Be sure to check out the pictures and additional instructions below!
There’s this myth out there that the only way to get a light airy open crumb is to make a high hydration dough. A wet dough. And it’s this wet dough that will give you all the openness you could ever want.
This notion is misleading, at best.
Unfortunately, it’s usually the first and only direction prescribed for those looking to get a lighter more open texture from their bread. The problem is that wet dough can be very difficult to work with, especially for newer bakers.
So what happens when folks rush to add more water to their dough in the quest for open crumb?
They get sticky, difficult to work with dough. They have trouble mixing the dough. They have trouble shaping the dough. They have trouble baking the dough.
And the result?
Flat, limp and lifeless loaves. The crumb may be a bit more open, but at what cost?
It’s frustrating and disheartening. And it discourages many potential bakers from going forward. If the results continue to disappoint — if they don’t justify the trial of the process — then why even bother?
So let me be very clear here: hydration is only one variable. A big one, for sure, but only one nonetheless. And if that wasn’t clear enough . . .
More often than not, high hydration is a crutch.
It’s used to improve openness by bakers who either don’t know of, or are unable to find another way. But for most, increasing hydration should be the last resort.
Instead of looking to hydration to solve their tight-crumb woes, more bakers would be better served looking first to their dough handling skills. Improve those, and an improved crumb is sure to follow.
I know nobody likes to be told to improve their hand skills, but for those serious about making quality open crumbed bread, it’s a fundamental aspect of the craft. In the pursuit of professional quality bread, good dough handling ability is not optional.
Let me repeat: when it comes to making great bread, good dough handling is Not. An. Option. It’s a prerequisite.
And I say this as a 15 year veteran of the craft who’s still to this day striving to improve his own dough handling skills. It’s a never ending quest. Complacency just won’t do.
So with all that said, I’m now going to show you a method in which I can consistently make a loaf — with beautiful open crumb — from a relatively stiff dough (65% hydration).
Please keep in mind that a well made loaf with 65% hydration isn’t going to have the same degree of openness as a well made loaf at 80% hydration.
But does it even need to?
At 65% hydration, this loaf manages a more open crumb than many poorly made eighty-percenters out there. Of course, there are plenty of folks who absolutely love a wildly open molten crumb, and the custardy texture that comes with it. They want huge tunnels riddled throughout the loaf. In that case, this loaf probably ain’t gonna cut it.
But I’d argue that for most people out there, this is exactly the kind of crumb they’ve been looking for. And instead of constantly pushing for a higher hydration in order to get it, they should instead focus first on improving their handling of stiffer doughs.
When you can consistently make open-crumbed 65% hydration bread, then move on to 70%. And then 75%. And so on.
By the time you hit 80-85% hydration, you’ll be well prepared to handle such extremely wet dough. Instead of flat crappy loaves, you’ll be making beautifully plump loaves with a crumb even Chad Robertson would be proud of.
Let’s begin, shall we?
Step 1: Mix Your Pre-Dough
436g Bread Flour
24g Whole Wheat Flour
Using a “pre-mix” method I’ve detailed here, I make the dough using all the water, salt and flour. This is just a quick mix to incorporate all the ingredients and bring them together into a shaggy lump — just like you would with a true autolyse, except we’ve included the salt.
Because this “pre-dough” will sit overnight, it will undergo all the effects of the autolyse method. It doesn’t matter that we’ve included the salt. Yes, the salt slows down the enzymatic activity a bit as compared to a normal autolyse, but the long overnight rest will more than make up for it.
This long overnight soaking of the flour will create a softer and more extensible dough than we would otherwise get using such low hydration — and without all the stickiness that comes by adding extra water. This will help us to create a loaf that will generate excellent ovenspring during baking. And ovenspring is one of the key ingredients to achieving a light and open crumb.
Step 2: Refrigerate/Rest Overnight
After you’ve mixed the “pre-dough”, cover the bowl and toss it into the fridge for a few hours to chill. Bringing the dough to refrigerator temperature will slow and delay the enzymatic activity that comes from adding water to flour. The combination of salt and cold helps to prevent any wild fermentation or off flavors that might develop from the long rest, especially in warmer weather.
Now, just before you head off for bedtime, take your chilled dough out of the fridge and set it on the counter for the night. It’ll slowly come up to room temp as it sits overnight. By the time you wake up and start working with the dough in the morning it’ll have become a soft and pliable mass, far different from the stiff shaggy lump it was the night before.
