The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sorry - More Bread Woes! (Does it never end?)

foolishpoolish's picture

Sorry - More Bread Woes! (Does it never end?)

Once again, my sincerest apologies. Yes it does seem like every post I make seems to reveal another of my baking woes. Sadly, frustration has set in once again. The situation is serious enough that I am actually developing a new appreciation and taste for supermarket white sandwich bread since it's about the only thing in the house that is made from flour and yeast and edible.

Well, to get to the latest failure. Today, I tried a straight sourdough as a test for lower percentage inoculation before trying the pain de mie recipe that Pat (proth5) kindly posted recently.

50% White Bread Flour, 30% Wholewheat 'bread' flour, 20% Whole Rye
70% Hydration
2% Salt
13% starter (white starter at 100% hydration)
Proofing at a warmish 80 degrees.
Well and truly mixed and folded/kneaded to give excellent windowpane.

Predictably, I encountered the same problems that have become all too familiar these past few months. Namely:

*Loose dough which did not hold shape after being formed (puddled within 10 seconds of removing any support)
*Close crumb (cannot get large bubbles in that dough)
*Poor rising. I was shooting for about 5 hours rise time. Any more than this and I would have an overly sour end result (sour soup - it's happened umpteen times before)
*Could not slash dough. I've just bought a new serrated edge knife which should be fine for scoring. I've practiced and practiced and practiced but as yet, I've not managed a single decent slash on any loaf I've tried to make I've watched video after video, read tutorial/post after post...what am I doing wrong??!!

This is just the most recent in a whole run of failures which wouldn't bother me so much except that I'm just not learning from my mistakes. I've tried to absorb all the great advice and help here but nothing is working! Nothing! Any time I think I've got a handle on a situation and I try to make something that approaches tasty bread, I find myself back at square one. Irritatingly, none the wiser as to what went wrong. I think in the last 3 months I've had maybe 2 vaguely edible results (4 including pizza and pita bread) With the increasing prices in flour, this is fast turning into both a mental (and financial) black hole.

The weird thing is my starter is apparently really healthy. It's been doing extremely well (even more so than in previous months on account of the warmer weather) I just wish I could put it to good use! As I have mentioned in previous posts, the starter seems to have a '2 peak' behaviour which results in an initial rise (with fewer larger bubbles) peaking at 2 to 3 times the initial volume. This is accompanied by a sourish smell. The starter then subsides somewhat. The bubbles get smaller and increase in number accompanied by another rise (not as dramatic as the first) and a fruity, yeasty smell. I usually feed and harvest my starter at this point (typically 18 to 24 hours after feeding depending on how warm it is) As a desperate shot in the dark - am I perhaps leaving it too late to use my starter?


PaddyL's picture

Maybe just a bit so the bread won't puddle?  I found that, if I got it into a really hot oven, the blast of heat would set it up quite nicely.  The wetter doughs are more difficult to move around, and I'm assuming you're letting the dough rise in a bowl-shaped thingy, then dumping it onto a stone or baking sheet, the very dumping being the source of your puddling problem.  I watched one video where the baker very gently transferred the dough from the bowl to his hand and then, quickly, onto the baking sheet.  As long as you don't punch down your dough, you should be able to get some nice holes, so you could add some extra flour to help to hold it together.

Eli's picture

I suffered from the same problem in the beginning. I learned to cut back on the hydration to about 64 percent. Once I got that down I have slowly increased the hydration. Completely different horse. My confidence with the higher hydration doughs was waning just like my loaves. As for the big holes, I have learned to gently move the dough around after the bulk ferment. Ever so lightly shaping and not busting all the bubbles. I'm certain there are many that can help you better. But I did have to start with a lower hydration to get a a feel, right down to the slashing.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!


Janedo's picture

Have you tried lowering the % of starter? Maybe your should do that, then also make up a dryer dough and then do a shorter first rise or at least really watch it. With the hotter weather and a very active starter, you rise may be too fast. And maybe doing a firmer dough to begin with will give you an easier job and when you master it you can fiddle with a wetter dough. There is nothing worse than failure upon failure. I had one yesterday because of the couple extra degrees in the kitchen. A total mess after an over fermented dough. No use even baking.

Hope that helps!


Windischgirl's picture

I learned a bit about slashing this I mentioned earlier, my daughter made a WW dough in class, but because of all the other errands we were going to do, I stashed it in the fridge.

