A Bread Thread

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ian

Refined, yet toothy
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I thought it would be nice to have a thread where we can ask technical questions about bread baking, since it seems like there’s a fair amount of expertise on here. It takes too much effort to click in the search bar and find an actual bread forum.

Anyway, not so infrequently I have this problem where the crumb is very uneven, and has much larger holes toward the bottom of the loaf than the top. What’s up with this? Is it a problem with my shaping? This is Hamelman’s Vermont Sourdough, btw. It’s 65% hydration.

I scored this one rather unevenly, so it’s kind of lopsided. Feel free to ignore that.

image.jpg
 
Anyway, not so infrequently I have this problem where the crumb is very uneven, and has much larger holes toward the bottom of the loaf than the top. What’s up with this? Is it a problem with my shaping?
I can think of two reasons:
  • Temperature a little too high at the bottom.
  • Too much flour on the bench when shaping, which can cause air bubbles to get trapped when you stitch the bottom of the loaf once it is in the banneton.
It's hard to tell from the photo what's going on with temperature. But it doesn't look like it's way too high, so my money is on the second point.
 
Thanks, @Michi.

Hmm, I’m usually baking at 460 while letting the stone preheat for some time (30 min?) beforehand. I’d be willing to believe that a lot of the heat comes through the bottom, since I open the door to spray a few times.

I don’t think I’ve been using a ton of flour, just enough to keep it from sticking, but that’s possible too. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Btw, how much is too much re steam? I usually do the hot half sheet pan at the top of the oven with a cup or so of boiling water trick in addition to spraying the sides of the oven every minute and a half or so for the first six minutes. Think I should forget about the spray and just leave the damn door closed?
 
It's really hard to tell what's happening, and I'm not an expert, either. I had this happen to me once and ended up reducing the temperature a bit, from 250 ºC to 240 ºC for the next bake. That fixed it, but I can't really draw conclusions from one experiment. It may have been something else, for all I know.

For steam, if you want to bake on a stone, sit a skillet in the bottom of the oven and pre-heat it together with the stone. Then, just after you have placed the loaf on the stone, throw a handful of ice cubes into the skillet and leave the door closed. Every time you open the door, you are likely to let out more steam than what you are adding with the spray, and the temperature will drop a fair bit.

I usually bake my bread in a pre-heated dutch oven, using just the moisture in the dough for steam. The first 30 minutes at 240 ºC (or, for darker, more robust breads, 250 ºC) with the lid on, then drop the temp to 220 ºC (or 230 ºC for dark breads) and bake for 20 minutes more without the lid. I pull the loaf when the colour looks right, and I double-check the internal temperature, which should be 97–99 ºC. (It almost always is in that range once the bread looks right.)

If you want to get an extra-crispy crust with tiny crusty bubbles on top, spray a tiny bit of water onto the loaf before putting the lid on.
 
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I'm no expert either! Now that we have that out the way...

That is not a bad crumb! Don't sweat it. I think it is fairly normal?

It does not look like you have any obvious signs of poor gluten development or under/over fermentation. If you are adamant about 'rectifying' it... you could try baking without a hot stone? One hypothesis might be that you have a large transfer of heat when you transfer the boule to the hot stone (conduction). This causes a rapid expansion of gas at the heat source (the base) and hence the large bubbles. Meanwhile the other surfaces of the boule heat up more slowly through exposure to the oven air (convection).

I agree that opening the oven often is counter productive. I put a tray in the bottom of the oven and preheat to 250 ºC. When the oven is at temperature I put my boules in there and pour boiling water into the tray. Close the door as quickly as possible! Leave it shut for 20mins. Pull out the water and change the temperature to 200 ºC. Leave for about 20mins. I do the last part by colour... When I am happy I turn the heating elements off but keep the fan on. Open the oven door to let some heat out and check on everything. Then partially close the door and leave a gap of maybe 10cm-20cm at the top. Leave for another 10-15mins to develop a little extra crust crunch.

One of these days I am going to measure how much water evaporates from the tray and only chuck that amount into the oven. That will save a small step...


