The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

How long to bulk ferment?

varda's picture

How long to bulk ferment?

Lately in the midst of making a lot of decent bread, I've had a string of mysterious failures.   Here are the symptoms:   at best poor opening of scores which leaves the resulting bread more compact than it should be and with gummier crumb.   At worst cakey crumb and collapses along the crust which leave a skin of paperlike crust with a cavern beneath.   The second gets thrown out; the first is fine to eat but nothing great.    Over the months I've wracked my brain trying to figure out what was going on.   What made it especially difficult is that I'd tweak this or that and get fine bread, but then a few times later, back to square one.   As these breads would tend to get tacky during the proof I tended to think that they were getting over-proofed very quickly.   So I'd try a shorter proof and that would seem fine, or lower the hydration, or, or, or

What made this particularly irritating is that these failures were concentrated among my simplest breads – flour water salt starter.    How could this be?  

In the last few days, my thinking changed.   Was I under rather than over fermenting?    The other night I had some excess starter, and I decided to try an experiment.   Right before bed,  I mixed up some dough and turned the heat in the house way down.   Since we have been experiencing the coolest spring ever, I thought that I could try a longer rather than shorter bulk ferment.    Because this made me nervous I also upped the salt and lowered the hydration a bit.   When I went to sleep the temperature in the house was 70F (20C).   Ten hours later it was 64F.   The dough was fine – nice and light and expanded, and not at all tacky.   I did a short proof and then baked and sure enough – the bread came out very nicely.  

Long overnight counter ferments may be fine during a cold spring – but summer is coming.   I couldn’t rely on that for very long.   So last night I decided to rework and do a cold ferment but not to underdo it.  

This is what I did:  upped salt to 2.3%  (my standard has been 1.8%)   Lowered hydration to 65%.   Mixed all medium developed.   Left on counter for 20 minutes, then did a vigorous stretch and fold.  Then bulk retarded for 13 hours.   Then removed, left on counter for 1 hour, then shaped.   Then proofed for 2.5 hours on counter, and last ½ hour in refrigerator.   Then baked.   The dough was well behaved the whole time without a trace of tackiness.    When I took the loaves out of the couche, I would have sworn it was over-proofed, as it was very expanded and flopped around a bit.   

And yet, it wasn’t.   The loaves expanded a lot in the oven, with the scores opening very nicely.   The resulting bread did not suffer from gummy compressed crumb.  To the contrary.

What I take away from this is that the thing I've been trying to figure out since I started baking - when is the bulk ferment done - is still eluding me.   There isn't a simple poke test.   You can't use time.    You can't even use time and temperature, as it is so starter dependent.  And if you go too short, you will get the strangest set of symptoms ever which will point in all directions.   I think I've been going too short for certain types of breads, and the solution is to ferment for longer (perhaps much longer.)   Do I need to keep the salt so high and hydration low?   Not really sure yet.


Bread Flour26579%
Whole Wheat8821%
67% Starter10815%

Methodology as above.  



golgi70's picture

I've had similar issues myself. How much should the dough rise 30%, 50%, 100%.  I suppose these all are variables based on the total time intended ie (cold bulk, warm bulk, cold final proof, room temp final proof, dough temp, room temp, dough hydration, dough flour,  etc...)  Plus what we desire.  If you want more twang and not so open a crumb you'd let it ferment longer and vice versa.  

I think you've dialed yourself in nicely.  I don't think 2.3% salt is overwhelming but without any fillers its gettin towards the higher end.  Maybe to keep your salt profile you could instead decrease the inoculation or PF% and follow suit with this new technique.  

The bread in the photos look just amazing though. Fantastic Crust,bloom, and grigne.  I bet its a wonder to eat. 



varda's picture

Hi Josh,   This bread is really good and quite mild - maybe more sour tomorrow.   I could tell that the salt was higher, but it wasn't that noticeable.   I think next I'll try a long daytime (in other words not that cold) ferment, with maybe 2% salt and the rest the same, and see how it goes.   I forgot that I also reduced PF% to 15% which is lower than my usual 20 as one of the set of tweaks.   Could go lower of course.   Thanks for commenting.  -Varda 

Janetcook's picture

Hi Varda,

Interesting discovery.  Sorry, no answer on how to discern when a bulk ferment is 'done'.  I know with each bread I make the signs are different.  All of my doughs get a 12 hour overnight bulk ferment time in the refrigerator followed by a warm up time in my proofing box in the morning which can last from 3-4 hours. Because I do not have to bake on a set schedule like you have to I can let the doughs that need more bulk time have it in the morning.  I will also add a bit of IY (0.1%)to a dough if it needs the extra umph due to high amounts of enrichments. 

As you know, there are many factors at play and as David S. says - it is a case of watching the dough and not the clock.  At least now you know that your doughs can look over proofed when, in fact, they are not.  I know I have watched many a video of breads that look totally deflated when dumbed out of proofing baskets that end up beautifully when they hit the heat - huge oven spring brings them back to life and the results have been beautiful loaves of bread.