It overproofed anyway (a Q for another forum!) and was impossible to slash.


the softness of the dough seems to have a direct relationship on the ease of slashing.  I wonder, FP, if it was unslashable due to the softness of the dough...yours wet, mine overproofed.

Janedo!  I just read in Reinhart's WGB that overfermented dough can be salvaged; press out some of the bubbles, reshape, and proof again, only for a shorter period of time.

Us Windischgirls make thrifty a lifestyle ;-) 


Janedo's picture

I almost did just that but then decided to put it in the fridge and I'm going to do some experiments using it like "old dough". Thanks for the info. I have that book but didn't even remember that bit. I don't think it would have tasted that great anyway because it was a pretty white bread.

proth5's picture

I had composed a reply, but upon re-reading realized that your problems were not with my formula (which is to be baked in a pan and will not get big holes) but another experiment.

To echo the sentiments of others, try leaving out the rye and make the dough at a lower hydration.

There's been quite a bit of discussion on the "Advanced topics" thread about the bad effects of soft water on bread.  If your failures are consistent, have you checked your water?

Hope this helps.

MaryinHammondsport's picture

I too have had this problem and am wondering if it is my reverse osmosis softened water. The symptoms are just like yours, as far as puddling dough. It happens with artisan bread but not with pan loaves, because the loaf pan contains those.

So - tomorrow we are taking a sample to the firm that supplies salt for our water softener, and requesting a hardness test. In the meantime, the next batard I make will be made with bottled water, just as a test.

I will post here on the results.


foolishpoolish's picture

Thanks for all the replies. 

I live in a hard water area although I've been using bottled spring/mineral water most of the time.  Going to cut back on the hydration as advised and see how I fare.  The relatively high hydration doughs I've been using have been fairly easy to handle in the initial stages - it's only after shaping that things start to fall apart (literally in some cases).

The starter feeding cycle still intrigues me.  The last two days have been unusually warm and have thrown off my usual schedule (if you can all it that!)  Would love to hear your thoughts on when is the best time to use my starter.

Thanks again!



proth5's picture

Well, we had to try with the soft/hard water thing. 

I don't know about using your starter too late.  If I were using the method I use - which is to take a small amount of storage starter, mix it with flour and water (as per the levain build in my formula) I would want to use the thing when it had first risen and looked ripe, not after it collapses and tries to rise again.

I had a lot of trouble early in my levain days with using formulas that put the storage starter directly in the dough.  Now that I think back, they were problems similar to yours (it really was a long time ago).  The two step approach (do a pre ferment build using a small amount of storage starter, then use that build in the final dough) has proved very reliable for me. 

As for the storage starter itself, my starter is often in various states of disrepair when I go to use it as it has been stored for 4 or 5 days.  But this is my starter which seems to be a hardy little thing.  But I would never, ever, use a levain build that was either not developed enough or severely over developed. Under developed is just as bad as overdeveloped. If you are doing a liquid build you should see a lot of well developed bubbles and it should smell sour.  It may not exactly double, but it should have risen a bit and not have slumped. 

You also mentioned that you feed and harvest your starter after it collapses.  I always remove what I am going to use (I guess that is "harvest") and then feed my storage starter.  I don't know if what I am doing is technically right, but again, with the method I use what gets removed gets a good feed (and 8 hours or so to digest it and get active) in the build and what remains in my storage container gets whatever kind of feeding that I am doing that keeps it happy.  Again, I don't make judgements on right or wrong, but that certainly is a difference.

Have you tried the two step approach of doing a levain build - not just feeding your starter and using it? Your percents aren't exactly clear to me.

I am not really the most expert person on these pages, but I seem to have gotten you to go down this path and I kind of feel responsible.  I am perfectly willing to share my exact formula and production notes for unenriched white bread (which might be a good place to start even if that's not where you want to end) if it would help you to get a start on feeling better about your bread output.  Let me know. 

Hope this helps

foolishpoolish's picture

Bless your heart!   you're not responsible for 'leading me down the path' (so to speak) The trouble(s) with my sourdough have been with me for some time.  I recently had a temporary reprieve when I started using a very large percentage of starter / build and short proofing times.  Unfortunately, I found the flavour and openness of crumb lacking  somewhat when adopting this approach.

