The Fresh Loaf

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Please help troubleshoot! Underproofed? Overproofed? Starter problems?

krachey's picture

Please help troubleshoot! Underproofed? Overproofed? Starter problems?

At the start of the pandemic, I had a minor panic about not being able to access good bread and decided I would learn how to bake my own sourdough. I got some starter from a family member. I used Maurizio's simple sourdough recipe, but substituted my own flour mixture (mostly AP and a bit of whole wheat, basically all I had on hand). After 2 or 3 bakes that ended in pancake loaves, I bought a thermometer, and my bakes got instantly better. Open crumb, delicious crispy crust, incredible taste. My family told me my loaves were better than the local $7 sourdough loaves we had been buying previously, so I baked and baked and baked and it was glorious.

Then, I moved out of my parents' house. A few months later, after I had neglected my starter and subsequently thrown it out, I decided to start again. I made starter from scratch a few weeks ago, which I'm currently feeding twice a day after it grows about 3x with whole wheat flour. I followed the same recipe to a T and my loaves strangely weren't rising at all, so I chucked the first batch before baking. The second batch, my starter was looking good, my levain was looking good, I made the dough, everything looked ok, I baked and.... pancakes. Gummy insides. It was almost as if it wasn't cooked it was that gummy (but it was - I checked with the thermometer). I thought, ok, maybe its underproofed. It wasn't that puffy or jiggly after I proofed it, so maybe my kitchen is cold (it also fluctuates a lot). I made it again yesterday, this time controlling for temperature by keeping everything inside my microwave (75-77 degrees) and... MORE pancakes. The crust this time also wasn't overly crunchy and had softened up by the time I cut into it. So I seem to be getting worse outcomes?

My loaves aren't rising a lot but they never did before I moved either. The poke test outcome depends on where I poke the dough, but at no point did it seem overly over or under proofed. Just maybe slightly more or less in different spots? I'm leaning towards thinking they're overproofed. As an experiment, I let my 2nd loaf of my last bake sit on the counter for 1.5 hours after I took it out of the fridge, and got the exact same result as the first loaf. Perhaps that won't do much but I figured if it came out of the fridge it might continue to proof? Not sure!

I'm going to try another bake this weekend and cut down the proofing time, just to troubleshoot. But I'm really looking for some guidance as to what the issue might be so I can stop wasting flour! Here's what I did last time:

Levain - 38g starter, 76g water, 38g white flour, 38g whole wheat

Kept levain in microwave at approx. 75-76 degrees. After 5 hours, levain was bubbly, had doubled in size, and was sour.

Autolysed 773g AP white and 165g whole wheat and 603g water for one hour. Kept in same microwave.

At start of bulk - levain was even more bubbly, rose some more. FDT ended up being about 79 degrees.

Bulk was 4 hours, at 76-77 degrees, with 3 stretch and folds. The dough temp stayed at about 78-79 the whole time. The dough rose, not too much, but had some bubbles, and felt strong. Did the poke test and while my results varied depending on where I poked, in most spots it didn't spring back super quickly.

Divided and preshaped, let rest on counter for 25 mins, shaped into boule, and let rest 20 mins in covered bowls (I don't have bannetons). I'm pretty gentle with my shaping.

Put in fridge for about 15 hours. I checked my fridge temp and it was pretty cold - around 0 degrees.

Slashed with a lame, then immediately baked in pre-heated dutch oven at 450 degrees for 20 mins, and when I took the lid off, there was no oven spring at all.

Waited 2 hours to cut into it. Sadness ensued.


Anon2's picture
Anon2 (not verified)

I think it's needs a longer bulk ferment time. Why do you move onto shaping when you thought the dough hadn't risen much? Perhaps you need to be a bit more adventurous. And on top of that your fridge is very cold. So you have a poorly bulk fermented dough which comes to a complete stop in the fridge then you bake it. 

krachey's picture

It's so interesting how both commenters said completely different things - just proof that I need to try both options and see what happens! I'll make one loaf with a longer bulk ferment, and one with a shorter one, and see what happens. Thanks!

Anon2's picture
Anon2 (not verified)

Or the sun orbits around the earth it'll look the same. You've got the right idea. Experiment. Make enough dough for two loaves, split it in two and try both ways. This way the experiment is controlled i.e. two loaves from one dough with just the bulk ferment changed. I say wait till there is much more obvious signs of fermentation. Dough should be puffy and have a good matrix of bubbles. 

krachey's picture

I'll do exactly this. Thanks!

semolina_man's picture

Overfermented, undercooked and sliced too early.   


Cut bulk ferment time in half, bake at 475 degrees for the same time or 10% longer, and wait 8 hours until slicing. 

krachey's picture

Hmm, I'll definitely try cutting the bulk ferment time. As for the undercooked-ness, I actually made a mistake with one of my bakes and cooked it for 10 minutes longer, and got the exact same result (but a more burnt bottom). I tested with a thermometer and the bread did read as being cooked. I've never heard of waiting 8 hours before slicing... wouldn't the bread stop internally cooking after a few hours? Would there be a difference between, for example, waiting 4 vs 8 hours?

Thanks for your reply!

Benito's picture

The crumb in the photo shows typical signs of underproofed dough.  You will want to bulk longer or warmer or both.  For most of Maurizio’s recipes in the Perfect Loaf, he uses about 9% prefermented flour and I find if you bulk at around 80ºF it will take about 6 hours to bulk ferment fully enough for a good result.  As Abe said, the dough at the end of bulk should have a really nice jiggle and show fermentation bubbles on top and the sides of the bowl.

