The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Bread caverns? :( (Also, hi! I'm new)

breadcave's picture

Bread caverns? :( (Also, hi! I'm new)

Hi all,

I've been lurking to get info for a while as a relatively new sourdough baker, and lately I've been having a problem that I thought you all might be able to help with (since these forums have been a great reference resource so far!).

My boules lately have been really hit or miss, especially with higher hydrations. I can't quite figure out if it's a proofing thing or a shaping thing or what.

Pictured is the latest victim (the worst boule I've made in quite a while). I've had a few turn out like this: varying degrees of semi-flat, with huge caverns in the top (and usually with the rest of the crumb having a somewhat gummy texture despite being baked until internal temp was at least 205-210°).

This one was maybe 79% hydration. Estimates of its composition (since I didn't actually write it down): 40% whole wheat flour, 60% KAF bread flour, ~75g starter at around 80% hydration, 10.5-11g salt, a small amount of polenta mixed in during stretch and folds (~75g).

It bulk fermented at room temp (~64°F) for several hours and then proofed overnight in the fridge for maybe 8 hours overnight.

I've made a couple of others that did this, and I've never quite been able to figure out what factor is causing it.

Is this a shaping/over-handling thing? Underproofing? Overproofing? Any guesses?


estherc's picture

If you are getting better, more consistent results with lower hydration why not stick with it. 

breadcave's picture

Thanks, estherc! Yeah, I definitely just stick to lower hydrations when I want consistency (especially if I'm baking for other people and don't want to give them these weird dough pucks)—but I can't resist the urge to experiment. Some of my high hydration results have been really great... just not all of them lately. I'm okay with a little bit of inconsistency and trial and error, but this particular issue has been a bummer because I've been having a hard time pinpointing and fixing the problem :/

MichaelLily's picture

Under proofing.

breadcave's picture

Thanks, Michael. Is this likely to apply in general when there are large holes on top with gummy crumb underneath? I made a second round of this dough with a little less hydration yesterday, and it looked great (not flat!) on the outside, but then it also had huge holes on top with dense and almost sticky crumb on the bottom.

I've been trying to rely on the poke test, but I've gathered that it's not actually that reliable for wetter doughs.

dabrownman's picture

higher hydration make things go faster but it would take hours for a proper bulk ferment at this room themperature where the dough increases in volume at least 50%.  8 hours of shaped final proof in the fridge is also about 4 hours less than what I would call normal to get a loaf like this to proof 85% level and ready to bake.  I wouild have to arm up on the counter for a couple of hours before properly proofed.  Donlt skip the preshapuing stage in order to properly degas the dough.

Happy baking

breadcave's picture


So my suspicion at this point is that this might be an issue of too little bulk fermentation as much as anything. (Now that I think about it, I was also having better luck with things in the summer when my kitchen was warmer, so I could see the low temperature being a factor for sure.)

Based on the feel of the dough, proofing will seem like it has gone long enough, and then this will still happen. Maybe I need longer (and/or warmer) bulk fermentation? Does that seem plausible?

breadcave's picture

If anyone has any tips for how to gauge whether bulk fermentation is done with any metric other than apparent volume, that would be super-helpful as well. I've never had great luck with volume (since that can vary depending on how you're handling and folding and potentially degassing the dough throughout, etc.), so any other tricks would be most welcome.

Ford's picture

Poke the dough with two fingers together.  If the indentation remains or is very slow to disappear, then the dough ihas proofed, if it bounces back quickly it needs more time.


Arjon's picture

For one thing, as you've already somewhat noted, different doughs with different hydrations and/or flours and/or blends and/or addins, etc, don't all poke exactly the same when they're ready to bake. So, the poke test can be a guide, but there's still a degree of art / experience in using it. 

The best way to know when a dough is ready is to have baked something quite similar, or preferably multiple similar loaves. As a simplified example. if you've done good bakes of the same recipe with say 66, 69, 72 and 75% hydrations, you can draw upon your experience seeing how those doughs differed to form a fairly close expectation of what 78% should be like when it's ready.

Experimenting is fun, but be aware that it's harder to form as accurate an expectation when you're changing more elements, so unless you're especially adept, trying to experiment with multiple things can slow your learning process.

breadcave's picture

Thanks, Ford.

I already poke test for proofing (although I use one finger, not two). I find that to be tricky for high-hydration doughs: sometimes the poke test seems to tell me it's done before it really is (based on baking results).

