The Fresh Loaf

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Improving the rise and crumb of my loaves

jeh's picture

Improving the rise and crumb of my loaves

My most recent loaf looked like this:


The large alveoli only appear at the end of the loaves. The crumb in the middle is a little tight. The flavor is exceptionally good. There are some large bubbles just under the crust, but I don’t mind these over much

The formula for this loaf is roughly:

  • Levain:
    • 40g mature whole wheat sourdough starter (100% hydration)
    • 280g central milling abc+ flour
    • 196g water
  • Dough:
    • All of the levain
    • 12g salt
    • 300g flour (same as levain)
    • 216g water

The sourdough starter is very vigorous. (Will more than triple its volume in 8-10h. I feed at night before bedtime, so I don’t know the time to double.) 

The levain was mixed and bench rested about 4h and then refrigerated for another 20h or so. I autolysed the dough (minus the levain) for about 30m before introducing the levain. For bulk fermentation, I did 4 rounds of coil folds every fifteen minutes, followed by another 30-45m on the bench. I then shaped into a batard, and put into a linen lined banetton, wrapped the banetton in plastic wrap, and refrigerated for ~14h. (I didn’t record dough temperatures, sorry. I don’t have that part of my process down to a science yet.)

Baking was on a pizza stone with copious steam (~1 doz ice cubes + spray bottle). Oven was preheated to 500F for ~1h, then lowered to 450F after ~10m.

Problems I know I need help with:

  • I’m pretty sure that the mixing method I used for introducing the levain to the rest of the dough isn’t thorough enough and is responsible for the alveoli at the end of the loaf. (This has happened several times.)
  • The crumb is a little tight. I think I’m underproofing?
  • While I’m getting pretty good oven spring, the diameter of the final loaf is disappointing. I feel like the loaf should probably be spreading a bit more before it springs?

There are probably also problems I’m not seeing. What say the experts?

idaveindy's picture

Welcome to TFL!

Oven: Gas? Electric? Convection?  if electric, which heating elements (top, bottom, back wall) does it have, and which of those heating elements are you using?

 BTW, ice cubes are bad (until you know what you are doing). Better to pour 1 cup boiling or near boiling water, into a pre-heated pan.  Ice cubes rob heat, and take too long to turn to steam, and therefore you steam for too long.  But, cover the oven door glass when pouring,  because if you spill water (even boiling water) on the oven door glass, it will shatter.

Crumb shows it was under fermented. crust shows it was likely steamed too much or too long.  

Whose/what formula is that?  Link, please?  Or book and recipe name and page number?

(Just an aside: Newbies who try to invent their own formula end up taking a lot longer to get good results than those who learn by using an establsihed, tested, published formula.  But if you want to be your own trailblazer, that's fine too.  You are the king/queen of your own kitchen.)

Unless you are using an established formula...  For that big a loaf, set oven thermostat to 450 F immediately upon loading loaf, not 10 min later.  Larger loaves generally need to be baked cooler/longer than smaller loaves.  And when you void fhe steam, it might need to be lowered again.

Good luck! and bon appétit!

jeh's picture

Oven is electric. Only has a top element. 

As far as the formula, it’s intentionally my own. I know it’s roughly based on someone else’s originally, but I honestly don’t remember whose (maybe pain a l’ancienne out of BBA, I know Reinhart gave me the idea for high % of pre-fermented flour..) but it probably doesn’t bear it much resemblance anymore. I’ve had good luck with the variants of the base formula in the past. Unfortunately, since I have 2 small children, it’s hard to be meticulously rigorous on all variables (particularly time and temperature) so I’m not able to rigorously experiment by changing only a single variable each batch.

Example of a past “success” (probably not perfect, but one of the better variants):

I’ve recently been experimenting with steam generating methods and oven temps, so I guess it makes sense that I’m over steaming and over heating. I’ve been trying to get a shinier crust (in that I’ve succeeded, somewhat.) I’ve never liked the boiling water method (esp w/ little kids around...) but I’ll try tweaking the steam generation in future attempts. (probably less ice and voiding the steam around the 10m mark, maybe?)

I’ll definitely tweak the oven temp to be 450F at loading. I used to pre-heat at 450F and just leave it there, which was fine, but I suspect the ice was robbing too much heat. Which is probably why 500F has been better on some axes for recent loaves. 


kendalm's picture

I never understood why this idea get any traction.  The one thing this will do is cool the oven.  It takea and incredible amount of energy vapirize water and now we going to also have to change phase solid to liquid first.  There seems to be so much myth around water physics such as the pememba effect and people 'instantly freezing water in -40 weather' (which is not really happening).

Rant over ! but reagrding the cup recommendation - I'd say this (one cup) is the very high end and preferably a 1/2 cup.  Vaporize it fast on lava rocks in either a cast iron skillet or stainless steel pan that is already brought up to max temps (ie pre-heated).  Then shut the door and trap the H2O gasses.  bake on the top deck.  