The poke test is useful if you’ve done your final proof at room temperatures but not from a cold proof.  The poke test isn’t useful, at least for me, at the end of bulk, it would be for the end of final proof.

krachey's picture

I'm going to bulk for a super long time today and see what happens!

I've been bulking for about 5 hours today so far and I have maybe 2 small bubbles. Not promising but maybe I need to push it a lot further since my microwave temp is lower than 80 degrees and its damn cold outside.

andykg's picture

After your main bulk how much has the dough risen? it wants to be at least 25% and be jiggly with bubbles forming on top. 

If you're using a microwave as a proofing method fill a cup of water and nuke it for a minute or two then put the dough in with the cup. The steamy humid atmosphere will help while proofing.

krachey's picture

It has risen a small amount but not very much. No bubbles and no jiggle. Feels like a thick mass. I've been putting warm water in the microwave, it makes it pretty hot and humid (about 75-77 degrees depending on the day). I figured that would help any proofing issues I've been having but no such luck.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

much umph from the AP flour with long fermenting times.  What is the AP flour?   Try using half AP with some bread flour for a little more ash and gluten.  AP gluten matrix may be breaking down from what could be too much bacteria (and not enough yeast) in the sourdough culture. Add to it long retard and well, it usually comes down to the starter balance. If you decide to leave out the retard and use just AP and WW, let the whole wheat flour soak several hours first with some of the water to soften and develop gluten before adding the AP and levain (fed with just AP flour.)

I would also work on raising the yeast level in the starter culture with a larger flour feed before using it. Closer to a one to five ratio.   You will have a little bit of math to do switching the amounts around to have the same finished loaf weight but it should be worth it.  :)

edit: when commenting all the above comments, I could not see, so please excuse any repeating suggestions.

krachey's picture

The flour is Robin Hood (from Canada). I think its just over 13%. Am I wrong in thinking that its pretty close to what bread flour would be?

I'll try the 1:5 feeding ratio! I'm beginning to think I'm having starter issues for some reason, even though it rises and is quite bubbly and smells sour.

gerhard's picture

it’s what I use with satisfactory results. 20 minute bake time seems short, I am close to 40 minutes bake time at 425°F 20 minutes covered followed by 20 uncovered.

krachey's picture

I should have specified, I bake for 20 mins, then another 30 with the lid off. But there's no oven spring after 20 and I'm just browning a rock after that.

Maria Morando's picture
Maria Morando

You made many points in your assessment of your bread, but I am still unclear as to what you actually do to strengthen your starter. You mentioned you feed it twice a day? Was that when you were establishing it, or before you use it for a bake? How many days in a row do you feed it twice a day?. I would like to know what you do exactly with your starter before you are going to use it for a bake, and what condition it was in before you started getting it ready. From what you wrote, it is hard to rule out that the problem may have something to do with the handling of your starter. Once I know what the properties of your starter are, I might be able to offer some input for you.

krachey's picture

For the last 3 bakes I've been feeding it every day (morning and night, about 12 hours apart). I've been baking a lot lately so I've just kept up the same level of maintenance. Maybe just under 2 weeks.

Usually before I start, I take a bit of starter and make a levain. Its usually in the morning after my starter has risen at least 2x overnight and is bubbly. Then after about 5-6 hours I mix it into my dough.

Last night, I tried doing an overnight (12 hour) levain as an experiment. I just checked on my dough after 4 hours of proofing at around 73 degrees and its got zero jiggle and zero bubbles. So strange.

The levain this morning was kinda doughy - not as stringy as my levain something is. Maybe that was the issue? I'm not sure. I'm either using it at the wrong time or there's something wrong with it, but I can't figure it out and its definitely very active.

bakeyourownAU's picture

Hey Krachey,

It looks like your bread is under fermented and you need a longer bulk fermentation. I had the same issues as you in addition to my bread having tunnels in them. After much experimentation, I found it was because of under-fermentation and my convection oven. I extended my bulk fermentation to 6 hours at around 20 degrees C and found my results were much much better. 

Try extending your bulk fermentation a bit more and see how that goes. 

Best Regards :) 

Muddy Gardener's picture
Muddy Gardener

I'm very new to this so please take this with 2% salt.  If you're sure you've baked to the right temperature (and you are sure) and you're happy with the levain being nice and active (and you are sure - seems like it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, etc etc) then my guess is that it's something about your bulk ferment that's not ideal.   

But what?  Too much, too little?   

If the dough is flabby and fluffy when you shape after bulk rise then I'd think about it being overfermented.   But if the texture is good - it's less dense than it was, and it feels alive, but it has some solidity to it - then it could be your dough doesn't have enough live culture in it to do the work it needs to do in proofing, in order to get a good rise when baking.   You're doing what worked before....  and now it works differently.  Definitely this is a confusing thing.  But maybe this new culture of yours isn't as active as the one you established previously?   Perhaps creating and using a bit more levain as a proportion (and adjusting the quantities in the main mix down appropriately) would be helpful.   And/or extending the bulk rise time.  [And also over a longer term building up your starter a bit more.]  I also agree it would be useful to try to get hold of some bread flour rather than use AP.  It makes a huge difference!   (Got stuck with using AP for a week when I couldn't get bread flour... didn't work at all for me.)

Good luck and Bon appetit!

krachey's picture

Sadly my dough is never fluffy. It is only ever a big lump. I'm leaning towards thinking its a starter issue. I made this one from scratch and maybe it got sad along the way...? I wish I knew!