Befuddled Baker Needs Some Help

I've been "lurking" in the forum for a long time. I've been baking sourdough bread with my own homemade (and very wonderful!) starter for about three years. I've had startling successes and horrid failures, and I can rarely figure out which it will be until the bread comes out of the oven.

This is what I am trying to achieve, so far, to no avail: I would like to bake about three loaves of bread about 2X per month. I can't seem to figure out a "schedule" that makes any sense to me. The activation of my starter can take from 5 hours to 9 hours per feeding, the number of feedings required for my starter to be "bake-ready" can range from 1 to 3. The doughs themselves are also really varied as to proofing times. How does anyone get a loaf baked without committing three or so days, 27/7, to nursing a loaf of bread along?

The more I read online, the more befuddled I get. I know that temperatures affect starter activity, that doughs can take any number of hours to proof, that starters can take any number of hours become fully active, that starter activity when you bake will affect the rise and taste of your loaf, and and and...

I'm an old bag whose memory and organizational ability have long sinced tanked. And I was always math challenged (baker's percentages, volume vs weight...) Do people such as me have to stick to processed yeast? Gaaa!

I would so appreciate some advice, and perhaps the sharing of some of your own baking schedules? Thanks in advance from a heart that willing and a brain that's weak.

14 comments

A lot of things can affect both starter and dough development and consistency. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Temperature: this includes temperature of the water used in the dough making as well as the water used to feed your starter. Also, the temperature you store the starter in and allow the dough to ferment in. In all cases, cooler temperatures mean it will take longer.
  2. In the feeding of your starter: How much flour and water do you feed during each feeding and how do you measure it? Consistency is the key. Also, make certain you use good flour. The quality of flour can differ greatly from one batch to the next with some brands. 
  3. The more you can repeat everything in the process, the more you get the same results each time. For me, using a scale and weighing everything helped me get the best results repeatedly.

In terms of process, here is how I get good results:

  1. I keep 300 g of starter in the refrigerator on a regular basis. I feed the starter once a week by removing 200 g. Then I feed 100 g of water and another 100g of flour to get back to 300g. I usually feed the starter at least twice before putting it back in the refrigerator. I usually feed twice a day while it’s on the counter.
  2. If I am going to make bread I don’t remove any starter but add 150g of water and another 150g of flour to bring my total amount to 600g I do that the night before I want to make my dough.
  3. The next morning I pull 500g of starter to make my dough. This leaves me with 100g of starter which I feed 100g of water and another 100g of flour. This brings me back to 300g to go into the refrigerator for next time.
  4. With the 500g that I pulled I make my dough. Depending on the recipe I use, I can make two large loaves or three smaller ones.
  5. I ferment my dough on the counter for about 3 hours and then I form my loaves. The loaves are then placed in the refrigerator. I pull the loaves the next morning and allow them a final ferment at room temperature for 1.5-2 hours before baking.

 

If you really wanted to keep the process down to two days you could use the method above and just ferment the dough as I did in step 5. After the first 3 hours, form the loaves and leave them out of the refrigerator to rise a second time and bake them after they double.

 

I know it can seem like a complicated process but after you have done it a few times its easy. I can’t stress enough how important weighing things were to getting consistent results.

 

I hope I helped

...gone over to digital measuring. It does help. I'm sensing that the starter is key to all my failures/sucesses moreso than temp and flour. We moved four months ago across country, and I have not used my starter much at all. But every few weeks, I have taken some out of the fridge and fed it enough flour and water to make a very firm starter. I ahve not measured amounts. It sits in the fridge like a ball, but does rise as I can tear it open and see bubbles much like a fine sponge. I had read that firm starters keep longer.

Now, I am wanting to bake regularly again. I have been feeding my starter after leaving it on the counter for a couple hours, and feeding it by 1:2:2 by weight. I have been waiting for it to double before feeding it again, yet I am finding that it rarely gets up to the "double line," although it forms nice bubbles. I have fed it again at this point, and again, it rarely has hit the full "double" mark no matter how long I leave it out.

Tell me if I'm wrong here, but can I assume that my starter needs more time and more feedings to come back to her full strength? I was reading that perhaps I should let her rise to her full height and then start to fall before feeding her again. And that I should do this a few times until she is rising fast and bubbly to double her height in 4 to 6 hours? I believe my kitchen to be between 68-70. Our thermostat is not really accurate to the degree. 

Shasta, when you take your starter out to "eat," when do you give it its second feeding? When it has doubled? Fallen? Quadrupled?

