The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Why is attaining big holes so important?

Justanoldguy's picture

Why is attaining big holes so important?

I'm probably risking exile, excommunication perhaps even being baked alive in a giant cloche before a throng of cheering artisan bread disciples for asking these questions but here goes. Why big holes? They are apparently very important to many bakers here. So much so that a failed attempt to produce them can provoke detailed self-analysis, pleas for advice, even the occasional vitriolic condemnation of others if the protocol they outlined failed when the individual attempted it. Are they purely an aesthetic issue? Do they add any nutritional value to the bread? Does their production augment or enhance flavor? I'm confident they demonstrate skill, an understanding of a complex process that involves the manipulation of obscure chemical and biological processes and the ability to harness microbes and drive them toward your objective. All of which is to be admired. Me? My one claim to fame is my ability to carry out a Biblical miracle even though I've never been held in bondage in Egypt - I can make bricks without straw. So, why holes?    

mutantspace's picture

its a tend is all. flavour first. you cant eat holes. 

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb


I believe it's the Internet.  Of our five senses, we experience food with vision, feel, taste and smell but rarely sound (although a well crusted bread will "sing" when removed from the oven -- we can be thankful that FLoafers are not inviting others to listen to their loaves, yet).  The Internet is a medium of vision and sound and not yet feel, taste or smell.  So we're left with vision.  Broadband Internet and high-res computer monitors now readily reproduce photographic and cinematic reality.  This has inordinately focused online bread enthusiasm on visual aspects of the product:  crust and crumb structure and color.  The timing of Trevor Wilson's title couldn't be more appropriate.  Every time I read someone commenting here, "It must taste great", I wonder when we'll be able to say, "It sure tastes great".

That being said, there is theoretically a flavor benefit associated with alveoli dimension.  In a properly fermented dough, the interior surfaces of the alveoli become gelated (or "gelatinized" - although it's hardly "gelatin" in there) with heat transformed carbohydrates and polysaccharides.  That glossiness is a sign of proper fermentation and with it, depth of flavor, contributed to some extent by the glossy surface itself (I cannot personally attest to that - tasting just that surface is a challenge).  Presumably there is an association between alveoli size and that glossiness although I wouldn't bet that small alveoli can't be just as glossy -- they just don't show it because their edges shade the interior, obscuring reflections.

So alveoli volume -- always 2D online, in cross-section -- is a proxy for proper, thorough fermentation and thus implies deep and maximal flavor.  But there must be limits, no?  At some point along the brick–>Tartine continuum, a limit is reached beyond which the cost (in spilled jam or butter abuse) outweighs the flavor benefits.   Shao-ping, past master and beloved Fresh Loaf regular, memorably declared, in response to this creeping trend at the time, "Well you can't eat the holes!".  True, but that doesn't mean they don't deliver something worth striving for besides the low-cal nutritional benefit of air.


Justanoldguy's picture

That was a thoughtful, comprehensive analysis and I appreciate you for taking the time to provide it. I love the "low-cal nutritional benefit" aspect. Perhaps I should pursue that. My wardrobe must now include suspenders because they don't make belts with 'hold-'em-up-regardless-power' like they used to when I was young.

Lazy Loafer's picture
Lazy Loafer

I don't like the big holes, nor do I prefer the chewy, gelatinized crumb. I like bread that doesn't leave my jaw sore when I eat a sandwich. That said, I do prefer a relatively open crumb to a dense one.

I think it's the play between bread baking being both an art (hence artisan baking) and a practical skill (bread for food). People take pride in their craft and will strive for whatever seems to be the benchmark at the moment.

DanAyo's picture

Big holes... I like to see well photographed images of them. They could rightly be called Bread Art. I also enjoy the challenge of producing them. It takes a well honed skill set to achieve. A number of months back, I set out to learn the skill, knowing that once I was able to consistently produce them, I’d go back to lacy, moderately open and uniform crumb. The challenge of big holes is/was intriguing, but the eating - not so much. 

Producing extreme open crumb is a worth while endeavor for those with the desire and time to pursue. But, I often cringe when I read about a new baker that is in despair because their crumb was not wide open enough :( 

When I started baking getting past the “brick” stage was a goal that I worked very hard to overcome.

to each his (or her) own


The question asked here is of interest to me. I look forward to hearing from others.

albacore's picture

That's what most big holers want to do: to have the ability to produce big hole bread when they want to and small hole bread when they don't. They don't want it to be some magic moment when they appear for only once (tho' it might be!). They want the option and the control.

