The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Where am I going wrong? (white sourdough)

widdersbel's picture

Where am I going wrong? (white sourdough)

I've recently started baking sourdough and while I'm generally happy with my bread, there are definite areas for improvement - and I could do with a few pointers, please...

I made a starter following a method I found online (using white bread flour, water and an apple from my garden). I keep it in the fridge during the week, then take it out on Friday morning and give it a fresh feed (1:1:1 ratio) ahead of starting the breadmaking process on Friday evening, baking on Saturday afternoon. The starter seems fairly active and reliably increases significantly in volume within a few hours.

For the bread, I've tried a few different recipes but this is the one I use most:

To save you reading through the whole article, here's the ingredients list:
For the sponge
About 150ml active starter
250g strong flour (white, wholemeal or a mixture of the two)
275ml warm water
For the loaf
300g strong bread flour (white, wholemeal or a mixture), plus more for dusting
1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
10g fine sea salt

I make the sponge on Friday evening and leave it overnight, covered at room temperature. On Saturday morning, I add the rest of the flour, knead until it passes the windowpane test, prove for 3-6hrs (how long exactly depends on whether I'm busy doing other stuff, and how long it takes to rise, but I let it get to at least double volume on the first prove). Knock it back, shape it, put it in a bowl lined with a floured cloth (yet to get myself a proper banneton), and leave for a second prove, usually at least 90 minutes. I bake it on a stone at 250C (450F) with a tray of boiling water on the shelf below, turning the temp down to 200C after 15 minutes, as per the recipe instructions.

The first time I made this recipe, it turned out very well, which is why I've stuck with it. But I've had mixed fortunes since, and I've been trying to work out why, tweaking the recipe and method to test different outcomes (though I've not been very scientific about it and haven't kept notes).

The main problem is that the dough doesn't hold its shape very well, generally resulting in a very wide, flattish loaf. When I slash the top prior to putting it in the oven, that just exacerbates the problem and allows it to spread out even more. I do generally get good oven spring though. 

Could it be an overhydrated dough? By my calculations, the recipe is 50% hydration, which doesn't sound very high compared to some of the recipes I've read here and elsewhere. The dough does tend to be fairly soft and sticky - though not too sticky to work with easily. I tend not to flour the surface while kneading to avoid introducing excessive flour to the dough. For the loaf I made this morning, I tried reducing the water by 25ml but it didn't make a noticeable difference. Maybe I need to reduce it by a lot more to make a difference.

Maybe it's the flour? I tend to use whatever white bread flour I can pick up in the supermarket. Could it be that this cheap mass-market product is simply not of a good enough quality? 

I did once make the same recipe using 'malthouse' flour (containing 15% malted wheat 3% rye, 3% barley malt flour), without adjusting the hydration, and that resulted in a much stiffer dough which held its shape well, even after slashing. It also seemed to rise quicker during proving, which surprised me.

Is the problem under-proving? For the second prove, I tend not to let it rise too much - I never let it go all the way to doubling volume - because I'm worried about it collapsing when I turn it out, rarely more than 90 minutes at room temperature. Should I leave it longer? How do I do that while avoiding the risk of collapse? 

I did also wonder if the problem was over-proving, but one of my experiments was to significantly reduce the proving time and I ended up with a brick, so I'm pretty certain it's not that.

Could it be down to the shaping? I understand there needs to be good surface tension in the dough for it to hold its shape. I use a method I learned from a Patrick Ryan video, where he forms the dough into a ball, then kind of pinches it out at the sides and tucks it under, thereby stretching the top surface. For the loaf I made yesterday, I took extra care over the shaping, trying to give it as much surface tension as possible, and it did seem to hold its shape slightly better but was still a bit too slack for my liking.

I have loads more questions about different aspects of the process, but that's enough for now. I shall focus on getting the dough to hold its shape before moving on to the next set of questions...

Here are some pictures of the loaf I made yesterday - as mentioned, this one held its shape a bit better than most, but then it didn't rise evenly in the oven, so came out a bit misshapen. Flavour is excellent though:

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

lets see... hydration. 75 + 250 + 300 = 625 g total flour;  75 + 275 = 350g total water;  350/625 = .56 or 56% hydration.  Not high but certainly doable and within the hydration of plain white flour.  Using bread flour or whole wheat or rye flour will certainly require more water to get a nice feeling dough.  The higher the protein, usually the more water is needed.  Doesn't sound over hydrated to me.  You can weigh some water and after incorporating as needed, reweigh what is left to find out how much was added. Then write it down along with the various flours types used.  You can also weigh the dough and compare weights to the recipe giving a few grams for error.

