The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Help for a beginner

ivrib's picture

Help for a beginner

Hello everyone,

I baked this bread yesterday and I would like some expert help on how to turn it next time into a more edible bread.

I'm a beginning home baker. I've been tinkering and making various attempts at baking bread for a couple of months now. I find bread baking a wonderful and amazing art. It is so complex that I sometimes get very frustrated. Finding this great site helped a lot and I'm beginning to make small steps in the right direction.

I've made my first attempt at sourdough bread two days ago, after using Peter Reinhart's method for creating a starter from scratch. His method calls for an acidic environment and creates it by using pineapple juice. Since I didn't have pineapple juice, I experimented with  fresh lemon juice, diluting 1 part lemon juice with two parts water. It worked. In the course of several days I enden up with two lively starters, one made from organic whole wheat and one from non organic ww.

I then wanted to try out my starter. I decided to use a simple recipe - 100% organic ww. The dough was at 85% hydration, 1.8% salt. My starter was at a little more than 100% hydration and I calculated that about 10% of the flour came from the started. Besides being my first sourdough bread this was also my first 100% whole wheat bread too. The 85% hydration was based on recipes I've found on this site, and not on my own experience.

After many failed attempts at hand kneading out of a desire to master 'the real way bread should be mixed' I decided this time to mix by machine with our kenwood something or other - I don't know the exact model name.

I just put everything together in the mixing bowl, attached the dough hook and let it mix at the lowest speed for about 7 minutes.

As I should have expected the dough was so wet and sticky I couldn't really handle it. It also never formed a ball around the dough hook. I attributed this to the wetness. Is that correct?

Since I couldn't handle it I just let it rise in the bowl for about 3.5 hours. It didn't double in volume - it maybe got to 1.5 its original size. Then tried somehow to knock it down, stretched it and folded it crudely in thirds and transferred it to a bread pan. It was already late at night so I put it in the fridge. In the morning I saw it didn't rise at all in the fridge and took it out. It stood at room temp until the evening and only rose an inch (to approximately 1.5 its original volume). It didn't seem to be rising anymore and I could see small bubbles on top of the dough. Fearing it would collapse I warmed the oven to 200 C and baked it for 40 minutes, using steam (does that do anything for a bread pan loaf?) for the first ten minutes.

There was no oven spring - it maybe even deflated a little. It came out moist and gummy - when cut little long wet bread flakes come off. It tasted good and had a nice sour flavor (a little too sour) but was very moist.

What went wrong - why didn't it rise more? Why was it doughy? As with other breads I've made when I cut it these very light colored crumbs appear (at the bottom of the first picture). I know it's a sign something is wrong because I never get it with good loaves of bread. What does it mean?

Your help would be much appreciated.


colinwhipple's picture

In my experience, whole what breads are more difficult than while flour breads, and sourdough is more difficult than regular yeast.  You might better off trying something easier your first time doing sourdough.


subfuscpersona's picture

Agree 100% with colinwhipple.

Questions for ivrib

> Are you more interested in making sourdough bread (with mostly white flour) or whole grain bread (with commerical yeast but a high percent of whole grain flour)?

> Do you bake "artisan style" with a baking stone or do you use loaf pans for baking? Do you have a preference here?

If you can target your interests, I'm sure you'll find that the members here can help you.

ivrib's picture

I've attempted quite a number of breads. With both all or mostly white and mostly whole wheat flour. I have a baking stone and use it, although in this case the dough was so slack that to give any shape at all I had to put it in a pan. I would like to try making sourdough bread, but am more interested in the bread baking basics - kneading, dough-handling, proofing etc.

I would like to understand specifically what my problems are with this dough - was it kneaded enough, was it proofed enough or too much. I think those are basics in bread baking and yet I find mastering them quite difficult. If an experienced baker could give some tips I would be grateful.


sphealey's picture

=== I would like to understand specifically what my problems are with this dough - was it kneaded enough, was it proofed enough or too much. ===

At some point the dough, whether wet or dry, sourdough or bakers yeast, has to form some sort of skin[1]. Dry doughs from white flour will form a strong skin; sourdoughs less strong in my experience (although Panera bread argues that is always the case). It sounds as if your dough was so wet and undeveloped that it never got to the point where the gluten network developed and a skin formed. This point is usually achieved either by long kneading or by light kneading followed by multiple folds on a lightly floured board during fermentation.