I know from experience too that when I goof - people still like the bread that results.  In fact, some of my kid's favorite loaves are ones that were 'mistakes'.  

Guess this is just another case of learning on the job :*)

Has your new mixer arrived yet?

Take Care,


varda's picture

Hi Janet,  

Thanks for sharing your methodology.   It tells me something that you are doing an overnight retard and then hours in the proofer. I agree that each dough is different and has different signs, and yes part of my motivation here is that I need to control the schedule and achieve some consistency.    Also the upcoming farmer's market is very large - and I need to bake as much as possible.   Not as much tolerance for failures.    When you are selling bread "pretty" is important so even breads that come out tasting fabulous don't make the grade unless they expand and brown properly.  

The mixer is ordered but no delivery date as yet.   I had to line up a mover, who would get it from the garage to the equipment stand in the kitchen, before ordering it and that took awhile.   No way my husband and I were going to be able to move it and unfortunately the delivery people only go as far as the garage - dump the pallet and off they go.   I'm definitely looking forward to the ability to mix 12+ loaves at a time.   Now I hand mix (ouch) or break up into two loads.    




dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Varda!

First, I've got to say your bread in the photos looks terrific in every respect.

Regarding when fermentation is "enough:" I find the amount of expansion to be unreliable with most of the breads I make. It works better (for me) with yeasted, enriched pan loaves. With my sourdough hearth loaves, I'm doing one to four stretch and folds which deflate the dough somewhat and result in less expansion for the degree of fermentation.

I bulk ferment dough mostly in glass containers. I can see bubbles forming in the dough, and this helps keep me from under-fermenting, especially.

When I was taking classes at the SFBI, it seems to me that the instructors usually judged the degree of fermentation by feeling the surface of the dough. They would gently pat it. I think they were sensing its "puffiness." I liken it to feeling how inflated a ballon is by how much resistance to distortion there is when you pat or poke it.

Now, how the dough is supposed to feel when it is perfectly fermented is going to vary from dough to dough, I think. So, I suppose, you need to learn this by making the same breads many times. 

You know how big a difference a few degrees of temperature can make in the speed of fermentation. It occurs to me that your longer fermentations would be really hard to manage when the ambient temperature has big and somewhat unpredictable swings and when you are not able to stand over the dough for the duration.

I hope these scattered thoughts help. Good luck!


varda's picture

Hi David, or should I say buongiorno.   I do my starters in plastic containers so I can keep an eye on their progress by watching the bubbles, so it makes sense to bulk ferment in them as well, which I haven't done.   I'll have to see what I can pick up.   I totally get the idea of feeling the surface.  I always do that for my rye loaves - I look for a certain lightness of being - and it's virtually foolproof.  Don't know why I haven't for the pain au levains.   I will have to get the feel of it.  I don't want to get into long counter fermentations for the reasons you say, which is why I want to work out a good bulk retard schedule as well as a not quite so long as I tried the other night counter approach.   Thanks so much for your suggestions and encouragement.  -Varda

Mebake's picture

Hey Varda,

Those pictured above are abdolutely perfect loaves!

As said above, there are many factors that determine how fast a dough will ferment. My humble piece of advice is to have controlled experiments, Changing one variable at a time. I still get gummy crumbs when i venture on my own and play with new recipes . I learned that i'd have to change variables while keeping everything else constant if i wanted to achieve consistent results. 

Anyways, you are producing gorgeous breads so keep it up.


varda's picture

Hi Khalid,  I'm more of an explorer than a lab scientist, so I've always found it difficult to keep to the one change at a time philosophy.   But I'll keep your advice in mind.   Thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement. -Varda

davidg618's picture

It's already been said by everybody above. Nonetheless, I'm adding my 2 cents because I'm probably obsessive about consistency. I only bake seven formulae routinely: 3 sourdoughs, 2 foccacias, 2 baguettes; however I've developed only three routines, 1 for sourdoughs, 1 for foccacias, and 1 for baguettes. Each is "cast-in-concrete". However, it's taken me four years to get them to that point.

Now I'm working on a Rye Sandwich bread formula. I've been working on it for nearly a year, but it is not yet ready to join the others. I'm still tweaking--one variable at a time.

Yeah, it's sometimes not very exciting, but I find my reward seeing clone-like loaves week-to-week. When my creative streak rebels I bake a challah, a borodinsky-like rye, or sticky buns. For these I follow the guidance of experts like TFLer Andy or Hamelman. Except sticky buns, I nailed that one years ago ;-)

Like David and Janet I've learned what looks and feels right for my doughs, but I still monitor the clock. I've found it a reliable measure that all is well.

When each step of my three routines "completes" within a predictable window of time I know all is going well. When I feel lean doughs develop the same degree of strength and elasticity after each S&F and rest period I know all is going well. When I see essentially the same amount of expansion after completing X hours of bulk fermentation at Y temperature I know all is going well. When proofing completes within +/- 5 minutes of the expected time I know all is going well. And when I watch the baking loaves flex with oven spring I know all...well, you get the idea.

