Large gap in the middle of the loaf...why?


I have started making sourdough a while ago and still haven't managed to produce a nice loaf. I've had underworked, underproofed and overproofed loaves (flying saucers) following different recipes. I have done a lot of reading and tried to address the issues.

The latest loaf finally had nice oven spring (suspiciously late, though) and after cutting it open, this is what I saw:


The bread was made like this:

  • 100g starter (100% hydration, white and rye flowers, fed about 6 hours before)
  • 210g water
  • 250g strong bread flour
  • 30g whole rye flour
  • 30g whole wheat flour
  • 1tsp salt

Everything mixed, autolyse 30 minutes, added salt and folded a few times, left for 10 minutes, folded again, repeated once and then 3 times with 30min intervals. Dough seemed very elastic (is it possible to overwork with this method? I was worried about that because the surface of the dough was shiny at this stage).
From the start of mixing the dough was left out at room temperature for about 4 hours, there was no significant size increase but it felt puffed up. Then I pre-shaped it and left it for 10 minutes, finished shaping, placed into banneton, covered with a tea towel and a shower cap.
Then it went straight into the fridge at 8 °C for 12 hours. I took it out in the morning and left to stand at room temperature (about 21°C) for two hours. I tried to decide when to put it into the oven by the finger poking method -  the dough felt moderately springy with the indent filling only about half way. Then it went into the oven (250°C, reduced to 220° after 5 minutes) for 35 minutes. The dough spread out a lot after I put it onto my improvised peel, but it didn't seem as runny as my previous overproofed loaves. It rose fairly late into the bake.
Texture and flavour are not bad but as you can see, something is not quite right. What should I do differently? What is the best way to judge weather the dough has been worked enough and is overworking a real threat? And what is the best method for deciding whether it has proofed enough?

Many thanks for your help!

309 users have voted.


black dog 2013 October 27

I would say that it is most likely under proved. There shoud be a significant size increase during the first prove, it should be at least doubling before shapikng and going into the fridge. To be honest i found i had better results when i went beyond doubling for first prove and then refridgerated. Sometimes if your dough is not active enough and is then refridgerated it will just sit there and sulk when you take it out.

eb16 2013 October 27

Thank you. I was under the impression that when you are going to retard the dough, the first proofing should be shorter...but what you are saying sounds very reasonable. I will try letting it double first next time. I have also seen people recommending leaving the shaped dough at room temperature for an hour before it goes in the fridge so I will also try that.

eb16 2013 October 28

Thank you. I have done more reading about the issue...and there seem to be too many possible causes. I wonder if overproofing may have occured because the temperature in the fridge was 8°C. The dough spread out quite a lot when it came out of the banneton. Is 8°C too warm for overnight retarding? Recipes usually just say place inthe fridge for very flexible amount of time.

farinam's picture
farinam 2013 October 29

Hello eb16,

This is a blog that I did some time back.  Some people have found it helpful.

There appears to be quite a difference in bubble size between the split and the rest of the loaf which could originate from the shaping of the loaf or could be related to heat penetration during baking (you did say that it occurred late in the bake).  What type of oven and do you use a stone or a tray? 

Late expansion (after most of the crust has had a chance to set) often results in splitting of the crust, usually near the base of the loaf.  Using steam in the oven for the first part of the bake can keep the crust soft and pliable for longer and can help control this effect.

Another cause of internal splitting are due by poor welding of the dough, trapping and preserving large pockets of air incorporated during folding and shaping.  Often this is due to use of too much flour on the bench or to a dough with too low a hydration.  Yours is 72% and should be OK.

Hope this helps and good luck with your projects.


eb16 2013 November 1

Hi Farinam, thank you for answering. I have seen your blog - the photos are great.
My oven is a brand new electric one, I use top and bottom heat without fan, preheated to 250°C. It also has a setting for bottom heat only - I am wondering if this would be better for bread? I haven't used it yet. The oven was preheated with a thick bottomed roasting tray, but possibly it could have been a bit short this time. I am in the process of ordering a kiln shelf and am hoping that this will improve my bread baking. I steamed the same way as always, with water in a tray for the preheating, then added boiling water just before the bread went in. It seemed to have gone out quicker than usual so you might be right about one of the causes being under-steaming. I am pretty sure shaping wasn't an issue because I do this very carefully.
I must say that I have found sourdough frustrating so far - the dough is always sticky and the only loaf that held shape after proofing in a banneton was underproofed. The same problem with crust separation (actually not just crust, more of a split in the middle) ocurred with a different loaf (attempt). This one didn't rise at all, just had this gap in the middle. I think it was overproofed, the dough just spread out after being taken out of the banneton.

farinam's picture
farinam 2013 October 29

Hello eb16,

Just a thought, rye flour can have a significant effect on the characteristics of the dough, so perhaps try making a loaf with just the bread flour and wholemeal wheat.  Say, replace the rye content by bread flour (280g).  You could go the other way and up the wholemeal but you would probably need to up the water as well because of the extra absorbancy of the wholemeal.

If the rye is the problem, then you might need to reduce the hydration to give a stronger dough. 

