The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Bulk fermentation time...what's the maximum? How to handle long bulk fermented dough?

sournewb71's picture

Bulk fermentation time...what's the maximum? How to handle long bulk fermented dough?

Obviously the hydration of the starter and the temperature of the room that the bulk fermentation is taking place are factors in how long to bulk ferment...but I'm looking for visual identifiers.

After reading 'Crust' and seeing how Richard Bertinet lets his sourdough bulk ferment for 16 hours, I became intrigued.  I've been usually waking up extra early in the morning following Hammelman's sourdough process to get a loaf ready to eat by lunch.  So one night I experimented, I made a loaf following Hammelman's recipe, 'worked it' like Bertinet does then covered it and went to bed.  9 hours later the dough had probably tripled.  So I carefully released it then folded and shaped it like Bertinet does.  It probably was one of the best loaves I've made!

So my question is, what is the point of no return in regards to bulk fermentation?  Will the dough eventually start deflating in the bowl and turn into a gooey mess?  What is the proper way to handle a long bulk fermentation dough?  I haven't really seen much discussion on this, Bertinet does his long fermentation in his proofing basket which he releases the dough and bakes immediately.  I don't have any proofing baskets yet so I've been releasing the dough from the bowl and then shaping it into a boule.  From this point I'm not sure which way to proceed.  The dough seems to have enough spring to it at this point to be slashed and baked, yet I'm so programmed to allow it to proof again.

Here's some side information about my process and starter:

I've went back and forth on using proofing boxes and room temperature to obtain a sour sourdough.  I have finally decided that I do not want to rely on alternative means to keep my starter and dough at a certain temperature to reach my goals.  So now after some experimenting, I feed my starter once a day and use over-ripe starter to reach my flavor goals.

Room temperature: 60-64F

Starter:  Fed once a day @ 100% hydration WW flour: Zerowater filtered water (at room temperature) @ 1:10:10.


davidg618's picture

I think the best you can do is find your own limits by trial and error. 

That said, here's a couple of clues.

I routinely retard (bulk ferment) lean doughs made with either sourdough or commercial instant yeast for 15 to 21 hours at 54°F. with no apparent negative effects.

Furthermore, each time I bake sourdough, I make extra levain and entirely replace my refrigerator-stored starter. I maintain my starter with white bread flour exclusively. On weeks I don't bake, or weeks I bake with levains made with mixed flours, I make enough white bread flour levain to replace my stored seed starter. I begin with 20g of fresh, ripe levain and feed it 1:1:1 and place it immediately into the refrigerator (38°F to 40°F). I check it over the next three or four days. It slowly ripens for approximately 48 hours when it peaks, and noticeable collapse is evident after 72 hrs. I have made levain from 96 hour-old starter; finding the starter's gluten structure very degraded, almost runny.

From these two much repeated observations, I've developed a rule of thumb that 24 hours is my upper limit for retarded fermentation at 54°F. I don't retard doughs in the refrigerator, but I'd make an informed guess 72 hours would be safe.

David G

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

There was a time I would let dough sit to bulk ferment until it fell on its own.   Never had a good loaf that way.  Doesn't seem to bother a starter too much but a bulk rise goes too far when it falls on its own.  It's an indication that the dough is pretty tired out.  

sournewb71's picture

David G,

Thanks for the info on your experience with retardation.  I haven't done too much with the refrigerator yet, except try to get a more pronounced sour in my loaf.

Mini Oven,

When you handle long bulk doughs, how do you handle them after the bulk ferment?  Are you doing your long ferments in a brotform or in a bowl?  Do you shape yours and allow them to rise again or are you baking them straight away.  I'm relatively new to this way of baking but so far it seems that the crumb isn't as airy when baked right away.  I just fear that if shaped and left to final proof they may start deflating.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

using the recipe and taking in most variables.  I don't let the bulk rise double, in fact with sourdoughs it gets broken up into many little rises as the dough texture and gas amount in the dough changes.    I see the whole sourdough rising process as a decomposing mass of great smelling wet flour until it reaches the point of "no return" loosing all it's qualities that make it a manageable dough.  The trick is to mix and make your bread within this time frame and coax a good amount of flavour out of wet flour and get good gas production and trap that gas.  Take too long doing it one risks making a whole lot of very ripe starter when it ferments too long.  All kinds of factors come to play... temp, hydration, enzymes, starter strength, type of flour and all the other added ingredients.  Fermentation is the way mother nature breaks down the flour back into dirt.  We use this process and stop it by baking.  