Letting the first proof get "to at least double volume" could also be problematic. If your starter is well taken care of, it will slowly increase in the time it takes to ferment until it reaches a predictable pattern of rising and fermenting.  Using whole flours in the recipe or warmer water temps, can speed up the fermenting time.  As a rule, I don't let the first proof double but stay a little bit under.   Trying to estimate double volume is very tricky in a bowl or tapered sided proofing container.  I suggest using a straight sided container. It takes a lot of guess work out and helps to prevent overproofing at this early stage.  My guess is that early on the loaves came out better the doubling took longer so you jumped into shaping sooner.  Try that.  Start shaping before the dough rises to double.  That may include looking for a cooler place to proof the dough.

The bottom of the loaf looks very pale to me, try to get more heat under the loaf while it bakes to get more lift.

For future bakes... and as you may add more water to the recipe, the bacteria in the dough will make itself known as you witness the dough relaxing more while rising. Doughs with higher hydration will tend to loose their shape more quickly spreading sideways.  Those wetter sourdoughs will require some form of folding and stretching the dough surface during proofing to restore and tighten up the outside surface to keep its shape.  This means that a pattern of mix, knead, proof, degas, shape, proof. Turns more into a pattern of mix, knead, short proof, fold, short proof, fold, short proof (can repeat) degassing with folding and a final fold and shape.  The clear lines between first proof and second rise become fuzzy as hydration increases and folds are added to restore shape.  

I would try shortening the first proof, shaping before the dough volume "doubles" and see what that does first before any other tweaks.  :)


widdersbel's picture

I realised my mistake with the hydration calculation (ie not including the starter in the sums) so 56% sounds more realistic - but still not "high" hydration. I would guess that reducing the water would give me a dough that's easier to work with, but I'm reluctant to do that since it clearly isn't over-hydrated based on the numbers.

Good point about it being hard to estimate volume in a bowl - I like the idea of using a straight-sided vessel instead. And yes, I'll try shortening the first proofing time.

Yes, the bottom does tend to come out pale. I suspect the stone is not getting hot enough, even though I've really made an effort to give it a long preheating time. Obviously the stone is not of the best quality. Will try using a metal baking tray instead.  

I've read about the "stretch and fold" method but didn't really know what it meant, or why it would help with shaping, but I watched a Peter Reinhart video where he demonstrates it (using a very high hydration dough) and I think I get the idea now, so I'll try that as well. Thanks for the tips. Will report back with my progress...

Miller's picture

Those wetter sourdoughs will require some form of folding and stretching the dough surface during proofing to restore and tighten up the outside surface to keep its shape.  This means that a pattern of mix, knead, proof, degas, shape, proof. Turns more into a pattern of mix, knead, short proof, fold, short proof, fold, short proof (can repeat) degassing with folding and a final fold and shape.  The clear lines between first proof and second rise become fuzzy as hydration increases and folds are added to restore shape.

I was under the impression that one shouldn't degas sourdough because it's not as strong as dough made with yeast. This is new to me and I may try it on a future occasion if circumstances indicate that I would get out of trouble with dough not keeping its shape. Actually this is a recurring issue for me and therefore that occasion may well as soon as my next bake.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

seems I mixed up "proofs and rises."    Oh well....  we all know the dough is swelling up and trapping gas, getting bulky.  :)

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

if you don't want to.  Flours will vary with how much water they can absorb and some take longer to hydrate than others.  Work with a hydration that you can comfortably manage and when you want to increase it, try adding a tablespoon or two to the recipe and see what it does for you.  I find that in winter the flour is dryer and needs a little extra water to make up for the drying effects of heating.  If you enjoy hand kneading you may want to set some of the recipe flour to the side and work it in during the kneading.  

LAB Dabbler's picture
LAB Dabbler

All great feedback. Here's a few other things you can try:

1. Heat the sourdough proof culture for 5-6 hours at 85 degrees F to get the lactic acid bacteria activity/acidity up, and then lower it to 77 degrees F for another 12 or more hours. High acids can inhibit yeast activity. Provide just enough acid and then lower the temp to perfect yeast temp (77 deg F) and give the yeast a chance to multiply. This might be all it takes. You should get more oven spring with more active yeast.

2. You could also do a hybrid where you use a sourdough culture plus a low amount of commercial yeast (~1%) to help with the oven spring.

3. Use a 4 qt cast iron dutch oven!  This will keep the shape of your bread and not allow it to collapse, and hopefully if the yeast are happy, humidity is present, and oven temp is good, you will get a nice oven spring.