Step 3: Add Starter
50g Starter @ 100% Hydration (25g All-Purpose Flour, 25g Water)
Weigh out your starter and gently work it into the dough. Remember, the dough is already fully developed from it’s long overnight rest . . .
So be gentle.
You don’t want to overwork the dough. If the dough starts to tear, you’ve pushed it too far. Just back off, let it relax for a few minutes, then start up where you left off. It’s not hard to work in the starter, but it can be a bit tricky to get it fully incorporated without damaging the dough.
It’s a stop and start process.
I’ll describe the method I use, but watching the video will better help you to see what’s going on here:
First, I spread out the starter on top of the dough. Then I dimple it in to help work it into the matrix of the dough. After that, I stretch and fold the dough over and over until it’s formed a ball.
This creates several layers of starter throughout the dough.
Then I “spread” the starter throughout the loaf with a combination of rolling it up into itself, almost like traditional kneading, and spinning it around the edge of the bowl while tucking the outside into the center as I turn the bowl.
Like I said, it’s easier to just watch the video and see what I’m doing for yourself.
As soon as I feel the dough beginning to tighten up, I give it a few pulls across the bowl to make the surface nice and taught, then I cover it and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to relax. Then I come back for another round.
I typically give it 3 rounds of this treatment over the course of a half-hour. That’s enough to get the starter evenly incorporated throughout the whole loaf.
Now that we’ve added our starter, the dough is complete. Toss it into a clean bowl to begin proofing.
Step 4: Bulk Fermentation/Folds
The combination of stiff dough and small starter inoculation should make for a slow proofing dough. This is good; it’s what we want. The longer the proof, the better the flavor and more open the crumb will be.
I average around 6 hours, but your time may vary based on temperature and the peculiarities of your starter.
During the course of bulk fermentation I’ll usually give the dough a few folds. Not to develop the gluten, mind you — we’ve already done that. But to help give the loaf better structure, and as a little extra insurance to be certain the starter is evenly spread throughout the dough.
I usually give it folds every 2 hours after mixing. This works out to 3 folds, with the last happening right before I turn out the dough and pre-round the loaf (see video). These folds must become increasingly gentle as the dough begins inflating, so as not to expel any of the gasses.
Important: any time you deflate your dough, even it it’s just a wee bit, you will negatively affect the quality of the crumb. It becomes tighter and denser. So be careful.
Step 5: Pre-Round
As noted above, my last fold is performed right before turning the dough out onto the bench. The folding helps to release the dough from the bowl while giving it additional structure. I consider it part of the pre-rounding process.
But keep in mind, a gentle hand is required when folding this late into the proof.
Once your dough is turned out, simply grab your bench knife and carefully pre-round the loaf as depicted in the video. If you’ve never used a bench knife for pre-rounding, it does take a bit of practice. But it won’t be long before you get it. No need for flour here. Just wet the hand that touches the loaf, and be sure to keep the blade pressed firmly against the bench as you roll up the dough — otherwise you’ll cut into the dough and damage the integrity of the loaf.
Let your pre-round rest for at least 30 minutes. If you timed your bulk fermentation right, and if the dough is moving slow enough, you can even let it rest up to 60 minutes. This is preferable. I’ve noticed that a slightly young dough, pre-rounded and left to rest for an hour before shaping, makes for a more open crumbed loaf.
But don’t push it.
If your pre-round gets to the point where it will start degassing upon handling, then you can kiss that nice open crumb goodbye. Better to give it a short rest before shaping than to let it overproof on the bench.
Step 6: Shape for Open Crumb
There are as many ways to shape a loaf as there are bakers. So use whichever method works best for you.
That said, for this loaf I used a boule shaping method I learned from the French Master, Gerard Rubaud. I’ve since seen it used elsewhere, but I often use it when shaping stiffer doughs (though Gerard uses it when pre-rounding his high hydration dough, to great effect).
What I like about this method is that the folds really help to add structure to the loaf, allowing for a better ovenspring and more open crumb. To my eyes, this makes for a noticeably lighter texture when using such a stiff dough than I would get if I simply just rounded the loaf up on the bench without the added folds.
Also, not shown in the video, after shaping I let the loaf sit on the table for 5-10 minutes before putting it seam side up in the basket. This helps the seam on the underside to form a better seal before you invert it into the basket — it won’t be so quick to unravel as it would if you placed it in the basket immediately after shaping.
