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The Secret of Bulk fermentation Time, or the Magic of Fermentation in No-Knead Sourdough Bread

Updated: May 1

The secret that no one is aware of and that constitutes the real magic trick of baking!



🎯 Summary

This article explores the techniques of slow fermentation for no-knead sourdough bread, focusing on bulk fermentation and proofing. It explains how careful dough handling, adjusting hydration, and using time rather than mechanical intensity can influence the gluten structure and the final outcome of the bread. The text also highlights the importance of temperature and gentle handling to achieve a quality crumb and developed flavor.


🎓 What You Will Learn

  • Practical steps to develop your dough to confidently transition from bulk fermentation to proofing.

  • The mechanisms involved during bulk fermentation and their connection to kneading.

  • How these mechanisms will help you better understand and thus influence your breadmaking protocol.

  • The impact of your actions on your dough and the resting times on your final bread.


💡 Key Takeaways

  • Every action in a step of a breadmaking protocol influences the next step (there are no idle gestures or waits).

  • Kneading has three goals:

    • to create the gluten network (structure),

    • to provide elasticity (strength),

    • and to give extensibility to the dough (flexibility).

  • Kneading simply speeds up the process and can be replaced by:

    • mixing the ingredients (frasage),

    • and spaced dough work phases (folding, turning, lamination, etc.).

  • Bulk Fermentation = creating the gluten network ➜ the dough is ready.

  • Proofing = generating gases ➜ the dough is set to bake.

  • The secret lies in adjusting the hydration rate with dough handling to gain extensibility and maintain strength.

  • Making bread is like skillfully handling the elastic of a slingshot...


📖 In the remainder of the article, I discuss a traditional sourdough protocol at room temperature to maximize the taste and nutritional quality of the bread. I will dedicate a paragraph to low inoculation and cold retardation, which are specific cases. Although autolysis can play an interesting role for simplicity, I will not detail this step.


Here's an illustration of what to expect in the rest of this article.


Pain au levain sans pétrissage les étapes

1️⃣ Kneading | Ultimately Not Mandatory


Pain au levain avec pétrissage au robot

Kneading is traditionally a phase that follows "frasage" (in French), which involves mixing the ingredients and specifically amalgamating the flour with water.





When I read books or articles titled "no-knead bread," I didn’t understand the goal and especially how it was possible. I even thought it was a fad, or that it couldn't possibly work. At that time, I hadn’t grasped the essence of baking as a whole.

Indeed, I held the belief KNEADING = THE BREAD WILL RISE WELL. My understanding was that the dough needed to retain the CO2 gas bubbles to rise in the oven. This isn't wrong, but it’s an incomplete understanding.

Through practicing baking and deepening my readings, my understanding of kneading has evolved significantly. I now see the role of kneading as follows:


Pain au levain sans pétrissage, réseau de gluten
  • Mechanically build the gluten network in the dough by providing it with energy and oxygen.

  • Make the dough more extensible, that is, give it the ability to stretch without breaking.

  • Provide the dough with elasticity, the ability to return to its original shape.

  • Transform starch into simple sugars for the yeast.


An alternative exists for forming the gluten network, as well as for increasing the dough's elasticity and extensibility without the risk of over-kneading. This method requires more time and more delicate mechanical actions, i.e., less intense and shorter in duration.


🧐 But how is this possible?

Imagine the proteins in the flour like magnetic puzzle pieces (+/-). Adding water makes these pieces float, making them mobile, which facilitates their assembly by aligning the +/- poles of these magnets. Gentle movements (folds, turns, laminations, stretches, etc.) will suffice to align everything and form long, strong gluten chains. These gluten chains will weave a solid and especially watertight structure.



Elasticity: the puzzle pieces being magnetized have a cohesive force between them; if one moves away, it has the ability to return by the effect of magnetization. The strength of the dough is somewhat the strength of the magnets.


Extensibility: continuing the analogy, since the pieces are magnetized, they have a certain freedom to move and thus become extensible without detaching from each other.


Be careful, especially initially, too much water will disperse the puzzle pieces too far apart, making it impossible for them to latch onto each other.


💦 Water also awakens the hidden enzymes in the flour that begin to transform starch (complex sugars) into simple sugars that can be assimilated by the yeast. In autolysis (mixing Flour + Water), these sugars will be consumed later upon the arrival of the yeast.

Here we see the importance of the right amount of water, and we understand that without kneading, a higher hydration will greatly assist.

The magical component, in addition to water, is obviously time, which industrial processes won’t afford. Giving oneself time is offering an unparalleled tasting experience.