4. If using a dutch oven anyway, increase the hydration to allow more open bubbling during oven spring. ~70% or more. And yes, folding the dough a couple of times will help the structure of the higher hydration dough. Fold it until it starts resisting the pull. Usually 3-4 rounds of folding over the span of an hour.

Good Luck!


widdersbel's picture

Interesting comments on the temperatures, thanks for your thoughts. I can see I'm going to have to read up some more on this, and do lots of experimentation...

One thing that has put me off using the Dutch oven method is wondering how to transfer the loaf to the pot without it collapsing... but having done a bit of googling, I see the answer is blindingly obvious: use a baking paper hammock to lift it in! Can't believe I didn't think of that myself.

(Also the largest pot I have is 3.5qt so not big enough for a 2lb loaf - will need to reduce the loaf size if I'm going to use that method, or buy a bigger pot.)

widdersbel's picture

Well, I've been continuing to practice and trying to refine my technique, and this is what I produced this weekend - it's a 50-50 brown-white flour mix. I'm pretty pleased with how this one has turned out.

Since I'm using brown flour, I increased the water content by 50ml, giving about 60% hydration by my calculation. The dough felt soft but not too sticky, quite easy to work with. I also took great care over the final shaping, making sure I got good surface tension, and that seems to have made a real difference.

The crumb is evenly aerated with lots of small holes, no really big holes, and has a soft but slightly chewy texture - pretty much just how I like it. Flavour is good too. I baked it on a metal sheet rather than the stone and that has given much better results with the crust on the bottom, so it's evenly browned all over.

I need to get a new blade before my next bake - the one I've been using to score the loaf before baking is not quite as sharp as it could be so it's been more like tearing the crust rather than cutting it. But fortunately the loaf doesn't seem to have suffered for that.

I also did another small loaf this weekend, which I baked in a Dutch oven. Really very pleased indeed with how that one turned out - very impressive oven spring compared to the sheet-baked loaves. I guess that suggests that the crust is forming too soon with the sheet-baked loaves and that may explain why they sometimes do the "rising from the bottom" thing.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Coming along nicely!  Yes, I agree with you about the surface setting too soon outside the Dutch oven. Either way, these last photos look very encouraging.  

"Rising from the bottom..."  cracks or separation?  That could mean the loaf could proof a little longer before baking.

Happy Holidays, Mini

widdersbel's picture

Sometimes, when I put the loaf in the oven, I get the initial “opening up” at the top, but then... well, my best guess at what’s happening is the top crust sets before the loaf has finished fully expanding, so it starts expanding (“rising”) downwards, pushing against the stone and lifting the whole crown - probably the bottom crust hasn’t yet set because my stone isn’t hot enough.

Will experiment with reducing the overall temperature of the oven, trying to introduce more steam and continue using the metal baking sheet instead of the stone. Dutch oven method is good but limits me to small loaves due to the size of pot I have (or is this an excuse to get spending?). 

Happy holidays to you too, and all the bakers out there. I’ve got 10 days off work now so plenty of opportunity to get practising, and reading up on the wisdom of the Fresh Loaf veterans. So much good advice and inspiration on this site...


widdersbel's picture

A classic example of the "rising from the bottom" problem:

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

the top, the bottom and the crumb.  Pretty please?

and how long was the dough in the banneton?   

widdersbel's picture

I was waiting for it to cool down before cutting into it to take a pic of the crumb, but have also taken more pics...

Not sure how long it was in the banneton, wasn't really being too careful about timings. I'd say about two hours, maybe a bit less. It hadn't fully risen to the top of the banneton but I did the poke test and it seemed ready, going by that, so I didn't want to leave it too much longer.

This is actually the first time I've used a banneton (I only acquired it yesterday - I've been using a bowl lined with a tea towel until now). I floured it quite heavily with rye flour - possibly more than I needed? But the loaf turned out easily, no sticking. I was surprised to see how damp the banneton was after turning out the loaf but it did hold its shape noticeably better after turning out than the loaves I've been making up to now (though I guess this may be down to factors other than using the banneton). 

I baked it for 45mins at 220ºC using my oven's special bread setting, which I believe uses the top and bottom heating element, and no fan, and I put a tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to create some steam. (According to the tech specs in the oven manual, the top element is 2200W and the bottom element 1000W.)

As you can see, it really hasn't opened out at all at the top (and you can see I already sliced it before taking this pic):

The crease in the bottom is an artefact of shaping the dough, where it hasn't sealed up again during final proving: 

Looks OK inside, could be more airy:

You can see it has risen more at the front of the oven (nearest the door) - which may or may not be significant:

widdersbel's picture

If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it's getting too much heat from above and behind, so the top crust is getting overcooked. The top crust is definitely thicker than the bottom. Might try putting it on a lower shelf, and reducing the oven temperature to 200ºC next time.