Other notes:
  • I have shifted to mixing everything together for the autolyse. That is; flour, water, starter and salt... altogether for a mix, crude shaping into a dough mass and then 30min rest before stretching and folding.
  • Gentle stretch and folds every 15-30mins. I used to try and keep the interval exact but have gotten more relaxed about it
  • Bulk rise for maybe 4 hours
  • Do some amateur shaping. I can sort of do ok on <70% bread... For the past few months I have been doing 70%-80%. The bread turns out fine but the shaping would look slapstick to an external observer.
  • Into the fridge for 18~24hours... basically whenever baking suits me....
  • Out of the fridge while I am preheating the oven <1hr
  • Onto a room temperature oven tray when the oven is at temperature
  • Oven routine as described above...
 
That is not a bad crumb! Don't sweat it.
I should have mentioned that, too, my apologies. It's a fine bread as is and, if you were to put that on my plate, I certainly wouldn't exclaim "what went wrong near the bottom there?"

But then, there is always the quest for perfection. If @ian wants smaller bubbles at the bottom, it's his bread! :)
 
How long did you wait between mixing the dough and knocking it back? This will affect the air pockets.

If the crumb is uneven, maybe you are mixing the dough in the wrong order. Do you use a machine and a hook?

These are just other factors, I'm betting the problem is actually with the pre-heated stone as mentioned above.
 
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Usually what I am doing is:

Mix (sometimes leaving out the salt till the next step)

Wait 20 min or so

Knead a bit

Bulk ferment a couple hours (folding twice)

Preshape, rest for 15 min, shape

Proof (often overnight in the fridge)

Bake (straight from fridge)
 
I'd ask for the ingredients and offer to make the same thing with my own processes to see if it works any better, but... I don't have a mixer - I've only ever made breads in professional environments. :(

I've never baked dough straight out of the fridge. It's always been brought up to at least room temp. Might help with consistency.
Also, if you add oil, mix it in after the dry ingredients and water (and yeast if you use wet yeast) have already come together into a dough. Otherwise it can cause problems in the initial mix.
 
Heh, no worries. This just spares me from you making it perfectly and saying “I dunno what’s wrong with you, dude.” I didn’t use a mixer for this one, actually. Just hand mixed and briefly kneaded instead.

Yea, I was always a little skeptical of baking straight out of the fridge, but Ken Forkish stresses multiple times in his books that this is just fine and you don’t have to wait, so I started doing that...
 
Yeah I was careful with the wording, coz I've never tried it out of the fridge. Could be good for all I know, sounds a little iffy though.

If you did it by hand, gimme the recipe, I'll try it too.
 
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I'm also a home baker so take my advice with a grain of salt....

As some previous posters said, I would try not opening the oven every few minutes to add water. Its probably dropping the oven temperature fairly drastically. For water, I usually add 2/3-3/4 of a wine bottle of hot water (tap is fine). I have a stack of baking trays with some broken pizza stones in it at the bottom of my oven that I pour the hot water into. It generally is gone by 20 minutes so I leave it at that. If I were to do it again, I would by a few feet of heavy stainless steel chain or something. I've also heard volcanic rock works well. If you do end up leaving trays on the bottom of your oven, I highly recommend stacking a few cheap ones... I've burned / corroded / warped until it broke through a few. I used to use ice, but I found a larger quantity of water works just as well and its easier for me.

However, I have doubts that the source of the crumb inhomogeniety is the steam or temperature. I suspect its the exact way you are doing pre-shaping and final shaping. If this problem is sporadic, I would guess that it is not your oven / steam setup because that is pretty constant.

Another thing to track is how "done" your bulk ferment is. I am also in the north east and I find my bulk ferment time depends highly on weather even if my thermostat reads the same number. I look for $ V_{new} = 1.5*V_{old} $ instead of time now and I've gotten more predictable results.
 
But then, there is always the quest for perfection. If @ian wants smaller bubbles at the bottom, it's his bread! :)

Definitely! Just want to be encouraging ;)



Knead a bit

Bulk ferment a couple hours (folding twice)

Preshape, rest for 15 min, shape

Proof (often overnight in the fridge)

🤔 hhmmmmm.... I dont think this is your problem at all but my gut feeling is you may benefit from a wee bit more time (i.e. ferment) before the fridge? Indeed the recipe may call for it:


Unless I am reading it wrong... I see:
  • Bulk ferment for 2 hrs
  • Fold twice 1.25 - 1.66hrs
So that is approximately 3-4 hours of fermentation before the fridge? Although maybe steps 3&4 are supposed to be simultaneous? I follow the 50% dough rise rule of thumb. Currently I 'eyeball' it... I might actually start to measure it (either in a marked container or by setting aside a small piece of dough to observe). Anyway... I don't think this really addresses the question you asked... nor does your crumb look under-fermented! Just an observation.
 