It sounds as if your dough would have benefitted from stretching and folding at 45 minute intervals during the fermentation, then perhaps a shorter final proof.


[1] Breads with a percentage of rye flour greater than 20% are a different story.

ivrib's picture

Thanks for this tip, sphealey. I think it's groundbreaking for me.

I kneaded it by mixer with dough-hook for around 7 minutes and was afraid it would be over-kneaded (although I think many of my breads have been under kneaded in anything and have no idea what an over kneaded dough/bread feel and look), even though it never got to the stage of forming a ball around the hook so I stopped the mixer.

Do high hydration doughs need more kneading and do they also develop a distinct skin?

Anyway this skin tip is an important one it seems.



sphealey's picture

I would go with susan's advice below. For home bakers the correct texture of dough is mostly a by-feel thing (both literally and figuratively) and I have had a hard time developing that feel (I am not a touchy-feely kind of person ;-) ). It was amazing though the third or forth time I tried Floyd's Daily Bread and felt a smooth (though fragile) skin form over what was essentially a mass of wet jelly, then managed to maintain that skin through 2 more folds and a shaping with the dough firming up a bit after each fold.


susanfnp's picture

I agree with sPh, sounds like your dough was too wet and underdeveloped.

7 minutes at low speed is not much at all.

If the dough felt too wet it probably was. Remember that hydration %s are just guidelines (and even at that, 85% is pretty high). Try adjusting the water (i.e., holding some back to begin with, adding more if need, even more than the original amount specified necessary) until the dough is a medium consistency (similar to what you've had when you achieved bread you were happy with). 


ivrib's picture

Thanks Susan.

I guess in every artform balance is of utmost importance. When I started baking my doughs were always too dry. Then I discovered the more proffesional seeming baking recipes that called for larger amounts of water and read about the importance of high hydration levels for crumb development, and I guess I started going too far in that direction.

How should a dough feel when it's a medium consistency dough? It's been kind of hard figuring out how the dough should feel and when it's developed according to the different 'tests' (windowpane etc.) Especially I'm always afraid that when the dough is too easy to handle it's underhydrated.


Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

You mention the hydration percentages, so I thought I'd make sure you are measuring by weight. If you are measuring by volume, you can be WAY off and not realize it. 85% hydration isn't that far off the mark for whole wheat bread.

There are, of course, complicating factors. Here's a few ideas.


Whole grain flours absorb more moisture than refined flours. However, they do it more slowly. So, you need to be more patient than with refined flours. And home-ground flour is a further complication, fit for a separate post.

When I use a mixer to knead dough - and this works with all the mixers I've used, I knead the dough for 5 minutes. Then I let it sit for 5 minutes to absorb moisture. Then I knead it for another 5 minutes. In a few cases, notably bagels, I knead a bit longer.

I try hard not to adjust the liquid/flour until near the end of the second 5 minutes. If needed, I will scrape the mixer bowl to pull everything together. Some mixers need more of that babying than others. If they need it, do it for the bread's sake.

Oddly enough, the same kneading regimen works for me with hand kneading. I call it my 5/5/5/ approach.

With an Electrolux, I use the lowest speed and the dough hook. With a KitchenAid, I use speed 2. With other mixers, wing it.

The pictures of your bread did look as if the dough was both too wet and too underdeveoped. After kneading it, I would probably give it a stretch and fold or two. Also, for early loaves, when you're still in the early stages of playing with the recipe, I'd probably go with a pan loaf rather than a free form loaf. A pan covers up a world of problems.

Be careful with how much dough you put in the pans. I shoot for 1/3 to 1/2 full. If you put in less, you'll wait too long for the bread to rise, it will over-rise and then start to fall. With too little, you won't give the bread enough rise time and the bread won't have all the flavor it could.

