The Fresh Loaf

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Troubleshooting Flat Loaves

joyofbaking's picture

Troubleshooting Flat Loaves

I’ve been baking my way through The Perfect Loaf book and recently been experiencing a lack of oven spring. I follow the recipes exactly, but cut the water by 50% at the Mixing stage of the levain and autolyse. I am located in Florida and Maurizio is in New Mexico so I wonder if humidity is playing a role and I should be reducing the water in the autolyse as well? Or do you think it could be under strengthening or over proofing? My bulk ferment seems to take a lot longer and I never quite match the photos and consistency described in the book. I had more luck when I use my starter directly compared to when I follow his levain instructions. I use King Arthur and Central Milling flour. Photos attached of a sunflower sesame loaf and a basic sourdough.

Any suggestions are appreciated! 
tpassin's picture

These loaves basically look reasonably good.  There's a pronounced ear, indicating some definite rise in the oven.  There's also a clear flow pattern, so the dough was fairly liquid at some temperatures during the bake (as it will be when the starch gelatinizes and softens).

I haven't read the book so I don't know some details.  Flour characteristics including humidity can definitely play a role, so the the target hydration of a dough is really only a starting point  for your kitchen, ingredients, and methods.

I don't know if these loaves were proofed free-standing or supported.  But to my eye, they look like they spread out laterally quite a bit before baking - more than I would have liked, for most of my breads.  That would suggest either too much hydration (water in the dough), or not enough working the dough to develop its gluten. Or, I suppose, the flour for some reason might be unable to develop enough gluten or be too stretchy (able to be elongated when pulled).  A high kitchen temperature would also tend to get the loaves to relax more than usual during proofing.

In addition, I think that the slashes you used would tend to help the dough spread out sideways.  When I have a loaf that wants to spread out sideways, I try to slash it in a pattern that doesn't encourage that.

How can you tell if the dough slumps too much?  One indicator is how much it resists stretching when you go to shape the loaf (or if you don't really shape it, then when you handle it before or after proofing).  If, say, you tip a proofed loaf out of a basket and it just oozes sideways, that would be a tip-off.  Or if you make a preform (like a ball), and ten minutes later that preform has spread out a lot, that also would be a tip-off.

So what can you do if your dough has turned out like that?  Assuming that you are going to shape a loaf, here are some things that work for me (but might not fit with the methods in your book):

1. Stretch the dough while pre-shaping, and also while shaping, until it tends to resist;  This develops strength in the gluten;

2. Use flour *liberally* during pre-shaping and shaping; This tends to stiffen up the dough;

3. Next time, during bulk development, do more stretch-and-fold sessions, and make sure that the dough during the later sessions resists your stretching - this may mean more stretching and handling than you thought you needed;

4. Next time, reduce the hydration by say 5% and see if that helps;

5. Intentionally underproof your next loaves and see if that helps (but if you get too much slumping right after shaping, it probably won't help so much);

6. If the loaves don't slump much at the start of proofing but do slump a lot before the end, then you can refrigerate them an hour before they would otherwise be done.  They will continue to proof during the next hour as they cool down.  Then bake them chilled (you can hold them overnight or longer), or after they have only partly warmed up.

There's more I could say, but without knowing about your process it might not be very helpful.


joyofbaking's picture

Thank you, TomP! I did an hour autolyse, then after mixing in the levain and salt, did 5 min. of slap and folds. After a 30 min. rest, I did 3 sets of stretch and folds 30 min. apart and then let rest for the remainder of the bulk ferment (3.5 hrs total). I think you are right that I need to continue doing stretch and folds to further strengthen the dough at this point.
After the BF I divide and pre shape on the counter and let rest for 30 min. I do see a lot of spread at this point. Then I shape and place them in bannetons and cold proof overnight. 
I started today’s bake before seeing your comment so the only thing I did differently was reduce hydration by 5%. I’m looking forward to my next attempt to implement your suggestions, thanks again! 

tpassin's picture

Aha!  Spreading after pre-shaping.  It's too late for this batch, but remember my #2, use lots of flour?  I picked this up by watching videos of how Altamura bread is shaped in Italy.  Look at this one, starting at time marker 4:50 - 

See how much flour there is on the bench and the hands of the bakers? And how they flip it all over the dough? After seeing videos like these, the next time I had a too-slack dough, I showered it with flour as I made the preform and then the loaf.  You can't expect miracles but it did do the job.  Still, it looks like you could use a few more adjustments going forward.

Just to encourage you, let me describe my baseline process.  I'm not in Florida, but this has worked for me both in northwest Virginia (air conditioned) and in North-central New Mexico (north of Santa Fe, 6000 ft elevation) (not air conditioned, so hot in the summer).  I'm not going to say it's the best way, but it has been easy, consistent and reliable.  

