Sourdough bread-making methods, The Sourdough Journals
Comments 6

A failed experiment pays off in lessons learned

Expanding gases and steam burst the top of the crust because I did not slash the loaf deeply enough before baking

In hopes of cutting out a couple of steps and reducing the overall loaf-making time, I blended some old tricks with new ones.

As you know, I’ve found that King Arthur’s stiff levain method, combined with Babette’s kneading method, consistently produces lovely, airy whole wheat loaves with just the right crunchy crust.

At 1 am, I mixed the poolish and set it to rise at room temperature, which was rather cool

At 1:00 a.m., I mixed the poolish and set it to rise at room temperature, which was rather cool

The problem with this method is that it takes a lot of time, from start to finish–nearly two whole days, although the real work time is far less.

My goal was to see if I could shave labor time as well as time overall.

Before I share the experiment, here’s a quick recap of typical steps over two days.

Day 1: Early in the morning, and again, twelve hours later, feed the stiff levain. From start to cleanup, that’s about ten minutes each time, twenty minutes overall on Day 1.

Day 2: Over the next six-to-seven hours, do the following, which adds up to about an hour of labor, in small increments here and there, the longest being 20 minutes.

  • Measure the water and levain, and soak the stiff levain 10 minutes to soften.
  • Add the flour, but not the salt, mix well and let rest 20 minutes (autolyse period).
  • Add salt, knead 20 minutes, and set to rise 3 hours.
  • Shape into rough ball and let rest 20 minutes.
  • Stretch and shape into boule and let rise in banneton 1 hour.
  • Turn out, slash and bake 45 minutes.
  • Let cool at least 30 minutes, longer if possible, before cutting.

Not only am I spending nearly an hour in labor each time I make a small loaf of bread, I’m mostly stuck in the house the better part of a day to assure I don’t miss the next step and the next.

That’s not so bad for me, a retiree experimenting with sustainable ways to nourish ourselves and willing to spend the time.

But for a busy family with half a dozen places to be every day, or a millennial holding down two or three part-time jobs and trying to build independence in the biggest over-educated, under-employed group this nation has ever seen? That’s just not going to work. Every minute matters.

What I did differently

This time, eschewing the second feeding the night before, I made the dough just before bed, omitting the salt, and set it to rise in a cool spot. By morning, I hoped to find the dough elastic, pliable, and partly risen.

Eight hours later, the poolish had doubled

Eight hours later, the poolish had doubled

Instead, it had more than doubled. I knew I might be in trouble. I still had to add the salt, which meant punching down the dough.

Would the yeast have enough food left to rise a second time after kneading, and once more after shaping the boule?

My hope was that, by skipping the second levain feeding, and doing a long, cool autolyse, the dough might knead in half the time, shaving ten minutes from the total labor time, in addition to the ten minutes I saved the night before by omitting the second feeding.

Twenty minutes don’t sound like much, but it’s time I’d be glad to spend on other pursuits if I can get the same or better results. Time, too, that might make the difference to a busy mom, dad or active young person, pressed for time, but wanting the advantages of homemade, whole grain, wild yeast bread.

Besides, I had hopes that the long autolyse might help the dough to rise faster and shave half an hour or so off the total rise time as well.

If all worked as I hoped, I might save 50-60 minutes total time, and get fresh bread on the supper table, and not have to wait until morning to cut it, as we so often did.

At first, this method looked like a winner

During the knead, I thought this new method might just be the answer.

The dough was not sticky at all. I got almost no dough on my hands while kneading, and had to scrape very small amounts from the work table only a few times. Win!

Then, about eight minutes into the kneading, the dough suddenly felt elastic, pliable, and alive in that way you know it’s working. Win! Win!

Encouraged, I stopped kneading and did both the window pane test and the baby bottom test. They failed.

After kneading twelve minutes more, stopping twice along the way to conduct the tests, I finally got a smooth baby bottom and a fairly good window pane.

Not one minute of time shaved off the kneading period. Rats.

Dough rise time steady at three hours

Still hopeful, I set the dough to rise and checked it after two hours. While it had risen markedly, it had not doubled. Drat.

At the end of the third hour, thankfully, the dough had doubled nicely. Disappointingly, this method had saved not one minute of rising time.

At least I hadn’t lost any.

Carefully, stretching and shaping the boule, I laid it upside down in my flour-dusted banneton, set it in the oven with the light on, and covered all with a big seven-quart stainless steel bowl, to hold warmth and prevent surface drying.