To remember: the phase of preparing the gluten network does not require a high temperature as it does not seek to activate the yeast. It requires higher hydration, developmental manipulations, and time.

"Less is more" which I translate here as "Doing less is doing better". Sometimes, fewer technical gestures are beneficial.


2️⃣ Bulk Fermentation | Longer and Cooler


Ultimately, by eliminating kneading, we go directly from frasage (mixing of ingredients) to bulk fermentation. It's during this bulk fermentation phase that we develop the dough, prepare the meal for the yeasts, and create the gluten network.


During bulk fermentation, yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and lactic acid bacteria (mainly Lactobacillus) play crucial roles.

🍄 The yeasts transform sugars into carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol, contributing to the dough rising.

🧫 Lactic acid bacteria, on the other hand, produce lactic and acetic acids, contributing to the dough’s acidification, thereby strengthening the gluten structure and adding complex flavors to the bread.


🦠 Similarly, during bulk fermentation, enzymes present in the flour, like amylases, break down starch into simpler sugars that the yeasts can ferment. A more hydrated dough allows for better diffusion of enzymes and fermentation products, thus facilitating microbial activity and gas distribution. This influences the lightness and texture of the crumb.


🧪 The acids produced by lactic acid bacteria alter the gluten proteins' structure, making the dough less extensible but stronger and more elastic. This transformation is essential for retaining the gases produced by the yeasts, crucial for forming a well-aerated crumb.


🧂 Minerals like calcium and magnesium can affect the activity of enzymes and the stability of protein structures in the dough, thus modifying the efficiency of bulk fermentation.

The question now arises: when do we transition from bulk fermentation to proofing?


Here are the criteria I propose:


  • The gluten network is established (windowpane test).


Pain au levain sans pétrissage, réseau de gluten

  • The dough becomes smooth and shiny with signs of fermentation.



  • The dough is elastic; during handling, the dough retracts, it feels alive and maintains a rounded shape (does not collapse). This is the most challenging criterion to achieve because it involves balancing hydration and dough lifting manipulations to build strength.

Pain au levain sans pétrissage élasticité de la pâte
To remember: the initial fermentation of the dough during bulk fermentation can help gain strength as it naturally becomes more rounded. However, be careful if the dough becomes overly aerated, as handling will become delicate, even unfeasible. My advice is not to ferment at too high a temperature to avoid this issue. Adding yeast, which boosts fermentation, can make things more complicated to control.
Pain au levain sans pétrissage élasticité de la pâte

  • The dough stretches without tearing

Pain au levain sans pétrissage extensibilité de la pâte
To remember: the transition from bulk fermentation to proofing follows three criteria: a dough that stretches, a formed gluten network (like a drum skin), and a dough that holds well (strength/elasticity). Therefore, a low temperature (16-21 °C) is suitable as we are not trying to grow the dough rapidly.

Now, what to do to meet these three criteria?


  • Properly hydrating the dough is essential for extensibility without making the dough too liquid as then it will never be elastic.

  • Perform folds/turns/stretching/laminating spaced at least 30 minutes apart to allow the dough time to homogenize and soften to avoid breaking during the next manipulation:

    • Start with 1 or 2 turns in the tub.

    • Perform a lamination if the dough lacks extensibility and/or is too elastic, then shape into a round (often unnecessary if you have performed an autolysis).

    • Finish with 1 or 2 shaping(s) on the counter or in a banneton.


If the dough lacks strength, I advise you to flour and shape in a banneton by stretching the dough from the outside towards the center.


Here is an illustration of this notion of "strength" linked to extensibility and elasticity, which is the most delicate criterion to achieve because it depends on hydration, your manipulations, and the type of flour (absorption capacity & protein content).


To remember: the transition from bulk fermentation to proofing follows three criteria: a dough that stretches, a formed gluten network (like a drum skin), and a dough that holds well (strength/elasticity).


🏹 An interesting analogy to compare the dough during bulk fermentation is that of a slingshot poised to launch a projectile.


🏹

🥖

Elasticity

The ability of the elastic to return to its place with force.

The strength of the dough, which depends on your handling and partly on the protein content of the flour.

Extensibility

The length the elastic can stretch without breaking.

The dough's ability to stretch without tearing.

Tension of the Elastic

Gives momentum to the projectile.

Speed of fermentation during bulk fermentation

Accuracy of the Shot

Ability to hit the target.

Control over the fermentation time.


🚀 The slingshot's elastic must not break (it needs to be extensible) and it must also have the property of returning to its original position like a spring. If the elastic is too hard, it's impossible to pull it to stretch it; if it's not elastic enough, it will return to its position limply without launching the projectile.


