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Sourdough Bread Troubleshooting (Part 1)


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Evan, your instructions are clear and informative. Thank you. My question: I need to start my own starer, and I know I can do it with flour and water, but can you give me some idea of proportion, or what I should be looking for? As in bubbling, smells, etc.?



If you google, you can probably get a million recipes but it's basically all the same principle. The idea is to culture wild yeast and keep it fed until the populations are strong enough to raise dough and ultimately form a relationship with enough bacteria to give it good taste. A sourdough (often referred to "natural") starter is a balance of natural yeast and bacteria, unlike commercial yeast organisms that can fly on its own without the help of acidic neighbors. The tastier your local bacteria, the tangier the bread - the luckiest have the dominant Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis - guess where? :biggrin: Where I live, it's not really tangy but the overall quality of a bread made with natural starter is very different from commercial yeasted bread. Both are terrific.

People have strong opinions about starters and sourdough and so I will keep my voice way down and tell you it's just one guy's humble opinion.

Wild yeast lives on your flour. I have read that whole grain flours have more since they contain more of the exterior of the wheat berry and so many recipes start with whole rye or pumpernickel flour. Some don't. I did mine this way. If you want to use regular bread flour - go ahead and try. Other recipes use grapes or fruit or juice to boost yeast but you don't need it. Trust me.

One suggestion and summertime is a great time to try BTW ...

Day 1: 4 oz rye flour and 4 oz water. Let sit covered for 24 hrs somewhere warmish - like the mid 70s maybe if you can.

Day 2: Toss half away and add 4 more oz of water and 4 of rye flour. Let sit 24 hrs.

Day 3+: Hopefully you will start seeing first signs of life - bubbles. Scoop out 4 oz and double it with 2 oz of water and 2 oz bread flour. Do this twice a day. You will know when you are up and running. It will take off and easily double between feedings. It should never smell "bad" only sour. Should take about a week, maybe a bit less, maybe more.

When I first made mine, there was explosive growth on like day 2 and then no acitivity and it stunk to high heaven. If that happens, start over and add a tablespoon or two of lemon juice to the initial mix. (You could do this anyway to start - it wont hurt).

Another nice alternative if you don't want to do it yourself is get "Carl's starter". It's an old 1800's starter that this guy used to give away to anyone who asked and after he died people have kept it alive and will send you a dried piece for like $2.00. It will save you time - just hydrate and feed. Up to you. I don't know if I can link to an outside site (rules??) so just google it.

If you get a starter up and running, we can talk more about maintenance - no need to pile it all on now. Not that it's difficult. It's quite easy actually. The cavemen were probably doing it.


Hathor: I now see that you are in Italy. Che fortunata ma non ti preoccupare. You can't get carl's but I am sure you can get different flours and it will work fine. Don't use tipo 00.

Edited by shacke (log)

Dough can sense fear.

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Grazie mille Evan! I know I could google up recipes, and I have some here, but when you hear the voice of someone who knows what they are doing...well, its nice to have your hand held. Thanks for the advice on Tipo 00, as that's what I have tons of. I'll look to see if I have any more 'whole' flours that are suitable. Its plenty warm in my kitchen. I'll keep you updated.

There is a neighbor here that also wants to experiment, so this should be fun.

Thanks again.


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I've been trying out sourdough bread. I use the food processor method from Van Over. I realized I wasn't hydrating enough when I made two sourdough rye breads, one more hydrated than the other, and could see very easily the higher rise of the more hydrated loaf.

I also think I wasn't letting the dough tell me how long to bulk ferment and proof.

This most recent loaf from today had more oven spring than any other sourdough loaf I've tried. I didn't over proof it going for about doubling in size on the bulk ferment, and 1/3 increase in the proof. It was about 90% bread flour and 10% whole wheat flour.

Most importantly I made sure the dough was pretty sticky. I have found that if I wet my hands or wet whatever it is that will contact the dough, no sticking will happen.

I will vouch for the food processor method. The bread lasts longer without staling and tastes very good. I don't use my mixer for bread anymore.

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Baking in this weather is challenging. Since I had some baking failures lately, no... let's call them "less successfull baking sessions" :-) I wanted to go back to basics and just do Dan Lepard's white leaven bread.

