The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Pain au Levain with Whole-Wheat - success eludes me

chaspan's picture

Pain au Levain with Whole-Wheat - success eludes me

I've tried to make Hamelman's Pain au Levain with Whole-Wheat recipe from "Bread, A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes" three times, and I have yet to achieve a truly pleasing loaf.  I also tried a very similar recipe that I found on the internet, with similar results. 

It's not all bad news.  The flavor of the bread is quite good.  I'm happy enough so far with the degree of openness of the crumb and the texture of the interior. 

Now for the bad. 

1) The crust is too chewy and leathery.  I don't think that is right for this bread.  I think it should be at least a little bit crisper. 

2) At the end of the second rise when it's time to go in the oven, the loaf is a puffy, gelatinous mass that wiggles like jello when you touch it.  I can't get it on a peel or board without deflating it, and I can't get it off the well-floured peel and onto the oven baking stone without it sticking to the peel and deforming upon landing.  I've had batards in the shape of a boomerang, and boules that looked like deflated footballs. 

3) I don't get much oven spring.  My cuts don't open up very much either.  They just look like the stretch marks on my belly.  :-)  I cannot get an ear. 

High hydration dough is a new thing for me, and I'm finding it difficult to deal with.  I do stretch and folds in the mixing bowl, but when I go to shape the loaves after bulk fermentation, I find that the dough is still so sticky that I have to use quite a bit of bench flour to handle it without sticking to everything.

Here is the process I've been following: 

1) Mix the flour and water by hand in the mixing bowl until all of the dry flour is wetted, more or less.  Autolyze for 30 minutes. 

2) Put the bowl on the mixer.  My mixer is a Hobart N50 5 quart planetary with three speeds.  Low speed is quite slow, but medium speed is pretty fast.  High speed is not usable for dough.  I mix at low speed while adding the salt first, and then the levain, for about two minutes total.  I switch to medium speed and mix for 4 minutes. 

3) Take the bowl off the mixer, cover with plastic wrap, and bulk rise for 2.5 hours with two stretch and folds, in the bowl, at 50 minute intervals.  I haven't tried doing the stretch and folds on the bench because the dough is quite wet, and it sticks too much to my kneading board.  It sticks to everything it touches. I have tried transferring the dough to a wider bowl with more sloping sides to make it easier to do the stretch and folds.  It was easier, but there was no change in the final result. 

4) At the end of bulk fermentation, divide and shape the loaves.  I have mostly shaped the dough into batards, but today I used a brotform basket for one of the loaves.  Rise 2.5 hours.  Preheat oven to 440 degrees during the last hour of second rise.

5) Pour hot water into a pan at the bottom of the oven, close the door, then quickly, one loaf at a time, move the loaf to a well-floured peel, slash it, and transfer it to the oven onto a Hearthkit oven insert stone.  When I move the loaf to the peel, it feels gassy and jiggly and fragile.  Even if I'm very gentle, it often deflates when rolling it or flipping it onto the peel.  It almost always sticks badly to the peel and ends up in a deformed shape in the oven. 

6) Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.  I measured the interior temp of the loaves with my Thermapen after 35 minutes in the oven at 440 degrees, and they were 206 degrees.  I have never gotten much oven spring, an ear, or even a well-opened cut, with any of these loaves.


I've been very careful to stick to the exact quantities of ingredients specified, and the overall instructions.  I don't think I'm over-hydrating, but I've had to add one or two tablespoons (15 to 30 grams) of additional water during initial hand mixing because there seemed to be insufficient water to wet all the flour.  Perhaps I should avoid that and see  if the autolyse will take care of it. 

My best guess is that I might be overfermenting, either during bulk fermentation or second rise, or both.  But I don't want to prejudice the jury, and I suspect I have more than one problem area that needs to be addressed. 

I hope some of you have suggestions for me.  What can I do to get this heading in the right direction?

pmccool's picture

It sounds as though you are relying on the clock to tell you when to put the dough in the oven, instead of on what the dough is telling you.  Reverse that and you'll be on your way to better results.  While the dough should be somewhat inflated, it should not be fragile or on the verge of collapse.

Sourdough, aka levain, is very sensitive to temperature.  In warmer temperatures, the dough may go from shaping to oven-ready in an hour or so.  In colder temperatures, it might take 6-8 hours to be ready.  Assuming a fixed 2.5 hour proof time will result in over-proofed, pancaked loaves in warm weather and under-proofed bricks in cold weather.  

Aim for slightly less than doubling of volume as the loaves ferment.  You'll probably get much closer to what you want in the finished bread.  Based on your results, you can then gauge whether to allow less, or more, expansion in future bakes.

This is a high-hydration bread, so the crust isn't going to stay crisp for more than a few hours.  By then, moisture from the inner part of the loaf will have migrated to the drier, outer portions, softening the crust in the process.



chaspan's picture

Paul, thank you for your insights and confirmation of my suspicion about over-proofing. I'm not so good at judging when a bulk dough or a shaped loaf has doubled in bulk, especially when it's not in a loaf pan.  I keep thinking to myself, maybe I'll let it go a little longer, just in case.  And then sometimes, as when attempting a style that is completely new to me, I just go by time because I don't know what the dough should look or feel like.

