Large open holes in the crumb is a goal for many artisan bakers, particularly in making sourdough. It is also one of the hardest techniques to master as it takes a perfect combination of many factors and techniques to get right.
To get bread with large holes you need to create a strong and extensible dough that rises slowly to form large gas pockets. More hydration, strong flour, long fermentation, and gentle handling are ways to encourage and preserve the large holes.
Using strong flour and long fermentation builds strength. Using high hydration, long fermentation and folds make the dough extensible and a slow rising dough gives enough time to let the bubbles grow. Remember to not “degas” the dough after the first rise, as that will destroy the bubbles.
Doing all these things also assumes you are following other artisan bread best practices such as creating tension when shaping the dough, adequately proofing, and creating steam in a hot oven to give the best oven spring.
This article hopes to give some detailed direction on achieving these characteristics with what I see are the essential steps – first some background information, and then the detailed steps.
Building Strength, Extensibility, And Bubbles
The first thing to get your head around is that bread is just solidified foam. The holes are bubbles in the dough which have been baked and hardened. We must nurture and care for these bubbles to get them large and unbroken in the oven.
A good visual analogy is to think of each bubble as a party balloon. Party balloons are extensible enough to allow you to blow into and expand, and strong enough to hold on to the gas without popping. The perfect balance of strength and extensibility that we need to replicate in our dough.
On the other hand, think of bubble gum. Extensible enough to blow up, but lacking the strength to hold on to the gas so it pops. Another bad example is a bicycle tire. It is very strong to hold on to gas, but it lacks the extensibility to be blown up by your mouth.
Translating that to the dough, if our dough is too weak, the gas bubbles will get too large and burst which will deflate it. If it’s too strong and the gluten too organized then it can’t grow to contain large irregular bubbles.
Ideally, we want a fairly unorganized gluten structure that allows extensibility in some gas pockets. We want it strong enough to hold on to these large bubbles. And we want to give the dough enough time for these bubbles to form and grow.
So in summary:
Strength comes from:
- Using strong flour
- Good gluten formation from stretch and folds
- Tension in shaping
Extensibility comes from:
- Higher hydration
- Long fermentation
Gas Bubbles come from:
- Slow-rising dough
- Being gentle and don’t degas or “punch down”
My 6 Essential Steps For Larger Holes:
I’ve boiled it down to 6 tips which should give you large holes in your bread if followed well. Keep practicing!
1. Use higher hydration
Higher hydration will improve the extensibility of the dough to allow the gas pockets to grow larger.
I think this is probably the most important step to follow for big holes. By adding more water, you make the dough more fluid and more movable. This allows the gas to push outwards more and make a larger bubble than it would be able to with a tight dough.
If you don’t know what hydration is, it’s simply the ratio of water to flour in the dough. Bakers compare this with percentages e.g. 750ml water and 1000g flour is 75% hydration.
It also aids in natural gluten development. With more water, more random gluten strands are made with the protein, and there is no need to knead the dough. Random gluten bonds are better for irregular holes than forced gluten forming from kneading, which makes a very well-aligned dough (better for tight crumb sandwich bread).
Aim for hydration around 75% or higher. That 375ml water for 500g flour. You can use this dough calculator to help you with all the percentages.
You will have to stop kneading and use the stretch-and-fold method now it is much stickier.
2. Long, Slow Fermentation
Slow, long fermentation improves the extensibility of the dough and allows gas to build without the bubbles breaking.
The dough needs to be a slow-moving dough that doesn’t rise too fast. You can achieve this by significantly lowering the yeast so that the dough takes around 5 hours for its first rise. Or you can use a sourdough starter which is naturally a slow-moving dough.
This type of dough will become more extensible because the gluten relaxes over time. This allows larger pockets of gas to form. Dough that hasn’t had long enough to rest stays too tight and these bubbles never get the chance to get big.
With a long fermentation, we typically have periods of rest followed by a stretch and fold. This is like a gluten cycle of relaxing, building structure, and relaxing again. It lets bubbles form as it relaxes, and then a fold strengthens the dough up again to retain these bubbles.
3. Use Strong Flour
Strong flour gives dough gluten strength and keeps it stronger for longer.
Using strong flour or bread flour essentially means using flour from hard wheat which has a higher protein content. This extra protein translates to more gluten and a stronger dough.
If you’ve ever made bread with a low protein flour, like cake flour, you will notice how the crumb comes out as very fine bubbles. A bit like the texture of a cake.
