The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What the heck is happening??

tiny_hamburglar's picture

What the heck is happening??

Today, I've made my WORST LOAF EVER.

I'm a beginner. I've made 7 loaves so far. My loaves have been ok! Usually, I try to only tweak one variable at a time to keep track of the changes, but for my last two loaves I've tried a totally new method and I'm perplexed with these terribly ugly results.

Here's what I did:
- Fed my starter 60g: 60g: 60g (Fed it half bread flour and half whole wheat flour)
- The starter temperature was 80F. It grew to double the size and passed the float test after 4 hours.
- Autolyse for 4 hours - bread flour (320g) and water (200g). 

- Mixed Autolysed dough, 140 g starter, and 7g salt in a stand mixer on a low setting for 8 minutes and rested for 30 minutes
- Did 4 gentle stretch and folds at 45-minute intervals. 
- Bulk ferment time was a total of 4 hours. The dough was at about 78F-80F the whole time.
- Preshaped the dough into a ball, and noticed big bubbles under the skin. Rested 25 minutes
- Pushed down the dough trying to get those big bubbles out. Shaped the dough (folding bottom, sides, and top in). Final dough was only about 6" in diameter.

- Retarded the dough in the fridge and let it ferment for 16 hours. This is what it looked like after being in the fridge:

- Scored cold and baked straight from the fridge at 475F in a dutch oven. 20 minutes lid on, 15 minutes bread on rack (got burned on the bottom because it was too close to my baking steel).


I've never gotten this kind of crumb before, here's an example of one of my previous loaves.

This particular loaf:

100g floating starter mixed into water
300g 90F water
500g flour

- Waited 30 minutes to add 10g salt + another 25g water and mixed vigorously by hand until pretty smooth.
- Did 4 gentle turns over 3 hours 
- Let it proof overnight in a 76F microwave for 12 hours
- Baked at 500F with the lid on for 15 minutes
- Baked at 450F with the lid off for 20 minutes.

The interior was dense and a bit gummy. I thought maybe I wasn't creating enough gluten to get good oven spring. I thought perhaps I was over-proofing as well....?

Totally lost here. Help!

suave's picture

You bulk fermentation was too short.  Look, in your good loaf you had 9% (50/550) prefermenteed flour and ~15.5 hour fermentation.  In your bad loaf you had 18% (70/390) prefermented flour, 4.5 hours of bulk ferment and then you retarted, which is probably worth another 1-2 hours of room temperature fermentation.  So, you doubled the amount of leaveing, but at the same time you cut fermentation time by at least a factor of 3, may be more.

tiny_hamburglar's picture

Ok. I obviously need to change things. What's strange is my friend is following this method and getting beautiful loaves. Things must be very different at his house.

Since I'm a total novice, can you help me understand the numbers? 9% (50/550) and 18% (70/390).  I'm having trouble understanding bakers percentages, and how it affects the bulk fermentation time.

LittleGirlBlue's picture

I'm not sure which part you don't understand so I'll try to explain the whole thing.  Let's start with the general principles.

In sourdough, you take a (usually small) bit of starter and mix it with water and flour.  The starter has yeast living in it, which are what produce the CO2 that gives the dough rise.  The yeast will multiply quickly when introduced to this fresh new flour, but there is a limit to how fast they can multiply.  Let's assume there are 1 million yeast in 5g of your starter (my understanding is that it is actually very much higher than that).  If you make a dough with 500g fresh flour, and add 5g of starter, it will ferment slower than if you take the same 500g and add 10g of starter.  Because obviously 2 million yeasts are going to be able to produce more CO2 (and also more new yeasts) than 1 million yeasts.  However, if you add 5g of starter to 500g of flour, and in a separate dough you add 10g of starter to 1000g flour, those 2 doughs will ferment at about the same rate, because twice as many yeasts can work twice as fast, thus fermenting twice as much dough in the same amount of time.  So it is the ratio or the percent that matters.  That's why Suave pointed out that in one dough you had 9% (50/550) and in the other you had 18% (70/390).

