shaping loaves




I am new to this list, so pardon if I am asking an already much-asked question, but:

How can I create a round loaf that doesn't flatten out? I can make good sourdough bread with a crust I like using a deep, covered cast-iron pan, but the loaf spreads to the sides of the pan instead of rising high: result is an excellent loaf but with straight sides. Is this because the dough is too wet?  Sourdough recipes seem to vary a lot from wet to very dry, so am at sea.



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farinam's picture
farinam 2012 December 2

Hello tbrother,

It is a bit hard to comment on hydration without knowing your recipe - flour used , hydration etc.

With white wheat flour and 70% hydration you should be able to make a perfectly acceptable, rising not spreading, loaf.

If you are working in this sort of range, the most likely cause could be over proving which leads to a breakdown of the gluten strands and causes the dough to soften and collapse particularly when it is handled and slashed.

You also need to be sure that the dough (read gluten) is well developed before the loaf is shaped.  This means that it can be stretched into a thin sheet (almost transparent window) without tearing.  The dough also tends to resist deformation and will want to spring back to its old shape when it is deformed.  The stickiness of the dough is also much reduced.

With a well developed dough, the loaf then needs to be well shaped with a good smooth tight skin that provides some tension to hold the shape of the loaf.  There are a number of excellent instructional videos available on various techniques that can be used for this.

Proving of the loaf is the next stage and the time that this takes varies depending on the activity of the starter, the room temperature and the recipe being used.  The thing to keep in mind is that the time lines given with recipes are those that work for the individual publishing the recipe and are at best a guide for you.  Basically, you need to watch and observe and decide for yourself when the loaf is ready.  If that is two hours or ten hours, that is what is needed.

You mention that you bake in a cast iron pot but don't mention whether you put the loaf into that hot or cold.  If you do put it in cold, then the time for it to heat up will also be a factor in the result of your bake.

If you give us some more details of your recipe and techniques, then perhaps we can be a bit more specific.

Good luck with your projects.


tbrother 2012 December 4

Thank you for the detailed suggestions. As you can tell, I am just at the start of what should be a long but interesting road.

The recipe I have used lately contains 2 c. starter, 2 c. water, and a total of 6 cups flour; I usually use a combination of 5 c. white all-purpose flour and 1 c. wheat flour so far, though I would like to experiment with other variants. The recipe calls for four steps: feeding the starter, making a sponge with half the flour (left to work overnight), then adding the rest of the flour and letting the bread rise twice the next day: first in a large bowl then after shaping into loaves. I have been doing the second rise right in the pan, because it seems too fragile to slide into the pan after rising. I've tried letting the shaped loaf rise in a homemade banneton using a bowl and floured cloth, then turning it into the pan, but that, too, causes the loaf to deform. These events make me think the dough is overproofed, as you suggest. I would prefer to have the pan already hot and slide or turn the loaf into it, which I'll bet makes a better crust, but it's too puffy and deformable. On the other hand, I don't want a heavy, dense loaf. I've eaten plenty of those, and I do like a little air in my bread.

In response to your other comments: I knead the loaf by hand, normally, before the first rise. After that, I don't knead it again but rather deflate it by folding it over on itself, in the manner suggested by the King Arthur Flour baker's companion. I have wondered whether there is too much rising going on in this recipe, what with the sponge step the night before and then two rises the next day. But I have been especially confused by variation in the water:flour ratio from one recipe to another. One author comments that the dough should be wet, and another comments with some force that the dough should be very dry.I need some interpretation of  "hydration," please. I imagine that is the proportion of flour to water, but it must include the starter, so how to measure it? And whom to believe?

Maybe I should add that I have a very good starter, from a brother in the SF Bay area, where I, too, used to live before present exile. This starter has been in the famiy for something like 50 years, I think--originally acquired from an uncle in Alaska. But when I was a kid we always used it to make pancakes, and it's only now that I'm getting around to the bread.

Thanks for your informative reply to my first message. It was a happy accident to find this sourdough community.

farinam's picture
farinam 2012 December 5

Hello tbrother,

Firstly, a good place to start is to read the beginners blogs by SourDom on this site.  They give a good explanation of a lot of things that you ask.  There is also a nice simple recipe called Pane francesa that is a good basic recipe though the one you are using sounds simple enough.  Which ever one you use I recommend that you should practice making it until you get a feel for what happens during dough development, bulk fermentation and proving.

The thing to keep in mind is that the timings given with recipes etc are generalisations to some degree and depend on the activity of the starter that you have, the temperature that you are working at and so forth.  Some bakers (commercial and home) go to the trouble of using temperature controlled environments to ensure consistency in time schedules.

It does sound as if you might be overproving and so I would be looking to reduce the amount of time between mixing the dough and baking.  Your best bet is to take the time to monitor the process and to bake when the signs are good.

Hydration is just the ratio of liquid (water) to flour in the final dough expressed as a percentage.  Technically, with sourdough it should include the starter although some calculations given do not.  For a white wheat based loaf, 70% hydration is a good place to start until you are comfortable with the processes.  For different styles of bread and different flours the hydration can be much higher or somewhat lower.  For calculating the hydration there are some on-line calculators around as well as some spreadsheets that you can down-load.  If you look at some of my early blogs there are a couple that you might find useful.

The other thing I would say is for you to consider buying an electronic kitchen scale and work by mass rather than volume as volume measurement of solids can be rather variable in the mass produced depending on cup size, packing etc.  As an aside, the volumes that you have given would result in a very large loaf in my experience and I would be thinking two loaves from that amount.

Good luck with your projects.


davo 2012 December 5

Agree with everything offered.

If it's "fragile" at baking time, it's overproved.

 If you are looking for maximum air in the loaf after baking, don't equate this with maximum air in it before baking. An overproved loaf will be very puffy airy on going into the oven, and will then slump flat and lose air through the degraded gluten that's failing to keep those little "balloons" within the bread sealed, and end up not so airy. If it's a little tighter going into the oven, it'll hold together better and end up more vertical and the holes won't collapse.

It's a balancing act, and no pretending it's easy, but so long as you understand the factors in the balance, you are on the way.

tbrother 2012 December 6

Thanks to both for the informative suggestions. I will read the basic site you mention, and I think I need to invest in a kitchen scale. Back to work!



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