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Sourdough gluten problems after bulk fermentation

abhattachar23's picture

Sourdough gluten problems after bulk fermentation

Hi everyone,

I've been observing a fairly consistent problem with my loaves lately, and I'm hoping you can help me out.

Basically, the gluten in my doughs appears to be degrading instead of developing over the course of bulk fermentation, and I can't quite figure out why. My doughs have been consistently feeling ultra-sticky and weak after the bulk fermentation and fail to pass the windowpane test.

Before I get into some of my hypotheses, I'll just quickly run through my formula and process.


45g bread flour

45g whole wheat flour

90g water

10g mature liquid starter

Mixed and left to mature for 11 hrs at 70 deg F, which is as warm as I can get my place at this time of year. It passes float test by the time I use it, although I'm guessing that it's on the younger side.

Autolyse Part 1:

425g bread flour

25g dark rye flour

325g water

Mixed and left untouched for 50 min.

Autolyse Part 2:

Add 100g of levain to autolyse, mix and let sit for 30 min.

Final Dough Mix, followed by the rest of the process:

  • Mix in 10g (2%) salt, along with 25g of water (totaling 80% hydration)
  • Slap and Fold until medium-high gluten development. At this point, the dough feels pretty strong and isn't too hard to handle.
  • Place dough in a container and place the container in a large bowl filled with 85degF water, so that the container with the dough floats. (This is just my way of making sure that the dough isn't too cold).
  • Do 3 folds in the first 1.5 hrs.
  • Allow the dough to expand by 50% of it's original volume. (It's worth noting that I usually retard the bulk fermentation overnight so I can get a bit of shuteye.)
  • Take dough out of the fridge and let it come up to temperature for an hour.
  • Preshape and bench rest 20 min. (This is when I like to remove a piece of the dough for a post-bulk windowpane test. It's also pretty sticky at this point.)
  • Shape, proof for an hour.
  • Bake

My hypothesis for why the gluten might be degrading is that I'm using overmatured starter in my levain. Currently, my starter formula is 33g mature starter, 33g whole wheat flour, 33g water, left to mature at 70degF for 12 hours.

However, I have my doubts about this hypothesis, because I feel that even an overmature starter would have limited effect on the final dough, since my final dough likely only contains about 5g of it.

Do any of you have thoughts on this matter? Any insight would be appreciated.



Note: regarding the bulk fermentation volume increase, I've tried everything from 30% BVI to 70% BVI, with varied results. At 30%, the dough is strong at the end of bulk fermentation, but the crumb structure of the resulting bread is tight. At 70%, the dough is incredibly weak, and the crumb structure is tight. Either way, the dough has increased in stickiness, and seems to have weakened. Basically, I'm trying to get it so that I can have an extensible dough at the end of bulk fermentation that can yield a more open crumb and scoring that opens up more.

abhattachar23's picture

Also, I forgot to mention, this week, I've been feeding my starter as follows, with the hope that it'll fix my problems:

20g starter

40g WW flour

40g water

My early observations are that the starter level seems to be a bit higher when I get home at the end of the day, and when I wake up in the morning, which would suggest that my starter used to fall a bit by the time I fed it.

Additionally, I'm observing that the smell of the starter has changed significantly. It used to smell of overripe fruit and ethanol, but now it smells like a starter that was just developed a few days ago and isn't ready for use in bread. Basically, it smells pretty disgusting right now.

SlekkerBread's picture

I was having a similar problem where my dough was turning to a soupy mess after 3 hours of proofing, doing stretch and fold every half hour. It was a few things that were causing the problem - too much hydration, over-handling the dough, and an acidic starter. Acidic starters have more enzyme activity, and it looks like it destroys the dough gluten over time.


My starter is intentionally acidic because I like a more sour bread. Since I wasn't going to change that, I adjusted the amount of starter and shortened my initial proof. This may or may not be useful, but I have a simplified recipe without weights that I've been using to get to know how my starter acts/feels during the proofing process. 