Some have it sussed, some don't. I'm half way there!


IPlayWithFood's picture

I'm surprised no one has commented on the obvious - when you eat food it's not just about the taste alone, but also about the texture. For me texture makes up at least 70% of my enjoyment of my bread; I can make very many great tasting things but the devil is in the details, and something that tastes great but feels like leather in the mouth is not going to be enjoyable. LIkewise, my ideal crumb is airy, soft, with a bit of bite and chew - and this you don't get from underproofed bread or tight crumbs. Generally the more open the crumb, the lighter the texture of the bread in the mouth (since obviously it's more air) - I'd like to think of it as analogous to enjoying a well-risen souffle right out the oven before it has the time to collapse. Of course there is the utility of being able to use the bread for sandwiches, and I am glad the bread I bake has a crumb which (not deliberately) is open enough to be light yet tight enough to not have ingredients falling through it.

Trevor J Wilson's picture
Trevor J Wilson

I love this question, because it’s so important yet so rarely addressed. I’ll start off by saying that achieving big holes actually isn’t all that important. And yet we strive for them all the same. What’s the reason? And is it a good reason? I think that’s the most important question of all.

My personal belief is that it starts with fermentation. In bread, it always starts with fermentation. Most new bakers – especially sourdough bakers – are plagued with the curse of underfermentation. Every craft presents an initial barrier to entry. A challenge. A test. It’s this trial that separates the serious from the merely curious. Those with a burning desire will pass this test. They will persevere through all the difficulties and find a way.

For bread bakers, this test usually manifests as the bane of underfermentation. It is endemic. We’ve all been there. My first loaf was a brick, as was the first loaf of almost every baker I’ve ever known. In fact, my 20th loaf and probably my 100th loaf were also bricks. I know, I’m a slow learner.

So what happens when a budding new baker bakes his or her first loaf and it turns out as a brick?

Well, in this day and age they turn to the internet for answers. And the first thing they see is pictures of loaves with big gorgeous holes all throughout. Maybe they find it through Chad Robertson’s “Tartine,” or maybe they find it through some of the lovely loaves posted here. Wherever they look, it’s those loaves with the big beautiful holes that are garnering all the attention.

And it makes sense.

If all you’ve ever baked is dense gummy bread, then obviously those loaves with the big holes hold a certain appeal. Those bakers must be on to something. After all, if they can achieve such big holes in their bread then surely they know what they’re doing. They must have all the answers.

Thus begins the quest for “open crumb.”

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this line of thinking. It equates big holes – open crumb -- with good bread. And though that may seem reasonable, it’s actually false logic. What folks are actually seeing in these open loaves are the signs of proper fermentation.

But here’s the thing . . .

Open crumb is only one manifestation of proper fermentation. The most popular manifestation, perhaps -- for now, at least. But it is not the only one.


I believe that what most bakers are actually after is airy bread. Loaves that are light as a feather. Soft. Tender. Like a cloud. They see these beautiful loaves with huge holes and think, “Yeah, that’s what I want!” But the only reason they want that is because it contrasts so obviously to their own tight, dense and heavy loaves. Big holes = light bread. Right?

Well, yes.

But not necessarily.

Sometimes, a few big holes mean nothing . . .  if they’re surrounded by tight and gummy crumb, that is. That’s just another sign of underfermentation -- what I like to call “Fool’s Crumb” because it can be so misleading to the untrained eye.

And believe it or not, you don’t need big holes to have a light and airy crumb. Just take a look at any factory made sandwich bread for proof. The holes may be no larger than a pin prick, and yet the loaf is light as a feather all the same. How can this be?

The answer is fermentation.

It is fermentation that determines whether a loaf is light or dense. It is fermentation that makes a loaf airy or heavy. Fermentation is the key. Always.

We’ve come to associate open crumb with big alveoli as a sign of proper fermentation. And it is. But that is not the only way. You can have a light and airy loaf – properly fermented – yet with nothing but tiny alveoli to show in its crumb. No big holes whatsoever.

It’s true.

A hundred tiny holes can be just as light and airy as one big hole. Sometimes even moreso. The lightest and most voluminous loaves I’ve ever baked are not made of a few big holes, but of a multitude of tiny ones. We may not call it open crumb, but it is every bit as light and airy nevertheless.

So the problem is one of association.

New bakers always make underproofed loaves, and after a short internet search they stumble upon the idea of “open crumb” or “Tartine” loaves. The loaves have big open holes and are clearly much lighter than their own heavy dense offerings. Naturally, feelings of inadequacy follow.

