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Baker's Q&A

We’ve gathered and answered many of the questions we hear from bakers. From Why is my starter runny? to How do I get big holes in my bread? —to questions about proofing, hydration, and autolyse, we’ve got you covered. 

Pre-bake Troubleshooting

Shaping dough just takes practice. It’s a skill to learn. Watching videos are the best way to learn along with practice. Just remember that practice makes progress. There’s no such thing as perfection. Just handle your dough gently. Think about what you’re about to do before you start. Then just do it quickly. You will get better.

If you see spots in your crumb that look tight or dense, then your final proof could have been longer. It’s also under-proofed if you see open bubbles (alveoli) in one area and not in another area. If your loaf didn’t get much oven spring or your ear didn’t develop well, then this is usually a sign of over-proofing.

If you’re asking this question, then our guess is that you’re trying to make bread using a dough that’s got too much water in it for your skills. Yes, you can throw flour all over your bench, but it won’t really help you make a great loaf of bread with such a dough. Our suggestion would be to cut back on some of the water in your recipe and try again.

Post-bake Troubleshooting

No. However, it may be too hard for your skills. We believe in keeping it simple. Recipes are just suggestions really because your ingredients, your skills, and your kitchen are different than the ones used by the baker who’s recipe you’re trying.

I know it’s frustrating, but it’s part of the learning process. It takes some time and practice to make a really good loaf of bread. We recommend starting with our Keep It Sourdough bread. Make it over and over. And over. When you feel really good about every loaf that you’re pulling out of the oven and you feel like you’re starting to understand some of the science behind making bread, then it’s time to try a different recipe.

If you knew your starter was strong when you used it or your yeast was not old, then you may just be getting impatient. Dough takes time to rise, and the amount of time depends on the temperature of your dough. When your dough is warmer, your dough will rise faster. When your dough is cooler, then your dough will rise slower. You can always use more or less starter or yeast the next time to adjust the fermentation to your schedule.

A few really large holes normally are an indication that your loaf was probably improperly shaped. Just remember that shaping takes practice. Don’t be so hard on yourself if you get some really large holes sometimes.

You have to remember that the beautiful loaf that you see on social media was probably made by a baker who’s made 100s if not 1000s of loaves of bread. You can’t start there. Bread baking is a craft, an art, a science. It’s a pleasurable hobby that you can do for the rest of your life, and there will still be more to learn. Just sit back and enjoy the journey. You’re going to be able to make bread that can feel your family, your friends, and your community.

Your dough is supposed to split open when baking. This is why bakers score their dough with a lame, knife, or razor blade. The score helps control where your dough splits so it rises better and gives you a better-shaped loaf of bread.

There are many things to learn in order to make good bread. There are many terms to learn: autolyse, folding, fermentation, proofing, pulling a windowpane, gluten development, gluten strength, and many more. You can read articles on the Internet or watch lots of videos on YouTube to learn more about all these new terms. Our best advice is to try our Keep It Simple Sourdough bread recipe. It’s simple and easy, and you’ll make yourself a loaf of bread that you can be proud of.

Your bread will take on the characteristics of the terroir where you live. You have to realize that every time you discard some starter, you then feed it with your flour and your water. After many feedings, your starter will take on the characteristics of where you live, not where it originated from. So it may be romantic to say that my starter is 100 years old, it won’t change the flavor of it or the flavor that it gives your bread.

In the sourdough world, this is often due to the fact that your starter wasn’t active enough or strong enough when you added it to your dough. This can also happen if your baker’s yeast is too old when you used it, and it’s time to buy more.

It can also be a problem with too much or too little water, and it’s hard to know without experimenting. Practice always makes progress in the bread baking world.

When baking with cast iron, especially with high heat, there can be a tendency for the bottom of the loaf to get too dark. We’ve been successful with two different methods:

(1) Instead of taking the cover of your Challenger when would normally take the cover off, take it off and turn the cover over on your stovetop. Then, place the base on top of the cover, and put it back in the oven for the rest of your bake. It is simple and easy, and it works quite well.

(2) You can also try turning your oven down to 435°F/224°C right after you put the pan the first time. We recommend that you still preheat to 500°F/260°C for that initial pop of radiant heat.

Sourdough Starter

Your starter is ready to make bread when it is at its peak. You can still use it before or after its peak, but if you know your starter well enough you will come to know when it is at its peak. You can also try the float test. If you put some room temperature water in a bowl and spoon a little starter out of your container without stirring or degassing it will just float on top of the water. If it does, you’re good to go.

Your Starter needs food: flour and water in equal parts. You want to give it enough food that the microbes don’t run out before you feed it again with more food. If they run out of food, they start to die. You can see this by looking at the top of your jar. If you can see residue on your jar above the surface of your Starter, then it ran out of food. That’s what you don’t want to happen. If it does, then you need to give it more food when you feed it the next time.

You can feed your Starter as many or as few times as you want. Pick a schedule that works for you. If you can keep your Starter from running out of food, then you have a good chance of pulling a great loaf of bread out of the oven.