I mix 1/2 c of starter (70% hydration) mixed with 1 c water in my bread machine (which I use to mix & knead). Once it is liquified, I add 2 c AP flour and 1/2 c Teff flour. I start the mix and add b/w 1/8 and 1/4 c water as needed to get the hydration level I want (about 70%). After mixing for about 2 minutes, it's a sticky, shaggy ball. Then I knead it in the machine for 8 minutes, and it then looks like a silky ball.  


After a 40 minute rest, I add 1 tsp sea salt and mix for 1 minute. Transfer to an oiled bowl, do a few folds to make sure the salt is distributed, cover w/plastic or a proofing bag, let rest for 1 hour. The kneading takes away the need for repeated stretch and fold. At 1 hour, it looks more silky. If it passes the windowpane test, I immediately divide and shape, then let it rest for 1 more hour. Refrigerate and bake after 15-34 hours. Sometimes I rest 2 hours out of fridge, but usually I just score & bake as soon as the oven is ready. Big oven spring. Since the loaves are small, I do 15 min at 450 w/steam, reduce to 350 for 15 more minutes. 


The results are chewy, sour bread w/small and medium crumb and no deadspace. 

SlekkerBread's picture

With respect to your starter, it sounds like you may need to revive it to get rid of the smell. If you feed it every 6 hours a few times, it should be back on track. A healthy starter will double or triple within 2-4 hours - that's when you use it to bake with, at the peak. Also, you may want to split your WW flour with AP flour - it's super easy to digest for the yeast. 


I leave a mother starter in the fridge, feeding once every 7-10 days, then create a baby starter to bake with on the counter. My feeding is 100g starter, 100 g flour (30% teff flour, 70% APF) and 70 g water. A stiffer starter gives a more sour dough. If I'm not baking every day, I still feed the baby starter once per day at about the same time. My starter is crazy-active and strong, but if anything goes wrong with the bAby, I just make a new one from the mother and get it ready after 2-3 feedings.

breadforfun's picture

My bread making went through a similar phase a couple of years ago. I don't know if it was correct, but my theory was that the overripe starter had developed excessive amounts of proteases, enzymes that break down proteins in general, and glutens in particular because they are there in the dough. Enzymes don't go away, and they are not changed by use, so they are like catalysts. Left long enough, there may be sufficient time to break down the glutens. My dough was also very sticky and hard to work with.

I have since shortened my starter feeding protocol when baking bread by shortening the cycle. I used to make the final build late at night and allow it to ferment until the morning, sometimes as much as 16 hours (as Hamelman recommends for many of his breads). I now do the final build first thing in the morning, and since my starter doubles in 4 hours, I can mix the dough in the middle of the day and retard overnight. This method has given me better consistency over my bakes.

Don't know if this is the same situation as you, but it may be worth a try.


the_partisan's picture

What flour you're using? You can try lowering hydration (including water from levain) to 70% or even down to 65% percent. 80% is quite hard to work with. This will make your dough much stronger. You can then gradullay increase hydration to something you're more comfortable with. Try bulk fermenting at room temperature, maybe 5 hours? Give strong folds every half hour in the beginning and then once an hour. Then a tight preshape, 20-30 min rest and final shape, and proof in fridge, which will make it less sticky when it comes out. You can also proof outside for about 3h.

If you're using 10% starter in your levain I doubt enzymes are the issue. I regularly do this from a starter which has been sitting in the fridge for 2-3 weeks without any feeding and never had this problem.

Lechem's picture
Lechem (not verified)

Try an off shoot starter with some bigger feeds. You might be building up some discard but you can save it and use in other recipes. 

Try a couple or more feedings of atleast 1:5:5. I'd say 1:10:10 if you're willing to go that high. Or of course anything in-between. 

After a few feedings try a recipe.

