The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

I still can't shape. What is wrong?

foolishpoolish's picture

I still can't shape. What is wrong?

I know I must come across as the world's worst amateur - frankly I'm embarrassed to continue posting -  but my attempts to improve my bread shaping are coming to a complete dead end and it's driving me nuts.

I still don't understand what I am doing wrong?

I have tried, and tried and tried and tried again to shape batards, boules, baguettes and to no success. Yes the shape seems to be good for about 5 minutes but quickly drops into a flat pool-like mess EVERY time.

I have used different techniques (one demonstrated on video by ?JMonkey? or Floyd? one I have read in'bread science' and also the guidelines in BBA) - still no success. 

I am developing as much tension as I can, the gluten development looks wonderful (passes window pane - not over-kneaded as far as I can tell).   I am using spring/mineral water not tap water as I was advised that this might be a problem by someone in a previous thread. I make sure I let the preshape rest before the final shaping.

BUT...even a basic boule shape will not hold and ends up a flat disc within half an hour of proofing.

All this with a basic, fairly easy to handle 60% hydration dough???!!!!  Annoying doesn't come close to describing my frustration right now.

The only way that I can get anything to vaguely stay in shape is to try a makeshift couche (which usually turns out a disaster because I'm using a cotton tea towel which sticks to dough like crazy) - and doesn't address the issue that the shape I'm turning into the oven is completely weak and limp AND IMPOSSIBLE TO SCORE. 

It has all the hallmarks of overproofing - but how can this be if the shape reverts to a limp state after half an hour (often less)?? 

What am I doing wrong????!!!!!!! Please help





mcs's picture

Post the recipe that you're using plus the approximate temps and times you use for kneading, fermentation, and all of that stuff, then we can take a look at some of the variables.  Shaping isn't easy so it's best to eliminate as many variables as you can before you get to that stage.


PaddyL's picture

Couldn't you use a stiffer dough until you get used to shaping, then use a little less flour each time until you really get the feel for the dough?  I know it's very appealing to make these artisan breads, but it took me a long time to work up the courage to try a ciabatta which was very wet and spready.  The first time I made it, I probably added too much flour, but I kept at it and now I can shape the wettish stuff pretty well.

foolishpoolish's picture

Hmm I guess I could go down to a 50% hydration.  

Thanks Paddy - I definitely need more practice. I guess I'm just a bit disappointed that I've seen little improvement recently. 

I can't help thinking that part of the problem is with the sourdough.  Is there anyway that during fermentation, the acidic byproducts are destroying the gluten structure? 

foolishpoolish's picture

Sure thing, Mark


300g strong white bread flour (12.??% protein)

165g still spring water

75g  sourdough starter (100% hydration, white flour-based)

Mixed and left for 2 hours until it showed signs of activity and then put overnight in the refrigerator (more than doubled in size) 

Final dough:

300g strong white bread flour (same as above)

180g still spring water

All of the above levain

13g salt (crushed coarse sea salt)


I mixed the first 3 ingredients and left for autolyse for 30 minutes. I then worked in the salt and kneaded the dough (french fold really - ie slap down and fold) for about 10 minutes until it passed the windowpane.

Then I left the dough for bulk fermentation in an oiled bowl (5 hours...still hadn't doubled), covered with clingfilm.

Degassed dough and preshaped into two boules.  Left for another 5 minutes.

Final shaping into batard (pressing out to oval shape, folding in thirds and final fold to seal) 

Left for second proof:- dough was flat within half an hour.

Ambient temperature was around 68F throughout this process.

That's about all the variables/factors I can think of.  I did find I needed to use a little flour on my work surface to shape but when I was 'pushing' (ie using friction of table to gain tension on batard's surface) - I used an unfloured worksurface.







JMonkey's picture

With this recipe, the sourdough starter (also called the levain) accounts for just over 50% of the flour in the final dough, which is very, very high. Some rye breads have starters that account for 40% of the flour, but that's as high as I've seen. The breads I typically make are from 5% to 30%, depending on how long I want it to rise.

I suspect that what's going on is that your dough has "gone to rags," which means that there's so much acid in it that the gluten structure has deteriorated to the point that it can't hold its shape at all, much less trap any gas.

I'd recommend something more along these lines:


  • Storage starter: 25 grams
  • Flour: 100 grams
  • Water: 65 grams
Final dough:
  • Levain: 165 grams (Remove 25 grams for storage)
  • Flour: 400 grams
  • Water: 260
  • Salt: 10 grams

There's a bunch of different ways to handle the dough, but to keep it simple, build the levain the night before and let it ferment until morning. The next morning, combine all the ingredients, mix however you prefer (whether its kneading, in a machine, stretch and fold, etc.) and then let it rise for 3-4 hours until it doesn't immediately spring back when you poke it with a wet finger, but slooowly reinflates. Then, shape and let it rise until it again passes the poke test. Slash and bake at 450 degrees F on a sheet pan or preheated stone, with steam if you like.