The recipe expicitly states "room temperature" is optimal, and all timing (bulk/proofing) is based on 20c. It was closer to 28 in my kitchen yesterday, and I used an unfamiliar flour (Tipo '0' pizza flour).

I saw the way my baking session were going already after the second "short kneading. I couln't get the dough unto one coherent dough due to stickyness. I switched from oiling my baking surface to dusting it with flour from that point. That helped a bit.

After about 2,5 into the 4 hour long bulk ferment period, the dough was already doubled. I knocked it down and shaped my loves. Sinice I suspected that things were moving a lot faster than usual, I did 30 minutes of proofing, and stuck them in the fridge.

And get this ! *the loaves still over-proofed on me!!!*

I decided to bake straight from the fridge since my dough still was a bit "sticky".

When slashing one of the loaves with a razor blade, it collapsed! .-)

To prove to myself that I knew what was going on, I decided not to slash the second one, and my theory was that I would get little or no Oven spring. Of course I was right. I got only a very small tear in my loaf during baking. (very hot stone)

Well.. .The point or morale of this story is all kinds of bread baking will depend heavily on the surroundings, and that recipes only are guidlines. To make this work, you have to know exactly, or at least have a good "general" idea, of what is really going on inside your loaf/dough.

This is probably what makes baking interesting though, so I don't really complain .-)

Frustration out, I feel much better now .-)

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Sometimes pictures can help so I photographed my latest bake. Sourdough can be good for difficult schedules because it lends well to retarding in the fridge. It began with a freshly fed and very active starter.


"Wetter is better" is a phrase to keep in mind. When in doubt keep your dough more supple and moist rather than too dry. An 'autolyse' may help eager flour-adders. Mix you ingredients together without the salt, let stand 30 minutes and then add salt and mix as usual. The time allows the flour and water to incorporate. I autolyse all my breads.

Note the dough is not standing up on its own. It's actually a bit sticky needing floured hands to handle it. It's not a runny mess either.


This is the bread after a "fold" midway through fermentation. Can you see how much firmer it looks? Amazing. This is a method given by Jeffrey Hamelman - my hero. The idea is to under mix and then a series of turns/folds allows for further gluten development. Not to say you need to do this, but it is pretty cool to watch the dough transform.


Here the dough, almost fully fermented. I was in a rush so I played some tricks to boost things along (lower salt %, a wee bit higher dough temp). It is shaped into a simple round boule and placed in a basket for proofing overnight in the fridge. I left it there for about 14 hours.



Here is the bread after a long bake. Since I knew it was on the underfermented side if anything, I gave it extra steam to keep the surface moist longer. By the way, I baked it cold - right from the fridge. No worries. Notice the crumb is open with irregular holes. You don't want them big enough for a mouse to crawl in as Hamelman says!

I really think a strong starter and keeping your dough wetter - within reason - is crucial.

Your turn phlawless!


Dough can sense fear.

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shacke; I love your crumb texture, but I think your loaf seems a bit on the underproofed side. Look at the violent tear during oven spring (!!) Did you cut the loaf with a knife/razor at all ? Maybe you could've gotten even larger holes/more rise with a longer proofing time ?

Maybe you wanted the dramatic tear effect?

But hey... It sure looks good to me .-) Great work!

Edited by glennbech (log)
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I made ciabatta today, sourdough. And it came out a bit sour, for the first time with the starter I developed about 4 weeks ago. And it came out very light and airy.

Here's what I did.

I made a lot of very liquidy poolish, fed it, left it out for the day, then refrigerated overnight.

The next morning the poolish had some thin "hooch" type stuff in the bottom and I mixed it all in and used it all in the bread. I could tell it would be sour when I saw that. I think retarding the poolish at this point let the bacteria beasties grow and made the poolish sour.

I then made the dough quite liquidy. I used 1 cup of this very liquidy poolish to 3 cups flour. I use the food processor and I used enough added water to make sure it just barely formed a ball with a lot of dough trailing the ball.

The dough was almost a batter.

During the primary ferment (about 8 hours in the basement at about 70F.) I folded a

few times -- put on a floured board, stretched and folded. I continually wet my hands so they wouldn't stick and I floured the countertop also. This was the only way to manage such wet sticky dough.