As far as where those numbers came from, in your successful loaf, you had 100g starter, and 500g flour.  In the starter (assuming it's 100% hydration), there is 50g water and 50g flour.  So, you had 50g fermented flour (in the starter) out of a total of 550g flour (the fresh flour plus what was in the starter), or 9% prefermented flour.  You can do the same math to get the 18% of your less successful loaf.

Exactly how many active yeasts are in that starter (or prefermented flour) will vary depending on many factors.  But regardless of whether your starter is jam packed with yeasts or relatively sparsely populated, you will definitely have more yeasts if you have more starter.  So by adding a larger %age of starter, you have a bigger workforce.  You also have less fresh, unfermented flour that they have to process.  So fermenting will happen quite a lot faster when you add a bigger percentage of starter.  Or a bigger percentage of prefermented flour, whichever way you prefer to look at it.

In this case, it seems like you realized the fermenting would go more quickly, but you just adjusted too much.  A common saying around here is to watch the dough, not the clock.  When you get good at that, the math won't matter so much (altho it's still good to understand it to help you roughly predict when you dough will be ready to bake so you don't miss it in the middle of the night, for example).

Hope that's clear.

tiny_hamburglar's picture

This is so helpful! Thank you LittleGirlBlue!

Now I understand how we're getting the percentage of Prefermented Starter Flour to Total Flour. (I was thrown off by not adding the flour included in the starter).

I'm playing around with another batch of dough right now.

350g flour
220g water
80g starter
5g salt

Is my baking math correct?

10% prefermented flour to fresh flour. 
23% Starter.
66% hydration.

I read somewhere that dough with 25% starter can take anywhere between 4-12 hours to proof depending on the temperature...

I guess my next questions are... when do I know it's ready to shape and then bake? How do I know if I have enough gluten development? What signs am I watching for? I'm learning that with bread... these things are kind of an art form... and that you learn through practice and building your intuition... but any kind of tips would be helpful!

LittleGirlBlue's picture

OK.  So the first thing you have to understand about baker's percentages is that the "whole" (or the 100%) is the total flour in the recipe.  If your elementary teacher that first taught you (and by this I mean a generic you, not you Tiny Hamburglar) about percentages didn't teach you that the first and most important thing you must do every time you are talking about % is to identify the whole, they did you a tremendous disservice.  I used to tutor kids and I'd use the following example to help illustrate this point:

"Let's say you told your mom you had 25% orange for your afterschool snack.  She will have no idea what you mean, because by using just the word "orange" you didn't identify what the whole was.  Did you have 25% of an orange?  Did you have 25% of an entire box of oranges?  Maybe you had 2 oranges, which is 25% of the 8 oranges which were in the house.  Or maybe you had 4 cookies, each one of the 4 having a different color of frosting: orange, red, blue, and green.  In that case, your snack is the whole rather than your snack being 25% of some other whole, and 25% of your snack was orange."  It doesn't take very many of that kind of example before kids realize that the number 25% is meaningless until one knows what the whole is.  25% of what?

The cool thing about baker's percentages are actually tremendously easy in that regard, because the whole is always the total flour in the recipe.  It's not intuitive because one wants to assume that the whole is the whole recipe.  It's not, and it might take a moment to get used to that, but once you do it makes baker's percentages really easy, and the entire concept of baker's percentages makes it very easy to scale recipes to any size, and also to take what you learned from one recipe (2% salt tasted a bit too salty to me, I prefer about 1.8% salt) and apply it to another, adjusting them to your tastes on the fly.

Sourdough, and I'm sure other recipes that use polishes, etc, are slightly tricky because they "hide" some of the flour in the starter.  You've learned to look for that now.  So you are correct that you have about 12% prefermented flour.  But the way you said it "12% prefermented flour to fresh flour" might lead a reader to assume you mean the amount of prefermented flour is 12% of the amount of fresh flour.  Actually, it's 12% of the amount of total flour.  And there is also about 88% fresh flour to reach our total of 100%.  You could say you have 12% prefermented flour to 88% fresh flour, but it's probably easier to just say 12% prefermented flour, since in baking we always know the total flour is the whole.

