The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Trying for a Success! Need help!

taygirl's picture

Trying for a Success! Need help!

Hello!  I am new here, and I am trying to make a successful loaf of whole wheat sourdough.  I have tried twice now, with decent flavor, but very little rise.  In fact, the second time, the loaf actually fell some in the oven (did I overproof?).  I have read many posts on here, and it seems many people use a gram scale to measure ingredients, a special basket for proofing, and a dutch oven type of container for baking in.  I do not have any of these items yet!  I am feeling quite overwhelmed, because it seems like there are so many ways of going about making sourdough bread, and I am new and not sure which direction to head.  Here is what I am aiming for:  a fairly sour loaf (baked in a loaf pan), that has risen quite well.  I am milling my own grain too. 

 So here's a couple questions:

1.  This seems pretty common:  create the dough, let is rise for 4-6 hours (with a push down and folding during this process); place in fridge for 12 hours for a slow second rise; then pull out a couple hours before baking for a warmer, quick rise.  Just wondering though if I could reverse something:  make dough, place in fridge for bulk fermentation overnight, pull out, let rise for 4- 6 hours, punching down at one point; form into loaves, do a final rise for 2 hours before the oven?  Would this work?  I do want to have a pretty sour loaf.  

 2.  Does it REALLY matter how much starter you begin with when making the dough?  What happens when you use more starter vs. less?  

 3.  Anyone have a simple, great recipe that uses cups/ounces instead of grams? 


Thanks for your help. 

Sean's picture

I'm a sourdough newbie also - I baked a lovely pair of round bricks this weekend - so I can't answer many of your questions, but I would recommend purchasing a scale to measure ingredients with. I purchased an inexpensive scale recently from William Sonoma (yeah, inexpensive and William Sonoma in the same sentence, go figure....) that measures grams, ounces, and pounds/ounces and I love it. It give you more control over the ingredients as well as give you an idea of how much something weighs when you have to measure/eyeball without a scale.

 Also, I've been making half sourdough/half commercial yeast whole wheat sandwich bread from Peter Reinhart's new book and having great success. You may want to investigate your favorite bookseller or library for a copy if you don't already have one.

home_mill's picture

I am at the same level as you. I just made my first sourdough loaf last weekend and it exceeded my expectations. Bill's comments helped alot so read his post carefully. I am also home milling my flour. I used 1/3 WW white (Prarie Gold) 1/3 WW Red (Bulk Bin) and 1/3 starter (white bread flour). A few questions: Are you able to mill to a very fine texture? What kind of wheat are you using? Did you start with a hot oven (450) and steam? I usually put a cast iron pan in the bottom of the oven and pour in some boiling water when I first put the bread in. Did you slash the top?



bwraith's picture

The night before you want to bake, mix 7 cups of WW flour, 25 ounces of water, and a tablespoon of salt, and 3 tbsp of your starter. Knead for a few minutes in a bowl using a spoon or a scraper or even just wet hands. The dough will be somewhat shaggy and wet. That's OK. Just work it around the bowl, folding it over itself toward the center, for a while until it is a little less shaggy. You can try stretching it out on a slightly wetted counter and folding it a couple of times (with wet hands) on the counter after that. The idea is to get the gluten to begin to come together, but don't worry about getting it all the way there. It's OK if it's still shaggy after about 10-15 minutes of this work. You can use a mixer with a hook on a slow speed also. Again, it won't come together completely, and the dough should be fairly soft and sticky at this point.

Now, set it aside for the night on the counter, covered, at about 70F, not warmer or colder, if possible, for 10 hours. Tell me if you have a different temperature at night in your kitchen, and I will adjust the amount of starter you should use in this recipe. If it's too warm, it will rise too fast. If it's not warm enough it won't rise enough. However, we can adjust the amount of starter depending on the temperature you have in your kitchen.

