Answering Your Questions About Sourdough Bulk Fermentation

I’m answering all of your questions about sourdough bulk fermentation in this post. If you’re wondering, “How to know when bulk fermentation is done?” or “How much should the dough rise during bulk fermentation?”  you’ve come to the right place! Let’s dive in below. 

hand punching down dough in a bowl

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What is Sourdough Bulk Fermentation?

Sourdough bulk fermentation is the process that happens after the dough has been created and before it’s divided, shaped, and proofed. It’s when the dough, as a whole mass, develops structure and flavor from the sourdough starter cultures fermenting the flour. 

What is the Difference Between Bulk Fermentation and Proofing?

Bulk fermentation is when the dough ferments as one large mass and happens right after the dough has been mixed together. Proofing happens after bulk fermentation, division of the dough, and shaping just before you place it in the oven.

How to Know When Bulk Fermentation is Done?

Knowing when your dough has completed bulk fermentation takes practice, but it isn’t hard. Instead of making it super complicated and technical, I like to stick to the fermentation guidelines, which I mention in the section below.

The only other thing I would suggest is to make a note of when the dough doubles in size and has visible air bubbles in it; this means it’s usually completed. If the dough looks soupy, sloppy, and without any shape, it is over fermented.

How Long Does Sourdough Bulk Fermentation Take

Depending on the temperature, bulk fermentation typically takes 8 to 12 hours to complete. I like to think of bulk fermentation timing like this: If it’s 70–73 degrees Fahrenheit, it’ll take 8–10 hours for the dough to ferment. Any warmer it’ll take 4-6 hours to complete.

If it’s 65–69 degrees Fahrenheit, it’ll take 10–12 hours. Any colder it could take up to 24 hours, like if you placed the dough in the fridge.

The warmer it is, the faster bulk fermentation will happen. The colder it is, the slower it’ll take place.

Signs of Overproofed Dough During Bulk Fermentation

When the dough is bulk fermenting, it can over ferment. When this happens it will lose its shape, look soupy and sloppy, and will be hard to shape.

If this happens, there is no need to panic; you can still bake the dough; it just won’t turn out like normal.

What Temperature is Best?

There isn’t an exact best temperature, but I find bulk fermentation the easiest around 70 degrees. Anything from 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal. 

What’s the Best Dough Container?

So many people like to make this overly complicated. Just bulk-ferment your dough in the large mixing bowl you used. You can just leave it in there after you’ve finished making the dough. I love my large 4-quart Pyrex glass mixing bowls for this. They’re large enough for the dough to have plenty of room to rise.

Should Bread Dough Be Covered During Fermentation?

Yes, always cover your bread dough with a kitchen towel, saran wrap, or a lid. What I like to do is keep these things on top loosely so that they’re sealed off a little but still get air so the dough can ferment.

If your dough sometimes dries out, you can rub 1 teaspoon of avocado or olive oil over the top of the dough to prevent this from happening during the bulk fermentation. I usually don’t do this unless I’m making a no-knead bread loaf. 

Should I Oil My Container?

You don’t need to oil your bulk fermentation bowl or container, but if you prefer to do that, you can. I never do, and the little bit of dough that sometimes sticks, I just soak in water after I’m done with the bowl before I wash it.

Where is the Best Place to Bulk Ferment Dough?

My favorite place to bulk ferment dough is on the countertop in the kitchen. It’s the easiest place to keep the dough without worrying about it. Plus, it’s harder to forget it’s waiting on me if it’s in plain sight. 

Strengthening the Dough During Fermentation

At the very beginning of your bulk fermentation process, you will use the stretch and fold method instead of kneading to strengthen your dough, aka the gluten. 

How Much Should the Dough Rise?

Your dough should double during bulk fermentation. Sometimes mine will even triple. 

What is the poke test for?

The poke test isn’t used during bulk fermentation. It’s used during the proofing of your shaped dough to test if it’s ready to be baked.

Why is my bread dough sticky at the end of fermentation?

It could be sticky for a few reasons. If your dough is very hydrated—70% or more—it may be sticky. Also, your dough could be sticky if it’s over fermented, but you’ll know because it’ll look soupy if that’s the case. 

How can I speed up or slow down fermentation?

You can speed up bulk fermentation by placing your dough in a warm space. I recommend not exceeding 80 degrees. Anything 76–80 degrees Fahrenheit can ferment your dough in as little as 4-6 hours. You can warm your oven by turning it on the lowest setting for 30 seconds, then turning it off and placing the dough inside.

To slow down bulk fermentation, you can use cold water to make your dough, and it’ll slow it down by a few hours. Or you can place your dough in the fridge to bulk ferment slowly for 24 hours.

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