What about determining when bulk fermentation is done? Ford or others: do you use poking as a test at all for that?

Lazy Loafer's picture
Lazy Loafer

Is your starter doubling after feeding (and before you use it to make your bread)? I've had the yeast seem to 'disappear' in my starter from time to time, so it bubbles but doesn't rise. It's not going to rise the bread either in that case.

Also, how do you work the dough after adding in the salt and before bulk ferment (and stretch and folds)? The dough might need a bit more development at this stage, and also might benefit from a bit of a stretch and fold for the pre-shape (to redistribute whatever yeast and gases are in the dough).

breadcave's picture

Good points, Arjon. I get overconfident sometimes and get TOO experimental, and then I get sobering reminders like this loaf that my ability to do one formula by feel doesn't necessarily carry over to a different formula.

Lazy Loafer: yes, the starter doubles. It's pretty well-established these days, and it works fine for other formulas, so I don't think it's the culprit.

I tend to let the flour and water autolyse for an hour or so (sometimes longer, depending on what else I have going on) before adding in the levain and salt. (Sometimes I have experimented with adding the levain to the autolyse mixture, with varied results. I've had success and failures with both approaches.)

After autolyse, I have tried a few different things in terms of working the dough. I will sometimes let my KitchenAid do some of the work for me if I'm multitasking in the kitchen, but most of the time if I am dealing with a high hydration dough and am able to stay nearby, I will let dough ferment at room temp and do stretch-and-folds every 30-40 minutes or so. I do think that maybe additional gluten development would help.

What are your pre-shaping methods? That might be one of the places where I'm going wrong.

Lazy Loafer's picture
Lazy Loafer

If I'm pre-shaping long loaves I'll stretch the dough out into a rectangle then roll it up (folding the top 'ears' in before starting rolling at that end), sealing each turn with my fingertips. Then I let it rest and pull it into a tighter roll (forming a tight skin) when shaping.

If I'm shaping boules, I pat/stretch it out into a circle and fold all the edges into the middle, then flip it over and round it a bit. After resting I tighten the ball.

breadcave's picture

Answering all of these questions has demonstrated to me that I probably need to be keeping more precise records of all of these variables so that I can identify what is working and what is not... that is probably the most important lesson I am learning right now :)

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

especially looking back.  Down't forget to add dates, weather conditions, room temps, proofing temps and dough temps to the notes.  Recipe, Date, Time of day  is also important with temperature swings if using room temps.  You also might want to take notes looking at the finished cooled crumb.  Note the sizes and the shapes of the bubbles, where the big ones seem to congregate and the compressed areas of tight crumb, note direction of the bubbles as they rise and set in the crumb.  Crust colour, texture and oven temps/changes etc.  And the all important notes... taste and mouth texture.   

Don't have to drive yourself forever crazy with notes but for a short period of a few weeks (or months) the more detail, the better.  Then the spontaneous brain cells pay more attention to what you want to do creatively.  If you want to repeat something, you got your notes.  :)

I'm jet lagging at the moment (back in Laos) and it is such a relief when the brain is in some kind of limbo, to simply open my notebook, pick out a starred recipe and make it without too much thinking knowing it will turn out fine and I can focus my attention to other things.  Setting timers gets me back to the kitchen to check on the dough.

I pretty much agree with the above comments,  more proofing and some more handling before final shaping to pop some of those big bubbles and let the smaller ones get bigger before baking.  The photo looks more like a bulk rise than a final proof captured in the bake.  

I like to lay my whole hand on the side of the loaf to feel the resistance of the air pillows inflating inside it.  Give it a slight push and if there is no jiggle, let it rise more.  If I find it loosing its shape, and I'm popping too many large bubbles, stop the final proof and reshape.  

A clear crisp crumb shot under the big bubbles would be great on the next loaf should it happen again.  The crust colour is dark which tells me that it isn't over-proofed.  Over-proofed loaves tend to be paler and hard to brown.  Very round shape of the smaller bubbles is a sign of under proofing.

tgrayson's picture

"too little bulk fermentation as much as anything."

Doesn't seem likely to me. You don't have to bulk ferment at all, although the flavor of the bread will suffer. Some recipes don't call for bulk fermentation.

I buy MichaelLilly's explanation above: underproofing, not under-bulk fermenting.