I just wrote some entries here siting temp drops of about 80F in my oven with only 3oz water.  Goal is is to get a cloud trapped and keep the oven hot ! 

jeh's picture

Your point about two phase changes is well made. The reason I've liked ice is ease of handling. My ice maker produces very uniform cubes. I can easily calibrate how much I'm using without much fear of spilling or scalding (if using hot water.)

But I will freely admit the physics gives me pause.

kendalm's picture

So I recently purchased an restaurant style 'pizza' oven that I am modifying for bread.  Previously I used a gas and learned a lot about what it takes to raise a loaf mostly through trial and error as well as plenty of help from members here.  You are in somewhat if a similar position as I am.  There a 3 things that I can think of that really matter if you want to avoid dutch ovens.

1. A hot stone that stays hot enough to take care of the spring or 'kick'.  that generally mean 5-10 minutes at the very beginning of the bake.  Keep in mind the dough is full of water and is immediatly going to suck energy from your stone. So thicker bigger and more mass is important.  

2.  You will also need ambient temps to be in the 450F plus range at the time your loaf goes in and up until the point it reaches is max size.  Again 5-10 minutes depending on the loaf size.  

3. Trapped steam - not too much and not too little.  

If you read through my thread you should notice a few loaves that look like yours - ie very round and smooth and dark.  That-s the direct element as indianna Dave has pointed out.  Assuming you have got your kneading and proofing down, thats half the job done.  The other half is creating the oven conditions above to the perfect balance and that's when the magic happens.  It might help to get an internal thermometer so you can measure and monitor the ambient and an IR gun to assess the stone.  Humidity measurements are more difficult but if you follow the advice here you can capture the steam fairly easily and crust color, sheen and texture should provide some signs as well. 

Sounds like you definitly have a unique oven situation.  Thats why I think this may be interesting and hopefully helpful - 



jeh's picture

Thanks for the thread reference, it definitely is giving me thoughts. I did another bake this morning. I'll share pics up thread soon. The loaf is cooling now and I want to wait till I get a crumb shot before posting.

idaveindy's picture

Ahaaaa.   There's the big reveal.   "Only has a top element. " 

Just to be sure, this is a home oven with stove burners/elements on top of it, not a countertop oven, correct?  Or is it the kind that is built into a wall, without a stove-top?

Upper-element-only generally means it's convection.  You will need to use a cloche/lid or inverted bowl or similar thing to cover the loaf on  your baking stone.  

Or.... else use a covered pot like a dutch oven or a Graniteware roaster.

Bare free-form loaves exposed to the upper heating element and the air currents of the fan will never come out right. The crust sets too soon.

You might get by with baking a loaf in a bread pan, but then you usually have to "tent" the loaf with aluminum foil to prevent the upper crust from setting too soon due to the direct radiant heat from the upper element and the air currents.


So there are several things here that need working on simultaneously.

Do you have a dutch oven, cloche, covered large casserole dish/pot, a metal covered roaster, or a steel bowl large enough to fit over a loaf?

jeh's picture

Wall oven. No convection. No fan.

I've been really trying to avoid the Dutch oven / cloche because I don't like trying to load dough into a heated dutch oven and I don't like having 450F lids out around little kids. I may have to just give in and get a cloche or a challenger pan. I do have a Dutch oven I can use, but I generally don't make boules.  I've thought about using a sheet pan or even a baking steel to spread the ambient heat from the top element.

I might see if I can find a good, tall sacrificial mixing bowl on Amazon...

idaveindy's picture

I've heard of ovens with a hidden or covered lower electrical heating element.

But this is the first I've heard of an oven with top element only and no fan.  

I have no idea how to make that work for bread.

Maybe you can post the brand name, model name, and model number, and someone who is familiar with it can hopefully chime in.  Consider posting it on whatever other social media you're on too, such as your FB page or Instagram page.

I'll try to follow this here, and hopefully learn something new.

jeh's picture

So I had never heard of there being a hidden electrical element. I did some research on my oven. (The previous homeowner installed it.) That's in fact what I have!

According to the manual, the bake mode uses both the top and bottom element, but mostly the bottom (hidden) element. 

So, today I learned. Advice?

jeh's picture

 Oh and it's GE JK3000DF3BB in case that matters.

idaveindy's picture

1.  if the oven's programming is flexible enough, maybe there is a way to set it to bake without using the top element.  It might take a deep reading of the manual to figure it out, if it's even possible.

2. the next type ofsolution would be to simply block the radiant heat coming from above. 

a) if you have three racks, and room, put a cookie sheet or big flat pan on the top rack, baking stone on middle, and steam pan on lower.

b) two racks: if there is room, try to fit a narrow steam pan on the rack with the stone, and the "shade" goes on the upper rack. a wet towel in a bread pan could work. 

c) two racks: steam pan on lower rack, stone on rack above, and one of those extra-oven-rack gizmos you can buy that adds a rack onto your top rack, like an extension, and put the cookie sheet (shade) on it.

d) 2 racks: put the steam pan on the top rack, stone on lower rack. Use a pan big enough to block the upper element from shining/radiating on the loaf.

