My Holey Sourdough Bread Journey

Is it a bit insane to keep saying “holes~” with a silly grin on my face when I take a slice out of my sourdough bread?

Kiwi Bird Laughs at me but I know you won’t – at least not in my face. It wasn’t a completely smooth ride for me to get holey open crumbs in my sourdough bread. It took a fair amount of reading, research, baking, experimenting, and eating to learn a few things. I also had to recruit many to be my Guinea pigs. Finally I think I can share a thing or two with you.

First I had my success with the no knead method. What I learnt the most from this success was judging the readiness of the dough for shaping. There is definitely a connection between how much sourdough starter is used in a recipe to how long it should proof in its first fermentation. The more sourdough starter is used, the shorter the first proof should be. If over-proved, even a lower hydration dough (70% or so) will behave like a soup and be a nightmare to shape. If proved properly (I found under-proved dough in first fermentation is perfectly fine), a high hydration dough (80%) should still be springy and reasonably easy to handle. (If you keep a sourdough starter, you can observe the starter turns more soupy the longer you leave it between feeds because the gluten starts to breakdown after their bonds peak – but that’s perfectly fine for the starter.)

My success with the no knead method made me wonder if kneading is bad for getting open crumbs. Then I read Jay’s article on gluten development, which prompt an experiment where I baked 4 loaves at once so I could REALLY taste the difference side by side. All 4 loaves had the exactly same amount of ingredients: flour, water, sourdough starter, and salt.

The 1st loaf (no knead)
– was mixed all up in one go but not kneaded at all
The 2nd loaf (kneaded)
– was mixed all up and kneaded until a piece of dough can be stretch between fingers into a thin semi-opaque film with gluten strings visible on the film (ropey windowpane).
The 3rd loaf (autolyse+kneading)
– had everything mixed except salt for a process called autolyse. Then salt is added after 30 minutes and kneaded until the ropey windowpane stage.
The 4th loaf (2-stage mixing)
– had a quarter of the flour, all the salt, and half the water withheld from the first mixing without kneading. The withheld ingredients are added after first fermentation, then kneaded until ropey windowpane stage.

Bottom to top: no knead, kneaded, autolyse+kneading (had a long slash down the centre, hence the funny shape), 2-stage mixing.

After baking, it was time to feed the Guinea pigs. The taste difference is subtle, and we all had to keep tasting back and forth to really pick our favourites. Here’s a short summary of their different characteristics.

The 1st loaf (no knead)
– has a subtle nutty flavour and a nice spongy crumb.
The 2nd loaf (kneaded)
– has slightly less aroma than the no knead loaf and the autolysed loaf.
The 3rd loaf (autolyse+kneading)
– has most volume, most dramatic holes, and obviously crunchiest crust. Slightly more sour-note than the 2nd loaf but the difference in taste is very very subtle.
The 4th loaf (2-stage mixing)
– most moist and softest with the least sourdough flavour (more wheaty in flavour). This one tastes the most different from the other three.

All in all, the autolyse+kneading loaf was voted the favourite the most out of all my tasters, and was my favourite too. The 2-stage mixing loaf got stuck to the cloth I was proofing it in, and got deflated unintentionally prior to baking. So when I fired up Big Bill my clay oven again, I baked a autolyse+kneading loaf and a 2-stage mixing loaf again to give it another “fair trial”.

Autolyse+kneading loaf on top, 2-stage mixing on bottom.

The crumbs of the two loaves look very similar don’t they? The 2-stage loaf still has a obviously more moist and softer crumb, which my dad likes. The 2-stage mixing process seems to be popular in Asia for it tends to produce softer and most moist bread (though most Asian bread has tight crumbs). I still personally prefer the autolyse + kneading loaf and have been baking bread this way regularly these days.

After my recent baking, I now have a new appreciation on Jay’s article on dough development. I find kneaded dough that has stronger gluten structure has better ability to trap gas and therefore produces more holey crumbs. Now I’m more comfortable with feeling my dough, I’m starting to add wholemeal and grains and I still managed to get holey bread.

Final thoughts to share:

  • It’s good to have your own experiments and find out what you like and eventually develop a process that works for you.
  • High hydration doughs cannot be kneaded “like a towel” the traditional way. If you don’t have a mixer or bread maker, use the “slap and fold” technique. It really doesn’t take long to get gluten development going, especially if you had let the dough go through autolysis.
  • If you sometimes find your dough behaves like a soup when you try to shape it, don’t worry, turn it into a ciabatta by following these step then go ahead and bake it. Next time try to use a little more sourdough starter as a way to shorten the time it requires to at least double in volume in its first fermentation. I find 8-12 hours works best for me for first fermentations. Any longer, the dough starts to get runny and the final crumb also suffers (even but small holes) because the gluten starts to break down too much. (This happens for me even with refrigeration.)
  • Experiment with hydration and don’t be too hung up on measurements. Get your hands into the dough to learn how it feels. The two loafs in the picture only differ by about 5% of hydration (which is only 2 tablespoons in a loaf that uses 600g of flour) and you can see how much the crumb differs.

At the end of the day, whatever you bake would still beat a lame supermarket loaf by MILES, so don’t get too obsessed with how your bread or its crumb “looks” – breads are made to be eaten, not to enter a beauty pageant! Happy baking and eating the amazing things you can do with a little flour, water and yeast!

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12 thoughts on “My Holey Sourdough Bread Journey

  1. Good article and a GREAT experiment. There is simply nothing better than experience to help you understand dough and how it works. And it sounds like this worked for you! Great job!
    Jay

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  7. I am strongly interested in this blog and your ingredients. Could you introduce me
    the blog where the ingredients (recipes) are disclosed? The ratios of the starter
    and water to the flour?

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