Bulk Fermentation


  1. Starting the Bulk Fermentation:

    • After you've mixed your dough (including the levain, flour, water, and salt), it's time to start the bulk fermentation phase. This phase will typically take place in a warm environment for several hours, generally ranging from 3 to 5 hours but it can vary depending on the ambient temperature and the strength of your starter.

  2. Stretch and Folds:

    • During the first 2-3 hours of bulk fermentation, you should perform a series of "stretch and folds" approximately every 30 minutes. This involves gently pulling a portion of the dough up and folding it over onto itself, rotating the bowl a quarter turn and repeating until you've come full circle.

    • Stretch and folds help develop the gluten structure, distribute the heat evenly throughout the dough, and incorporate oxygen, which yeast needs for fermentation.

  3. Final Proof:

    • After the last stretch and fold, cover your dough and let it continue to ferment undisturbed. The dough is ready when it has grown in volume by about 20-50%, appears slightly domed, and shows bubbles on the surface or just under the surface.

What's Happening during this phase:

Bulk fermentation is the heart of the sourdough bread-making process. It's where the majority of the flavor and texture development happens, and careful management of this phase is key to making great sourdough bread.

  1. Fermentation: Bulk fermentation is the phase when yeast and bacteria in your levain are most active. They feed on the sugars in the flour, producing carbon dioxide gas, alcohol, and organic acids. The gas gets trapped in the gluten network, causing the dough to rise. The alcohol and acids contribute to the flavor and help condition the dough, improving its extensibility.

  2. Gluten Development: The stretch and fold method not only helps in mixing but also aids in developing the gluten structure. Gluten, which is a protein network in dough, gives bread its characteristic chewy texture. By stretching and folding the dough, you're aligning these gluten strands and strengthening this network, which will eventually trap gases during fermentation and oven spring.

  3. Temperature: The rate of fermentation is affected by temperature. Yeast activity increases with temperature, up to a point. A warmer environment will speed up the fermentation process, while a cooler one will slow it down. That's why it's crucial to monitor the dough and not just the clock during this phase.

  4. Dough Strength and Maturity: Throughout bulk fermentation, your dough should gradually become more cohesive, elastic, and smoother. This is due to both gluten development from the stretch and folds and acid production from the fermentation. The acids condition the dough, improving its handling characteristics and helping it maintain its structure during shaping and baking.