Artisan Sourdough Bread Tips, part 2: fermentation, folding, and shaping

Are you ready to learn some new artisan baking techniques today?

If you haven’t been following our sourdough baking adventure, yesterday we explored a new type of sourdough starter – a “stiff starter,” one with double the normal amount of flour. We went over how to convert your liquid sourdough starter to a stiff starter, and began working on a sourdough recipe that calls for this starter and is entirely naturally leavened (no added commercial yeast).

Today, we’re going to continue the trek by covering fermentation, folding dough, and preshaping and shaping.

Artisan Sourdough Bread Tip #4: Dough temperature and rising time

Professional bakers focus on dough temperature, and have a special formula to determine what temperature water to use in the dough, based on the temperature of the room and the ingredients, as well as the amount of heat generated during mixing.

While home bakers need not be quite so precise, paying attention to the temperature of your ingredients and the environment your bread will rise in can help you achieve more consistent and predictable results.

Keep in mind that sourdough ferments (rises) well at 76°F, so this is a good dough temperature to aim for, although a few degrees in either direction is also fine.

Use a digital thermometer to test the water temperature and aim for starting the mix with cooler water on a hot day and warmer water on a cool day. But keep in mind that we’re aiming for 76°F, so “warmer” doesn’t mean 110°F, but more like room temperature water or a tiny bit warmer.

When you think about it, our normal body temperature is 98.6°F, so anything less than this is going to feel cool to our hands; even lukewarm water is warmer than you need.

If you don’t have a digital thermometer you can simply leave an open container of water on the counter overnight; by the next day it will have come to room temperature. This method has the added advantage of dissipating the chlorine in your tap water that may inhibit the wild yeast.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

With the bread we’re making, if you start with 76°F water and room-temperature ingredients, the dough should come out at about 76°F because the mixing time is minimal.

Check the temperature of the dough before and after mixing; this will give you a sense of how much heat your mixer is adding to the equation. Understand, though, dough rising at room temperature will eventually become whatever that temperature is, be it 62°F or 88°F.

So how do you maintain the dough at 76°F when your thermostat is set at 68°F? If you’re lucky enough to have a bread proofer, just set it for 76°F and you’re good to go.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

If you don’t have a bread proofer there are ways to simulate one. A microwave is a proof box waiting to happen. Just boil water in your microwave in a Pyrex cup, remove the cup, and set your dough without a cover in the microwave. WARNING: Don’t turn on the microwave with the dough in it!  AND FURTHER WARNING: Boiling water in a microwave can result in superheated water, which can cause a sudden explosion of boiling water in water that appears still. To prevent this from occurring: set the timer for no more than two minutes at a time and put a wooden spoon in the cup.  Alternatively, you can boil the water on the stove, then pour it into the Pyrex cup and place it in the microwave (not on) for a few minutes to heat up the microwave space before placing the dough in it.

No microwave? You can do the same thing with an ice chest or cardboard box. If you’d like to turn your oven into a proof box, you’ll need a whole pot of boiling water to moisten and warm the air in the larger space. If your oven has a bread proofing setting, resist the urge to use it; the temperature is likely to be too hot for the long, slow fermentation sourdough requires.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

While it’s easy to recharge your microwave proof box by boiling the water again after an hour, your dough may not need to spend the whole time in the proof box. Check its temperature and see if a little outside-the-proof-box time is warranted. In my house an hour in the microwave proof box and an hour out seems to work well for maintaining the dough at around 76°F. On warm summer days your dough may be fine simply rising at room temperature covered with plastic wrap, no time in a proof box needed.

Now that our dough is sitting in a nice, moist 76°F environment, we’ll set the timer for an hour and prepare for our next challenge – folding.

Artisan Sourdough Bread Tip #5: Folding

Folding is a simple step that develops the strength of your dough with very little effort. Artisan bakers know that both the dough and the baker can benefit from doing the least amount of work necessary to bring the dough to readiness.