WatertownNewbie's picture

My initial reaction was that your 85-degree swimming pool is allowing your wee beasties in your good starter to feast too quickly, thereby causing them to lose their punch, and the gluten is degrading from over-fermentation.  (Keep in mind that when you put your dough into the refrigerator, it is coming from a warm environment and will retain some of that heat for a while even after entering the coolness of the fridge.)  One of the earlier comments suggested, among other things, letting the bulk occur at room temperature.  Seventy degrees is perfectly fine.  My expectation is that with that one change (do away with the bowl of 85-degree water), you will see much improved results.

What you are describing sounds so much like what happens when people (been there, done that) blindly follow the timing schedules in FWSY for an overnight bulk fermentation and wake up to find what began as a beautiful mass of dough has turned into a slurry.

Happy baking.  Your starter sounds fine to me.

abhattachar23's picture

So I several pieces of your advice, and this is what it amounted to:

I reduced my starter feeding formula to 24g liquid starter, 36g WW flour, and 36g water, and gave the starter a few feedings to adjust to the new feeding pattern.

Then, for the dough making process itself, I slapped and folded until full windowpane, followed by 4 folds and the beginning of bulk fermentation.

I ended up retarding the bulk fermentation for 8 hours right after I finished the folds, but I let the dough expand to 35% BVI at 70degF once I took it out of the fridge.

Anyway, here's what I got:

Ended up getting really nice oven spring. The crumb isn't quite as open as I want it to be, but I could have probably pushed the bulk fermentation to 50% BVI, since the dough was still incredibly strong by the time it got to 35%

Let me know if any of you would like to know anything more specific about what I did this time around.

Thanks, everyone!

ashwingrao's picture

I have never heard that term. Would love to know. Thanks for the great discussion, everybody! 

Benito's picture

I'm guessing Bulk Volume Increase?

ashwingrao's picture

Thanks, Benito!

Jen Philadelphia's picture
Jen Philadelphia

Hi--I've been having the same struggle. I autolyse and stretch and fold and bulk til I have good bubbles in the bottom and I have decent stretch and strength and an acceptable window pane. Then I pre-shape, wait 20 minutes and shape again, but it never wants to hold the boule form and in the fridge over night, it barely rises and the tea towel I line the bowl with is always soaked. Then the slashes don't open well and I don't get good rise. I know I could cut the water, but plenty of people have success with 77% hydration--I want to understand what I'm doing wrong. I feed the starter 1:3:3 and wait til it's at peak to use. Sooooo frustrated. Worried I'm overproofing, but the dough isn't areated and stretchy earlier in the process than about 8 hours after the stretches and folds are done. I'd love to email/chat directly with you (and not on this public forum) as we seem to have the exact same issue. Thanks.


breadforfun's picture

8 hours of bulk fermentation seems long, but without details of what you did it is difficult to say with certainty that it is the problem. It could be something else. Tell us what flours you are using, maturity of your starter and how you feed it, and the temperature of the water/flours/bulk fermentation and any other details. 

Jen Philadelphia's picture
Jen Philadelphia

Thanks, Brad.

My starter is 15% rye, 85% ap. I use water around 73° and leave it at room temp (around 72°). I am trying to get it sour, so I don't rise it any warmer, at any stage.

I was feeding 1:1:1 but a friend suggested 1:1:3, so I've been doing that, but didn't see much difference (I'd love someone to explain what the difference is supposed to be). I was hoping it would extend the starter's lifespan as far as how long it would still be providing rise to the dough.

Dough was 70 g starter (again, less starter is supposed to slow the process, thereby increasing the sourness).

500 g flour (60 ry, 120 AP, 320 bread)

390 g water

8 g salt.


I autolyse flour and water for 1 1/2-2 hours.

Add starter

30 minutes later, add salt dissolved in 20 g of the 390 g water.

Rest 30 min, stretch and fold at 30 min intervals 5 times. Then go to bulk. Then I watch it for jiggliness and til I see bubbles forming on the bottom and sides.There are some bubbles on the surface as well. I have been checking to see if it feels aerated before declaring bulk done. When I've checked the dough for strength/stretchiness early, the dough breaks, so I figure it's not strong enough yet. 

