See also my Bread-making FAQ which may answer more general questions. This page was created explicitly for trouble-shooting my “definitive” recipe.
Here are some tips I’ve given others as these questions have come up. Besides my own experiences, I thank Alton Brown, the crowd at Cook’s Illustrated (America’s Test Kitchen) and other bakers over the years for them.
If you’re new to bread, you may be offended by the beery or yeasty smell. Don’t be put off even by the smell of sourdough, there is nothing wrong.
Incidentally, beer is little more than liquid bread, a way to turn wheat into something for the body to consume. Very naturally, the fermentation process leads either to spoilage or to the production of alcohol, which is carefully nurtured and just as have bakers, beer producers have learned how to influence various aspects of flavor over the millenia.
Like beer, bread is addicting, but the effects of over-consumption are not as immediately deleterious as beer which may quickly kill you should you climb in behind the steering wheel whereas bread will take 70-80 years to do it if you maintain a reasonable level of physical activity in your lifestyle.
Yeast isn’t like chicken: it doesn’t go bad and give you salmonella or E coli. If your yeast packet has expired, the worst that could happen is that your dough won’t rise. Most of the yeast in your packet is dead anyway. It’s sold on the wager that enough of it will survive until you use it to get the fermentation process going (and yeast reproduce which is what sourdough is all about).
If you suspect your yeast, replace it—it’s cheap. I buy SAF® instant yeast in brick form (as soon as you break the seal you find out it’s the same granules as other brands) and it sometimes takes me a couple of years to use it up. I used to buy big Red Star yeast bricks too which held me even longer. I never even pay attention to it unless it stops working. I have bought Fleischman’s (what’s a guy whose name means “meat-seller” in German doing making yeast?) and not liked it very much by reason of how dead it always seems.
There are three main factors:
You didn’t get the sort of firm foam or sponge you see in the recipe illustration and from the ring on your bowl, you suspect it’s because active fermentation came and went while you were’t looking.
Use less yeast in it and/or keep it in a cooler place. This is especially a problem in summer.
If you have time, don’t throw out the pouliche, but use it as a pâte fermentée to start a new, more sour batch of bread by adding it to a new pouliche you make. Going through a series of low-yeast fermentations is part of the process of making San Francisco-style sourdough bread, though you’ll never quite get there without using an actual sourdougn start.
If you mix it in with a second pouliche, remember to double your dough recipe making two batches of bread. If your resulting pouliche still doesn’t look right, try just incorporating the whole thing as extra and mix for the right hydration rather than batch size. It works for me anyway.
Remember, the whole point of artisan bread-making is to produce bread you aren’t getting from Wonder® bakeries. The biggest factor in making excellent bread crumb is avoiding adding too much flour and drying out the dough. It will bake up nice and you may temporarily get a decent crust, your guests will even compliment you naïvely, but you haven’t baked the loaf you’ve gone to so much trouble to make.
You get a sudden oven lift followed by some continued puffing up of the dough once it gets into the oven. If you did what you’re supposed to do to obtain a fine crust, that crust will actually constrain oven lift until the partially baked dough explodes, out-gassing some of the dough at the weakest point.
The real reason to slash the dough just before the bake is to tell the dough where it will be allowed to find its way out. The slashes aren’t just for looks.
If you are following the recipe instructions, this is an unlikely problem. Of course, after baking and depending on your climat, the bread will always get soft with the crust taking in humidity from the surrounding air in addition to the humidity slowly driven from the crumb out into the air via the crust.
This is a very common problem, one you’ve probably had if you have tried baking artisan bread before beginning to follow the instruction here.
The best solution is a very hot oven including a very hot stone. If, like mine, your parents were raised during the Great Depression and you are loathe to preheat the oven and stone for 45 minutes to an hour before beginning to bake as instructed here, then you will, just as I used to, suffer this problem.
This is a popular thing to do, especially among artisan bread bakers in the United States. The Italians do it a bit while the French aren’t so big into it.
The moment to put other ingredients such as onion, olives, cheeses, etc. into your bread depends a lot on what kind of loaf you are making and whether you want the ingredient mixed deep inside or only applied topically.
If you only want a topical application of foreign ingredients, then add them when shaping your final loaf taking care not to tear your final surface. Remember, however, the rather high-temperature baking environment to which topical ingredients are subjected to.
If you want them mixed in deep, then add them starting at your first fold. If they are extremely salty, they may retard the rise. Plan accordingly.
If you want to add seeds, like whole grains, to your loaf, remember that if they’re too gritty to eat out of hand, they will probably remain that way in your bread. Some larger grains should be soaked by putting them into the recipe water of either the pouliche or the dough. Others should be soaked separately in their own liquid.
This is artisan bread which means that you’ll have to experiment and you should be taking some joy in doing this or the question is begged as to why you’re baking bread in the first place.
Your parents must have been raised during the Great Depression too.
Here’s a suggestion: when you scrape your work surface to prepare it for the next time the bread touches it, keep the scrapings in a bowl and use them to make a roux for a sauce you’re eating that day.
Another suggestion is to make tomorrow’s pouliche out of the left-over flour and dried dough bits. Be sure to weigh them—you should be weighing your flour anyway instead of using the hokey stir and toss method of volumetric measuring.