Still tastes good though!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

 Tips or thoughts, not all apply.   Please don't do everything or more than one change at a time so you can see results or changes if they happen.   Thanks for the photos!  Didn't mean to rush the cooling, sorry.

Right off the bat... if rye flour is used for bench flour, switch to AP or avoid flour.  When shaping or folding flip the dryer top side of the dough to the outside or directly onto the work surface. Then when shaping pinch firmly to seal dough to itself.  Can let the weight of the dough rest on the seam for a few minutes to make sure it seals before proofing.

Rye flour is often used to prevent sticking. When used while shaping the dough, the dough will separate while baking.  This can be a trick for certain effects.  Most common is to shape kaiser rolls (to keep the star shape) but also if a reverse or separation of layers is desired.  Instead of pinching the seam together on the shaped loaf, try bunching up the seam after a light dusting with rye flour, then place the dough pinched side down in the banneton.  No need to score the loaf, it will separate as it springs for dynamic effects.  

Crumb.  The bubbles around the edges and the tight middle gets back thoughts of underproofing, keep the same rough timing up to shaping but be a little more aggressive with the larger bubbles, pop them (large bubbles can throw off judgement when finger poking the loaf) and give the dough a longer final proof.  Separation along the bottom is a sign the fermenting could go longer before baking.  

Now that you've experienced the banneton make sure it dries well between uses.  It does soak up a lot of moisture compacting the crust crumb.  This also gives the loaf a nice skin to cut thru when scoring.  (Oh the fun you're going to have!). Draping the exposed dough with a flour dusting or towel helps the bottom dry a little bit.  A plastic cover esp. directly on the dough would keep it soft and more likely to expand and split open during the bake.  

Score lines are to direct the expansion.  Think about how they separate and touch or not touch.  The thicker bands of surface dough will hold the shape of the loaf while the open cuts expand, the wider the band of crust dough, the less apt it is to expand or stretch.  Thin bands of crust dough will often rip, but they do some holding before that happens.  Movement comes from the pushing out of the inside dough.  

Rotating the loaf half way thru the bake does several things.  It corrects any hot spots in the oven that can help create a lopsided rise and the opening the oven, basically releases steam to help dry the surface of the loaf so it can brown.  It also gives you a chance to blast your spectacles with steam and turn your head away while gasping for air.   And you can remove any steam trays.

Somehow more heat is needed under the loaf and less above it.  How about moving the steam tray to the top of the oven? ...and the stone down?  You might have to preheat the stone in the middle of the oven and move it down before loading.  I don't know.  I don't bake on a stone.  Do the oven instructions give any suggestions?

You are making perceptible strides with each loaf and patiently going forward.  A great way to enter the new year!



widdersbel's picture

Thanks so much, Mini - really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and encouragement, so good to have the input of more experienced bakers.

A few things you've said have touched upon thoughts I was already having, so it's good to get confirmation that I'm thinking along the right lines - one thought in particular was putting the steam on the same level as the loaf, or above it. Maybe another tray set above the loaf would deflect some of the top heat?

Also, I did wonder if this latest loaf was under-proved. I'm not entirely confident that I really know what I'm looking for when I do the poke test. I have a feeling that it's one of those things that you'll just know when you get it right... 

Another thing I wasn't sure about was whether the size of the banneton was right for the size of the loaf, but I've done some investigating online and I think I'm OK on that score - it's a 900g/2lb loaf and a 24cm/10in banneton, so I think that's a good match. So maybe I just need to be more confident about leaving it in the banneton longer, until it actually expands enough to fill it.

I've stopped using the stone because it clearly wasn't getting hot enough and I don't know how to fix that problem. Instead I'm using an alu baking sheet. Will do some more experimenting with oven settings, shelf heights and temperatures. Unfortunately, the oven manual is limited in its information... and that's being kind.

I only use rye flour for dusting the tea towel/banneton, not on the bench. In fact, I avoid using any flour on the bench at all. I admit I used to be the kind of baker who would immediately reach for more flour when faced with a sticky dough, but I've learned that the answer to stickiness is more kneading, not more flour.

Pinching the seams after shaping makes sense, as does leaving it to rest a few minutes before putting it into the banneton, so I will definitely adopt those suggestions. I'm intrigued by the thought of placing the loaf seam side down in the banneton - worth trying that just for fun!