Shaping and stretching the dough into a boule, I placed it upside down in a flour-dusted banneton

Shaping and stretching the dough into a boule, I placed it upside down in a flour-dusted banneton

Relieved, upon checking the boule after thirty minutes, I found the soft dough double its original size, or nearly–just what we want when we bake a sourdough loaf.

The boule is nearly duoble--time to fire up the oven!

The boule is nearly double–time to fire up the oven!

I turned it out onto the pizza peel and fired up the oven, pizza stone in place and cast iron pan on the bottom shelf to receive the hot water, which I set to heating in a small container on the stove top.

The boule, turned out on the pizza peel, ready to slash and bake

The boule, turned out on the pizza peel, ready to slash and bake

Slashing the dough and pouring hot water into the steamer pan in the oven, I slid the boule from the peel. Five minutes later, through the glass, I could see it had popped up higher than any loaf I’ve made to date. Success!

Sadly, I had not slashed that loaf deeply enough. The popping gasses blew right through the top of the loaf and left me with a misshapen football.

The top of the boule exploded, leaving me with almost a football-shaped loaf

The top of the boule exploded, leaving me with almost a football-shaped loaf

More sadly still, the loaf is dense inside, with few large holes and not enough small-to-medium ones. Most of the gas must have escaped from the top with the explosion.

The white stuff is flour from the cutting board, but you can see the texture well

The white stuff is flour from the cutting board, but you can see the texture well

Although the first two slices contain a fair amount of bubbly holes, the rest of the loaf is dense and heavy. Note to self: Remember to lay the slices on a clean cutting board, so they’re not sullied with flour from the bottom of the loaf.

After the fact, I realized I had introduced one other variable to this experiment, for which I need to account. My most successful loaves started out as very wet, sticky dough. This time, I forgot to add that extra ounce of water.

Could a wetter dough make a difference? And what if I were to autolyse the dough in the refrigerator instead of on the cold night-time counter top?

Worth giving it a try, right?


  1. What a thorough and beautiful blog you have here. Makes me sorry I don’t make bread very often anymore. I will be sure to share this far and wide. I just love your step by step photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent questions, Maria, and I thank you for asking. A while back, I started keeping a glossary, called “Sourdough Lingo.” You’ll find it in the main menu, under the “Resources” tab.

    You will find both banneton and autolyse there, and I will add pizza peel and pizza stone today.

    To save you having to click around, I’ll respond to your questions here, too.

    A banneton is a basket, usually wicker like the one in the photos above, in which a boule (ball of sourdough) is placed for the final proofing. Dusted with flour, the basket gives those characteristic round or oval concentric lines to the the top of the boule, while providing a smoothly rounded shape. Bannetons come in a variety of sizes and shapes.

    A pizza peel is a flat wooden or metal tray with a long handle. Traditionally, the pizza is placed on the peel, which is then used to slide the pizza into a fiery hot oven.

    Bread makers use peels in the same way. The photographs on this page show the peel: Whole Wheat Sourdough Pizza.

    We home bakers generally do not have a wood-fired pizza oven with a brick or stone floor on which to bake our pizzas, so we buy pizza stones to give our homemade pizzas that wonderful crust.

    Sourdough bread makers use pizza stones in their ovens the same way.

    Autolyse is a rest period given to the dough after combining the flour, water and starter, and before adding the salt and any spices or other additives. The autolyse permits the flour to absorb more water, making it more pliable. This is especially beneficial when using whole grain flours, like wheat, because of the extra fiber they contain.


    • Thanks so much for the info. I have seen pizza peels, but didn’t know what they were called. I suppose if I had to name them (prior to your message) I would have called it a “giant spatula” or “those big wooden paddles pizza makers use”. Shows what I know. In the photo, the banneton looked to me like a ceramic bowl. I’ll have to look again. I seek out your glossary, etc. Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome, Maria. That’s what I told my 2-year-old granddaughter the other day, when she asked me what a pizza peel is. I showed it to her and said it’s like a giant spatula. Like minds!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Kathryn! Wow, I’m impressed. I still have not attempted bread-making without a bread machine. It’s on my bucket list, though. Some things I need to learn:
    What’s a banneton?
    What’s a pizza peel? (I have a pizza stone – are they the same?)
    What is autolyse?
    Please educate me.

    Liked by 1 person

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