Another potential complication. I always encourage people who are just starting in sourdough to get a good starter from a reliable source. The more times you use the word "new" to describe something you want to do, the greater the chance of failure. I get lots of sad emails from people who have never baked anything more complicated than refrigerator biscuits out of a can who are having trouble with sourdough. And it is all but impossible to figure out what they've messed up. If you don't know what a good starter should look like, smell like, taste like, feel like or how to maintain it - what are your chances of making a good sourdough bread?

Also, if you don't feed your starter enough, strains of bacteria can take over that digest protein. This turns dough into soup. And makes it all but impossible to get a good rise. I like Carl's 1847 Oregon Trail starter. it is very good, it is free, it is very reliable, and it has great romantic history behind it. Google "friends of carl" and you'll find it.

Three final comments.... I always encourage people to knead by hand. It puts them more in touch with the process. And I have a very nice sourdough whole wheat recipe at and some deconstruction of that recipe at

And if you can't get it together, you can always add a bit of vital wheat gluten. I talk about it at great length at


Hope some of that helps,



ivrib's picture

Thank you very much for the detailed reply and great tips. Your website is also very generous and enlightening.

I was refering to weight when writing about hydration percentages. But on your site you showed through the flour tests that hydration percentages aren't a failsafe way either to achieve a desired dough because of the individual characteristics of each flour.

I guess the solution to that is to feel with my hands how the dough should feel so I can always correct the proportions and reach the desired dough consistency. At the moment I'm in the process of making another batch of bread. I used the 5/5/5 technique and kneaded by hand. I added precisely the amount of water the recipe called for and after the initial mixing (before kneading) the dough seemed wet. I let it rest for 5 minutes and started kneading. I put down some flour on the kneading board and that bit of flour plus the kneading turned the dough into a workable dough.

The problem I had today was that is even after 10 minutes of kneading with 5 minutes rest at the half way point, the dough didn't reach the consistency I've seen on instructional videos like the ones on your site and described in writing. It was much more developed than the dough I made with the mixer, but it didn't develop a smooth skin, and when shaped into a ball by tucking the dough underneath from all sided there were a few of these little tears on the surface of the ball. When poking the ball it seemed not to spring back very fast. When flattening the dough ball a bit and bending the surface of the ball by folding the surface would tear a tiny bit (even without bending to much.)

So I kneaded more. I did at least five more minutes of kneading but still the dough didn't get that great consistency.

Maybe I don't know what to look for in a developed dough. How do I know the dough is developed enough? Could it be that this time the dough was underhydrated?

Another thing that always frustrates me is how to handle a dough that's a bit wet or sticky. I'm always afraid to dust some flour on the board because it seems I have to add a new layer of flour with every folding+pressing/sliding-forward action of kneading because the dough picks up all the flour under it and on the next folding+pressing/sliding-forward the dough sticks already. On the other hand I don't want to change the water to flour ratio.

So I try kneading without adding flour, and just sacrificing some of the dough that sticks to the board. But it's messy and wouldn't work at all for a more hydrated dough.




Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Thanks for the kind words about my previous note, and the web page. It has been a labor of love for a number of years and it always delights me when someone tells me that it helped them.

Actually, the title of htis note is more a joke than anything. It IS easy. The hard part is knowing how. Once you know how, it's very easy. Maybe everyone should do it. Used to be, most people did do it. (And what was in that teacup anyway? I'm babbling.   I got the tea at the health food store, so it should be OK, shouldn't it?)

Anyway, Ivri commented:

So I kneaded more. I did at least five more minutes of kneading but still the dough didn't get that great consistency.


To no small extent, kneading is like riding a bicycle. I can tell you how to do it until I'm blue in the face, you can listen until you are so bored you're ready to go to sleep or shoot me, but there is no substitute for getting on the bike and falling over a few times. Until you stop falling over, in fact.