Once it is, I go to shape it and it doesn't want to hold the boule form. More of the same when I final proof overnight in the fridge. It doesn't rise much and slashes don't open the bread up much. Also, tea towel VERY wet from bottom of final proof bowl. 

Thanks for any help!

breadforfun's picture

First, regarding the starter, when you say you are feeding it 1:1:3, is this starter:water:flour? If so, it is a very firm and dry starter, which would favor the acetic acid LAB over lactic acid LAB, and make it more sour. However, it is only 33.3% hydration so I imagine you have some difficulty getting all the flour moistened sufficiently. You don't mention how long you ferment the starter before mixing the dough, and that could be a key bit of information.  

However, if you meant 1:3:3, giving a 100% hydration starter, this would be a more standard way to favor the lactic acid. Bear in mind, the hydration of the starter in the formula would change the overall hydration of the dough, with the 100% hydration starter giving over 79% overall hydration.  (Feel free to PM me if you'd like to go into the starters in more detail.)

Using only 70 g of starter for 500 gm flour is a fairly small inoculation, though not unheard of. Rye also tends to ferment faster than wheat. Your salt amount is a little low, 2% of the flour weight is more typical and salt tends to slow the fermentation slightly. But, I think 8 hours may still be too long for a BF. I will typically use inoculation in the high teens and have a BF on the order of 5-5 ½ hours.

So that leaves the flour as one of the big unknowns. Different brands have different properties of water absorption depending on the fineness of the grind and the variety of wheat used, for two examples. 

Again, assuming that you meant 100% hydration starter, with 79% overall hydration you will definitely see some flattening of the boule after preshape and shape. If your shaping is gentle and you don't squeeze out too many of the air pockets that you created in the BF, it should still give a decent spring in the oven.


StephanieB's picture

I've been having the same problem for the past couple weeks! My breads are all whole grain, made from fresh milled flour so I know it's an added challenge, but I've baked better loaves with cold, week old starters than what I've made the past few weeks. 

I make a levain like this:

40g starter

30g bread flour

30g whole wheat

60g water

It doubles in a reasonable time, this last bake it doubled in 4h in about ~75 degree kitchen. If I need to slow the levain down I leave it by an open window (for now it's still cool enough to do that in CA), and it will double in ~8h. 


800g fresh milled WW flour, 75% water (straight from the fridge). Stick in fridge overnight. I've also mixed in my levain at this point, and stuck the whole thing in the fridge overnight. I get the same result either way. 


I take the dough out of the fridge and let it sit at room temp for an hour just to take off some chill. If I didn't mix in the levain yet, I add it in along with 2 tsp salt, and adjust the hydration, usually to 80-82%, and kind of gently mix/dimple everything in. If the levain is already in, I just add the salt and water. Once the water is absorbed, I do a few rounds of slap/folds and rests to develop the gluten. Usually 2 round of slapping and folding for 2-3min with a ~5min rest, after which my dough passes the window pane test. With 100% whole wheat, ~80% hydration does not make a sticky/slack dough. It's smooth, and only barely sticky, and easy to handle. 

I put in a lightly oiled bin, try to coil fold about every 30min 3x, and then gentler stretches and folds every hour 2x, and then let it go until it's grown 50%. Unless it's pretty cold in my kitchen, bulk is ~5h. Until recently, this has worked out pretty well.

Preshape and the rest of it

When I turned it out to preshape this past bake, it could tell it was off. So of course shaping wasn't any better - it felt sticky and gummy. It rose in the baskets but didn't look as smooth as when just mixed or early in the bulk. I let one loaf rise at room temp for 1.5h, and stuck the other in the fridge with the intention of baking the next day to see which would do better. After I baked a pancake with the first loaf, I figured the one in the fridge wouldn't magically fix itself so I just baked it and called it quits. Both pancakes. 