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Definitely! Just want to be encouraging ;)





🤔 hhmmmmm.... I dont think this is your problem at all but my gut feeling is you may benefit from a wee bit more time (i.e. ferment) before the fridge? Indeed the recipe may call for it:



Unless I am reading it wrong... I see:
  • Bulk ferment for 2 hrs
  • Fold twice 1.25 - 1.66hrs
So that is approximately 3-4 hours of fermentation before the fridge? Although maybe steps 3&4 are supposed to be simultaneous? I follow the 50% dough rise rule of thumb. Currently I 'eyeball' it... I might actually start to measure it (either in a marked container or by setting aside a small piece of dough to observe). Anyway... I don't think this really addresses the question you asked... nor does your crumb look under-fermented! Just an observation.

In Hamelman, he always means for the folds to happen during bulk ferment. It is a little confusing that he labels it as the step after bulk ferment, though.
 
Definitely! Just want to be encouraging ;)





🤔 hhmmmmm.... I dont think this is your problem at all but my gut feeling is you may benefit from a wee bit more time (i.e. ferment) before the fridge? Indeed the recipe may call for it:



Unless I am reading it wrong... I see:
  • Bulk ferment for 2 hrs
  • Fold twice 1.25 - 1.66hrs
So that is approximately 3-4 hours of fermentation before the fridge? Although maybe steps 3&4 are supposed to be simultaneous? I follow the 50% dough rise rule of thumb. Currently I 'eyeball' it... I might actually start to measure it (either in a marked container or by setting aside a small piece of dough to observe). Anyway... I don't think this really addresses the question you asked... nor does your crumb look under-fermented! Just an observation.

I agree, it probably depends on the temperature of his room. The plastic container I use just happens to have volume measurements which makes things easy.

I find folding during bulk fermentation degasses slightly so I have a chance of overproofing if I fold too late. I usually fold at +30 and +60 minutes and leave 2 hours after that for the dough to double. Bulk fermentation is very temperature (maybe humidity too...) dependent so I think these times are just guidelines.

I also think baking times are guidelines, but I like my bread almost black on the outside :p
 
In Hamelman, he always means for the folds to happen during bulk ferment. It is a little confusing that he labels it as the step after bulk ferment, though.

Ahh gotcha. The recipe does also use a higher proportion of starter than I usually do (I think). So the rise should be faster than I am used to!


I agree, it probably depends on the temperature of his room. The plastic container I use just happens to have volume measurements which makes things easy.

So true! Although I checked... and our cities are only about 1 degree apart.

I should really get one of these containers. I think it would streamline my clean up as well!
 
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I should really get one of these containers. I think it would streamline my clean up as well!
In order of how easy it is to clean, highest easiest:
  1. Dried dough on plastic
  2. Wet dough on metal
  3. Wet dough on plastic
  4. dried dough on metal.
Dried dough on metal might be the third worst thing in the kitchen I had to clean, after the 1/16in thick black burned crap on the bottom of my enameled cast iron pots and jam that I burned to solid black tar. (maybe thats a little of an exaggeration...) I pretty much have to re-hydrate the dough to get it off. Maybe if I used steel wool or something more abrasive.

Dried dough on plastic is trivial to clean. Most of it just flakes off, and then a little hot water and soap and its good as new.

edit: I got a cambro tub from a kitchen supply store. 6 L is enough for 2 kg of flour.
 
I find dried dough pretty annoying whether it’s on plastic OR metal. Maybe I have the wrong kind of plastic. I’ve started washing my dough containers immediately after emptying them for that reason. Another good tip is to only wash wet dough with COLD water, because hot water makes it into a stringy substance that gets stuck on everything.
 
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I find dried dough pretty annoying whether it’s on plastic OR metal. I’ve started washing my dough containers immediately after emptying them for that reason. Another good tip is to only wash wet dough with COLD water, because hot water makes it into a stringy substance that gets stuck on everything.
I let dough containers soak in how soapy water. Then scrape the damp mess out with a flexible spatula. The last film can be cleaned with a soapy sponge.
 