🎯 Another challenge of a slingshot is to be precise and powerful, which corresponds to achieving the right fermentation (precise) and sufficient strength (power). It's clear that being powerful by pulling the elastic to its maximum has two drawbacks: less control over aiming and a risk of the elastic breaking.


When "the forehead is well tensioned," the shot will be powerful; this is exactly like a bulk fermentation starting quickly (too high temperature or too much ferment), once started, it’s difficult to calm. This can lead to over-fermentation during proofing.


The case of low inoculation fits perfectly into this approach of long bulk fermentation aimed at extracting taste from the flour and the sourdough starter, and it allows for reducing manipulations that would shock the dough and cause it to lose many of its organoleptic qualities (sensory perception of food). This corresponds to a relatively gentle tensioning of the slingshot's elastic because a small amount of starter will take a long time to ferment intensely.


3️⃣ Proofing | Shorter and Warmer

Bulk fermentation initiates the fermentation by transforming complex sugars (slow sugars derived from starch, which is the seed's food source) into simple sugars that can be used by yeasts and bacteria to ferment your dough.


Bulk fermentation acts as if one were stretching the elastic of a slingshot; the projectile has not yet been launched, but the launch is being prepared (especially at lower temperatures around 16-21 degrees Celsius). The higher the temperature, the more the elastic is stretched, and therefore the more careful one must be to control their movement to avoid damage from the projectile.


Proofing signifies the launch of the projectile; indeed, it is the moment when the elastic is released, thus giving the bread the opportunity to ferment and rise in its final shape (after shaping). Proofing can be done at a higher temperature to ensure that the yeasts will take effect beforehand by multiplying and consuming the sugar (thus producing CO2 which will form the future air pockets in the bread).


4️⃣ Planning Your Baking | Managing Your Time


Since 2015, I have created an ANDROID app that allows managing your own end-to-end baking protocols, from the weight of ingredients to the duration of fermentations based on your baking choices. The calculation of bulk fermentation and proofing times takes into account the kneading mode, temperature settings, and inoculation rate.


📱The App is available here:  Bread Recipes – Apps on Google Play


The temperature of the dough with autolysis or fermentolysis is also managed, which, for those who have tried it, is challenging because it really depends on the dough temperature at the end of mixing/frasage, the temperature rise during kneading (with a mixer), and the ambient temperature. Manually, this is really a challenge.


The app, with the precision of the fermentation model and the physical model of the dough temperature, allows for quite precise planning of fermentation durations and also for modifying your fermentation on the fly. For example, if I have to leave tonight at the time of baking my bread, how can I manage the situation with a cold retardation without over or under fermenting.


Here is an example of changing the bulk fermentation temperature (from 21 °C to 24 °C) and a cold proofing. Here, given the significant mass of the dough, the effect of changing from 21 °C to 24 °C has almost no impact on the fermentation time.


Pain au levain sans pétrissage Application Android

And another example with an inoculation of 1.3% at Room Temperature compared to an inoculation of 25% with cold retardation.


The same fermentation time is achieved with completely different temperature profiles.


Pain au levain sans pétrissage Application Android


To conclude this article, here are two results of baking using a no-knead protocol. On the left, a bread with flax seeds, and on the right, flax seeds, chia seeds, and raisins plumped in rum with turmeric-tinted flour. In both cases, a 50/50 mix of organic flours T65 and T80.


Pain au levain sans pétrissage la mie

5️⃣ Note on Over-Kneading


In this article, the goal is to encourage you to master your techniques and understand their impact. Kneading is a critical moment that can turn your dough into a mass that is no longer bakeable.


Indeed, the more intense and prolonged the kneading, the more negatively it affects the quality, particularly the taste of the bread.


  • Too much gluten development makes the dough very elastic, which limits its expansion during baking. The result is bread with less volume and a dense crumb rather than an airy one

  • Damage to the gluten from overly powerful kneading can weaken the dough's ability to retain gases and make the dough sticky (often due to excessive heat). The bread can thus turn out less fluffy and more compact.

  • Oxidation of the dough due to prolonged kneading can bleach the dough and decrease the richness of the bread's flavor, making it blander.

  • Excessive activation of enzymes, particularly through an increase in dough temperature (amylases from starch and proteases from proteins), can begin to break down key components of the dough too early, making the dough difficult to work with and possibly resulting in bread with an undesirable texture.

  • Depletion of nutrients necessary for fermentation (sugars and proteins used by the enzymes) can also affect the taste and texture of the bread, making it less flavorful and enjoyable to eat.




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