The Fresh Loaf

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Trying A Shorter Bulk

tpassin's picture

Trying A Shorter Bulk

After some discussion in recent threads, I decided that it's high time I tried out shorter bulk ferments. My guiding principle has been that the longer the flour is hydrated, and the longer it's fermented, the better the flavor. So I usually let bulk ferment go on to more than double, sometimes triple, the original size.  This usually gives me a fine, fairly uniform crumb, which may have large pores or smaller ones depending on hydration, grains, all these sorts of things.

This practice has served me well, and I like that kind of crumb, but I've been interested to see how a shorter bulk ferment could change things.  Some people only let the dough rise by 1/2 or 1/3, for example.  This bake is my first experiment.  As a bonus, I measured the pH with my new Hanna meter.

Here's the crumb shot, then the details:

 You can see that there is a wide range of pore and cavity sizes, and in the larger ones you can see some nice gelatization. The crust is gorgeous, and the height and oven spring were excellent. The crumb is well open for a 72% hydration loaf.  I'm very happy overall.

This loaf uses mostly all-purpose flour along with some malted barley and Irish-style whole wheat flours.  This made for a soft crumb.  It might be a little too soft for the crust, which is thin, flakey, and a little crunchy.

Formula (flour and water are totals including starter's flour and water) *
10% - malted stone ground barley flour
10% - KA Irish-style whole wheat flour
80% - Gold Medal All Purpose Unbleached
72% - water
20% - starter (100% hydration, made with bread flour)
2.2% - salt

* Total flour was 400g.

 8:30 AM - Rough mix of all ingredients
 9:00 - knead and stretch
 9:55 - 1st S&F, between wet hands
10:45 - 2nd S&F, between wet hands
12:05 - 3rd S&F, on bench with a little flour
1:30 PM - 4th S&F, on bench
3:30 - shape loaf, proof freestanding covered with plastic wrap**
4:55 - bake 

** Dough had risen by roughly 50%, compared with my usual 2.5X - 3X.

After the 3rd S&F the dough felt wonderfully silky, and was very extensible.  I decided to do a final S&F to reduce this extensibility.

Bake Profile
- Preheat oven with baking steel to 450 °F
- Uncover loaf last 15 minutes
- Slash, insert into oven
- Throw 12 oz tap water on steam tray, block vent for 1 minute***
- Turn temp to 300 °F for 15 minutes
- Turn temp to 425 °F
- Total bake time: 40 minutes.

*** The oven leaks steam so fast that hardly any is visibly coming out of the vent after a minute.

Here is a graph of the pH vs time.  Don't pay any attention to the first point looking lower than the second.  I just didn't write down the second digit of the reading, which I did for all the others.  I'm sure the first point was the same as the second one.

Oh, yes, the taste is rich, mellow, a bit buttery.  All in all, a successful experiment, I'd say. 


The Roadside Pie King's picture
The Roadside Pi...

Your experiment turned out perfect! The crumb is amazing, the sheen on the crust is amazing, the oven spring is perfect! Nice job Top! 

tpassin's picture

Thanks, Will!  The sheen is something I expect on free-standing loaves and don't generally see on loaves risen in a banneton.  I think it comes from a combination of the moisture at the surface combining with the steam to gelatinize the surface early on.  

Something that may have slipped notice - I turned the preheated oven off for the first 15 minutes of the bake. I've been turning it off for the first 7 - 10 minutes lately but this time I totally forgot to reset the temperature for 15 minutes.  It worked out just fine, didn't it?

My thinking is that my oven doesn't hold steam for more than a few minutes, and I've seen that my loaves reach nearly full expansion in the first five minutes of the bake.  It occurred to me, if I turned down the temperature setting, the baking steel would continue to pump heat into the bulk of the loaf but the crust might take longer to set.  That should allow more expansion.

I don't know if that theory is correct, but I've consistently gotten good bakes since I started trying it.  The odd thing is that bake times have not increased and if anything may have decreased a few minutes out of 40.

The Roadside Pie King's picture
The Roadside Pi...

Also, yes I was curious about going low temperature. I have always heard high heat and humidity during first minutes. I am liking baking in this electric oven. It simplifies steaming. It was impossible to keep the 1980's vintage oven in NY steamed. Even the new model was not tight.

tpassin's picture

My oven is also electric.  I keep a steam pan filled with rocks on a rack in the lowest position.

tpassin's picture

I used to go by the mantra of high temperature and steam at the beginning.  I would even preheat to 500 deg F, then turn down to the planned baking temperature.  But two things:  one, what I said about delaying setting the crust. Two, steam will always be at boiling temperature, at least very soon after you create the initial burst.  You would have to have a pressurized oven to maintain a higher steam temperature, similar to a pressure cooker.

So the wet air in contact with the crust is probably not going to be much hotter than the boiling temperature of water until much of the steam clears.  So why fight it by cranking up the temperature?  The steel or stone with its thermal mass will keep transferring heat into the bread to keep it rising and gelatinizing.

BTW, I find the baking steel is more effective than a stone, or even a double layer of stone. It must be a combination of more thermal mass and higher thermal conductivity.