Hope this helps! Good luck!
foolishpoolish's picture

Thanks JMonkey.

I'll give that a go.  Do you think I should leave the levain at 'room temperature' (it's actually turned v. cold in the house of recent nights) or pop it in the fridge after a couple of hours...or not much difference?

Recently I've been baking at 500 initial, dropping to  400 to 450 after steam with not-so-great crust formation. Should I maybe think about dropping the temperature a bit and bake longer?





raisdbywolvz's picture

Hi FP. I know very little about this, but I do know that my sourdough didn't do anything at all until I realized my kitchen was on the chilly side and put the dough in a warmer and more humid environment to rise. I didn't have a problem with it flattening out, but it wouldn't rise at all until I raised the temp on it.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I think you need to add just a little bit more flour (or less water).  Not the normal advice but it will help.  In your case, you don't seem to have a problem with too stiff a dough.  

Mini O

staff of life's picture
staff of life

A dough can pass the windowpane test and still be too weak. Try to give it a few stretch and folds and see if that helps. Also, in my experience, sourdoughs can't tolerate a free-form shape. They need the support of a couche or banneton.


SourdoLady's picture

Most of the sourdough loaves I bake are free-form. I have never used a banneton or basket form for any of them. I have had some excellent results baking this way. Admittedly, they aren't all perfect but enough of them are that I know it can be done with good results. I think your problem lies elsewhere, and with all the helpers and advice here I'm sure you will get it figured out very soon!

JMonkey's picture

I don't usually put my starter in the fridge overnight before using it, though I've done so with shaped loaves. Peter Reinhart pops his in the fridge, or he used to, anyways, but I personally prefer to leave it on the counter.

ehanner's picture

I think jmonkey is right on the mark. Your sourdough percentage is to high.

What is the brand of flour you are using?

I suggest you try a mix using commercial yeast and learn to shape. Floyds lesson #1 would be a good place to find a formula. Once you have a feel for yeasted dough the jump to SD won't be as hard.


rainbowbrown's picture

This may not be a direct answer to your question but it might help.  I noticed you mentioned using a make-shift couche, but the dough sticks to it.  I also use a make-shift couche and it works great, the trick is to use a towel that has a tight woven fabric rather than terrycloth or anything with visible fibers or anything fuzzy.  I got my kitchen towels of this nature at a yard sale but I've seen them at hardware stores (in the kitchen section) for like three dollars.  I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to find some at a department store as well.  I think you want to look for the kind that are more for show than actually serving a useful purpose in the kitchen.  Don't give up on the make-shift couche though, with small amounts of dough the right kitchen towel is the way to go for three dollars.  I used a cotton towel for a couche yesterday, because my usual ones were dirty and man, did it stick bad.  That was pretty frustrating...Anyhoo, try looking around, its a wonderful thing to have.

JERSK's picture

   I've made make shift couches from the legs of old jeans. They work great and don't stick at all. Denim seems to be perfect for this and you don't have to buy or use towels.

foolishpoolish's picture

Thanks again for all the're all awesome.

I'm going to try using less starter/levain as JMonkey recommended...hopefully in the next day or so.

Eric - I'm using Allinson 'Very strong white bread flour' (called 'premium' although I think it was also called 'baker's grade' in the past..)

I'm thinking of making up a batch of fairly stiff instant-yeast dough this weekend and having a good old practice'll be like being 5 years old all over again and playing with playdough only with edible results! :)  

jkandell's picture

Sounds like you have lots of advice. But it comes down to this:  if your gluten is developed and you're not making ciabatta,  and yet it falls, then yoe've over-fermented/proofed.  That means either (1) you need to proof less than half an hour, (2) you need to ferment less time, (3) you need less yeast or sourdough, (4) you need colder fermenting and proofing temperatures.  I'd cut your yeast/starter in half to start, should solve most of the problems.

LindyD's picture

The experts have already given some great advice, so all I can contribute is a suggestion for a nonstick couche. I share Alton Brown's philosophy about uni-taskers in the home, so rather than spring for a piece of cloth to be used only to cuddle bread dough, I picked up a teflon oven liner. No, I don't use it to put on the bottom of my oven. I use it as a couche, a place to plop my dough for shaping, kneading, to put under my flour jars when I'm transferring flour into them, etc. It claims to be heatproof up to 500F, but I've kept it out of the oven because I don't want to cut it to fit my baking sheets. It cost about $14 and is shown below as a couche for a couple of experimental loaves. In this case, I moved the dough from the proofing bowl to the liner, folded it a few times, cut it, shaped it (rather messily, I admit), then shoved towels in the center and at both ends for support, never having to move it from the liner till it was time to bake. Dough doesn't stick to it.


edh's picture

Still more advice...

I've had great luck using rice flour on my couche (a tea towel or any other piece of tight woven cotton not being used for something else at the time). Nothing sticks to it!