- Flour: Gold Medal Unbleached All-Purpose or King Arthur AP or Bread flour;

- Water: tap water filtered by a Brita filtering pitcher;

- Starter: 100% hydration white AP;

- Dough: typically 70 - 75% hydration based on total flour and water (including starter);  May have 20% whole-wheat, corn (masa harina or corn meal), buckwheat, oatmeal, etc; typically, for 15 oz of new flour, I will use 2 - 3 oz of starter, so 15 - 20%;

- Mix all ingredients together, including levain and salt; (for a long ferment, I don't see any value in withholding any of the ingredients; but see below for what "long" means). Mix by hand just until all flour is incorporated and no clumps or white streaks are left, probably never more than 5 minutes;

- Cover and wait 1/2 hour, or up to 1 or 1 1/2 if that's more convenient; (so a rest, but not exactly what many mean by "autolyse")

- First stretch & fold to smooth out the dough and start setting up the gluten; put in oiled container;

- Next S&F after around 1/2 - 1 hour, not at all critical;  

- Next S&F after roughly an hour, not critical;  If dough is unusually slack, I'd do this after 1/2 hour instead;

- 3rd S&F.  At this point, assess the feel of the dough.  If it's nice and firm, especially if the hydration is low, this can be the last S&F session;  you might even be able to omit it altogether. If the dough seems slack or too stretchy, plan on doing one or two more S&F sessions;

- Bulk ferment.  I like long fermentations for flavor, so I usually go for 9 - 12 hours from the end of the rest after mixing.  If the dough rises too much (e.g., more than triples), gently degas and stretch, then put back to bed.  I usually do this BF overnight, but the timing can be adjusted for convenience.  Or you can retard in the refrigerator at any time, and take it out to finish the BF when convenient.  Allow for an hour to cool down and stop fermenting, and another hour or so to warm back up enough to continue.  Flavor will improve during a retard.

- Pre-shape.  At this time I assess the dough, and may stretch it quite a bit if it seems slack.  I may also use a lot of flour as mentioned above if the dough is slack.  My goal is for the form to keep its shape without much visible relaxing during a 10 - 15 minute rest (there can be some, of course);

- Final shaping.  Again, if the dough is still slack I will stretch it more and probably use more flour, otherwise I will use minimal stretching and flour;

- Proof (covered by a plastic sheet) free-standing on a plastic cutting board covered with a sheet of parchment paper.  This will be my peel;  Proofing typically will take 1 1/2 - 2 hours, but can be shorter or occasionally longer.

- Bake with initial steam.

You can see that at each step, I'm assessing the dough and modifying what I do depending on what I notice.  It sounds complicated but actually, it all becomes easy and natural very quickly.  I'm not saying you can or should copy my process.  I just want to let you know not to obsess over exact details of most recipes and rather to be guided by the dough itself and the conditions.  Yes, there are fussy recipes and processes, but don't get into them until you have the basics under control and have a basic working process.  

In fact, now that I have streamlined and refined my own process, most other recipes seem like minor variations on it.  High hydration, slack dough?  Support the loaf with a pan. Short fermentation? reduce hydration and aim for one or two S&Fs.  Enriched dough? Use less yeast or levain, probably use a pan, and try for a longer bulk ferment than the recipe expects.  Sourdough English muffins? Same process, except for small modifications after the end of BF( and griddling instead of baking, of course).  High percentage rye bread? Omit most or all S&Fs and expect different timing.  High hydration ciabatta or glass bread?  Let it spread, and do plenty of S&Fs.

IMHO, there is rarely a good reason to try for a short bulk ferment for a lean dough, because more time will bring more flavor.  Too long a ferment will lead to degraded flour, and for me 12 hours has rarely been too long (I have been able to go for even 14 hours).  But that time may be different for you, in your kitchen with your ingredients.  If your bulk ferment seems to be done in a short time, use less starter (not counting, of course, a recipe whose flavor depends on a large quantity of starter) and degas part-way through.

Happy Baking! - TomP

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

might be to sift the flour several times just to add air to it and do the same with the water before putting them together into dough.  What is your water pH?

joyofbaking's picture

Thank you, I will try that! I’m not sure what my water pH is so I will check that. I’ve been using filtered tap water.

tpassin's picture

I don't think that growing more yeast cells (the result of aerating the flour and water) will help with the OP's problem.  He's not lacking rising ability, I think, but rather the dough is spreading out too much by the time it comes to bake it - and probably even more so in the oven.

Water properties could be involved, of course, whether pH, mineral content, or something else.  The trouble is, given a pH reading, what should the OP do with that result?  I suppose that if it's alkaline, it could be acidified or neutralized. Since Florida has a lot of limestone, I would think the water might be acidic, but who knows?

alcophile's picture

Limestone (calcium carbonate) will generally produce an alkaline, and hard (high Ca/Mg), groundwater. Some municipalities may provide water data like pH and hardness; some don't. Test strips for pH and hardness can be used if the data is unavailable or for private wells.

It may be difficult to properly adjust the pH of the water depending on the buffer capacity of the water and how far from neutral it is. If the water quality is a problem, another option is to combine the tap water with some distilled or reverse osmosis water to reduce the hardness and moderate the pH deviation.