Besides food, you have to think about the temperature of where you keep your Starter. When it’s warmer, your microbes eat faster. When it’s colder, your microbes eat slower. Temperature is as important as the amount of food you give it. This is the main reason you can’t just feed your Starter the way I do because your kitchen is different than mine.

You can give your Starter more food as often or as little as you want. It’s up to you to figure out how much according to your schedule (and temperature!). It could be every 24 hours or 12 or even 4.

I’ve learned in my kitchen that I should feed my Starter three times as much flour and water as I have Starter and keep it around 78°F/26°C. It’ll be ready in 8 hours, and it won’t have run out of food. If you want your Starter ready in 12, 15, or 24 hours, you have to figure out how much food it’ll need and at what temperature. I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself in your kitchen.

Here’s what I mean. If I take a clean jar and put 8g of my Starter in it, then I add 24g of water and 24g of flour (8 x 3 = 24). I then stir it up good, cover it, and come back in 8 hours. I also look at it in 7.5 hours just to see how it’s doing.

So many articles tell you that you have to get to know your Starter. This is what they mean. You need to know how much food your Starter needs.

The float test is a pretty good indicator that your starter is ready to make some really good bread. If you think your starter is ready, all you have to do is put some room temperature water in a bowl. Now spoon out a little bit of your starter (don’t stir it) on top of the water. If your starter floats, then it’s ready. This is not a foolproof method. Another good indication is how much your starter rose after you fed it. It should at least double and ideally, it should triple in volume. You can tell this by making a mark on your jar or using a rubber band to indicate where your starter was after you fed it. You can also tell a good starter by how it smells. It should smell good. It should smell almost sweet or like yogurt. If it is starting to smell like vinegar, then you have waited too long. You should feed it again before using it.

Bakers refer to this liquid as hooch, and it happens when your starter has been refrigerated. You can just pour it off, and feed your starter as you normally would. Please don’t throw this Starter away. It’s still good, and it’s just telling you that it needs some food.

You can use any kind of flour for your Starter. Organic is always best. A stronger bread flour also works really well. Every baker is different. I prefer to use a stronger (higher protein) all-white flour because it’s simple. You can add 10% rye (spicy and peppery), spelt (nutty and sweet), and einkorn is also nutty. As long as your Starter is peaking when you feed and when you use it, all Starters will leaven your bread well.

You can make so many things with your sourdough starter discard. You don’t have to throw it away. You can find recipes on the Internet for using it to make pancakes, waffles, crackers, crepes, quickbreads, muffins, and the list is endless. Just remember that your starter is just flavorful flour and water, so you could put it into anything that you make with those two ingredients, and you’ll get more flavor and more nutrition.

This is a great problem to have. It usually just means that the container where your starter was growing was just too small. You can feed it or use it as you normally would.

Stinking is in the nose of the beholder, right? Your starter should never stink or smell acidic; this definitely means its past its peak. In my mind, a well cared for Starter should always smell good, not acidic/vinegary) at all. If it stinks, for a couple of feedings, feed it three times more food than you normally would and wait for it to peak. You want to get rid of some of the acidity.

Your Starter will start getting runny if it gets “past its peak” and runs out of food. Whether you’re feeding your starter or using it as a levain for the bread you’re making, you always want to catch it at its peak before it gets runny.

You should always want your starter to double in volume (triple is best) before you feed it. If it’s not bubbling, then you may have to wait a little longer for it to peak. You have to remember that temperature is critical, and it’s best if you can find a place to keep your starter so that it’s always at the same temperature.

You just may be impatient. It takes time and regular feedings to make an active starter. Just be patient. If you’re impatient or frustrated with trying to start your starter from scratch, you can go to a local sourdough bakery or even a friend, they will be able to give you some active starter that will help you get your starter going faster.

Baking Process

The short answer is of course you can. The better answer is that we believe you should learn how to make a really good loaf of bread with just white flour first. Our Keep It Simple Sourdough bread is the perfect example of a simple recipe to learn to make bread. Once you’re good at it, we’d recommend trying an add-in a little bit at a time. Every add-in is different. Salty and fatty add-ins will change your dough, so you have to understand how your dough changes to still make a good loaf of bread. Some add-ins (e.g. seeds and dried fruit) soak up a lot of water, so add them in later. Spices like turmeric can just be whisked into your flour right at the start. Chunky things like cheese should be added toward the end of your bulk fermentation when your gluten is developed and strong and can hold it without tearing. These things just take some experimentation. Have fun with these ingredients and your bread making. And have patience as you learn.

The short answer is no. Sometimes if you’re doing an ambient proof so you can bake your dough the same day that you make it, then 30 minutes in the freezer will make it easier to score.

The short answer is yes of course you can. The better answer is that we believe you should learn how to make a really good loaf of bread with just white flour first. Our Keep It Simple Sourdough bread is the perfect example of a simple recipe to learn to make bread. Once you’re good at it, we’d recommend trying a new flour a little bit at a time. Try substituting just 10% of your flour with a new flour you want to try. If it works out well, try a little more or a different flour.