The Roadside Pie King's picture
The Roadside Pi...

Good point about wet bulb temperature. I find I have to be careful with super heating the oven with the steel. I have scorched a few bottoms that way. 

tpassin's picture

I'm not getting carried away with preheating.  Just 450 deg F.  My loaves slide in on parchment paper, which I remove part way through the bake. Scorching has not been a problem.

ReneR's picture

Lovely loaves! (crumb, crust, spring, sheen). One can almost feel the crunch of that crust from just seeing it. I am sure it must have crackled as it cooled down.

I've come across others who have gone down the oven off for the first 10min of the bake route when using a home oven, all reporting the same results as you and becoming enthusiastic advocates. Their thinking is exactly along the lines of yours. The steam is always venting out of home ovens by design, so no point in blasting it with heat and hot moving air etc, 

Regarding the short bulk ferment, unless I have some strong flour with a big W number, I try to get as much activity into the pre-ferment and then go for a short but strong bulk ferment as I find the loaves hold their shape and structure better. I started doing that when I was trying to bake with 100% durum wheat semolina flour (semola rimacinata) which has a high resistance and low extensibility initially in the fermentation, but the gluten quickly degenerates and becomes too extensible in a long fermentation, so found that supercharging the SD pre-ferment with small frequent feeds and then going for a quick strong BF did the trick for that type of flour. It tasted much more like CY type bread however, than SD.  

Did you find that any of the flavour/taste depth was lost this time?  


tpassin's picture

One can almost feel the crunch of that crust from just seeing it. I am sure it must have crackled as it cooled down.

It did.  It was about as loud as I've ever heard.

Did you find that any of the flavor/taste depth was lost this time?  

No, I thought the flavor was better than a similar loaf I baked a week ago with my usual much longer BF. Today, the next day, though, the flavor may not have held up as well as I expected.  Not that there is anything wrong, but I often find the flavor mellowing and getting richer for a day or so.

It tasted much more like CY type bread however, than SD.  

Frequent feeding will tend to do that, I think.

albacore's picture

An interesting result, Tom. Any chance of doing the crumb pH for completeness?


tpassin's picture

It's been several days, if that makes a difference.  I did try to get a crumb pH on an earlier loaf but the reading didn't make sense to me.  Maybe I didn't dissolve enough of the crumb in the distilled water.

I'm more interested in that faster decline of the pH towards the end of the bulk fermentation.. I wonder if that's a useful signal of something.  More experiments are in order, I think.

JonJ's picture

Nice job Tom, an interesting read that makes me hunger for bread. The sheen on top is admirable and appearance of the crumb looks delicious.

On the subject of leaking steam, have you ever tried blocking the vents with foil?

And also, do you know about Dan's story with having faith in the oven spring?


tpassin's picture

On the subject of leaking steam, have you ever tried blocking the vents with foil?

I use a hot pad to block the main vent.  Then more steam escapes around the door gasket, so there's a small gain but not a giant one.  I doubt I can get a new door gasket for this old oven, and even if I could I can see many vents around the periphery of the door.  Basically, you can't turn a standard oven into a pressure cooker, any more than you can turn a saucepan into a pressure cooker by holding down the lid.  Once the steam temperature falls down to oven temperature, then its pressure will have dropped to atmospheric  pressure and it stops being forced out out.  The air inside the oven will still be moist at that point.  The moisture will still want to reach an equilibrium with the moisture in the kitchen air but that's a slower process.

And also, do you know about Dan's story with having faith in the oven spring?

I hadn't but it's a great post, isn't it?  It mostly covers things I already know or have thought about, although I don't think I've ever had such an inflated loaf from such a flat start, except with glass bread.

There's one thing the post doesn't take into account, and it may account for the success of many long ferments.  Once dough has gotten past the lag stage and started to expand, it usually rises at a roughly constant rate for some hours until the rate of rise starts to flatten out.  What many people may not realize is that at this point if you stretch or stir the dough (If it's thin enough to stir, like a thin starter), it will deflate but start to rise again with no lag at a (usually) faster rate than before.  Usually you can get three such cycles out of a dough mass before it's finally tired out. I say this because I've measured the effect and it happened for sourdough starter, yeasted bread dough, and a biga.  I've posted my graphs showing this on several other threads but I forget which ones.

What I think happens is that the act of shaping the dough into a loaf produces that reactivation.  That's what allows long bulk ferments to still produce well-risen bread. Of course like anything else you can overdo it.  If you don't mind shortening the fermentation, then it would make sense to shape the loaf soon after the initial lag has ended and the dough has gotten into its phase of steady rising.

Another factor is something I read and don't remember where.  It might have been Emily Buhler's book but I'm not sure. As the gluten network gets stretched out and the cavities expand, the walls of these cells (the cavities) get stretch thinner and thinner. When they get too thin, the cell walls contain mainly water.  All the protein has been thinned out into non-existence. Those walls aren't going to support much pressure and are likely to collapse.  So either the dough will tend to collapse or many of those large cells will collapse together and form larger (still weak) cells.