OK, in the morning after 10 hours of rising, start to fold it every 30 minutes for 2 more hours, for a total of 12 hours of bulk rising at room temperature. Just stretch it out on the counter gently, and fold the edges in toward the center each time you fold. It should have begun to rise after 10 hours, but not much. During that last 2 hours of folding it should become noticeably more puffy and bubbly.

You can refrigerate the dough to delay the  process for a convenient time, if the timing is not working out for you, if necessary, but don't count that time in your rise time at room temperature. Ideally, don't complicate matters with the refrigeration until you've gotten the recipe to work. The refrigeration doesn't matter that much and can create a lot of confusion.

At the end of 12 hours, form loaves. Do this by laying the dough on the counter, lightly dusted with flour and splitting it in two equal pieces. Then, fold the edges of the dough in toward the center a few times, gathering those edges and squeezing them together. Get them to the shape of your pan by folding the sides in, not the ends, once the loaf is getting tense. You may have to tuck the ends in a little, too. Then, turn it upside down, so the hopefully well tensioned smooth bottom is now the nice smooth  top of your loaf. You may need to push the sides of the loaf down gently and press them under, working up and down the loaf, so you get some good surface tension on the loaf, if it is still too floppy after you turn it over. Let it sit for a few minutes, so the seams on the bottom will seal and stick together. Then, lift the shaped loaf firmly and quickly (it may want to stick to the bottom, but it'll lift off if you insist) into your greased pan. Let it rise for about 3 more hours at 70F. It helps to keep it in a moist environment (you can enclose in a "ziploc big bag" or put pans in a cooler). Or, spray/rub a little olive oil on top of the loaves, so they don't dry out. You should see that the loaves are rising and much more bubbly after an hour or two. Again if the temperature is different, then the timing will be different. I'm assuming 70F in here. Let me know if you will proof the loaves at a different temperature, and I'll adjust the timing.

Use a very sharp knife or a razor blade to lightly slash the loaf, maybe 1/4 inch deep line across the top from one end to the other, is all you need. You don't have to slash it, but then it may rip open somewhere as it rises. Place it in a preheated oven at 400F for about 45 minutes, until the crust is nice and brown and then some. It's hard to overbake this loaf. You can drop the temperature if the crust is getting too dark. Remove and allow to fully cool.

Whole wheat is a little harder than white flour. You want the whole wheat flour to soak, which is why letting it sit overnight is good. It's also tricky to get the right timing so that it rises, but not too much, both in bulk and in the final proof stage.

It's true that without a scale it's very difficult to be accurate. Flour is notoriously difficult to consistently measure with cups. Salt also varies a lot in volume, depending on the size of the granules and whether the crystals are solid or hollow and so on. So, I very much agree with Sean, it really helps, especially when you're learning, or when you're discussing recipes, to have a scale. A perfectly good one can be obtained for about $30, so it's not that crazy.





taygirl's picture

Hi Bwraith,

We actually are not able to control our temperature here, so it can fluctuate (university student housing).  But, when I just checked, it was around 78.  I think it stays usually between 72-78 range.  Am I right in thinking that I would want to use less starter when the room temperature is warmer?  Thanks for your help. 

DaisyM's picture

I don't have any extra advise to offer, but I wanted to definitely congratulate you for not giving up! You are so right when you said there are many ways of going about making sourdough bread. Everyone has an opinion on what works *for them*.  You have to get to know your own yeasts and bacteria that you've captured.  It takes time to experiment, but that is a necessity to get familiar with what your microbes like and don't like.  Where would science be today if no one experimented?  Try the suggestions offered, make notes of the technique and the results.  You can do it!  Working with sourdough takes patience and persistance, but it is oh so worth it.


bwraith's picture


If it is warmer you want to use less starter, as you say. So, for example, maybe you only need 1 tbsp if the temperature is 74F on average. You could still do the approach above, if you believe the temperature will average close to 74F, or experiment to find the right amount.

However, if your temperature is changing unpredictably, then it may help to break the process into two steps. First make a "levain" and a "soaker". Then combine them to make the dough later.