As long as I'm handling the dough I tend to keep it in a lightly oiled boil.  I cover with a cheap shower cap or large lid.  I can park it on a radiator or in a refrigerator, or in a bowl with ice or over a bowl of hot water.  Only when I feel the need to shape and go for a final rise, do I use parchment or a form of some kind or a flour dusted cloth or brotform.   Time and feeling the dough (and slicing it open) has taught me many things about what the inside of the dough looks like, I could say I've now got x-ray hands and it helps to judge using the whole hand against the dough.  It is important to play with your starter and dough and be able to recognize signs of progressing fermentation to the point of degeneration.  Aromas will also change and alcohol will slowly build in the dough.  When I started out with bread, I aimed at one "feel" for the dough but have since learned how to handle wet doughs and sticky doughs and firm doughs and most in between.  They all tend to ferment a little bit differently and at different speeds.

I have to agree that doughs baked right away are not very airy.  It is sometimes good to wait and see how the gas builds up inside the dough.  Letting the gas build and then folding the dough to make any large bubbles divide and at the same time stretching the gluten matrix is good, it leads to more volume eventually.  In baking, large bubbles get bigger as steam collects in them so any obvious bubbles should be popped unless you want them to be really big.  As you stretch the gluten matrix it tightens,  you let it rise so it relaxes and then it can be then stretched again.  Use the "stretch and fold" technique so often talked about.  A far cry from the old cook book "bulk rise and punch down" which is just too brutal for sourdough.  Those instructions belong to the instant yeast breads.  

With each folding of the dough you can feel the flat dough becoming a lighter loaf of dough and the increasing amount of trapped gas gives it a spongy feel.   As fermentation progresses, the dough will also feel wetter or looser.   I tend to fold until the dough fights back and will possibly tear on the next fold.  Then I wait for the dough to relax (about 10 minutes) and then shape it into my desired loaf.  Let it rise some more and bake it when it's ready and still has some spring left to surprise me.  

I hope this helps,


ciabattacadabra's picture

... I have noticed consistent comments on "tearing" the dough.  I know that when stretching and folding, you never want to allow the dough to "tear" because it destroys the gluten bonds, but instead try to stretch them and then allow them to relax before stretching again.  My question is, how much strain is "tearing?"  Often times I'm working some real wetties, and I notice some minute tearing although I try to stop before that happens.  It's not with the entire in-hand fold, but sometimes some tiny tears emerge on a little spot on the smooth side after pressing the fold into the dough.  Do I need to be extra careful to not allow even that to occur.  I'm used to doing a round of six folds or maybe a little more all the way around, rather than just four with the opposite ends.  For stickier wetties should I be strictly stretching sides opposite each other and doing four even folds?  I feel like I'm weakening my sourdoughs some by straining the gluten too much during the ferment of these wetties, even when using a sponge-and-partially kneaded stiff dough combo dough.

P.S.  I'm really benefiting from the way you describe sourdough fermentation.  I love my starter and have been using it for all bread baking since attempt number one, and it has never let me down.  I find that the sourdough is teaching me, rather than me teaching the sourdough how to leaven.  You say that you consider the whole shebang as a "fermentation" and no bulk/proof/final-rise etc.  This is how I've felt, seeing and feeling it for myself but I had difficulty really understanding until reading your understanding of it.  It really does "ferment" very differently from active commercial yeast and the proofing seems more of a natural, "just-go-with-it" sort of process.  I'd be interested in reading a more in-depth post on it if you have one.

jcope's picture

I've been using published formulas for a long time now, and they work great: you can calculate the fermentation time based on the temperature.  The time does depend on the fermented flour percentage in the recipe, but doesn't vary with hydration percentage.  I keep my fermented flour percentage at 15%.  I spent a couple weeks measuring the time small samples of dough would require to collapse at 65F, then I backed off the time a bit and settled on 9.5 hours as a safe maximum fermentation time, prior to proofing.

Using that as my baseline, I can calculate fermentation times at any other temperature.  The maximum I can go is 124 hours, fermenting entirely in the refrigerator.  I never do that though.  I ferment in the fridge, but finish in a warmer environment at a temperature I control so that bake time occurs when it's convenient for me.  Since I've been doing this, I haven't had any failures due to over-fermentation or over-proofing.

Based on the work of someone else on this site, I figured out (but haven't tested) that cutting the starter flour percentage to 10% would extend the fermentation time by 14% at all temperatures.  In that case, the max could go up to 140hours, all in the fridge.  The adjustment is linear, from what I saw, meaning that raising the fermented flour percentage by 5% would mean a decrease in fermentation time by 14%.

I know historically people didn't measure things so precisely, but on the other hand I'm not hanging out in the kitchen all the time.  If I'm going to do this, I need to know how it works so I can make it fit my schedule.  Otherwise it's not worth the time and energy.