Some of the things that people don't quite get with kneading - you need to use long strokes. I see people push dough 3 inches across the counter and the dough doesn't roll, it doesn't flow, and it doesn't develop. Go for at least a foot of dough movement, and more if your counter will let you. A single 18 inch stroke will take less time and effort, and produce better results, than six 3 inch strokes.

Some people use their arms to knead. And even with short kneading times their arms get tired. Like I mumbled in the video, my son's martial arts teacher told him that, "your arms are weak, but your body is strong, so hit with your body, just let the arms transfer the force." Same thing works with kneading. I step forwards and backwards. My arms are slightly bent, but I am mostly just transferring force with my arms.

While most of the force I use is horizontal, pushing the dough across the work surface, there IS a downward force as well. By pushing the dough down somewhat it tends to flow across the work surface more. The leading edge of the dough should roll under the dough behind it.

Maybe I don't know what to look for in a developed dough. How do I know the dough is developed enough? Could it be that this time the dough was underhydrated?

Since I haven't seen the dough, I don't know. Learning when the dough is developed, learning how the dough should feel, these are the tricky things. As an aside, where are you and what kind of flour are you using? Do you know what percent protein it has?  My mother moved to the United States from Germany and had to re-learn how to bake.  Flour does vary significantly from country to country, and what works with one country's flour will be a disaster with another country's flour.

Whether a dough is under or over hydrated depends on a number of factors. "Good" dough hydration can vary from around 50% for bagels and pizza dough to over 100% for some big holey breads or whole grain breads. So, there IS a wide range of good hydration, depending on what you are trying to make. If the dough feels dry, it could be underhydrated. If it is a puddle, it could be overhydrated. There's a wide range in between where the dough should work, even if it makes a bread that isn't quite what you had in mind.

Salt is a key ingredient in gluten and dough development. While there is some debate on the matter, I prefer to add the salt early. It helps gluten develop, and it acts as an anti-oxidant which helps prevent bleaching the dough during development.

There is an excellent discussion of dough development in one of the SFBI newsletters, however, you might not be ready for that discussion yet. Still, surf over to and download some, maybe all, of the newsletters.

Summer 2002 has a good article on the importance of salt (and a good article on sourdough rye)

Fall 2002 has an article about how different flours perform.

Fall 2004 has the article on evaluating dough strength and development

Winter 2004 has a good article on the final bake that has more information about evalating the dough strength

In classes, I tell people that first the ingredients come together. Then they look like "before" pictures in the ads in the back of ladies magazines about banishing ugly cellulite, and then the dough becomes smooth. After it becomes smooth, it becomes resilient. If you gently press it with a fingertip, the dough will spring back. And then it will become developed enough to pass the windowpane test.

To perform the test, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball. Roll it between your palms until it is a ball. Then using the fingers of both hands, tease out the dough. As the dough flattens, turn it as you would turn a plate so you are pulling the dough evenly, not just in one place. The dough should be able to stretch so you can see light through it without tearing. If the dough doesn't stretch, it isn't ready, so knead some more. If you just pick up the dough and pull, it WILL tear. You need to gently tease out the dough, not just pull it. Some people say you should be able to read a newspaper through the window of dough. That's crazy talk, and a test for lingere, not a test for dough.


Another thing that always frustrates me is how to handle a dough that's a bit wet or sticky. I'm always afraid to dust some flour on the board because it seems I have to add a new layer of flour with every folding+pressing/sliding-forward action of kneading because the dough picks up all the flour under it and on the next folding+pressing/sliding-forward the dough sticks already. On the other hand I don't want to change the water to flour ratio.


Use a light and quick touch. A heavy and slow touch will cause more sticking. In classes, people are surprised how quickly I move as I knead dough. If you think kneading is a meditative exercise either use dryer dough or meditate faster.


So I try kneading without adding flour, and just sacrificing some of the dough that sticks to the board. But it's messy and wouldn't work at all for a more hydrated dough.


Adding some flour is not a bad thing. Adding too much flour, that is a bad thing. How much is too much? How much is too little? When you stop falling over as you ride a bicycle, you are getting the hang of it. When you can handle the dough and make the bread you want, you are getting the hang of it. Use a dough knife to scrape up the dough that sticks to the counter top and knead it into the dough. And put dough on your hands in tablespoon quantities rather than on the dough in half cup quantities.