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I find dried dough pretty annoying whether it’s on plastic OR metal. Maybe I have the wrong kind of plastic. I’ve started washing my dough containers immediately after emptying them for that reason. Another good tip is to only wash wet dough with COLD water, because hot water makes it into a stringy substance that gets stuck on everything.

I have the exact opposite approach :p For metal, I do exactly what you do, but with warm water because I like having warm hands. If you let it dry, it sucks and you have to soak it. Washing plastic for me sucks unless I wait 24-48 hours for it to completely dry and flake off. I found this because I used to retard my bulk fermentation in the fridge overnight and the dough on the edge of the container dried out.

That’s very possible. I still feel really incompetent at shaping.
Same. I'm not sure I'll ever feel competent at shaping. I also hate having dry or raw flour in my bread so I avoid using it until the end of the final shape when I know none will end up inside the loaf. One trick that has really helped me recently is to focus on developing gluten. I don't start bulk fermentation until the dough passes the windowpane test, but that's probably a little overboard. After I did that, shaping and manipulating the dough became a lot easier. Thin crust pizza was very hard without enough gluten, for instance. I like to think of fermentation and gluten development as separate things to optimize, despite the fact that many recipes develop gluten as you ferment.

However, I don't know if the windowpane test is applicable at 65% hydration.
 
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About humidity in the oven...

I don't make that kind of bread, I'm more of a focaccia guy, but I don't think spraying water as you put bread in the oven helps that much. I put a cast iron skillet on a rack under the bread filled with water as I'm preheating the oven and then squirt some water in from a squeeze bottle as I'm putting the bread in. I think it keeps more moisture in the environment for a longer time that way.

Bread looks great though, staff of life stuff right there.
 
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Ah, I see. That makes sense. I can’t stand having a dirty dough tub around for that long. 😂
Yep! Its a pick your poison sort of deal. I think of it as, if I do decide to not wash a container with dough on it, it must be plastic.
 
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If you are baking straight from the fridge that could be an issue. The dough will benefit from tempering before going in the oven. just enough to get a even temp throughout. When it hits the oven and before the spring it is basically proofing. The top part of your dough might be overproofing in the oven before it springs due to the colder temperature of the center of the loaf. Opening the oven in the first part of the bake would exacerbate this issue. I wouldn’t open the oven for at least the first 20 minutes.
Even if you do temper the dough it could be worthwhile to check the temp at the top and in the middle of the bottom to see what your temperature differential in the loaf is prior to loading.
 
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Could it be due to the efficient transfer of the heat through the hot metal/stone at the bottom vs hot air at the top? Could it make the gas expand more quickly near the bottom before the bread sets? Complete guess here though.

Anyway that loaf looks exceptional to me.
 
I still feel really incompetent at shaping.
I'm not sure I'll ever feel competent at shaping.

🥳 Haha... great! I feel better being in good company!


I also hate having dry or raw flour in my bread so I avoid using it until the end of the final shape when I know none will end up inside the loaf.

Me too! When I started upping the hydration, I started having problems with sticking. In a desperate attempt to stop ruining my boules when I removed them from the bannetons, I started using a lot of flour on their surface. Too much. It does the job... but I don't like the amount I am leaving on the surface. Recently I started stitching the bottom of my boules after transferring them into the banneton. The hypothesis was that I might prevent the sides sticking by developing more tension at the bottom/sides via the stitching. I also expected it would result in flour inclusions in the crust or crumb.... I was surprised to be wrong! I think at higher hydration, the dough has some capacity to absorb fresh flour into the dough with a long retard.

I dropped back down to 70% from 80% because i felt my shaping needed more practice before handling wetter dough. This one** is a recent 70% hydration loaf (50% wholewheat, 25% rye, 25% plain):

DSC00295.jpg
DSC00297.jpg


You can see how much flour is on the surface. None inside the bread though!

(**I have been using the term 'boule' loosely for the shaped, fermented dough. I have one boule and one batard shaped banneton By stitching the bottom of the batard, I found it held its bottom more strongly and came out more like a rugby ball. Perhaps a flatter bottom is more desirable....).
 
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