Yes! Cups and tablespoons are inaccurate. There is some science behind bread. You don’t have to understand it all to get started, and you don’t need a degree to make bread. But yes, get a scale. They are cheap, and you will have a better chance of pulling a loaf of bread out of the oven that you can be proud of.

It is best to use a banneton, especially a linen-lined banneton when you’re starting out making bread. If you have to use a bowl or a colander, it will work. You should just line it with a linen kitchen towel and rub some flour into the towel before you put your dough in.

We recommend that you score your bread to ¼” / 6-7mm. Once you get better and you start doing more than one score or some of the fancy patterns that you see on social media, then you’ll start learning to score at different depths depending on how you want your bread to open up.

Big holes are the holy grail for many sourdough bakers. In truth, you will get these as you become better at the bread-making process. You need a dough that’s well hydrated and well fermented (maybe perfectly hydrated and fermented). You also have to be very careful during shaping not to degas your dough. In addition, you need to bake it well in your Challenger Bread Pan which will give you the proper amount of radiant heat and the perfect amount of steam to give your dough the best chance it has in this last, most important part of the bread-making process.

The best way is to let your starter go past its peak before adding it to your dough. If you tasted your starter at this point (which is perfectly safe), you’d be able to taste how sour it might make your bread. You have to be careful because your fermentation will be slower with a less active starter. If you proof your dough in the refrigerator overnight before baking, you can also let it sit in the refrigerator longer which will also add more sour flavor to your bread.

You can try the poke test which is done by putting a small amount of flour on your dough. Then take your finger and poke it quickly into your bread by about ½ inch or 13mm. If your dough springs back slowly, then your dough is probably done proofing, The problem with this test is that it is subjective. Warm or room temperature dough will spring back differently than cold or refrigerated dough. Volume is also a good measure, and your dough should probably rise around 25% in volume. This too is difficult to measure when your dough is in a banneton. We recommend resting your dough for 15 – 30 minutes in your banneton before a 12 – 15 hour cold proof in your refrigerator at 38°F/3.3°C. If you’re getting more than a 25% increase, decrease the time you rest your dough before throwing it in the refrigerator. If it didn’t rise that much, then increase this rest time. Remember that the temperature of your kitchen makes all the difference. If your kitchen is warmer, then it’ll rise faster, and if it’s colder, then it’ll rise slower.

The best answer is that it just takes practice making the same dough over and over. If possible, you can use a container where you can see the top of the dough. It’ll be done when it’s 50% higher (for sourdough) and often 100% higher or doubled for yeasted bread.

After being shaped, bread dough will normally rise another 50% before it’s ready for the oven. It is harder to judge this when your dough is sitting in a banneton. You can usually let it go longer than you think. It’s really an experimental thing to do. Let it go longer one bake, and see if you like the resulting bread better.

Unfortunately, you really should. Your loaf will really finish baking as it starts to cool. It continues to release moisture after you pull it out of the oven. If you cut into it too early, you’ll end up with a gummier crumb. We recommend at least 30 minutes before you cut into it, and two hours is even better.

Lames and razor blades do work best, but you can also use a serrated paring knife or an X-Acto knife. You can even use scissors or the shape blade from your food processor.

Baking Knowledge

No. You can easily get started making a great loaf of bread with our Keep It Simple Sourdough recipe. If you’re really enjoying it, then you should learn about Baker’s Percentages. It will help you understand other recipes, and it’ll help you understand whether they will be easy to make. Or hard.

Have you heard of the saying, Walk Before You Run? This saying definitely applies to make bread, especially sourdough bread. Start simple. Try our Keep It Simple Sourdough recipe. Once you can consistently bake this recipe, then you can start experimenting with ancient grains, more water, seeds, and porridge. There are so many ways to make even more flavorful bread, but learn the basics first: Walk Before You Run.

Yes! Besides flour, water, salt, and yeast / wild yeast, the temperature is your friend. You want to track the temperature of your dough from start to finish. If you do and you keep track of this from one loaf to the next, you will start making better bread. It’s fun. Have fun with it.

They both work — if you know what you’re doing. Every baker is different. We always recommend learning to bake a good loaf of bread with a simple recipe first like our Keep It Simple Sourdough bread recipe.

There are so many ways to make bread. Every baker is different. Autolyse is just a way of hydrating your flour with water. This starts the important process of gluten development which is what you need to make bread. Some recipes autolyse just the flour and water. Other recipes will autolyse with flour, water, and starter. Some will tell you to let it rest for 30 minutes and some will tell you to let it rest for 3-4 hours. When you’re learning, keep it simple. Try our Keep It Simple Sourdough recipe. When you can make it really well over and over, then it’s time to start reading, experimenting, and making different recipes.

If you’ve been on social media, especially Instagram, or you’ve been reading all the articles about making sourdough bread, you’ve no doubt learned that great bakers love bread that has lots of holes and huge holes. This is great bread, don’t get us wrong, but you can make great bread without having to make bread with lots of water — that’s what bakers mean when they say high hydration. Don’t start there. Don’t take one of those recipes and assume you can make it. Keep it simple!

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