new to sour dough baking - lots of questions

wishfish's picture

Hi all,


I'm new to sour dough baking and new to this forum. By way of background, I am living in a small rural village on the Pacific coast of Panama and don't have access to almost anything at all. Just all-purpose white flour, a bowl, a measuring cup, a baking tray, and a crappy propane gas stove. I don't have recipe books, scales, bannetons, whole-meal flour, spelt, rye flour or, for lengthy periods of time, internet. It's a days trip to any kind of shops and even there not much is available.


By a process of trial and error I have made a starter using white all purpose flour that seems pretty active and healthy and I've baked a few loaves of bread with it as well as some pizza crusts and pancake mixes. I'm pretty pleased with the results so far but I'm looking to get a few tips to improve a few aspects of my bread.


I don't really know the technical talk - hydration percentages and all that stuff - so please, if possible, try to keep it in layman's terms and/or link to a good online resourse I might be able to access to learn a bit more.


My recipe is more or less this:



To make sponge:


I cup starter (consistancy of thick batter - subjective, I know but that's the best I can do - I tried to stick to equal quantities of flour and water by weight but I was using an old unmarked measuring cup to achieve this end.)

2 cups water

4 cups flour



Next day add enough flour to make a workable dough - maybe two cups more - plus 2 tsps salt and 2tlbs olive oil.


It's being rising like crazy during the first proving - doubling or more in 2 - 3 hours. So far, so good. I then deflate it shape the loaves as best I can. The question I have follow.


First, I'm wondering what are the best loaf shapes. I tried to improvise a round banneton from a colander with some success but the dough split as it was rising so the bottom was pretty messy. Any tips on forming loaves so they don't split? (I had similar trouble with some bagels I made before I got on the sourdough thing.) Since then I've been making kind of free-form bagettes by making a sheet of dough and rolling it up. They tend to spread out rather than up during the final prove.


Second, crumb... what is the secret(s) to nice open crumb?


Third, kneading... what is the optimum time to knead by hand? I can never get the window pane test to work for me. Does kneading for a long time make for more open crumb or denser bread? When you deflate it do you knead it briefly? Or just enough to get it back into a round lump?


I'm sure there's more but I'll leave it at that for now.





PS. I just read the tutorials on starters, kneading, proving, shaping, slashing so I am a little better equipped with knowledge but I still would welcome any comments, advice, words of encouragement.





344 users have voted.


davo 2012 June 23

From a quick scan a few thoughts.


I would make a smaller sponge/levain and then later add more flour when you make up your final dough mix. Otherwise there's not much "unfermented" flour to provide much in the way of gluten structure to your final bread dough. Personally I make my levain about the same consistency as the final bread dough, rather than as a wet sponge - makes it a bit easier to judge its degree of fermentation.


Kneading - I do slap and fold ("french fold") kneading and never bother with window pane test. I add in a fair bit of wholmeal rye which makes the window pane test kind of difficult anyway. So long as you get a decent amount of kneading done and do a few stretch and folds during the bulk ferment phase, it should work out OK.


Don't deflate after the bulk ferment (the stage from mixing your final bread dough, and before you shape the loaf/loaves). Some deflation will  occur in shaping, but don't actively try and deflate.


For decent lightness I would say don't let the dough rise too much before shaping, you need a bit of oomph left for the proof stage after shaping. And don't let the proof go too long either, or it will end up flat in the oven. You want the best overall rise, not overproved dough going into the oven. Trial and error, and use the poke test. WHen it goes into the oven, a wetted or floured finger pushed (say 1 cm) into the just-right dough should rebound slowly. No rebound means overproved, rapid total rebound means more proving time required!

wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 23

Thanks, davo. I've got another couple of loaves on the go so I'll report back. Too late to change to a smaller sponge but I'll give that a go next time. I'm trying to knead less this time and do some folds. Let's see. I'm going to go for a round loaf using the colander as a proving bowl. Maybe I'll post photos if it turns out OK. (Or even if it doesn't. Hmmmm, how does one upload photos?)




wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 23

So, would I be right in thinking if I follow your suggestion, davo, to reduce the size of my sponge and add more flour to the final dough mix then the dough will rise slower?


Because I'm really quite surprised at how fast this is rising... 2 - 2.5 hours and it's doubled in size... I was expecting to have to wait all day, or prove it overnight but it really isn't taking that much longer than commercial yeast.

davo 2012 June 23

Yes a smaller sponge will make your final bread dough a little slower, but don't get obsessed with overnight or all-day proving times. Even with temps typically around 20C, my times for a levain:total bread dough ratio of about 1kg:3.6kg are about 2.5-3 hrs bulk ferment then shape, then about 4-6 hrs prove (or more normally fridge retard till next evening - to fit with work - then some warm-up time) then bake.

wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 23

Another thing that I'm having trouble with is shaping my loaves. I can't get the dough to stick to itself - if that makes sense... I formed what I thought was a nice round ball (using the instructions here on this site) but as the dough expands during the final prove it opens up along the seams. What is the solution to that?

wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 23

Final worry for the day (night - it's after midnight).... My crust doesn't have any colour at all! The bottom which was in contact with the tray is brown but the top is white white white :-(  Is this due to my crappy oven, perhaps? (I know it is a poor workperson that blames their tools.) I certainly didn't overproof in this case.... maybe under...


Ah, well, sleep now. Try again soon. Maybe I'll try to post photos tomorrow.

davo 2012 June 23

Assume you invert the loaf when proving, just pinch the seams together. Occasionally if the dough surface gets floured the seams won;t want to stick. mYou can always wet in the opening-up seam, and then pinch it back. It really should stick. Crank the oven to the max, maybe ge the loaf as high as possible in it. If it's browning under the tray too much (a pizza stone would be better than a tray), try placing an empty tray below the stone/tray that the bread is on (on a spare rack) - I find this deflects the heat and so delays the browning of the base, where you need to leave it in longer to get colour on the upper crust. Bake till it is much darker than you think it should be, generally.


If anything, overproof makes it harder to get colour as there is less in the way of sugar to caramelise.

wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 24

I have got the oven turned up as high as it will go and generally I do put a tray on the bottom of the oven as part of my steam creation system. I didn't this time as I was worried that it was reducing the overall temperature of the oven. (It is very small and very poorly insulated. It only has space for one rack.) I generally have trouble getting a good colour on a loaf but this batch was particularly palid.



The bread tastes OK but I was disappointed with the crumb.


What recipe would you suggest I try next? I've been looking at the Norwhich Dourdough and actually followed her method to some extent with this batch but my dough mix wasn't identical to hers (since I lack scales I can't weight anything so I based the dough on another recipe that used cups as measures).



(I don't understand how to upload photos? Can I only do so with photos that are already online?) Edit: OK - now I understand that you can only post photos with the original post - or so it seems.


wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 26

davo, I think you're right but it's all I've got to work with. The bread didn't taste too bad and so I'm going to persevere.


...and I guess if I ever end up somewhere with better equipment the sky will be limit...




Staffo 2012 July 18

 Have you played around with the size of your loaf? Try some rolls or baguettes. They will cook quicker and demand a little less from your oven.

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