How Do You Know When Bulk Fermentation Has Finished?

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Knowing when bulk fermentation has finished and it’s time to shape your loaf is perhaps one of the most important skills for the sourdough home baker. Getting this right can be be the difference between a light, airy crumb and a dense, gummy crumb. So how do you know when bulk fermentation has finished?

How to know when bulk fermentation has finished.

It can be tricky to know when your sourdough has finished bulk fermenting. There is no set time for fermentation to occur and thus it can be the undoing of many a sourdough enthusiast.

Bulk Fermentation refers to the time after you complete gluten development (generally through stretching and folding the dough) until the time when you shape your dough. You leave the dough at room temperature to “ferment” in one bulk mass. Bulk fermentation must occur at room temperature – you can read more on why here.

How Do You Know When Bulk Fermentation Has Finished?

When bulk fermentation of your sourdough is complete, your dough should:

  • Have doubled (or just under). This is so important!!
  • Have a slightly domed surface and be coming away from the edges of the bowl or container.
  • Have a smooth surface with bubbles starting to form – it shouldn’t be sticky.
  • It should feel light and airy like a giant pillow.
  • If you look underneath (clear container) you’ll see large bubbles like a giant sponge up against the glass.
You can see the dough in the top of this photo is ready to be shaped. It’s forming a dome with the dough moving away from the sides of the bowl. There are bubbles forming underneath the surface.

Letting Your Dough Double During Bulk Fermentation

The most important thing to note when looking at bulk fermentation is letting your dough double. If it does not double in volume, you will risk your dough being under fermented which results in dense, gummy bread with no air.

Many people say to only let your dough grow 30-50% – but it must double to ensure that you get lots of bubbles. Under fermentation is the cause of so many issues. Under fermented bread will not spring up in the oven. It’s dense, gummy and often pale (depending on the degree of under fermentation).

Good sourdough takes time! And this time is what is needed for proper fermentation.

This pumpkin sourdough has doubled during its bulk ferment. You can see the rounded top with the dough pulling away from the sides. The straight sided bowl makes it easier to see when it’s ready to shape.

Fermentation Is Temperature Dependant

There are many variables that can affect your sourdough. Perhaps the most important of these is temperature. Too hot and you can end up with a soupy mess. Too cold and your sourdough starter just can’t get going.

If your home is particularly cold, bulk fermentation will take a lot longer. If it’s warmer, it will be finished more quickly. It’s ok for the time it takes to vary. You will need to change the timing based on the seasons. You could also change the amount of starter you use.

One way to always make sure you are able to control the temperature is through using a bread proofing apparatus. This Brod & Taylor Bread Proofer is the bees knees when it comes to sourdough. It will ensure you can keep both your starter and your dough at the perfect temperature for fermentation – without any fluctuations.

Your Starter Could Be The Issue

If your dough doesn’t seem to be doing anything during bulk fermentation, or you aren’t getting enough fermentation occurring, your sourdough starter could very well be the culprit.

Using a sourdough starter that’s immature is generally the issue. But also using a sluggish starter can cause problems for fermentation too. You’ll find information on strengthening your sourdough starter here.

Tips For Knowing When Bulk Fermentation Has Ended

Knowing when your sourdough has finished the bulk ferment stage is a skill that you will develop over time. A sourdough instinct if you like. The more sourdough you bake, the more you’ll get to know how to read the dough.

Here are a few ways you can make sure you stack the odds in your favor:

  • Use Cambro Containers or a straight sided container so you can clearly see when the dough has doubled. This Cambro Container is perfect! You can mark the starting level with a Sharpie and then you’ll know when it’s doubled. It’s much easier to see the volume that in a traditional bowl.
  • Use a bread proofer like this Brod & Taylor Bread Proofer to ensure you keep your dough at a steady temperature ideal for fermentation. It definitely takes the guess work out of sourdough.
  • Pinch off a piece of dough from your sourdough before you place it into it’s fermentation container. Place the small piece of dough into a small shot glass. It will be easy to see when the dough in the glass has doubled. When this happens, the dough in your container should have also finished its fermentation.

If you’re looking for information on cold fermentation and how it differs from bulk fermentation – go here.

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