Folding is just that – a series of stretch and folds that go from the four imaginary corners of your blob of dough towards the center, opposite sides folding over each other to form a neat little package by the end of the folding process. This brief exercise contributes a great deal of strength to your dough, and is especially helpful in developing the structure of a wet dough.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

First, turn your dough onto a floured surface.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

You can either flour or wet your hands before touching the dough to prevent sticking. Grab the dough with the fingers and thumb of both hands and pull one “corner” about two-thirds of the way across the dough and then press down to release some of the built-up gas.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Grab the opposite corner and stretch and fold the dough across the loaf, again pressing to de-gas the dough.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Repeat with the remaining corners to produce a square-like package of dough. Pat the dough to remove any excess flour and place it back in the rising bowl with the folded side down. Try to keep your fingers from digging into the wet dough, which can cause sticking and tearing. The whole folding process should take less than a minute.

Although you can fold your dough while it’s in the bowl, I prefer the on-the-table-with-flour method because I find it easier to handle the dough and it gives me a better sense of how fermentation and dough strength are progressing.

The second rise lasts one hour. Repeat the folding process and place the dough back in the bowl.

The third rise is 90 minutes. By the end of this rise your dough should feel much lighter and airier. If the dough feels cool and hasn’t risen as much as you think it should, give it another fold and another hour rising time. The folding process allows you to stay in touch with your dough and to read its readiness each hour. Gradually you’ll learn exactly what the dough should feel like when it’s ready to shape.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

This is what your dough should look like when it’s ready to shape. It will feel much lighter in texture than it did right after you finished kneading.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan Sourdough Bread Tip #6: Preshaping and shaping

Before we preshape we can remove 8 ounces of dough, round it up, and place it in an oiled container. This hunk of dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week and then fed and perpetuated as your stiff starter. Because the bread dough contains salt it holds up well in the refrigerator; and keeping this hunk of dough saves you the step of feeding your stiff starter in the midst of mixing bread.

Don’t worry that this hunk of dough is a bit different than your normal stiff starter. It works well as a substitute and will become just like your stiff starter once you feed it according to our recipe for Stiff Sourdough Starter.  

If you don’t want to perpetuate a stiff starter and feel more comfortable just converting your liquid starter to stiff each time you want to make this recipe, that’s fine. Don’t discard the 8 ounces of dough; you’ll simply make an extra large loaf, or divide the finished dough in half, for two smaller loaves.

Now we’re ready to preshape the loaf. Preshaping allows the dough to begin to think about being a loaf.

A preshape can vary in how tight it is depending on how loose or tight the dough feels. If you have a very wet, relaxed dough that’s likely to flatten out, form it into a relatively firm ball without tearing the surface. For a dough that feels a little stiff, gently pulling the corners of the dough together may be all you need to do for a preshape.

Preshaping will help give more structure to a wet dough, and will ease a stiff dough into the desired shape without tearing.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Allow the preshaped loaf to rest, top-side down and covered, on a floured surface for 15 to 20 minutes; then reshape it into a ball again.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

For the final shaping give the dough a light fold (try not to deflate it too much). Turn the fold side down and then round the loaf by applying pressure between the bottom of the loaf and the board with your hands cupped, moving around the loaf to tighten and round it.

Tearing that occurs during shaping will continue through the baked loaf, so it’s important to maintain a smooth surface. A little flour on your hands is helpful; but too much flour on the table may make it hard to seal the bottom of your loaf, so keep a clean spot for this purpose.