I like your schedule very much and will print this message and post it on my fridge, so I can follow it. It seems like a very manageable affair, and gives me at least a framework to start with! Thank you so much!

I feed my starter right out of the refrigerator. Typically I add the water first; usually it’s lukewarm to help get the starter going. Once the water is mixed in I add the flour. I usually stay on a 12 hour schedule to keep it simple.

I also typically use my starter at the end of the cycle. I’ve tried sooner in the cycle but get great results with 12 hour old starter.  There are probably as many opinions out there on this as there are bakers but this works for me.

Another thing I do to keep things simple is to weigh my empty starter container and write that weight on the outside of the container. That way I can always calculate that actual amount of starter I have when feeding.

Example:

My container weighs 325g

With the 300g of starter I usually keep the whole thing should weigh 625g

When I pull out the amount to discard (200g) my container and remaining starter combined will weigh 425g.

Then I simply zero the scale and add the water and the flour at 100g each. I'm right back to 625g again and ready to for a 12 hour cycle or to go back to the fridge.

 

Again, there are many ways to do this but I like the simplicity of this process.

I hope all of this helps.

Sour-dough does tend to be more variables than the bread made with commercial yeast.

 

My thoughts for reducing this variation is throw away any measuring cups or jugs you own and get some digital scales. Weigh all your ingredients including liquids.

 

Learn how to judge gluten development (window pane test).

 

Learn how dough handling will affect the final product.

 

Try and use all your senses to judge the progress of the bread. For instance how soft or firm the dough is can give vital clues. Equally what colour brow is cooked and were is the line between dark brown and burnt. Always taste your failures.

 

Temperature is a variable that needs to be managed so be aware of how it changes the dough processing and how you can manage dough temperatures.

 

Finally there are a lot of pseudo experts out there preaching all sorts if half truths and misconceptions on the Internet. If some “advice” seems like ill informed rubbish it well may be.

 

Like most things in life once you know how to do it it is easy. However until you know how to do it it can seem very mysterious or even scary.

 

Hello susanknilans,

Like Shasta, I keep about 200g of 'stock' in the fridge.  When I want to bake, the evening before, I take 90g of that and bulk it up with 45g of flour and 45g of water.  I do the same with my stock to restore the mass (with a blend of 20%rye/80% white) and put it straight back in the fridge.  There it stays till next time whether that be a week or a month.  If it is for a month (holidays) it might take a couple of feeds to really get back to full pace but you can still make bread.

Then, in the morning, I make the dough and bake in the afternoon.

As a variation I can prepared the starter in the afternoon and do the dough development in the evening and put the shaped loaf into the fridge overnight and bake in the morning

On the matter of the height of rise of your starter, it depends on a lot of factors and I wouldn't get my knickers in a knot about it as long as it is full of bubbles.  In fact, you can go straight from stock to loaf mix quite successfully.  One of the main reasons for going through the starter prep stage (as for baker's yeast) is just to prove that the culture is active before you commit your valuable flour to the process.  If you are confident of the freshness of your yeast/activity of your starter then the activation stage is not absolutely necessary though there is an argument that it helps to speed the process and might have some effect on the taste.

Good luck with your projects and cobbler mints of the season.

Farinam

Just another method

After making sourdough, and other breads, for 50 some years, and maybe getting lazy at my age, I don't measure much these days.  I think it began when I noticed folks measuring amounts to a tenth of a gram and then using 100 gms or maybe one half cup of bench flour and not mentioning where that addition comes in.
 
So, I keep my starter in a quart jar in the fridge and add a tablespoon or two of KA whole wheat flour every two weeks or so.  Add water to keep the mix slushy.  The only measurement I keep in mind is the total number of cups of flour needed to produce the number of loaves I want to bake  i.e. 12 cups of total wheat and rye for three loaves of bread.
 
I take the starter out of the fridge and pour about a cup into my mixing bowl and add a couple of tablespoons of wheat and some water to the starter jar and let the jar sit in the kitchen till bubbles are seen, then back into the fridge for 2-3weeks.  Then for the next few days I add wheat, rye, or unbleached white flour in the morning and night, plus water, paying attention to 12 hours at warm temperatures for acid bacteria action then 12 hours of cool to let the sourdough yeast work.  After 4-5 days, I bake.  I usually dip my finger into the dough just before adding flour to get a feeling for how the acid-sourdough balance is going and can adjust the temperature for the next period if needed.
 