But I think when you went to calculate your % starter, you forgot to add the extra flour that is hidden in the starter.  Your starter is actually about 24%.  80/(300+40)*100

As far as what to watch for... well.  I'm still working on that myself.  But what I see most often is people talking about the windowpane test as a way of testing gluten development at the end of bulk fermentation to know the dough is ready to shape,  and the poke test at the end of proofing to know the dough is ready to bake.  You can find videos that demonstrate both.  To be clear, these are not the only signs (people talk about the dough being puffy or jiggly, etc), but just what I see people talking about most.  I think it's more complex than that, though.  For example, it seems to me that you could get a lot of gluten development and therefore a good windowpane test by doing a lot of kneading, but your dough would not yet be fermented enough to move on to shaping.

tiny_hamburglar's picture

LittleGirlBlue, During the time you wrote your helpful response, I did a little tweaking of my recipe and edited my previous post. So let me try the math again.....

350g flour
220g water
80g starter
6g salt

~10% prefermented flour
~20% starter
~66% hydration

Now with the salt percentage, I'm still going off the total flour in the dough, right? So 6g/390g = 1.5%

Thanks also for the signs of gluten development and proofing... There are just so many variables in bread dough!

I feel like an addict at a slot machine trying to hit the jackpot with a good loaf.

LittleGirlBlue's picture

Looks like you've got it!


"I feel like an addict at a slot machine trying to hit the jackpot with a good loaf." - Yes!  Exactly!  Except with me, I'm also running around trying a hand of poker and shooting some craps and... (discard recipes)

SeasideJess's picture

I can give a few tips.

The windowpane is a test of gluten development. You can look at it any time by grabbing/pinching a generous fold of the dough and gently stretching it up and then apart (slowly, gently) to see if you can  thin it out to a transparent membrane.

For a dough that is kneaded all at once, before the bulk fermentation begins, you would test windowpane repeatedly while kneading to see if it is done. For a dough where you're developing the gluten with stretch and folds at intervals during the bulk proofing you'll test it after your last fold, to see if it needs more folding or not.

To see if your bulk fermentation is done, look for the dough to be soft, jiggly, puffy, and to show bubbles all the way up to the top, through the sides of your clear fermentation vessel.

To see if your shaped dough is ready to bake, that is when you can use the poke test, look for that increase in size, look for the dough to be somewhat soft and puffy, etc. However, if you refrigerated your shaped dough it will reabsorb the fermentation gases and get smaller, making it appear underprooved even if it's not.

LittleGirlBlue's picture

Thank you!  That's excellent information!

I've read before that refrigerating the dough will make it harder to know when it is ready to bake.  I think specifically I saw it mentioned that the dough will be too stiff for the poke test.  In that case, for those who remove from fridge, score, and bake immediately, are they just going by the clock at that point?  Or are there other signs?

SeasideJess's picture

I get the impression most folks put the shaped dough in the fridge at a specific time, like after x minutes of final proofing on the counter, and then it finishes proofing while it cools, and they score and bake it while it's still cold, just trusting the proof is correct at that point.  But there are different ways to do it, like refrigerating during bulk and shaping after.

Personally I only use the fridge to slow the final proof occasionally, to stagger the loaves in the oven. I don't have fridge space to keep dough in there for long. I'm already catching some mild grumbling for my containers of starter and discard and the big jar of yeast water!

SeasideJess's picture

Another thing to know is that a good bulk proof is really important for setting up your timings for the remainder of the process. That initial bulk proof is populating your dough with yeast. Once that is done the timing for the other stages will be fairly consistent with the temperature of the dough.

With a sourdough there is a risk if the dough takes too long to proof (because the starter wasn't strong enough) it will become overly acidic and the gluten will break down before it ever has a chance to proof fully. With a conventional yeast that is much less of a risk.

LittleGirlBlue's picture

Thanks again Jess!  Your posts in this thread have been super helpful!

JeremyCherfas's picture

I really appreciated your explanation, even though I know it myself, it will help me to explain to others.