Want to see how it’s done? Watch our shaping a round loaf video.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

I like to allow my sourdough loaf to rise in a basket or brotform (a.k.a. banneton) because this prevents the loaf from flattening out before it gets to the oven. Brotforms often come with a cloth liner, which is helpful to use if the shaped loaf is to be “retarded” (chilled) overnight in the refrigerator.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

If you don’t have a brotform, an appropriately sized bowl will work nicely.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Rub flour thoroughly into a close-weaved dishtowel or napkin. Line the bowl with the towel, and then sprinkle it with more flour.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

The well-floured cloth that lines the brotform or bowl provides added insurance against sticking. If you’re not planning to refrigerate the dough and are using a brotform, the cloth liner isn’t necessary, but you’ll still need to rub the flour right into the grooves of the basket and then sprinkle with more flour. Without the liner, the floured ridges of the basket will be mirrored in your baked loaf.

I find a half and half mixture of brown rice flour and unbleached all-purpose flour works well for rubbing into either the cloth or the brotform. The grittier rice flour is less likely to be absorbed by the dough, and will do a better job of preventing sticking than all-purpose flour alone.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

Since the loaf will be placed upside down in the basket, it’s helpful to let the loaf rest on the table for a minute or two after shaping, so the seam on the bottom is thoroughly sealed.

Wrap the bowl or brotform in plastic wrap to prevent the loaf from drying out. When using a bowl, fold the flaps of cloth over the loaf first.

Artisan Sourdough Bread Tip #7: Flavor development

One way to add more sour flavor to your bread is to be sure the dough has a small percentage of whole wheat flour or whole rye flour. Whole grain flours ferment more quickly and tends to intensify the sour flavor in sourdough bread recipes. This recipe contains about 15% whole wheat flour. Whole rye flour will deliver even more sour flavor. If your favorite sourdough recipe doesn’t already call for whole grains, try substituting 10-15% whole grain flour for a portion of the flour in the dough portion of the recipe.

Now let’s examine how you can make the most dramatic difference in the flavor of your bread. You have two choices here: one will yield a more mildly flavored loaf, and one a tangier loaf.

Artisan sourdough bread tips via @kingarthurflour

If you desire an extra-sour sourdough loaf, cover it and refrigerate immediately.

The dough will rise slowly overnight or up to 24 hours. Allowing the dough to remain longer in the refrigerator isn’t beneficial, as an extended time in the refrigerator will lead to off flavors and diminished dough strength.

I’ve let my shaped dough sit in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours with success, but I don’t recommend longer than that. A total of 16 to 18 hours seems to be the ideal amount of time for chilling a shaped loaf.

If you prefer a more mildly flavored loaf, let the dough rise in the brotform or bowl at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Or you can place the shaped loaf seam down in the lidded baking pot you plan to bake it in, with the lid on. Be sure to oil the baking pot and sprinkle some coarse flour (rice flour, semolina) on the bottom to prevent the dough from sticking. The mixture of all-purpose flour and brown rice flour works well for this. Rising time will be about 2 to 3 hours.

I find this method trickier than overnight refrigeration. A loaf that’s rising at room temperature demands you stay much more attuned to fermentation; you need to gauge the right moment for baking. You need to stick around the house and kitchen, as it’s difficult to predict the perfect amount of rising time necessary; and a loaf that rises too long in the shaped form is more likely to fall or not rise well in the oven.

Stay tuned tomorrow as we learn to score our sourdough bread, explore different methods of adding steam to a home oven, and finally bake our delicious artisan loaf.

Want to start at the beginning? Read Artisan Sourdough Bread Tips, part 1. Then continue from this post to Artisan Sourdough Bread Tips, part 3.

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Iris

    Hi Barbara
    I’ve got the dough in the fridge in a cloth lined bowl covered w/ resonate waiting for tomorrow morning to do the finger spring test.
    I am using a cast iron Dutch oven. Question:
    Should it be heated in the oven before the loaf goes into it?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Iris, part 3 goes into detail about various baking options, including baking in a Dutch oven with a cold start, in a preheated oven, or a preheated pot. If your Dutch oven is suitable for preheating empty (check the manufacturer’s recommendations) then preheating your empty pot is a great option, but a cold start or baking in a preheated oven can yield excellent results as well. If your pot is entirely cast iron (not enameled), I would recommend preheating it empty for a full hour before baking. You can lower the loaf into the pot with a parchment sling, scoring the loaf before or after you lower it into the pot–whichever you find easier. There’s no need to allow the loaf to come to room temperature before baking when using an entirely cast iron pot, as this type of pot is not subject to thermal shock. Remove the lid after 20 minutes of baking and continue baking in a dry oven for approximately 20-25 minutes.
      Barb

