The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Problems with high hydration sourdough

StuartScholes's picture
StuartScholes

Problems with high hydration sourdough

Hi all,

I've been baking bread in a home oven for several years now (obviously not the same loaf!) and I've experimented before with sourdough. I now have a sourdough starter that has been going for 10 days. I made it to this recipe:

520g Flour

500ml Water

10g Salt

15g Fresh yeast (I know some folk don't consider this a true sourdough but it works!)

I keep it in the fridge and top it up with equal quantities of water and flour a day. I'm experimenting with creating baguettes with EXTREMELY high levels of hydration and I've varied between 100% and 80% - I've been reading articles that say that 80% should be fine though tricky to work with. Basically my method is this:

Preheat oven to hottest temp (220C) and boil kettle. Add metal tin with boiling water in bottom of oven.

Take sourdough out of the fridge. HEAVILY flour worksurface and take a handful of sourdough (at this stage it's like a paste but stretchy), place it on the flour and cover in more flour, stretching it to a baguette shape. I then lay it on a baguette tray and bake it for approx 25 mins.

My problem is this: though I'm reducing the hydration level, the dough inside is still wet and doughy, even though it's baked until VERY brown - the crust is lovely. Any ideas how to get the dough inside dry - do I have to work it differently, prove it, let it rest out of the fridge, lower the hydration even more (and lose that beautiful crust)? Any help or suggestions would be gratefully received.

Thanks Stuart

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

Maybe in my understanding, maybe in your description.  Let's see if I can play this back to you.

First, you mixed up a "starter" consisting of 520g flour, 500g (ml) water, 10g salt and 15g fresh yeast.  (More accurately, you have a high-hydration dough; sort of like that of a ciabatta or foccacia.)  You withdraw a "handful" from this "starter" (each day?) and then "top it up with equal quantities of water and flour a day" (equal weights?).  That means that the "starter" is now effectively at 100% hydration, if you are measuring your flour and water by weight.  Apparently you have not added any yeast or salt since the original mixture was created.  The handful of "starter" is then stretched into a baguette shape and immediately baked in a pre-heated, pre-steamed oven.  Have I got that straight?

My very first suggestion would be that you do some reading to get a basic understanding of what happens at each stage from mixing the raw ingredients of flour, water, yeast and salt to pulling the finished loaves out of the oven.  If you can get your hands on a book such as Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, the opening chapters will give you a very good idea of the process and of why things work the way they do.  That book also has the formula for a bread called Pain a la Ancienne which seems like it would appeal to you.

My second suggestion, assuming that you want to continue with your present practice, would be to allow the shaped loaves an opportunity to proof (or rise, or ferment) until they are nearly doubled in volume before baking them.  As it is now, it sounds as though you are placing a deflated strip of dough in your oven.  And it isn't surprising that the interior is wet and doughy as a result.  Give it a chance to reinflate before baking and that will go a long way toward producing a moist, rather than raw, crumb.

My third suggestion would be to lower the hydration.  Traditional baguette dough is not as wet as what you are working with.  You might want to experiment with hydration levels in the 70-80% range for a while.  It won't hurt the crust at all.

My fourth suggestion would be to turn off the oven at the end of the bake but leave the loaves in the oven for another 5 minutes or so with the door propped open a little.  That will also help dry the crumb somewhat.

My final suggestion would be that you allow the loaves to cool all the way to room temperature before sampling them, if you are not already doing so.  That will allow the bread to finish baking and for the moisture levels inside the loaf to stabilize.

Paul

StuartScholes's picture
StuartScholes

Excellent, thank you.

The description you made is indeed accurate - this is a sourdough that is continuously growing (therefore no yeast is added as it isn't needed) at 100% hydration. I have not added yeast or salt (as I've been trying to make it 'clean' from salt, as I tend to eat it with salty food - will this be a problem?), and the quantities are indeed by weight. You are correct also that it is baked without proving, as the dought was rising significantly in the oven (also, baguette tins - being slightly perforated - were letting little bits of the dough paste drip out and I wanted to eliminate that).

My previous method (last week's experiment) was to shape the dough and proof/prove overnight in the fridge before baking, and that had reasonable success, though the hydration was slightly lower. I've put my sourdough on today to regenerate the yeasts in it (i.e. no baking) but I think tonight I will take a bit and reduce the hydration before proving in the fridge overnight once again. I'll try your suggestions tomorrow when I bake it too, then post back to let you know how I get on. I'll also see if I can get hold of that book - I have a couple of bread books that I'll try to find further info in as well, but I can't remember seeing each stage of the process explained.

Thanks,

Stuart

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

and that's a bit of a problem in the bread-baking world where a lot of terms seem to get used in different ways.