It was warm in my kitchen today, about 80°F.  The water from my tap that I used to make the dough was probably in that ballpark too, although I didn't take a temp reading.  The recipe said that the desired finished dough temperature should be 76°F.  I measured my dough temp after mixing, and it was 86°F.  That high starting temperature could have led to rapid development, I guess.   In such an event, the interval between stretch and folds needs to be reduced.   The problem is how to judge that ahead of time.



clazar123's picture

I have used this description/analogy with a lot of folks and it seems to be easier to understand.A picture is worth a thousand....and so forth.  On another post before the one referenced above, I talk about bread being a systen of bands (gluten) and starchy gel (the body of the crumb). The bands help hold in the bubbly gel so the gasses do not escape. Keep that description in mind when you read the post and it will make more sense. I need to understand the concept before I really "know" something.

If your dough is warm it will proof very quickly. As Paul says-don't look at the clock-look at your dough.

chaspan's picture

That was a very clear explanation of the results to expect from a finger poke test, clazar123.  I will start putting that into practice immediately, instead of going by visual appearance or time. 

One thing I've noticed is that my breads always seem to rise faster than the time estimates given in recipes.  I wonder if it is because my kitchen is usually pretty warm, even in the winter.  The temperature of my tap water is over 75 degrees for all but the two or three coldest months of the year, and always over 80 during the summer. 

I have read that longer fermentation helps develop more flavor in the bread.  For breads that do not contain yeast, do you think that chilling my water enough to get a finished mixed dough temperature a few degrees lower than the specified target in the recipe will be enough to counter the warmth of my kitchen and slow down the fermentation.  I'm rarely in a hurry to get my bread in the oven.  I'd prefer to give the dough time to develop more flavor, if possible.

clazar123's picture

Bread made so yeast has time to digest the sugars and produce their wonderful esters and alcohols of flavor has great flavor. Bread made fast and consistently with no predigestion of flour looks and feels like bread but there is a definite flavor sacrifice. A good way to overcome that is to use a preferment of some kind. This gives you some predigested flour with flavor components that you then add to the fast rising dough of both worlds. A simple preferment would be equal parts water and flour with either just a pinch of yeast or even no yeast (flour comes with some of its own yeasty beasties)..Mix and let sit for 4-12 hours. Add to final dough.

You are welcome for the poke test explanation. This is how I explained it to myself when I finally figured it out. I think it makes sense, though.

Your kitchen warmth and tap water warmth will keep the yeast warm and make them very active-which makes them ferment faster. Cooling the water or the environment will sloe it down. You can even mix the dough, put it in a covered container in the refrig overnight and take it out the next day. It will prob have risen significantly in the refri but take it out,warm it a few hours, shape,proof,bake. Lovely flavor. WW benefits from as much soak time as possible.AP flour just gets better.


dabrownman's picture

feel of a loaf that is properly proofed is to make two loaves and put one in a loaf pan filling it slightly over half full,  When the bread reaches the rim of the both loaves are ready to bake,  You can then see what the other loaf should look and feel like when it needs to go in the oven.  Give it a poke so you know what it does on the rebound to know when it is ready and how full it its in the baskets.  Baskets and other forms are hard to judge when they are 90% proofed an sometimes the finger poke test isn't all that reliable either.

For the longest time I thought the dough was doubling when it was really tripling and Mini Oven pointed it out to me from  a photo of one of my proved loaves,  Right off she knew it was way over proofed.  Then you have to make sure the oven is at temperature and ready when the bread is ready since bread doesn't wait well for a cold oven to get up to temp.

Happy baking 

RobynNZ's picture

As it seems you have Mr Hamelman's book, suggest you read the section on DDT in the appendix, in the edition I have it starts on page 382.

SusanFNP has a handy calculator on her Wild Yeast blog, derived from this. You'll find her explanation easy to follow and you can download the calculator at the bottom of her article.

Learning to 'read' the dough will indeed help you produce great bread, but it can be helpful for planning your day to know what timelines you can anticipate, by noting what happens at different temperatures.

chaspan's picture

clazar123, retarding the dough fermentation by putting it in the refrigerator is something I've tried once with this recipe, but it was after shaping the loaves rather than at the bulk rise stage.  My results on that bake were exactly like the others, bad, but I know now that the reason was because my final proof was excessively long.  I'm sure that's been my problem all along.  So I'll try retarding again in the future, but not until after I've gotten good results without retarding.  I don't want to introduce more unknowns until I understand better what I'm doing.

dabrownmar, that's a good idea about putting one loaf in a pan to get a visual check that I'm more familiar with.  I may give that a try next time too.  It might help me correlate visual inputs with poke test indicators. 

RobynNZ, I had never read the Desired Dough Temperature section in Hamelman's book, but I'm glad you suggested it.  Thank you for that. The technique he describes is easy to apply, provided that you establish your friction factor.  I'll calculate that for sure on my next bake for this recipe.