In answer to your question, yes I do use intermediate builds normally.  I try to keep them at the same percentage as the final dough build  for simplicity's sake (eg 50g starter to 100g flour for first build followed by say 200g build to 400g additional flour in final build).  The intermediate build typically gets the same proofing time as the final dough if I'm doing it all in one day but I will occasionally refrigerate overnight before making the final dough and baking the next.

My inexperience with sourdough leaves me no real frame of reference unfortunately to know whether I'm 'doing things right'.  However,from what I've read, I gather that a starter can be a fairly 'individual' affair. What works for one person may not always translate across to another culture. (cultural differences, you might say! :) )

I'm going to experiment a little more with the starter 'timing' before I try any new formulas.   The recent change in temperature has affected starter activity dramatically so I am (once again) contemplating a refrigerated starter - something I've not had the courage to try in the past.

Thanks again,



foolishpoolish's picture

Today's attempt.
I followed the recommendations of using smaller percentages (as before), leaving out the rye flour, using an intermediate build and cutting back on the hydration (65ish% in this case)

First Build:
20g Starter
100g Sifted Whole Wheat Flour (about 90-95% extraction)
56g Water
Mixed and left to rise/mature for 6 1/2 hours

400g Sifted Whole Wheat Flour
260g Water
(mixed and soaked for 6 1/2 hours)

Final Dough:
150g Build
All Of Soaker
200g White Bread Flour
130g Water
13g Salt
Mixed and folded thoroughly to achieve windowpane.
Bulk ferment at room temperature (70ish) for 5 hours
Shaped and proofed a further 1 1/2 hours
Baked at 450 with steam for 10 minutes reduced down to 350 for a further half hour.

Same problems as before:
Impossible to score
Impossibly slack dough (although not quite as much as before)
Crumb though better than before was still not great. Dense bread.
Way too sour especially compared to the mild sourdough I was shooting for.

Seriously, I give up! I don't understand what the problem is. Is it simply poor technique? If it is, I don't appear to be learning how to improve.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven
  • First build: reduce the flour here to 60g. Maybe 100g makes too stiff and not mature enough in 6.5 hours. Add the extra 40g flour to final dough.  Do not add to final dough untl frothy and active.
  • Add the salt to your soaker of WW to reduce build up of unwanted enzymes.
  • And reduce the 130ml water in the final dough, wait until everything is mixed together and allowed to sit 20 minutes before adding any of the water.


Mini O

PaddyL's picture

...did you bake a lot of regular yeast bread?  If you did, there should be lots and lots of wild yeasts flying around, just waiting for a dough to help rise up.  I think that's what's happening with my sourdough; the starters are healthy, and they'll raise the dough, given time and warmth, no matter what I do.  The last baguettes I made seemed sort of floppy and tending to spread horizontally out of their trays, but in the oven, they really took off.  Why don't you put your dough into a cake pan when you put it into the oven so it can't puddle on you.  I once had to surround a rather large potato buttermilk bread with the sides of a springform pan, and when it was partially baked, I slipped off the ring and let the bread finish baking.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with using pans to bake sourdough.

foolishpoolish's picture

I just went downstairs to check it - it's so active  that it's popped the lid and spread over the table.  It has NEVER done that before even when it's been a very warm kitchen.

I just wish it was more active in my dough!  Perhaps I have radioactive hands...

Oh well. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

mcs's picture

I may have missed some previous explanation for this, but why the focus on sourdough? It seems with a simpler preferment or (relatively) long ferment straight dough you could get something leaps and bounds above supermarket stuff. Plus you'd have less variables to deal with. I'd go for something like Hamelman's ciabatta with stiff biga and maybe reduce the hydration to make it easier to deal with. Also as PaddyL mentioned, pans work well and eliminate another chance to encounter a problem.
Keep it up and remember, everyone here's had lots of failures, we're just not posting the pictures of those on The Fresh Loaf. My yard (the woods) is littered with all kinds of dough that didn't 'make the cut'. Some flew well from my deck as a discus, others were heaved 'shot put style'. All were accompanied with some obscenities, and none made it into my tutorial videos.


Windischgirl's picture

Dear FP: I don't have any wisdom to share...everyone else on this thread has given you much better suggestions than I could ever come up with.

I did want to say that I can understand your frustration...I tried to do the NKB thing multiple times after getting heavy encouragement from my dad.  His were perfect.  

Mine were soup...that turned into hockey pucks.  At least the groundhogs in my yard ate well.  No idea what I did wrong, either.  

so...ugh.  Hope it all works out for you. 