However, the most widely understood meaning for the word sourdough revolves around the notion that the sourdough (what the French would call a levain or the Italians a levito naturale) is a culture of naturally-occurring yeasts and bacteria.  Commercially produced yeasts aren't part of the sourdough equation.

What you have, at 100% hydration with commercial yeast, would most likely be termed a poolish or a sponge.  If it were a stiffer dough consistency because of lower hydration, we might label it a biga, as the Italians do.  I do see the term "starter" bandied about but most often in the context of a naturally-yeasted substance, aka sourdough; not in a commercially-yeasted sense.

Since you are heading down the path of trying to sustain a commercial yeast culture in your poolish, please keep us posted on how long that lasts without requiring a fresh inoculation of commercial yeast.  My guess is that it will gradually lose its ability to leaven your bread as the commercial yeasts die off, maybe within the next week or two.  Remember that they were initially cultivated in large tanks at optimal temperatures and fed a diet of sterilized molasses so that other organisms didn't intrude.  Out in the wild (i.e., your kitchen or mine), they don't do so well over the long haul.  If the leavening ability of your poolish doesn't drop off, it is more likely that it has been overrun by wild yeasts that hitchhike in on the flour you feed it, rather than that the commercial yeasts are hanging on.

Salt is not required in bread, particularly if you aren't interested in how it tastes.  Tuscans started baking saltless bread centuries ago in protest against the high taxes that were levied on salt at the time.  They still do today.  Their diet does feature a lot of salty foods nowadays, so maybe it isn't missed so much in the bread.

In some ways, your process echoes the no-knead bread championed by Jim Lahey.  Lots of posts about that here on TFL; just use the Search box at the upper-left corner of the page to find them.  A more typical use for a poolish (or a real sourdough starter) is to leaven a larger batch of bread.  In that approach, more flour and water (and salt, for most people) are added to the poolish.  The whole mass is kneaded, allowed to rise until doubled in volume, degassed, shaped into loaves, then allowed to rise until nearly doubled again and baked.  Something else for you to explore if you want.

If you aren't able to source Reinhart's book easily, you might also look for books by Jeffrey Hamelman or Andrew Whitley or Dan Lepard or Richard Bertinet.  Look for one that isn't simply recipes.  You will probably find at least one by the authors mentioned here that delves into the process before launching into recipes.  Click on the Book Reviews link at the top of the page to get further suggestions.

Best of luck with your next attempt.

Paul

StuartScholes's picture
StuartScholes

Paul, thanks for your insight, I had never realised that about bakers yeast - the books I've read all suggest that if you start a sourdough with bakers yeast then it'll just run and run. That would account for why my starter/sourdough/biga/poolish/sponge etc. has dropped in activity levels over the last couple of days.

I've lowered the hydration level for tomorrow's batch to around 80 to 85% (depending on the amount of flour it picked up while I worked the dough -folding it in case you want to know ;)) in accord with the original recipe I followed. I'll let you know how it goes tomorrow.

Stuart

Grenage's picture
Grenage

My sourdough is a natural sourdough, not a baker's yeast dough - so take this with a pinch of salt!  Wouldn't such a mix go rancid, due to the lack of a symbiotic relationship?  Assuming of course, that natural leavens didn't take over on their own, albeit stiffled by salt.

Faith in Virginia's picture
Faith in Virginia

What I have found is that with 100% hydration you bread will be very gummy on the inside.  I've heard the same compliant  from some no kneed recipes with high hydration.  I suggest lowering your hydration levels.

StuartScholes's picture
StuartScholes

So I tried the above suggestions, my results are as follows:

The crumb is alot tighter and more or less properly cooked - no claggy dampness. However the rise (oven spring) leaves a lot to be desired, but I think this is because the starter is dying. I'll try adding some yeast today and reproving overnight tonight.

If I prove/proof on my worksurface tonight (instead of the fridge) do you think it's rise too quickly and fall by morning? I think it will, but you guys have got more experience on that sort of thing I'm sure.

Thanks for your help, I'm getting there slowly I feel, one day at a time! (I like experimenting you see!)

Stuart

Grenage's picture
Grenage

A room temperature proof over-night (with baker's yeast) will be far too long; it's probably also worth not calling your mix a starter, to avoid any reader confusion.  Generally, and this is going back to when I used baker's yeast, an over-night rize in a fridge was equal to an hour and a bit outside one.  It depends on the activity of the poolish you're using, and the temperatures.

StuartScholes's picture
StuartScholes

Aye, that's what I thought, thanks. I'll let you know how I get on tomorrow, as the mixture is very nicely bubbly at the moment, due to the injection of new yeast. Yey! :)