What's happening here? In the past I've baked with week old starter, a fresh 4h levain, and everything in between and have never gotten such poor results. I didn't bother with dough temp, but looking back in some books and instagrammers who swear maintaining the ~perfect~ dough temp transformed their bakes, I've been trying to keep my dough at about 80F. Doesn't seem to have served me well. Also it's very difficult to find people doing 100% whole grain. Is my dough too warm? Acidic levain seems to be common but I don't get why fresh would be worse than old starter? Any input would be greatly appreciated. I want to take a step back and just try a sourdough white flour loaf, but I still can't find any bread flour. 

breadforfun's picture

... is likely at least part of the right answer. 80*F for 5 hour bulk fermentation with whole grains seems too long. I typically will need  5 hrs at around 73* with about 50% fresh milled grains. My hydration is typically 78-80% and my levain amount is about 15% of the flour weight. 

One more bit of information would be helpful here:

What grains are you using? Rye will ferment faster than wheat, for example, and einkorn will ferment faster than hard red wheat. 

If I were you, I’d try keeping the autolyse to an hour instead of overnight to reduce enzyme activity. I would also not worry about the starter doubling. If you see good activity after 3 hours, you can use it then. There is no hard and fast rule, and at 4:6:6 your levain should mature fairly quickly. 


StephanieB's picture

Thanks so much replying Brad, I really appreciate it! I haven't noticed that my dough rises much faster at this higher temp compared to letting it rise at a cooler ambient temp, so maybe I'm just speeding up protease activity faster than rising action. 

My flour is just plain hard red spring, maybe with 15% something else mixed in (lately trying to use up some emmer). I bake a 100% rye, rugbrod kind of bread, but don't ever get fussy with it. That one has been baking up fine, even as I make it at the same time as my wheat bread (by bread I mean puddles). 

I do the long autolyse in the fridge because I found with all that bran, a good long soak really helped with gluten formation by softening the bran. But I started doing that when I first started doing all fresh, whole grain flour, and the struggles that ensued. It may be overkill that needs to be revisited now that I have a better idea of what I'm doing, or did until about 2 weeks ago. At three hours my levain has good activity looking at the bubbles...maybe I need to go back to my own sense of how things look/feel. 

breadforfun's picture

Yes, you’re right about the potential for the bran to affect the gluten network. You could always sift it out (you don’t need a very fine mesh), soak it separately and add it back. Or you could throw it into the levain to give it sone extra  kick. 

StephanieB's picture

Yes the thought of sifting it out has been creeping up in my mind...pure laziness on that front is the only reason I haven't done it. But soaking the bran separately in hot water might have the added benefit of denaturing some proteases. I'm not exactly sure that the proteases are located in the bran vs other parts of the wheat berry, but soaking bran in hot liquid isn't a new idea so it can't hurt as long as it cools before going into the final dough. 

breadforfun's picture

Stephanie, I just noticed that you mentioned using emmer wheat.  In my experience, emmer has no gluten strength whatsoever, so adding even a small amount to the dough will tend to slacken the dough quite a bit. That said, it has a wonderful flavor, so if you do use it, try adding some high gluten flour (>14% protein) in place of bread flour to give it a fighting chance.


StephanieB's picture

Yeah that's why I try to keep it on the lower end. I've done this mix before (or einkorn, kamut, other heritage grains with less gluten) and made good loaves if ~20% of the flour was from normal wheat (even fresh milled). And last week my bread as all hard red spring and still had the pancake/gloopy gluten issues by the end of the bulk. Also just discovered the whole grain page (I'm new here) so I've got some reading to do!

acechorizo's picture

I'm in the middle of a batch, and having a similar issue, where after bulk fermentation, my dough has lost all integrity. I will try to follow some of the advice given here, but does anyone have ideas for what to do with the dough I have? Is it trash? Can I add flour and gluten and try to salvage it? Crackers? Open to suggestions - would hate to have to throw this batch out.