It’s a shame, really.

Open crumb is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only way to make good bread. (Tom) is correct when he says much of it is visual. Due to the internet, we can sample another baker’s bread . . . but we can only do so visually. Loaves with a nice open crumb and an irregular pattern provide plenty of visual interest. Those with a fine even crumb? Not so much. Yet both can be equally as light and airy.

So to answer your question – open crumb demonstrates the skill of managing fermentation. It demonstrates the skill of dough handling. Achieving open crumb is a great challenge, and those who pursue this craft are nothing if not up for a challenge. A worthy pursuit, for sure.

But it is also a misleading metric by which to judge one’s loaf.

Open crumb is a sign of proper fermentation, but not the most reliable one. A better sign of proper fermentation is the lightness of a loaf. The airiness. Is the loaf tall and light in your hand? Does the sunlight pass through a slice as though it were made of lace?

If so, then you’ve done well. You’ve made a properly fermented loaf. Congratulations.

It does not matter if the loaf has big holes or not. If it is light and airy then you’ve succeeded. You’ve made good bread.

Judging proper fermentation – the kind which makes for an airy loaf – is a skill. No doubt about it. But the kind of dough handling that is required to make a loaf with a wide open crumb – big holes -- is also a skill. Not to mention the depth of understanding required to know how to achieve such a crumb.

So with that insight we can admit that, yeah, perhaps those who are seeking a wide open crumb are actually looking for a certain aesthetic. But also a bit more, I think. Because such an open crumb is a sign of skill. A more nuanced skill. Achieving such a crumb doesn’t necessarily make the bread better – that’s a matter of taste. But it does prove a level of proficiency which matters to many of us.

Bread baking is a craft. All crafts are based on skill. We pursue that which is difficult in order to better our skill. So we pursue open crumb precisely because it is so difficult to achieve. We do it to prove to ourselves, if not others, that we are adept. That we are capable. We do it to show that the bread we make is what we choose to make.

I personally prefer a more even and less open crumb for most occasions, yet I often make loaves with a classically open crumb simply to show that I can. I don’t do it to prove to others, I do it to prove to myself. To push my skills to the limit. To better myself. To see what I’m capable of.

These are worthy goals.

This is why so many of us seek big holes and open crumb.

No, big holes are not necessary to make good bread. Indeed, many might say that the best bread does not have big holes. I might be inclined to agree. But as a challenge, as a test, it is valuable. It is satisfying.

And so we chase that which is difficult to catch.



DanAyo's picture

Trevor, I can’t wait for your next book. I hope one is in the works.


Justanoldguy's picture

Thank you, Trevor. You've answered my question with a clear elaboration on your motivation to produce big holes and placed the aesthetic in its proper relation to the skill required to produce it. I suppose I'll have to pursue the 'holey grail' myself. After all, I only need a limited number of door stops given the size of my abode. 

not.a.crumb.left's picture

if we listen.....

Trevor's is not just great at making bread but also clearly a wordsmith...

I love SD - open crumb or not - so I started this quest and I had not baked a bread ever in my life...'Why on earth do you start with the hardest?"my husband tried to help. And so the journey started a bit like Trevor described....

Go on laugh about me - but I think the quest for 'open crumb' actually goes deeper than just bread and what on earth makes us choose to go that way and why? I think there is a lot of evidence from this amazing community here and on IG that it goes beyond 'just making' bread and this is why some people around me are so baffled by my obsession and baking seems to be highly personal for each person.

Funnily enough for me SD making and the quest for Open Crumb is also very similar to my Yoga practice - if you want to take it deeper - what do you actually learn in the process about yourself?

Do you push too hard and too quickly - not honest where you are? Yoga you can fall flat on your face or cause injury and in SD you end up with a deflated loaf!

What do you do with your emotions when the dough does not go the way you like? How do you cope with failure? Do you go and blame other people, go inside and beat yourself up or just smile pick up another bowl and start another autolyse...ha, ha or come here to this amazing forum and seek help and support?

What happens inside your mind when you bake?

..... in that moment hands in dough when you are one with the world, totally focused, it can turn into a meditation and for a moment all is forgotten and a total still mind is achieved - BLISS!!!!    Thank you for bearing with me you lovely people!!!!!...   Kat



oldskoolbaker's picture

I don't know, I worked as a bread baker for 50 years and our customers would complain if we had big holes in our bread. One can have an excellent crumb with great taste without it being filled with big holes or being too dense.