Help with artisan loaf (airiness and color)


This is my first post and I apologize for the length of it.  I have been baking sourdough breads for many years.  I have used both home-made and commercial starters and am currently using the Original San Francisco starter from Dr. Don Wood.  Recently I have been trying to create those airy, artisan loaves that I see on this site.  Thus far I have been unsuccessful.

I use a home-made proving oven with an $11 computer thermostat to control my proving temperatures.  The 2 dough proves seem fine with excellent rise and bubbles.  However, after removing the sticky dough from the glass bowl and gently forming it into a loaf and then proving it until more than double in size and baking at 357F for 1 hour (starting in a cold oven)I still end up with a rather dense loaf (see picture) (darkened with photoshop to bring out the loaf texture).

I do use cup and teaspoon measures and not weights.  I couldn’t begin to tell you what the percentage of flour and water is in my starter.  It is a bit thicker than pancake batter is all I can say.

My recipe is:

3 ¼ cups white, all purpose flour

1 3/8 cup water

1 tsp salt

¼ cup starter

I use the conventional function of the convection oven.  It heats from both the top and bottom elements. I cannot achieve good loaf color unless I brush the loaf with milk.  Oven spring is good to excellent.  Flavor is excellent.  I’m just having trouble achieving the airy, artisan texture.  I also don’t know why I cannot get good loaf color unless I brush the loaf with milk.

If I haven’t provided enough information please advise me and I will add whatever additional information as needed.

Hoping someone can make some suggestions to help solve my dilemma.

Thank you in advance.

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farinam's picture
farinam 2016 February 9

Hello vet_ca,

You don't give any details of how you prepare and develop your dough, but I have found that using the stretch and fold technique for dough development during the preferment stage gives you a better chance at making the open crumb that you are looking for.  You also need to be sure that the gluten is well developed and that the dough can be stretched into a thin almost transparent film (window test).

Making an estimate based on the quantities that you give, your dough could be about 70% hydration which shouldn't be too far from the mark but a well developed (and not over-proved) dough  at this level shouldn't be at all 'sticky' as you describe.  You seem to be getting reasonable oven spring so perhaps it is under-development that is part of the problem.  Working at a slightly higher hydration also helps with the crumb texture but perhaps there are some other things that should be sorted out first.

In terms of baking, I would suggest turning the heat up to at least 450F and pre-heat the oven (and stone if you have one) before starting baking.  I think this will eliminate your need for the milk wash. This will also reduce your baking time to 40 minutes and you can turn the heat down progressively through the bake to finish at about 350F by the end of the time.  Also, on the subject of ovens, thermostats have been known to be not so accurate so a check of your actual oven temperature with an oven thermometer would be worth doing.

Have a read of SourDom's Beginners Blogs on this site (right hand panel on the Home Page) and have a look at this blog of mine that might help you along the way.

Good luck with your projects.


vet_ca 2016 February 9

Hi Farinam,

Thank you so much for your prompt response.  First I'd like to address the dough handling stages.  In my original recipies (that I used for years) the hydration was approximately 35 - 40%.  This yielded excellent rounds, loaves and baguettes but with a somewhat dense texture (crumb).  These were prepared with rather vigorous kneeding.

 I wanted to start making "artisan" rounds and loaves and I stumbled upon this site (I hope open links are ok on this board).  This was a no-knead prep.  Since my round didn't come out like the one in her pictures (still dense crumb) I began my search again.  Fortunately I found this amazing and wonderful board. I have basically been using the recipe from the site linked to above but modifying hydration a bit.

With the components I stated in my original post my dough is quite sticky and I have to use floured hands and counter so I can work with it.  But...I do not work with it much at all.  Just removing the dough from the glass bowl (with a rubber spatula) and then gently massaging it into a flattened oval which I then roll and seal the seams.  No kneading at all.

So I gone from basically beating the dough to death to work in all the flour to a dough which is so hydrated that it looks almost like glue.  Hahahaha.

Thank you so very much for the internal link.  I will read that and SourDom's Beginners Blogs.  I know there is an absolute wealth of information on this site.  I'm just sad I didn't find it sooner.

I will definitely take your suggestions to heart.  Will go purchase or find my old oven thermometer tomorrow.  Cook at 450F.  Start kneading again (hahaha)  I'll try to get that transparent.  I will definitely buy another oven stone (previous one got lost in the move).

I fear if I increase the hydration even further the dough will literally run through my fingers.  The ingredient list in my first post already produces a very sticky dough.

I guarantee you there is one thing I won't do though.  I won't ever give up.

Thank you again.  This site is exactly what I have been searching for.

Cheers and best wishes.

vet_ca (Ron)

vet_ca 2016 February 12

Well you were totally correct Farinam, the thermostat in the oven was way off.  In fact it was randomly random.  @375F it read 325F and @450F it read 490F!!!!!

I purchased a 12"x12" ceramic floor tile which I've found works as good as my old (lost) oven stone and at much, much less than 10% of the price of an oven stone.

I also picked up a newer kitchen scale so I'll be using weights now instead of cups and teaspoons.

I still don't know what the percentage of water is to flour in my starter but I've started to use it only to make a levain.  I guess it really doesn't matter what the hydration of the starter is since it's only a small fraction of the total.

I will continue to use my homemade proving oven so I can get the loaf as sour as I want it.

I hope I've found a good source of freshly milled flour.  Took a bit of cajoling 'cause it's a commercial mill that usually sells in bulk (a pallate at a time!!!!!).  Shoot I'll be dead long before a pallate of flour is even partly used!  :)

Cheers buddy and thank your for such an excellent board.

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