Using higher protein flour just seems to make longer and stronger gluten strands which allow the bubbles to open up. The extra strength also allows the bubbles to be held on to, especially when fermenting for a long time which weakens the gluten.
I like to use bread flour with around 12% protein – I don’t think it’s necessary to go for the super high protein flours of 14%+. I am based in the UK and use the organic artisan flour Shipton Mill No.4 – which you can buy from their website.
4. Don’t Knock The Gas Out
Keeping the gas bubbles in the dough through the shaping process ensures larger bubbles at the end.
Lots of bread recipes will call for a “punch down” or “degassing” of the dough after the first rise. The idea being it gets rid of the large gas pockets and sets the dough up for more small bubbles in the proofing stage before baking.
This is good if you want to create a tightly crumbed bread, but counterintuitive for an artisan-style bread with large holes.
Instead, you should avoid pressing the air out before shaping the loaf. You should also be gentle in any gluten development such as stretching and folding, particularly towards the end of the rise when the dough is very bubbly.
When it comes to shaping, we still need to shape properly and build tension in the dough. This is also really important to ensure the dough doesn’t collapse and spread in proofing and baking. So solid shaping without degassing is a skill you will need to work on!
Try to build tension in as least moves as possible, and be firm but gentle in your movements. Watch the video I linked below from Chad Robertson to see how a real master does it.
5. Use Stretch And Fold Instead Of Kneading
Stretching and folding will build strength in the dough but keeps the structure more irregular and extensible.
Kneading is vigorous and repetitive and aims to hydrate the flour as quickly as possible while working the gluten. It causes the gluten network to form in a tight, regular mesh which is better for tightly crumbed dough.
Gluten will form naturally by itself if given water and time. You would have noticed this if you’ve ever done an autolyze by mixing flour and water and returning 30 minutes later.
Enter the stretch and fold method.
The stretch and fold consists of keeping your dough in your bowl to build gluten strength. Reach in and pull a corner of the dough up until you meet resistance. Then fold it over the top of the dough, and repeat this process 3-4 times moving around the bowl.
It’s a more gentle approach to building dough strength, and with the light touch, it promotes a natural random and irregular crumb structure.
Here is a short video on how to stretch and fold:
6. Get A Good Oven Spring
- A very hot oven with steam or Dutch Oven allows the dough to rise to its maximum
- Ensure dough is fully proofed before baking
- Score the top to let it open up
Oven spring is the fast rising in the oven we see for the first 20-30 minutes. At the end of this time, the crust goes hard and no more rising can happen. We want to maximize the time that the crust stays soft so that the interior crumb can get to its largest.
The yeast gets one last kick, but most of the oven spring comes from the gas pockets already inside which expand with the extreme heat of the oven.
All that nurturing of the bubbles can be wasted if the crust sets too quickly.
Some ways to ensure the oven spring gets to its maximum is firstly using a very hot oven – around 475F/245C. You can always reduce this temperature after around 20 minutes if your crust is browning too quickly.
Secondly, creating steam in the oven will keep the crust from drying out. If the top stays moist then it will stay supple and continue rising.
Either add a roasting pan with boiling water to your oven or bake the dough inside a Dutch Oven. The lid of the Dutch Oven keeps moisture in for the first 25 minutes and allows the bread to steam itself. The lid can then be removed for the last 20 minutes to brown the crust.
Follow A Good Recipe
The Country Loaf recipe from Tartine has all these techniques included and is an artisan bread classic. Find the recipe here.
For a visual aid, the video below shows the recipe writer, Chad Robertson, performing all the steps. You can get much better instruction than just reading the recipe text.
How To Make Bread With A Fine Crumb
When we are trying to achieve something, it can often be useful to look at the inverse to see everything which we should avoid. Here are the steps to follow if you want a fine crumb with small even bubbles:
- Lower the hydration to around 65%
- Knead vigorously for 10 minutes
- Degas the dough after the first rise by pressing the air out
- Don’t bake too hot to reduce oven spring – around 400F/200C
As you can see, this is quite characteristic of a basic white bread recipe you might find for beginners. It’s easier to follow but the bread made isn’t particularly good.
Hopefully, now you know how to get big holes in bread and sourdough. It can feel like everything needs to be just perfect, which can be frustrating to nail down at the start. But with practice and a good recipe, you will get there. Cutting open your first large-holed crumb is a delight and definitely worth the effort.
Moving to a higher hydration dough with less yeast or starter will automatically have you fermenting longer periods and moving away from kneading. Coupled with some gentle handling as you are on your way to good holey bread.