  2. Beth

    Thanks Barb!
    I used a recipe with 1 1/6 starter and 3 1/2 cups flour and 1 cup water plus salt.
    You were right on about the fridge because even after 5 hrs in fridge, I just got my basket today, I took dough out and was able to fold over to center until a ball then do the pulling on my surface and turn and pull so it got tight! Back in fridge!
    I have cast iron Dutch oven. Love it! I usually heat it first. Tomorrow imy 7 th loaf goes in!

    I guess I could take few days to work on starter yet it looks as good as all photos I have seen, flavor in bread is very good and it is thick. I will be more aware of recipes!
    I guess time to try the recipe on here, now that I found this great community blog!
    Happy baking and thanks again.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Beth, I always say don’t mess with success, so if you’re happy with the results you’re getting, there’s no need to change your routine. That being said, it can be fun to try different recipes and explore different techniques. Whatever direction you go with your sourdough baking, we’re happy to answer your questions and help you enjoy the process!
      Barb

  3. Beth

    Hi all
    On my 6th loaf, had two good ones. They are all yummy to me. Today new recipe and I am guessing it got too hydrated. Cannot get a firm fold or ball. It keeps spreading. I just got best ball I could for overnight fridge. I am guessing it will spread on baking?
    Question is could my starter be too wet? Can I add more flour to fix? I keep it in fridge, it is a baby at 7 weeks!
    Thanks for great info, photos and tips here! Comments help too!

    ***Barb***

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Beth, are you making this recipe, or a different one? This particular recipe isn’t extremely wet, but some sourdough recipes are, and this can definitely make folding and shaping more challenging. I often find that refrigerating the dough overnight makes it a bit more manageable, but if your loaves are spreading too much in the oven, you might want to try baking in a Dutch oven. I doubt that the consistency of your starter is the problem, since in most bread recipes the quantity of starter is fairly small. However, if you’re using a liquid starter when the recipe calls for a stiff starter, this could have an impact. The most important factor when using your starter is that it is very healthy and active, and that you add it to the recipe when it’s at its highest point of rising after being fed at room temperature. If your starter has been in the refrigerator for a few days or more it’s definitely going to need a little reviving before you use it a bread recipe that is entirely naturally leavened (with no added yeast). Try taking it out of the refrigerator a day or two before you plan to bake with it and start feeding it twice a day at room temperature. This will help bring your starter back to full vitality and give you the best chance at a great rise and flavor in your bread. For more help troubleshooting, we’d love to talk sourdough with you on the Baker’s Hotline (855-371-2253).

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Susan,
      Yes, the brotform liner is generally used with very wet dough, or when you’re planning to allow the dough to rise in the brotform for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator. In these situations the very well-floured liner offers added protection against sticking. If the dough is only going to be in the brotform for 30 minutes it should work fine to flour the basket well and cover the dough with sprayed plastic so it doesn’t dry out while it’s rising.
      Barb

  4. Jessica McBroom

    Hi Barbara: Fellow michigander here. I’ve read through this really great tutorial and your thoughtful responses – thank you.

    I’d like a little bit more detail on this, though what you provided to Ro above was helpful:

    “you need to gauge the right moment for baking. You need to stick around the house and kitchen, as it’s difficult to predict the perfect amount of rising time necessary; and a loaf that rises too long in the shaped form is more likely to fall or not rise well in the oven.”