You could make the levain by taking 2 tbsp of starter and combine with 1 cup of flour and 1/2 (4 oz) cup of water. Let this rise by double (should take about 5 hours at 74F, plus or minus if your temp is varying). Refrigerate the levain once it has doubled. It can be used any time for a couple of days to make the dough after that. Combine 6 cups of flour with 21 oz of water and mix well to form the "soaker" and refrigerate for about 12 hours, maybe overnight, if that is convenient.

Now, you have a "levain" and a "soaker" in the refrigerator. Combine these two with the salt and knead very well. Squeeze it through your fingers with your wet hands all up and down the dough and then fold it a couple of times. Repeat the squeezing and folding for about 15-20 minutes. Keep wetting hands and counter so the dough doesn't stick to you or you to the dough.

Once mixed and initially kneaded, you can fold it during bulk fermentation. At 74F, you could ferment for about 4.25 hours, folding maybe once per hour. The shape and put in pan and ferment at 74F for another 2.75 hours. Then slash and bake.

The difference with this approach is that you now can monitor the doubling of the levain and stop it when it has about doubled. Don't let it much more than double before you refrigerate. The rest of the dough is "soaking", i.e. premix water and flour and rest, which helps with WW doughs. You can also monitor the progress of the dough, once you mix the levain and soaker, since it is now a shorter process. It's a little easier if you have unpredictable temperature changes.

Maybe this isn't so simple after all. There are so many ways to make it all work and a also plenty of ways to cause it not to work well. I think the main failures have to do with 1) unhealthy starter; 2) dough consistency too dry; 3) letting it rise way too long; 4) confusion about temperature, which very much changes the speed of the rise; 5) leaving out steps for good dough condition (soak WW, folding).


taygirl's picture

Thanks Bill,

Looks like I have several things I can try!  I appreciate your input. 

taygirl's picture

One more question Bill!  I am trying the first approach you suggested (the one without the levain) to see how it goes.  I am using about 2 Tbsp starter, since our place is a bit warmer.  My question is:  when I first make the dough, you say to mix the dough for about 10-15 minutes (doesn't seem like you are saying to necessarily knead, but more like to mix and fold??)  You said that this was to start gluten formation.  I didn't read anywhere else of any other kneading-- so is this all that is necessary to develop enough gluten?  Thanks.


bwraith's picture

Shai (NOT!), OOPS, sorry, I got confused - Shai is on another thread about BBA, sorry...taygirl

As far as the right amount of starter, it is hard to get a really good handle on that without doing two things: 1) Have a reasonable idea what the temperatures will be during the bulk rise. It could be specified as a schedule if it changes over course of the day, e.g. 2 hours @ 78, 2 hrs at 76, 2 hrs @74, 6hrs @72, and so on. 2) Determine how your starter behaves.

As far as 1) is concerned give me an idea, and I'll try to set the amount of starter, but it still won't be that good without first testing your starter.

To test your starter, you can do the following, better with a scale, but...

Tell me how you usually feed your starter.

Then, Take 1 oz of starter, add 1/4 cup water, 1/2 cup flour, mix well and let rise. Check the temperature of the starter and notice the time when it has doubled in volume.  Better would be to do it by weight: take 20 grams of your starter and add 40 grams of water and 40 grams of flour using a scale.