 I think other folks on the site have also mentioned using a mix of wheat and rice flour, but I was so traumatized by my many horrific sticking messes that I've never dared stray from straight rice flour.

Keep at it; looks like you've gotten some great advice already!


foolishpoolish's picture

I just finished following the recipe you posted.

It's made a world of difference.  Shaping was much easier and held better (still some sag but that's at least partly to do with my shaping technique - still working on that...need to check out the hammelman-style video again)

Using less levain % in the final dough has yielded a much milder tasting bread which was a refreshing change from the (pretty sour) results I've had of late. Still got great crumb.  As some have suggested - overproofing may have been a factor. I deliberately underproofed today and got a really good oven spring (could have used another half hour proof I think).

I may adopt this recipe as my go-to 'basic white'.  The only thing I changed was the baking temperature which was I set around 375F (dips a bit during initial steam)  I've been noticing that my oven is consistently cooking 'too hot' and I find myself regularly lowering the temperature to achieve a crusty result.  This may have something to do with the heating elements (which seem to be either behind the oven wall or on the top somewhere obscured from view) as well as a fan assisted ventilation.  Anyway lowering the temperature did the trick.

Thanks again...and thank you also to all the other great advice posted here (LindyD - that teflon lining/couche looks great) I have learnt a lot from working through these recent problems. 






JMonkey's picture

Glad to hear that it worked! You know, I ran into the same issue myself with the oven when I moved, because I'd never used a convection oven before, and didn't recognize it as such.

A convection oven is much more efficient than a regular oven, so you'll want to lower your temperature by about 25 degrees from whatever the recipes say, and you might need to reduce the cooking time by 5-10% as well. But it sounds like you've figured all this out already!

Again, congratulations on solving your bread troubles!

raisdbywolvz's picture

Congrats, FP!

I so want to try this recipe, but I have a question. Is the starter that you begin with a 100% hydration starter? If not, what should I do differently if my starter is 100% hydration?

I'm sorry if this is a newbie question but I'm a sourdough newbie, and I don't mean to hijack a thread. Just looking for clarification on that formula JMonkey posted.


foolishpoolish's picture

I would imagine you just alter the water/flour amounts in the levain accordingly to make up the same hydration for the levain. 

For example,

If you're using 25g of 60% hydration starter

then you're going to add slightly more water to your levain:

(total water in original recipe's levain) - (%hydration/(100+%hydration)*total starter used in levain)  

=> (12.5+65) - (60/(100+60)*25) =68.125g

=> 68g water (3g more than for 100% hydration)

Hope that helps. Note that a firmer sourdough starter can yield a more pronounced sour/acidic flavour although I'm not sure that it will make a huge difference in this recipe given the relatively small amount of starter used.




raisdbywolvz's picture

Yes, it does. In more ways than one! My starter is 100% hydration, so no conversion is necessary, but it's nice to have that little formula all spelled out nice and neat. I'm going to stick it in my sourdough notes for when I will need it.



foolishpoolish's picture

All the best with making the bread - let us know how it goes!

Note: I should have made it clear where I put in the formula "total water in original recipe's levain"- this includes the water content in the starter which in the case of a 100% hydration is 12.5g for 25g total starter. Crumbs it's a lot simpler in practice than it looks on paper  :D



raisdbywolvz's picture

I pretty much figured that, but it's good to have the confirmation.  Sourdough is such a different world, it gets very confusing, very easily.

JMonkey's picture

Unless you're using a really really wet starter (200% or so), it won't matter all that much what the hydration of the mother starter is, since you're using just 25 grams. I tend to prefer stiff starters because I find they're less messy, but that's just a personal preference.

Good luck!

raisdbywolvz's picture

Thanks JMonkey, it's good to know. I'm working with a 100% hydration starter because that's how I was taught to do it and I don't know enough about it yet to experiment with confidence. I mean, just when I started to feel like I might actually have a handle on it, that maybe, just maybe, making bread, especially sourdough bread, isn't the deep dark mystery I was always led to believe it was, I found bwraith's spreadsheet on sourdough rise times and it blew out several gaskets in my brain.

JMonkey's picture

Bread is a lovely hobby in large part because, though it's relatively simple to make, there's plenty of depth as well for those who wish to delve in. Bill's spreadsheets are a wonder, and I know he's taught me an awful lot about sourdough maintenance. But it's not necessary to get super technical to make a decent loaf. After all, as some guy who wrote a popular Internet sourdough instruction page said, "People who didn't believe the Earth was round did this for millennia."

To rev up your storage starter, just take a dollop, at least double it in size, and leave it for the day. At least double it at night, and, by morning, you'll have a bunch of starter ready for baking!

raisdbywolvz's picture

I stumbled across that page when I first started researching sourdough. It's what really got me interested. How interesting that you'd link to it here!

I like your method of revving up the starter, and I like that your recipe doesn't require me to make 2 cups of starter like many of the other recipes I've found. I'll be making this one next.