    I get decent oven spring and final product, but after a cold proof, my dough doesn’t look appreciably different from after my bulk ferment. It’s just flattens out and grows by only 30-50%. Maybe I am worrying over nothing, but I am trying to get a more open crumb and I am guessing that it is during this step that something is keeping me from that. Using 78-80% hydration with KAF bread flour and 20% sprouted wheat, 4h of intermittent stretch and fold, and 12-18h cold proof. Right now, I am trying a room temp resting period post overnight cold proof. I typically heat oven and dutch oven to 550F, drop down to 475F for the first 25 minutes (covered) and then finish uncovered for 20 mins.

    Penny for your thoughts? (well, I guess not even a penny 🙂 )

    ***For Barb. -KA 3/11***

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Jessica, No pennies necessary! If your dough is flattening out this can be a sign that the dough is underdeveloped, or that it’s simply a very wet dough. Shaping can also play into a loaf that flattens out, so be sure that your shaped loaf has adequate tension to help it maintain its shape. Are you adding an autolyse as part of your mixing and folding routine? This might be helpful, although I would only do a 30 minute autolyse. There’s also nothing wrong with kneading your dough in addition to adding supplemental folds. Bread flour typically requires more kneading time than all-purpose flour, so it may be that developing the dough a little more may help prevent the dough from flattening out. I usually don’t see the dough double in the refrigerator either; I’m guessing a 50% rise is more typical. It could also be that the hydration of your dough is causing the dough to flatten out. I would suggest being sure that the shaped rise in the refrigerator occurs in a basket or bowl that doesn’t allow for too much flattening. A Dutch oven is a great method for baking a high hydration dough, but if it’s too large for the amount of dough you’re baking, some flattening out can occur. I find that a 3 1/2 to 4 quart Dutch oven is generally a good size for a 2-3 lb loaf. I hope this helps!
      Barb

  5. Sabina

    Hi. Got most of the process correct for taking a great bread. Stuck at one point. My bread doesn’t get much oven spring. I may be over proofing the dough. How do I check if the dough is ready?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Sabina, when a loaf doesn’t get good oven spring it’s usually a sign that it’s been allowed to rise too long before baking. Sometimes this is too much bulk rise time, but typically its the shaped rise that had gone on too long. Another contributing factor can be how the loaf is shaped. A loosely shaped loaf will tend to rise more easily and quickly before baking, but also over-proofs quicker and may not have enough energy and structural tension to maintain a good rise in the oven. To determine if a loaf is ready to bake I give it a gentle poke with a floured finger and look to see that the indentation fills in slowly and leaves only a small imprint. If it bounces right back, the loaf needs more time to rise. If the dough shows no movement after being poked, you may have waited a little too long. With this recipe I find the overnight rise in the refrigerator makes determining the correct time to bake much easier. The loaf is generally sturdy enough to transfer and score easily, and rarely needs extra time at room temperature to rise before baking. I hope this helps!
      Barb

  6. ro

    I’d love more details on how you handle the dough after you take it out from the fridge. Do you let it come to room temperature before placing in the oven? Do you place it in the oven cold?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ro, You have quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to how you handle the dough after refrigeration. Two factors to consider are how well-risen the dough is, and what type of pot and baking method you plan to use. If the dough looks ready to bake straight out of the refrigerator and your baking pot is cast iron and won’t be harmed by putting cold dough in it and putting it straight in a hot oven, then by all means put it straight in the oven. If the dough looks a little sluggish and could use an hour or two at room temperature to improve the rise, this will also work fine. If you’re working with a ceramic pot or enameled pot that does not do well with sudden changes in temperature, it’s helpful to allow the dough to acclimate at room temperature in the pot for at least 45 minutes before putting it in the hot oven. When using a preheated ceramic pot, you should probably allow the dough to warm up a bit at room temperature before placing it in the hot pot. When baking on a preheated baking stone, it’s fine to bake the loaf straight from the refrigerator. With this recipe I find my loaf is usually ready to bake straight out of the fridge, and the dough is particularly easy to transfer and score when it’s still quite cool.
      Barb

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