Paula F

Philadelphia PA

cordel's picture

I have to admit, this thread scares me. I made Breadtopia's pineapple starter, and my first effort worked, and so have all the subsequent ones. When I went away to a week at the Taoist Tai Chi centre, followed by a weeks visit to my brother, I worried that it would not get started again on my return, but it did. Then I went into the hospital for surgery, and waited several weeks before touching it, but if anything the starter seems better than ever, and I have two bowls ready to add the starter and water to to make sour-seeded no-knead bread to serve our Big Green Egg Smoked meat on. Lord help me if I get puddles instead of a loaf.

sphealey's picture

=== I have to admit, this thread scares me. ===

Don't let it bother you. FP seems to have more problems more consistently than any other beginner who posts here. If you already have starters going and have baked with them then I don't think you have anything to worrry about; you can always restart if necessary.


foolishpoolish's picture

Yikes - sorry Cordel. Please don't take this thread as indicative of the 'average sourdough experience'. Sph is correct - I am having consistent problems that aren't really typical of a successful sourdough starter.

Thanks to everyone who's been encouraging me (not just on this thread but in answer to my many other posts)

I went right back to basics today and made a basic white sourdough using an intermediate build (33% inoculation each time) at 65% hydration.

Amazingly it's worked incredibly well. It was so active it actually overproofed in the time I expected it to take.

Things (other than flour) which I changed:

*Reduced kneading time (I think I may have been overdoing it in the past)

*Reduced salt ever so slightly (more at 1.5% than the usual 2)

Oven spring was ridiculous and I feel the crumb is going to be very open. The bread is still cooling down so the taste test will be tommorow. Slashing was still a big problem but this was more to do with overproofing and poor shaping...I think.

I think my faith in sourdough may yet be restored.

Thanks again.



OK I couldn't wait and I cut into one of the loaves. It tastes wonderfully mild just as I hoped for. Crumb is very open. The crust is pretty thin but I suspect this has to do with the baking (didn't steam for so long and hadn't pre-heated the baking stone as long as per usual).
Overall I'm really pleased. I have bread that I can eat! (which is the most important thing after all)

foolishpoolish's picture

Basic White SourdoughBasic White SourdoughBasic White Sourdough CrumbBasic White Sourdough Crumb

Janedo's picture

FP - your crumb looks great!

While reading this discussion, and after a discussion with David, I realize I probably underproof. I do a few things differently actually for my sourdoughs and that is one of the reasons I am so curious about the "american way".

What I realize is that if you're going for a San Fran sourdough type look, the crust will be even and shiny, so the dough has to maintain a certain humidity or it will rip. It benefits from a full proofing and then a good misting before baking.

The French or rustic-type loaves are so very nice when they have a bit of a thicker, crunchy crust and "burst" during baking. This is the bread I like so much and I would say that to obtain that, I underproof a bit. During proofing, I flour the dough pretty generously and cover it with a coton/linen dish towel. This way the dough skin is still supple but thick enough to do a nice scoring. I score pretty deeply. I don't ever spray the dough itself, but pour in a glass of very hot water (I gather that depends on the type of oven). The spring is powerful in the oven and then crust splits, revealing the lighter crumb with gets lightly crunchy. 

Does this sound coherent to everybody?  


foolishpoolish's picture

Thanks Jane

Perhaps one of the 'cultural' differences is a blistered crust?.  From what I understand, this is not considered a desirable trait in classic french breads.  My preferences both in taste and crust lie with the french style and while I follow pretty much the same procedure as you with regards to steaming, I long for a nice thick crust with pronounced grigne.   

Mostly, I'm sure this is down to my poor scoring skill.  However from what you say, it seems the proofing process is also very important.  I previously thought that flouring the dough would lead to a soft 'floury batch rolls'.   You are right though, I'm sure - the key is getting  pronounced 'skin' on the dough which will bake and harden quickly in the oven so it gets 'pushed up and out' while the exposed scored area expands underneath...unlike my efforts yesterday where you can clearly see the exposed dough has just risen in line with the outside skin. Also I used oiled plastic wrap to cover the dough during the second proof which might explain the shiny crust.

Much more practice required on my part.  At least now I can eat the results :)   


cordel's picture

Beautiful loaf, FP.  I have two sour-seeded boules just about ready to put in the oven, and I hope they turn out nearly as well.