Well, as I said this is nothing more than how I do it.  If you measure everything carefully more power to you.....just so we are all having fun.

Wow, such helpful information from each and every one of you! I am relieved that I don't have to get my starter up to the full "double" line. It is always a bubbly thing, and I'm going to try feeding it a few times before baking with it in the future, just so I can familiarize myself with its "lifestyle."

For the time being, I'm using a bread recipe from The Fresh Loaf called a 1-2-3 bread, which keeps the measurements simple for me, and allows me to easily up or downscale my baking adventures.

Two more questions, if I may bend your ears just a bit more:

--Do you all knead your breads, or stretch and fold? Or something else? I've been working with pretty loose doughs that can be very hard to knead, so I mostly stretch and fold these days.

---I have a consistent problem in that ALL my loaves have an interior that is just slightly rubbery. The bread tastes great, but there is no silkiness to it (I've had this "silky" feel to a couple of my loaves over the past two years, but it is a rarity.). I try to bake my loaves until the center reads 205, but I can rarely get that hot unless the rest of the bread is near burnt-brown, and the crust is hard as a rock and incredibly thick. Also, even baking it to that long does not give me a "silky" loaf. Any ideas?

I bow at your lotus feet...

I fold mine every half hour or so.

195-200F is usually fine for me.

Merry Christmas!

 

A suggestion.....
 
Over the years I have suggested how to bake bread to several newbies.  Basically, I suggest trying extremely different doughs, and timing regimes, to get a feeling for what you are working with, and how the dough mix comes out as a loaf.
 
At one end are the new no-knead breads, and, say, KA unbleached bread flour, which are so loose you can't really handle the dough.  Folding is best.  At the other end is the 75% Bob's rye/wheat I enjoy which is like kneading a concrete block......and rises like one.  Add gluten.
 
If you play around with a few mixes you get a much better feeling for dough rather than sticking with a "certain" mix and worrying about details before you really understand the breadth and complexity available to you.  You might not appreciate all the loaf outcomes, but you will learn from each effort.
 
By the way, I use  "gold colored" Williams-Sonoma Goldtouch heavy bread pans.....takes about 30-45 minutes to cool and so I take loaves to 195 F.  Perfect.  Buy some good pans and like a 50 year old cast-iron skillet, or All-Clad kitchen goodies, they will last forever and be passed on.
 
Just thought of something else.  Baking more than one kind of bread is cathartic for the spirit.  My dense party rye, with cream cheese and lox, is loved by others, but baking a brick, even with added ground and whole toasted caraway seed an a half cup of onion flakes, plus some expresso, is still a shrunken example of a big loaf of bread.  So, bake a "normal" high-rising loaf now and then, just to re-affirm your baking chops.
 
 
 
Merry Christmas or whatever you call it.
 
Fred
Tucsoa, Arizona

Shasta and Fred: Once again, you  have given me helpful---but more important, comforting---advice. Fred Rickson, I have been endeavoring to make the Vollkornbrot on this site, and out of three loaves, one has been edible. As for the other two, the crows and squirrels love it!

It is a super heavy bread, and I experimented a bit with different flours and different grains. I realized I truly love the taste of full rye in that bread. Baking these bricks is challenging, as they take so very long to cook. One of my loaves turned out to be essentially all crust by the time it was done!

Shasta, thanks for letting me know your schedule for stretch and folding, and the temp you take it out at.

My dear husband is a lover of old cast iron, so I have three (ranging from small to very large) pots or dutch ovens. They have been just great for bread.

Again, I can't thank you enough. And...many, many blessings to you all in this coming year. May all our bread be blessed as well, as it is living stuff, and all livings stuffs can use a blessing.

I looked up the thread on Vollkornbrot, and couldn't make heads or tails out of it.  Sorry.

And I thought bread was ready when it sounded hollow when knocked on the bottom!

 

Slacker....
 
Your right about the sound, but I found out that handling a 375 degree loaf with one hand while thumping it with the other, and maybe putting the loaf back into the pan was going to cause me bodily harm somehow. 
 
So an instant read Thermapen is much less painful.
 
Fred

Certainly there are a range of styles of how to make bread (or do most things).

Baking can be a touchy feely thing that until you have experience can be challenging.

Enjoy your successes and try and learn from the poor performances.

How much or little you are prepared to put into your baking is a personal thing.

If you are a precision measure carefully type person or a it just seems type right person will depend on your personality,