or vibrancy of the culture you are using. I have a bread that goes for 18 hours bulk fermentation because it has very little yeast in it to start with.

So the best thing to do is start with a proven recipe. If you want to go it alone, then you can use the traditional guide of waiting until the dough doubles in size, punching it down or folding it, and then waiting for it to rise again and then waiting until a gentle finger poke barely bounces back.