Friday 4 November 2011

Project Sourdough: Air bubbles, the elusive texture

My sourdough looks like this...

I really want it to look like this...

Can you see those beautiful, gloriously large air bubbles? I'm sure you're not looking at anything else!

One of the trade marks of a sourdough loaf is to have an open texture. My loaves so far have been a lot denser. They aren't bad dense / heavy, they just aren't as open as I'd like.

My tinkering has made me increasingly happy with the flavour, crust and shaping of my loaves, but the texture still eludes me. I've been trying a few different things, none of which seem to have worked so far. Fellow bakers I need your help!

Oven spring
The theory, as I understand it, is they the first ten minutes in the oven is crucial. After the crust has 'set' your bread isn't going to rise any more. Preventing the crust from drying out too quickly is the key.

As I mentioned in my new techniques post I've tried a few things to get the maximum oven spring that I can:
1. Boiling a pan of water and placing it in the bottom of the oven to create lots of steam.
2. Spraying water directly onto the skin of the dough before I pop the loaf into the oven to keep it moist. (Using my iron as I don't have a spray bottle!)
3. Turning off the fan in my oven. Fans are supposed to be very drying.
4. Baking the loaf inside a Le Crueset. The theory being that a mini oven, inside an oven traps the humidity and allows more oven spring.

The final prove
My Bourke St Bakery book builds the pressure by saying "the final prove is where most home bakers fall down". Apparently it's hard to replicate the right conditions for the final prove. I've developed my own method of heating my oven to ~40 degrees and then turning if off. Placing a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven and closing the door to create a warm and humid environment for the bread. Supposedly what is needed.

I've definitely baked some under proved and over proved loaves while I've been experimenting with sourdough. Nothing seems to make much difference.

It occurred to me over the weekend that I might have been focusing on the wrong end of the process. The first step in making the bread is kneading. When you knead the dough you are forming strands of gluten. These strands of gluten are what trap air inside the dough creating those elusive air bubbles.

A way to tell if your dough has achieved the right structure is to try and form a window pane like below.

I've tried kneading by hand, in my mixer and a combination of the two. However, I've never created a decent window pane. Is this my problem?

I was becoming more convinced that under-kneading my dough was the problem, but I read this post tonight which suggests mixing less. Now I really am confused.

A conversation with a friend got me thinking of domestic bread machines. They are specifically designed for kneading and proving dough in temperature controlled conditions. It's just a shame my bread machine is on a different continent so I can't try it.

So bakers, what are your tips?

Update: I was lucky enough to meet Matt from Brasserie Bread the day I posted his blog. Matt's suggestion was that I wasn't giving my bread a long enough final prove. He suggested up to six hours and I've been nowhere near that. This was re-inforced by fellow baker Tammi Jonas who told me she regularly leaves loaves to prove all night, baking them at sunrise. Definitely something to try.

Hat tip to the Woodfired Kitchen for the perfect sourdough photo. And to the Fresh Loaf forum for the window paning photo.


  1. You need to try a moister dough.

  2. Ah well...I'm not a baker. All I know is that making sour dough is quite a skill.

  3. Hi,

    Nice photos. And sorry if this post seems excessively long. But I think I may have the answer for you.

    For a long while my bread's crumb looked much like your top photo, and I'm talking about the yeasted breads, which *should* be by its very nature a lot "fluffier". Tried kneading more, less, more water, less water, more steam while baking, etc. Nothing worked. Until I discovered the slap-and-fold method (also known as French fold).

    You'll find a video here of Richard Bertinet (French/British bread baker):

    Or buy his books CRUST and CRUMB (either one comes with a DVD btw).

    Lo and behold, the very first time I tried it, got HUMOUNGOUS holes without changing my recipe!

    What's also great about this method is that you can use higher hydration. I usually go 75% hydration (i.e. for every pound of flour I use 3/4 pound of water) with a good strong flour (Gold Medal Bread or better yet, a Canadian flour... Canadian flours just work well for anything).

    Then when I started with sourdoughs, the crumb has always been big and holey without fail (rise, however wasn't always perfect, but even the flatter breads had odd sized holes).

    One note: I don't go for windowpane, there's no need. At the beginning I'd just arbitrarily do this method for 8-10 mins (depending how impatient I felt that day). What I discovered after a few months of this method is that when you do this technique smoothly (i.e. one slap+fold every 3 secs) you'll find somewhere around the 5 min mark that the dough suddenly feels like it's stretchier. It's a subtle feeling but at the "fold" part of slap and fold, as you let go of the dough with a slight sideways-stretch motion, it feels like there's a "lip" there, as if you're holding raw chicken skin (sorry if this image is gross :P). At that point I continue another 2-3 mins.

    Also, be sure to fold the dough once halfway through 1st fermentation, or if you're paranoid do it once 1/3 through and once again 2/3 through fermentation.

    Try it and I bet you it'll work. Just be sure to use high hydration (at least 70% from my experience but usually I go to 75).

    Hope this helps.

  4. BTW for crazy over spring at home, I recently started using a 2nd oven stone placed on a rack above my first oven stone. For steam I simply boil water, put it in a pie pan and place that on top of the second stone. That way when the oven is nice and hot, it's also well steamed. I got the best oven spring on my sourdough boules. YMMV. I don't bother spraying any more but might try that on top of this trick.

  5. Hue - thanks for taking the time to share some of your detailed tips. I hadn't seen that slap and fold method before. I think I need to be brave and rise the hydration of my dough (worried it will make it difficult to work with) and give the slap and fold method a try.

  6. Scary it IS! I definitely was. But after trying the slap and fold a few times, there's no turning back for me. One thing though, I find I have to bake a few mins longer to get that nice and dark (almsot charred) crust I like. Probably due to the extra water. Good luck!


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