I proofed about an hour on cookie sheets lined with parchment. When I baked, I did so first at 550F. on the stone but I just stuck the cookie sheet on the stone.

I steamed in a pan at the bottom of the oven.

They puffed up very well, great oven spring. They were very light with lots of big and small holes. I was surprised how tender they are. And they tasted a bit sour, for the first time since I've been trying this. (The last ciabatta I made using a mixed starter/yeast formula but I wanted to be a purist on this and only use my starter this time.)

So, lessons learned:

1. high sponge to flour ratio

2. develop your sponge and then refrigerate overnight

3. work with very hydrated dough

4. fold dough during bulk fermentation

Next time I will work more carefully in folding when I proof, so there is at least some surface tension in the dough. I don't think I had enough surface tension. Next time, I will fold the dough during proofing, to create as tight a seam as possible with the wet dough, and then turn over so the seam is at the bottom.

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Sounds great, thanks for sharing the experience. I've been wanting to try the ciabata for a while. Im sceptical due to the very hydrated dough *grin* My kitchen will look a mess! .-)

When baking the ciabata; How do they look during proofing? Do they just "flow out" like small pancakes, or do they acutally hold some kind of shape?

Are they "flat", and spring up?

Also, I've seen ciabatas dusted with flour after baking, is this "authentic" ?

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During proofing, they held a shape because I folded them. I should have folded them with more tension, but I did fold them and they did hold the slipper shape.

I dusted mine during proofing so the plastic wrap wouldn't stick.

What surprised me was the amazing amount of oven spring. They almost doubled in height from the oven spring.

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The weather finally cooled enough for me to bake this past weekend. Teh "Great California Heatwave" has moved on, whew! I started refreshing my starter on Tues eve, again on Wed eve, Thurs eve and Fri morning. After 4 hours I mixed dough (used Peter Reinhardt's BBA's basic sourdough proportions) and let ferment for nearly 4 hours then shaped??, not exactly, it was a really wet dough. Thanks to what I've read here, I spritzed my counter top with water, wet my hands and a bench knife and was able to fold it several times. As an experiment, half was baked Fri evening the other half went into the fridge.

The first loaf had nice holes, but only moderate oven spring....but mighty tasty!

The second loaf had nice holes, and much better oven spring....still mighty tasty.

I discovered that with dough thats very wet, instead of slashing, kitchen shears are better for me, didn't seem to deflate as much without the drag on the dough. One of these days I'll get a digital camera and share pictures. Anyway, I just wanted to thank everyone who contributes here for the knowledge you're all sharing. And especially for sharing your less than successful endeavors, they kept me going when I was awfully discouraged :biggrin:

Keep it going!!

Just a simple southern lady lost out west...

"Leave Mother in the fridge in a covered jar between bakes. No need to feed her." Jackal10

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I'm working on my next sourdough ciabattta. I refreshed my starter and acivated it by leaving it out, then took some and started a poolish. The poolish was out all day and rose and showed foam and activity, and now I refrigerated the poolish overnight.

Hopefully tomorrow there will be a liquidy hooch in the poolish and I will proceed to make the loaves. I will make in the food processor and will let rise all day, in the cool basement, then will proof and bake tomorrow night.

Always an adventure!

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I'm working on my next sourdough ciabattta. I refreshed my starter and acivated it by leaving it out, then took some and started a poolish. The poolish was out all day and rose and showed foam and activity, and now I refrigerated the poolish overnight.

Hopefully tomorrow there will be a liquidy hooch in the poolish and I will proceed to make the loaves. I will make in the food processor and will let rise all day, in the cool basement, then will proof and bake tomorrow night.

Always an adventure!

Keep us informed! .-) I need to bake something for a family BBQ on Sunday, maybe I'll do Ciabata's inspired by this thread .-)

I got the BBA book on monday and have been reading through it lately, that guy sire has real passion for bread! :-)

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I got the BBA book on monday and have been reading through it lately, that guy sire has real passion for bread! :-)

Glenn, I'm glad you got it. My copy is a mess because I've used it so much. You're right, he is truly passionate about his craft. I'm sure you'll get a lot out of it and if you're like me, will be inspired by him :smile:

Just a simple southern lady lost out west...