Patience, effort and attention to detail are rewarded through the production of better bread.

Good luck,



ivrib's picture

Thanks Mike for so much information and help.

I've already started practicing your tips, such as the long strokes when kneading. The "meditating faster" part I find a little difficult but I guess it's a matter of "getting on the bicycle".

I didn't quite understand your description of the kneading action - "The leading edge of the dough should roll under the dough behind it" as you put it.

The SFBI newsletters are great. A lot of what is written there is too advanced for me, especially since it has to do with the physical properties of dough, which an inexperienced baker can't understand. But there were all kinds of important bits of information I managed to obtain from the little I read - for example the importance of preferments (and the dough acidity acquired through using them) for dough strength as well as flavor.

As to the type of flour I'm using: I live in Israel and it seems home bread baking isn't a very developed hobby here. So the variety of wheat flours available here is limited accordingly. Or at least the specific types of flour aren't listed on the packages. We have two white wheat flours here in supermarkets - self-rising which I guess contains baking powder and/or other chemical leavening agents. I don't use it for bread so I don't know how much protein it has (I guess it's parallel to American pastry flour.) The remaining kind is just called 'white flour'. It has between 10.5 and 11 percent protein. I don't know if it's made from hard or soft wheat.

The whole wheat that is sold here, whether organic or not, has around 14 percent protein.

Most (above 60%) flour is imported to Israel as wheat berries, mostly from the USA I think, and ground in local mills, but I have no idea as to the types of wheat.

How would dough from soft wheat flour feel like? Could it develop enough to pass the windowpane or poking tests?

Thanks again,


JERSK's picture


   All of the above info on his loaf sound good. I think the major problem though is that it overproofed and deflated in oven. No oven spring as he stated. The top has no dome and looks sagged in. There was obviously rising activity as apparent by the holes in the crumb. So, less hydration, more folding and kneading, catch the window of proofing on the final rise. A little under is better than too much. Even if you have the proper ratios and all methods are done correctly, if you miss that window of oppurtunity, the bread will collapse. Yeasted recipes give you more flexibility and may be a better way to start.

CountryBoy's picture

I feel your pain and I know where you are coming from.  I started baking bread a year ago and know how frustrating it can be.  So herewith a few suggestions from a fellow traveller:

  1. Slow down and do not try to learn it all at once, but rather one step at a time.
  2. Back off on the sourdough for now and just go with 1-2 basic recipes and get to know how changes in ingredients impact let's say one white bread recipe and one rye bread recipe. Use a simple preferment or patefermente for these recipes.
  3. Read a couple of good books and then reread them lots.
  4. Visit this place daily to see what people are asking and answering.
  5. Change one variable in your process at a time.
  6. Bread baking is hard and takes time; just keep doing bread every week and with time more knowlege is acquired.  For me it is geometric progression...
  7. There is bread baking and there is Artisan Bread Baking.  The former is simple and straight forward and the latter is more involved.  Realize that this website is Artisan and can be very demanding......... can you believe ph strips?...anyway I am in it a year and never realized the difference between the two. 
  8. Patience, forgiveness, peace, understanding, and a lot more of same...for a journey that never ends. 
ivrib's picture

I appreciate the nice words, countryboy. There have been (too) many times where I thought I finally I made a better loaf of bread and managed to apply some new method to the baking process, only to find out the the loaf came out too dense, tastless or otherwise problematic. On the other hand there have been some ups and thanks to you and others on this site I've made real (though modest) progress.

I'll take your advice and go slow. At the moment I'm not aspiring to make artisan bread, just edible bread.

About what you said about sticking to two basic recipes - I think I'm more afraid of making rye bread than sourdough bread. I've never tried rye, but the descriptions of it being so sticky and hard to work with has made me stay away from it. But now that you've mentioned it I'll try it. I have some basic recipes that combine wheat flour with rye flour. I guess I'll start with one of them and see how it goes.