The "shade" has to be wide and long enough so that no part of the loaf can "see" any of the glowing part of the upper element.  


As far as your formula and how to solve the under/over-fermented, I will step back and let some of the other "formula-inventor" type helpers chime in. Maybe Phaz, ciabatta, dbazuin, The Almighty Loaf, Mini Oven,  ....

jeh's picture

This is amazing help, thank you.

I can’t find any way to disable the top element. But my half sheet pans are perfectly sized to act as a shield. I have two racks, with the stone on the lower rack. I also have a sheet pan on the floor of the oven I’ve been using for steam. 

So, option (d) is very workable. 



idaveindy's picture

Sounds good then. That also solves a potential problem.  As far as I know, you shouldn't put anything on the floor of an oven with a hidden/covered lower element. That is the heat source. if you rest something directly  on it, it blocks the heat flow/transfer.

Please check with the manual to see what it says about that.

and see if you can add more mass to the cookie sheet used as a steam pan, like a cast iron skillet or griddle.  That way, the water (or ice) can take heat from the hot cast iron instead of from the air.

jeh's picture

Yeah, I'm going to be removing that given what I now know. Seems obvious in retrospect...

idaveindy's picture

Here's the link:

Sylvia is the one who posted the idea.  You don't have to buy an expensive "Sylvia" brand towel.  That's what I originally thought when I googled "sylvia's towel method" that others were talking about. heh heh.

andykg's picture

just get a cheap enamel roaster that you can use for a cloche, they are light and thin so dont retain the heat like an iron one would so 5 minutes out of the oven its cool. You will have so much less fuss than using towels rolled up and steam or spraying with water.

andykg's picture

it looks under proofed. Are you allowing the dough to rise after doing your folds? as it sounds once you finished doing them you put it straight in the fridge after shaping? you ideally want at least 4 hours of bulk fermentation if a hot environment or longer if cooler before shaping and then retarding in the fridge but this time is dependent on the amount of starter and the temperature. After autolyse do 4 sets of coils every 30 minutes then allow the dough to bulk ferment and increase by at least 20% in volume then do a preshape and final shape.

jeh's picture

So, based on idaveindy's suggestion, I made some changes:

  • Sheet pan on top rack blocking the "view" of the top element.
  • Reduced the quantity of steam in the oven. I will admit I still used ice today for logistical reasons (aka making breakfast for two little kids in parallel.) But I used half as much as previously. 
  • Sprayed oven walls and load time.
  • Did more kneading to incorporate levain more thoroughly.
  • Dough was roughly the same formula but reduced to 70% hydration.
  • Bulk was extended to ~3h. Proofing was 1h on bench plus an overnight retard in fridge.
  • Preheated oven to 500F. Reduced to 450F after loading.
  • Baked 30m, with turn and vent at 15m.
  • Internal loaf temp read 205F at the end of the bake. 


I'm waiting for it to cool for the crumb shot. (I was just going to wait to post until then, but decided I'll just add it later.)

I suspect by the sloping shoulders that I've now over proofed slightly. Not entirely happy with my shaping. But the slashes opened up nicely. I might extend bake time to deepen the color a bit next time. 

But, I think this is a decided improvement.


jeh's picture

And here's the crumb:

jeh's picture


I kept iterating after this post. My loaves kept getting worse and worse. I nearly called in the towel when I produced this doorstop:

The baker’s loft apartment

Around the time I reached out for help with this post, I had just received a new bulk shipment of flour about 1.5 weeks prior. So I developed a hypothesis that it was either the flour or my sourdough starter. So, I made a standard, 70% hydration yeasted loaf. I don’t have the picture handy, but the yeasted loaves came out beautifully. So, I pivoted to the theory my starter was the problem.

Working from the theory that my starter had gone proteolytic (it’s happened to me before with a different starter), I changed my feeding schedule to 1:5:5 (s:f:w) and fed it that way for a week before making any more sourdough. I’ve now made 2 sourdough loaves with the “fixed” starter, using the baking praxis that idaveindy recommended. The exact formula isn’t super important. (Quick details, though, 75% hydration, 20% pre-fremented flour, levain at 70% hydration, 20% whole wheat, 2% flour, 500g total flour.)

Here’s the results:


I’m pretty happy with the result.

Benito's picture

Big difference!  You must be super happy to be able to bake with your starter again and get good results.  Why do you think your starter was getting too acidic?  Were the feeds to small and far apart?  Great that you solved the problem.


jeh's picture

I had been feeding at 2:5:5 every night and the starter lives on the counter full time.

With a rye starter at higher hydration I'd been having similar problems where after a while each successive loaf ended up flatter and flatter and more and more tunneled. (Just like here.) So, I'd had a previous experience to guide me.

But, in this case, it happened so slowly that I didn't realize that could be the problem. I had tried revisiting formulas that had worked for me brilliantly before with fairly forgiving timings and was getting just terrible results. So ultimately it was process of elimination. The only thing I hadn't ruled out was the starter.

Once I changed the feeding schedule, it seemed to become reliable again. We'll see whether that continues but so far, so good.