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

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. Greg

    This series is wonderful; thanks for it! Two comments. 1. I had to cringe when you described this dough as fully “naturally” risen. Is there something unnatural about commercial yeast? Or anything particularly “natural” about sourdough? I know it’s nitpicky, but I guess I’d hate to see weird microbiology misconceptions perpetuated this way. 2. It seems that every sourdough recipe I see illustrated in detail like this is almost entirely white flour. I would LOVE to see someone work through the details of a whole wheat loaf. Maybe for an upcoming project? Again, thanks for these excellent posts.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for your attention to the details, Greg. In our world, naturally risen means there’s only sourdough starter as the recipe leavening – no commercial yeast required. There are some 100% whole wheat sourdough recipes in the Whole Grain Baking cookbook. If you don’t have this cookbook, your local library or bookstore may help you get a peek at those whole wheat recipes. Happy Baking! Irene@KAF

    2. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Greg, thanks so much for your comments! Both your points are well-taken, and I will put a whole wheat sourdough blog on my list of future projects! Barb

  2. David

    Thank you for the wonderful information. Can I check with you if I am living in an area with average environment temperature of 86°F, to 89°F, with humidity levels of 80% to 90%. Using cooler water, I can get the dough temperature to 76°F, however recipes call for the final dough temperate of 76°F with a bulk fermentation of 3 hours. With my current environment temperature of 86°F, the dough will likely ferment in a much faster rate and time. Is there a way to slow down the bulk temperature to let it ferment for 3 hours? I do not want to do a bulk ferment in the fridge as I would like to bake on that same day but I would like to have a longer fermentation time of 3- 4 hours. Should I start with a cooler final dough temperate 68°F to achieve a longer bulk fermentation?

    Thank you
    David

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      David, it’s fine to mix the dough with cooler water in order to slow down the bulk fermentation time and adjust for your warm climate. It may take a little experimentation to figure out what temperature works best to allow the dough to ferment for 3-4 hours, but it certainly won’t hurt anything to start with a cooler dough temperature.
      Barb

  3. Lyn

    Thank you for a great tutorial! My husband is just learning to cook and bake, and has decided he loves it as his hobby. He is thrilled with this.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Lyn, that’s so great to hear! Let your husband know that we’ll be happy to answer any questions he has along the way!
      Barb

  4. Coral

    Hi, i have been experimenting with sourdough for a fee years now, my problem is that i have a great starter, then a great looking loaf but then it all crashes during baking & i have a hard dense loaf. I have tried many ways to cook the loaf, steam, cast iron pot & three different ovens. Help

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Coral, when bread crashes in the oven the way you describe it’s usually a sign that it’s been allowed to rise too long in its shaped form. Try putting the loaf in the oven much earlier, when it still has some “spring back” when you poke the surface of the loaf. For more help with this problem you may find it beneficial to give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-2253. We can talk through your baking process and see if there are any other adjustments you might need to make.
      Barb

  5. Rachel

    Hi Barbara, a question for you on rising time under tip #4: how long should the dough rise at this stage? Mine is staying at a consistent 75 degrees, but I’m not sure how long to leave it. Also, how will it affect the dough if the rises between foldings are longer? Thank you for your help and a great tutorial!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Rachel, the overall time for the bulk rise (before the dough is shaped) is about 3 1/2 to 4 hours, but a little more or less won’t hurt anything. Time between folds should be about an hour, but, again, a little more or less time will not harm the dough. The most important thing is to keep in tune with how the dough is progressing and to recognize when it’s ready to shape. If you’re able to keep the dough at a consistent 75 degrees and your starter is lively, the 3 1/2 to 4 hour bulk rising time should be an accurate guide. Going longer may cause the dough to have less rising power when it gets to the oven. Don’t worry, the more you bake, the more you’ll be get a feel for the dough and what “ready to shape” feels like! Barb@KAF

  6. Nancy

    I am a relatively new bread baker-just started a few months ago. I am fairly comfortable with my liquid sourdough starter, but I am now experimenting with the stiff starter. When you save the 8 oz of dough for the next time, exactly how do you feed it when getting ready to bake? Would I just use the “second feeding” instructions as the only feeding since the first uses liquid starter?
    Thanks for all the great instructions and product!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Nancy, I’m so glad to hear you’re taking on the stiff starter adventure! You’re right on the money when it comes to subsequent feedings of the dough. If you save the 8 ounces of dough, you’ll feed it exactly as recommended for the “second feeding.” This is the way you would regularly feed the stiff starter if you chose to maintain it. Depending on how long your dough has been in the refrigerator you may find you need to give your stiff starter a few feedings at room temperature before you bake with it, to insure optimum rise and flavor in your bread.
      Barb

  7. Peter

    We have a tile counter too, grout lines make a mess of our dough. Who makes and where can we find that wonderful bread board?

    Greatful in Carmel

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Ron, the answer to your questions depends on what recipe you’re using. We recommend taking a look at this recipe for Country Loaf, which will lead you through step-by-step to using a brotform to bake bread. This particular recipe needs to bake for 20-25 minutes at 425°, but it may vary based on the recipe you use. I hope that helps! Kye@KAF

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Because this recipe calls for minimal kneading and several folds, along with an extended rising time and hot baking temperature, I don’t think it would adapt well to a bread maker.
      Barb

  8. Val in Cincinnati

    Why are we making an extra 8 ounces of dough to remove and save for next breadbaking when we only need 2 oz to start this recipe? Doesn’t that mean that even if we bake tomorrow, we’re going to be discarding at least 6 oz of it immediately? I understand that there are complicated chemical things going on (and that I apparently don’t understand them clearly ), but do they really require that much discard? I’m going to follow this recipe exactly until I’ve mastered it, but I have to admit it’s tempting to think, “Why am I discarding 6 oz of the 8 oz stiff starter that I just put into the fridge yesterday?” I know this is an ongoing question that has been answered a gazillion times by bakers who are much more knowledgeable than I am, and I swear I have been trying really hard to understand. I understand the idea that if you don’t discard regularly you’ll soon have way too much, but wouldn’t that be helped by saving LESS, then building it back up to the amount you need?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Val, I understand your reluctance to discard perfectly good starter or bread dough, and you could certainly save less of the starter dough from this recipe, especially if you plan to mix your stiff starter again the next day. I put the level of saved dough at 8 ounces partly as a way of protecting the starter dough from cold refrigerator temperatures. While your starter won’t die as result of refrigeration, the friendly bacteria that contribute flavor to your sourdough baking may be harmed by extended refrigeration. I believe the bulk and consistency of the stiff dough starter provides a little added protection from cold temperatures, although this is mostly based on my own experience rather than any documented scientific experimentation. I encourage you to discover the method of storing your starter that works best for you and your baking routine.
      Barb

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