As far as the handling, it's difficult to knead a wet, sticky WW dough the way you would typically knead a drier more typical French Bread white flour dough. What I call mixing above is accomplishing gluten development similar to kneading, just in a different way. With wet, sticky dough, it's easier to wet the counter, wet your hands, and squeeze the dough through your fingers, working your way up and down the dough. If you do the squeezing fast and release quickly, it won't stick. When it starts to stick, wash your hands off in water and leave them a little wet and do the squeezing some more. You probably will need to wipe the counter with your wet hands to keep the counter wet and get rid of the stickiness that will develop on the counter as you work the dough on it. In between squeezings, you can pick up one end up the dough and toss the other end on the counter, pull it back to stretch it, then toss the end you are holding over the piece touching the counter. This will stretch, fold, and capture air in the dough. Or, just fold it conventionally every so often by spreading it out on the counter and folding the edges toward the middle. These squeezings, stretchings, and foldings with wet hands, wet counter, are effective in developing gluten in a wet, sticky, WW dough. It also keeps the dough wet, compared to using dry hands and counter dusted with flour, which tends to dry out the dough. Later on, when the dough has fermented enough to begin to rise a little, conventional folding is very helpful to do the final gluten development before shaping. At that point, as the gluten is developing more, you can use a flour dusted counter, but brush off the flour from the folds as you fold, so you don't get dry flour streaks in the dough from the folding.


alicia_gross's picture

I used to make a TON of Amish Friendship Bread which does not require a "rising" session but I did get experience with a "starter"  Recently I decided to start the "sourdough" thing!!  I was actually handed down a recipe from my aunt that is almost fool proof.  I have made many batches with this starter with great success and many compliments on the flavor and texture.  I have also found out that with french bread "artisan" mainly they do not really use a "starter".  I thought that they did.  So most of the recipes I have found are for straight yeast.  I hate this method and fail miserably almost anytime I try!!!  So for a hint you can take 2 cups of any sourdough "starter" per packet of yeast you should use and just replace.  Of course you will have to experiment with the water and flour percentages to get them the way you and your family enjoy it.  Anyway, here is my aunts starter and bread recipe.  I hope it helps!!

Ingredients (Starter)

  1. 1 1/2 C Hot Water
  2. 1 C Sugar
  3. 6 Tbsp Instant Potatoes
  4. 1 pkg Dry Yeast


  1. Mix  the ingredients and pour into a quart jar.  Cover the top of the jar with foil (or plastic wrap) and put holes in it.  Put it in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days.  (Can also use a 32 oz. cup with a lid and stretch the hole on top out). Put the initial starter in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.

Ingredients (Feeding the Starter)

  1. 3/4 C Sugar
  2. 3 Tbsp instant potatoes
  3. 1 C Warm Water


  1. Take the starter out of refrigerator and feed it this way: Mix the previous ingredients well and add to the starter.
  2. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.  It does not rise, only bubbles.  After standing time use 1 C of mixture to make bread.  Put the rest of it in the refrigerator.  Make sure to feed the starter every 3 to 4 days.

Ingredients (Making the Bread)

  1. 1 C starter
  2. 1/4 C Sugar
  3. 1/2 C Oil
  4. 1 Tbsp Salt
  5. 1 1/2 C warm water
  6. 6 C Pillsbury Bread Flour (Does not need to be sifted)


  1. Use a large non-metallic bowl for mixing.  Batter will be stiff.  After mixing, put the dough in an oiled bowl and turn so all sides are well oiled.  Cover with foil and let stand overnight or longer. 
  3. The next morning, punch down and knead a little.  Divide into 2 or 3 parts.  Knead each on floured board lightly 8 to 10 times.  Put into oiled loaf pans.  Brush tops with corn oil.  Using foil; make cover for loaf pan, making sure it is covered good but has room to rise.  Let rise at least 4 to 5 hours.  (Dough rises  slowly).
  4. When it's ready to bake use the bottom rack and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes. 
  5. Remove from pans and brush the tops  with butter and cool on wire rack.
  6. Make sure that you use all NON-METALLIC (except foil) instruments while working with the sourdough.

P.S. you can make anything with this bread dough, rolls, cinnamon rolls, monkey bread!!  Almost anything you can imagine including cake and cookies can be made with the starter!!!  Have fun experimenting, I sure do love it!!!  You can also replace half of the bread flour for whole grain or any other kind you want.  Just remember all-purpose flour does not rise as well!!!  Pay a little more now you will have a WAY better result later!!!