And as always, great care should be taken when shaping. The gentler your touch, the lighter the loaf. Don’t be fooled by what you see in my video; don’t mistake confident hands and assertive movements for rough handling.
Your touch should be that of a lover’s. Firm, yet gentle. Confident, not timid.
If your dough loses gas at any point during your shaping then you are being too rough.
Don’t worry though, dough handling is a feel-based skill that continuously improves. Every single new baker mangles some loaves, yours truly included. Over time your touch will become more confident, you’ll find the dough sticking to your hands less often, and your loaves will become lighter and lighter.
Always strive to shape the perfect loaf, even knowing that perfection is impossible.
Step 7: Proof
Simple enough here, right? Proof until your loaf is ready to bake. Two to four hours, maybe (mine took just over 3 on this day).
Unfortunately, I can’t say exactly how long it’ll take. Again, it depends upon several variables — temperature, starter activity, quality of shaping (well shaped loaves hold more tension and can proof longer and to greater volume), dough quality, etc.
Of course, the standard rule of thumb is to proof until the dough just slowly springs back when you press your finger into the loaf. But I find that to be an inadequate generalization. I suppose it provides a “well-enough” starting point for inexperienced bakers, but overtime you’ll find it to be too simplistic.
Wet doughs and baguettes tend to spring best when placed into the oven slightly before that point. Stiff doughs can hold out a bit beyond that point. Poorly shaped loaves hold too little tension from the get go for this test to be reliable. Spelt bread is so soft and extensible that the finger poke test tells you nothing at all. Pan loaves differ from free-standing loaves.
And there are a thousand more examples of why this method of judging isn’t wholly reliable.
Plus, I just hate poking my finger into proofing loaves. It’s counter to my philosophy of gentle handling.
So how best to judge when it’s time to bake?
Sadly, there’s no one-size fits all answer here. A good starting point is simply by eyeballing the increase in volume — if you make the same loaf over and over again, experience will teach you about what size the loaf should be when it’s almost ready. And with a very light pressing touch, you’ll be able to determine how much further you should let it go.
I know that’s not a very useful answer, but it’s the truest.
Learning to appropriately judge the degree of proofing a loaf needs is just another one of those skills you develop with time and experience. It can be frustrating in the early stages when you see the loaf flatten out and you realize you let it proof too long, or when you see that you’ve baked the loaf too soon and lost greater volume and lighter crumb as a result.
So start with the finger-poke test, if you must. I did. But then spread your wings.
Step 8: Score and Bake
Grab your cast iron dutch oven or combo cooker, toss it into the oven, and preheat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 30 minutes (I usually let it go 45-60 minutes). When it’s ready, carefully turn your loaf out and score in your preferred manner. For this loaf I used a tic tac toe pattern because it really helps to encourage a full ovenspring.
Bake your loaf covered for 20 minutes, remove the lid (and rotate 180 degrees if your oven doesn’t bake evenly), and bake for another 20-30 minutes. I generally bake my loaves dark, but not ridiculously so. And some loaves I tend to bake on the lighter side. It just depends on what I’m aiming for.
So bake to whatever degree of color and crust you like. I was perfectly happy baking this loaf for a total of 45 minutes.
Step 9: Cool and Enjoy!
Congratulations! If all went well, you should now have a tasty sourdough loaf with a light open crumb.
Be sure to let it cool fully before cutting into it — at least 2 hours. Of course, if you want to dig in while it’s still warm, I won’t fault you for that. Just keep in mind that if you cut into the loaf before the crumb has fully set, you’ll be doing some damage to its structure. So it’s up to you how to proceed here.
If your loaf didn’t turn out so light and airy as you’d like, just keep at it. Skill takes time to develop, but it won’t be long before you start seeing improvements in your technique and dough handling ability. With a little patience, you’ll get it.
Whatever you do, don’t rush to increase hydration.
That’s not the answer here. If you can’t gently coax an open crumb from a stiffer dough like this, you’re only gonna run into even more trouble when you start making the dough wetter and stickier.
Give yourself the time required to develop feel and intuition first. It may not seem like you’re progressing very fast, but in the long run you’ll find it far less frustrating. Ultimately, you’ll progress further than you would’ve had you been getting ahead of yourself in a rush to work with highly hydrated doughs.
I hope this post was helpful. Until next time . . .
Trevor J. Wilson