I assume the dough is developed to the window stage in your stretch and fold regime.  The appearance of the larger bubble walls suggest that there has been reasonable gluten development.

Just another question, is your rye wholemeal or is it fine?

Keep on bakin'


davo 2013 October 30

I'm not one who advocates doubling in the bulk before shaping, but.... WHile 4 hrs from mixing for me would be longer than normal before reatarding, my bread dough has more levain/starter than yours. I use about 1 kg of levain (at dough consistency ~70%) in a final dough weight of 3.7 kg (4 big loaves), so 1:2.7 (levain:new). You have 100 g out of about 620 so a ratio of about 1:5.2 (starter:new stuff). So your starter ratio is about half of mine (plus yours is a 100% starter, my levain is about 70%, so maybe yours is even less bugs/gram because you just have more water in there???).

So maybe because of that ratio thing your dough hasn't started puffing so much when you shape and retard, even with 4 hrs from mixing to shape cf 3 hrs usually for me. This might well be offset by retarding at 8C - which is pretty warm for a fridge (most are around 4C I think). But if that's the case, maybe you have more propensity to have large bubbles/and preferential bubbled zones, as pretty much all the rising happens after the  shape. As I say I don't advocate like others do for doubling before shaping - it might work for others but for me I usually end up with overproved loaves (maybe my fridge isn't so cold as I think, maybe my culture is more active, whatever, but it doesn't work for me). Anyway I just like to see that there are some small bubbles when I cut the dough to scale and shape. If I see big bubbles under the skin of the bulk fermenting dough I get worried it's getting away from me - and for me those bubbles just under the skin start appearing well before the bulk fermenting dough is doubled.

Maybe try upping your starter ratio, and then keep the times similar, but make the fridge a bit colder. It might mean more happens in your dough before shaping, and less after shaping. One thing, this might mean you get tension into the dough before it does all its fermenting - might help it keep structure a bit better.

Another thing - if I get this big torn off lid effect, it's been after I have had trouble getting the loaf from the banetton because of stickiness. WHat I think happens is that the skin sticks, and by hanging the loaf momentarily before it drops out, it (the stuck skin and bit of dough just under it) shears away from the body of the loaf, or at least weakens that part of the loaf. When it starts puffing up in the oven, no surprise what gives way.... If you use rice flour or say 50% rice flour and something else (I use 50 rice and 50 rye, and also gently roll the loaf off the side of the banetton when removing from fridge, before it rests a further hour or so). If you do this it won't stick. In fact, I have to make sure my fingers are under the dough when I invert the banetton as itwill drop out immediately otherwise, so I end up nursing it onto the peel from my fingers - if the loaf skin is not floured it will stick to my fingers as I nurse it down, so be warned!

Also your salt is very low more like 1% than 2% - I have baked at low salt by mistake and found it very bland. Nor sure if low salt might also affect structure.

And while most people make dough that's too dry, yours if I'm not worng is around 72%. You could maybe try about 70% or even 68% - might help minimise the ozze.  But don't get too dry or it will end up vertical but dense anyway!

eb16 2013 November 1

Thank you for your suggestions.
The next loaf I try will have no rye apart from the starter (about 30%) to see if it makes any difference. I use organic whole rye flour as it is the only one I can find.
Regarding taking the dough out of the banneton: I had trouble with it sticking twice and now use a lot of flour (regular and rye) which works. But the dough is never up to the top of the banneton because I make only small loaves. The banneton is also small but the dough never fills it so it has to drop an inch or so when taken out. I will try to be more gentle with it next time. I have also turned the fridge up (or down, depending how you look at it :) I have just looked up what the temperature should be (1.7 - 3.3°C). I am amazed we haven't had any food poisoning yet! I only checked the temperature for the purpose of this thread...I'm glad I did!

Regarding salt - a teaspoon for a small loaf is sufficient for me taste-wise...I like salt on certain things but don't like everything salty.

I have also bought a kiln shelf since the last post. From reading various advice about it, I've decided to preheat it for an hour at 250°C and use the same steaming method I mentioned - a tray in the bottom of the oven, with some water during preheating and then some fresh boiling water before the bread goes onto the stone. Does this sound like a good course of action? Or should I forget about the steam and cover the loaf instead with a deep roasting pan?

Now I just have to decide which recipe I will try this time, and what procedure to follow, how to time many variables! Wish me luck.


farinam's picture
farinam 2013 November 1

Hi eb16,

I would stick with one recipe until you get the feel for it and can make a good loaf.  SourDom's Pane francesa is a very good basic recipe that I recommend and you might find that you end up making the same one most of the time.

Using a cloche (covering the loaf with a bowl or roasting pan) is a good alternative with fewer hazards than handling boiling water and steam.

I always use top/bottom heat and preheat the stone to 250C.  These days I also do the first ten minutes at 250C before starting reducing the temperature through the rest of the bake time to simulate a falling oven.

Good luck with your projects.


eb16 2013 November 1

Thank you. I know what you mean about trying the same recipe but I don't feel like following any of the recipes again...they just didn't work for me. I tried some a few times. I feel that the problem isn't the formulae as such but more the times and temperatures. I think I need to work out what combination of proofing and retarding works for me.

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