I don't rigidly follow the clock, but I note what it tells me.

Temperature: I pay close attention to DDT--I use two 54°F and 76°F. The lower one is for dough that will be bulk fermented over night (15 hours) in a wine cooler set to 54°F. I used chilled water in the mix to get close, then rest the dough in the refrigerator during S&F until DDT is reached precisely, then into the wine cooler for the balance of fermentation time. The higher DDT is used for doughs I don't retard overnight. I proof all doughs at 82°F in a home-made proof box, except baguettes (the proof box isn't big enough).

I'm not advocating you use any specific time and temperatures. I am advocating you find what best works for you, what gives you loaves like those beauties posted above. Find your "groove" and stick to it.

By the way, you've been one of my mentors working with rye. Thank you.

David G


varda's picture

I'm all for consistency but sometimes my creativity gets in the way.    I have thrown together loaves on the fly that have come out much better than something I've worked on for months.   But then try to do it again.   Doesn't always work despite how much you write down.   I do want to have good and consistent pain au levains, but first I have to understand why they sometimes don't work.   Your comments are helpful in that regard.   Thanks David.  -Varda

dabrownman's picture

only important if you are doing it retarded and then warming up ,shaping and baking the next day.  I don't do that often, but I might after looking at this bread of yours,  I sort of do what David does.  I do 3 sets of slap and folds and 3 stats of stench and folds on 15-20 minute increments which takes about 2 hours.  Then it is shaped and into the fridge for  long cold proof.  I control how long it is in there by the size of the starter and levain amount uses-less means longer.  I don't even bulk ferment at all after gluten development even though it is fermenting while folding.

it is so hot here that I don't think this will make any difference for you - its going to be 111 F today after 107 F yesterday :-)  If I do even an hour of bulk ferment on the counter, after gluten development, the shaped loaves over proof in the fridge overnight in 8 hours .  Maybe I should work on the Peter Reinhart way  - you bread locks great.

I would cut the salt down a bunch though - its no good for anyone at 2.3%.  I shoot for 1.75%.

Happy baking 

varda's picture

Eek!   You are a champ for hanging in and making bread despite it all.   It will get hot around here, but not that hot.   Fascinating how methodologies have to change based on local conditions.    And yes about the salt.   That was strictly for experimental purposes.   Don't expect to stay that high.   I'm not making potato chips after all.   Thanks DA!  -Varda

dabrownman's picture

that your bread is so fine that you could slice it thin, fry it up and you would have some fine chips!  Temperature and levain amount seem to control bread making around here.   The mini oven is now outside for bread making until the end of September:-)

breadforfun's picture

Hi Varda,

As many have already said, your breads look great.  Getting consistent results when you are baking for sales is surely the holy grail.  Here in San Francisco, our summers are more like winter, as Mark Twain famously said.  The average daytime temperature in my house is 66-68˚F, so I often BF in a proofer that I keep slightly higher, 72-78˚ depending on the formula. I still use stainless bowls for my BFs (do I detect many cringing readers?), and I think keeping a constant temperature is really key.  Like DA, I usually retard overnight (for 14-16 hrs) after shaping and bake the next morning.  I judge complete BF in a very subjective way - how much the dough jiggles when it is shaken.  It works for fairly high hydration doughs (75-78%), so I'm not sure this will help you if yours is much lower. If you try it, after a few times you kind of learn what it should look like.  Sounds crazy but in combination with the proofer I can generally predict the BF within 30 minutes either way.

Another thing that is useful is to measure the pH of the levain to gauge its readiness.  I will generally mix doughs when it is about 4.2.  I haven't invested in a pH meter because I'm not convinced they would be accurate with drier levains (I keep mine at 67% like you).  pH paper is readily available in these ranges, and I rub a pinch of levain onto the paper - don't stick the paper into your levain, I doubt the chemicals would add a lot of flavor ;-). This is another way to help get more consistent results.

Let us know how it goes.


varda's picture

Bread, I suspect there is ph paper lurking around here somewhere.   Must try.   That said, I judge doneness of starter by smell and by amount of bubbling for my white starter, and again by smell for my rye starter - which is quite definitive.   I don't have a proofer and given how much I'm making don't think I am soon to get one as my space is now completely full.   This is the hardest time of year - during the winter heat is on, summer A/C - just now we are in free range temperature mode and it is highly variable.  Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.   -Varda

v's sis's picture
v's sis

Hey sis!  I was going to ask you exactly this this weekend.  How to know how long to BF?  I was sure you would know.  Now what???  Your breads look beautiful!

varda's picture

Thank goodness you are now on TFL so I don't have to pretend like I know everything.   But given temp differences between you and me, you are probably better off looking at DA's answers at least for summer baking.   Is it time for me to buy Tartine and really see how long ferments are done?   Hate that covered baking.   -V