"Leave Mother in the fridge in a covered jar between bakes. No need to feed her." Jackal10

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Cajungirl, for handling high hydration doughs you will find that a small amount of olive oil spread on your bench and hands does wonders for the handling.

Thanks Bill. I have a formica countertop and I just thought that the water would be a little less messy than oil. Also, if I'm folding several times and using a bench knife to help scrape the dough together to fold, wouldn't I begin to incorporate too much oil? What do you think? :huh: Thanks

Just a simple southern lady lost out west...

"Leave Mother in the fridge in a covered jar between bakes. No need to feed her." Jackal10

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Thanks Bill. I have a formica countertop and I just thought that the water would be a little less messy than oil. Also, if I'm folding several times and using a bench knife to help scrape the dough together to fold, wouldn't I begin to incorporate too much oil? What do you think? huh.gif Thanks

In my last couple of sessions, I've actually incorporated too much *water* into my dough after wetting my hands and countertop. That is one problem you have, both with oil and water. If the recipe does not call for oil in the first place, I guess water makes most sense.

I Invested in two very basic misters. The kind you would usually use in your garden, very cheap (I love home made makeshift baking equipment!)

I have oil in one of them, and water in the other. Using a mister with water on the countertop minimizes the amount I have to use.

So far, this works like a charm.

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bILL44; For me, we're not talking about 1 tsp. We're talking about 1 tsp per kneading for the countertop, and the same for my hands :-)

With 6-7 kneadings during the life of the dough, this becomes quite a bit!

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bILL44; For me, we're not talking about 1 tsp. We're talking about 1 tsp per kneading for the countertop, and the same for my hands :-)

With 6-7 kneadings during the life of the dough, this becomes quite a bit!

With high hydration doughs I usually do 4 kneads and three stretch and folds. If you practise your technique you will find that 1 Tsp is quite enough to do this. I suggest you do a search on Dan Lepards method, highly recommended.

Kind regards


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Dan Lepard's White Leaven "Handmade loaf" is one of the stickiest and dirtiest books in my shelf :-)

I guess this comes down to personal "workflow". Personally, I'd find it cumbersome to measure up 1 tsp of oil, and try to share that between hands and the countertop for 4 kneads and three stretch and folds.

But I guess that's why I improvised a bit and bough the mister.

Bill; Remember that you've been baking for some years now, and others started their first Sourdough culture in April :-)

What I will try, Is Peter Reinhart's technique to oil AND dust cloth to improve i couche. Have anyone tried that? I guess this is somewhat related to the common technique of buttering and duting muffin pans etc.

My Best,

Edited by glennbech (log)
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I havent baked bread in a while now, but I needed to refresh my sourdough that I almost forgot in the back of my fridge :hmmm: .

I wanted to make some focaccia and I made this one with Dan Lepard formula the one on his web site for the genovese focaccia etc.




Edited by Desiderio (log)


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I bulk ferment and proof in a basement that is cool. I aim for 70F. I think it improves things a lot. It slows down the fermentation quite a bit but I think it brings out flavor. Even baker's yeast breads do better this way.

I started a poolish Monday, refrigerated it overnight after it had bubbled along, and then made the dough Tuesday and let it ferment and proof all day Tuesday and refrigerated it overnight.

This morning, Wednesday, I baked it right out of the fridge, while cold. Worked great and I am told it has wonderful flavor. (I don't eat during the day so I'll wait until night to see how it tastes. It is sourdough rye).

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      Return the syrup to the microwave, microwave on high for 8 to 10 minutes [or heat the syrup on the stovetop] until an instant read thermometer shows the temperature of the syrup is 190 to 200 degrees.
      Place the vegetables into one wide-mouth quart jar, or in 2 wide-mouth pint
      jars that have been scalded as described above. Pour the syrup over the vegetables, place the lids on the jar or jars, tighten well and place in the refrigerator overnight.
      The following day, turn the jar upside down - then continue to turn every day for 2 weeks. (This is to insure that the pickles are evenly flavored)
      After 2 weeks open the jar and taste. The pickles should be ready to eat.
      Pickles will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 months.
      ( RG2154 )
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