Learn how to tell when sourdough is done with bulk fermentation and ready to shape without unnecessary jargon in this straightforward post.
The bulk fermentation phase of sourdough bread making is critical for establishing the dough’s strength, flexibility, flavor, and final texture.
This post includes two videos and discusses general timing, visual cues, and other things to look for.
What is bulk fermentation?
Bulk fermentation is the first phase of dough fermentation after mixing the dough. This is also known as “first rise.”
This first phase of fermentation is also called bulk because the dough is all together and has not been divided and shaped (e.g., bagels, rolls).
See the before and after of a batch of sourdough pizza as well as an hour by hour progression of another batch of sourdough in the video below:
How is bulk fermentation different from regular fermentation?
In general, fermentation is the process of giving time for enzyme reactions and molecular changes to take place and allow the dough to expand, gluten to develop, and the dough to strengthen.
Fermentation in sourdough also refers to the breakdown of flour starches and proteins into smaller, more digestible pieces.
It begins after the dough is mixed together and continues through all the phases of the bread making process until it is baked.
Bulk, dough rest periods, and proofing are all fermentation. Bulk is unique because it is the beginning of this process and lays the foundation for creating a strong, elastic dough. Strong, properly fermented dough is easier to shape and creates an optimal final texture and shape once baked.
How to tell when bulk fermentation is finished
Rushing the sourdough long fermentation process is a common mistake newer sourdough bakers make.
But you can improve your skills as a baker by knowing some of the signs to look for!
Watching the clock in reference to the recipe is the first important part of bulk fermentation. In recipes there is usually a time range that will be impacted by room temperature, water temperature, and humidity. Here’s my basic recipe for sourdough country bread.
Temperature is the most important factor for determining how quickly dough ferments. In general, in hot summer weather your dough will be ready on the short end of the time frame. In cold winter weather, dough will be ready on the longer end of the time frame.
The timing for sourdough recipes is usually a general guideline and may have to be adjusted in your home environment.
Dough volume, appearance, and texture after bulk ferment
Due to the variables in this process, it is important to know what to look for in your dough. When you understand these signs, you can determine when your dough is finished with bulk fermentation and ready to shape.
Analyze three things: dough volume, dough appearance, and dough texture.
Dough volume should be at least double from the gas built up from yeast fermentation. There should be visible signs of the bubbles of gas on top and from side if you have a see-through bowl or container. Sometimes the dough even jiggles from this built up gas–that’s a good sign!
I recommend using a see-through cambro for bulk fermentation which also has indicators for the volume by liter and quart measurements.
Dough appearance should no longer be rough after sourdough bulk fermentation. It should be smooth looking and even a bit shiny.
If you lift up a section, it should move together. You should see the formation of lines of gluten strands and/or webs of gluten that have formed.
The texture and feel should no longer be sticky but only tacky. If the dough is sticking to your finger or hands rather than sticking to itself, it is not done fermenting.
Side by side comparison
Dough that is done with fermentation and ready to shape should be double in volume but it also should have a certain look and texture. The dough should have a smooth appearance, with a pillow-y appearance from the air built up inside, and should be only slightly tacky. See the quick video below for a side by side comparison.
Note: The batch of sourdough that is well fermented was fermented overnight then 8 hours at room temperature. The other batch of sourdough was fermented about 5 hours at room temp.
It was winter and cold in my kitchen when I filmed this. During this season, all of my batches of sourdough are fermenting on the long side. I usually let them bulk ferment 7-9 hours at room temp. Adding warmer water (70-75 degrees) allows me to shorten the timing slightly.
What do I do if my dough isn’t ready?
If your dough doesn’t have all or some of the factors described above, re-cover the dough and continue the bulk ferment.
The needed time will vary depending on your environment.
If the dough feels close and has nearly all the factors, it probably only needs 1-2 more hours.
If you aren’t observing any of the signs of readiness, your dough may need 3-5 additional hours, depending on the recipe.
I would recommend a stretch and fold if it has no signs of readiness. See this step by step recipe to see how to do a stretch and fold.
Can you let bulk ferment go too long?
Sourdough can become over fermented if left for too long. Signs of dough that is over fermented are a stringy dough appearance, watery texture, and dough breaks apart easily.
This is why it’s important to pay attention to your sourdough during bulk fermentation.
Tools to help with fermentation timing
Aside from learning how to care for a sourdough starter, the timing of sourdough bread making, especially sourdough bulk fermentation, has the biggest learning curve.
For making standard sourdough lean breads, you can develop or use a timing worksheet to plan out your bread making.
To take some of the variability out of different seasons of the year, you can use the fridge for cold bulk fermentation as well as cold proofing.
When I make my basic sourdough bread, I leave it in the fridge for 24-72 hours to bulk ferment. I don’t always let it come to room temperature before shaping, but I recommend it for easier shaping.
This free set of four timing methods for my basic country bread recipe will help you plan out your bake depending on whether you do room temperature bulk fermentation and room temperature proof, cold bulk and cold proof, or a combination.
Improving your skills as a baker
When you make sourdough bread, over time you will develop baker’s intuition.
You learn this part of sourdough baking through experience. This intuition allows you as the baker to sense when to adjust a recipe on the fly because the dough doesn’t feel right or look right.
It also helps you judge when the dough is ready to shape and when it needs to be left longer, regardless of what the recipe says.
Make sure to see this article on how to determine when your dough is finished proofing for the next phase of fermentation following dough shaping.
If you need more help in beginning your sourdough journey or navigating through areas where you lack clarity, I’d love to help you with one of my online courses.
Learn sourdough basics or a method for easy everyday bread making
My Intro. to Sourdough online course is perfect for people who want to learn all the steps and process of making traditional sourdough bread like country loaves, sandwich bread, and even how to make that same dough into a pizza.
This course is perfect for someone who is ready to start their sourdough journey.
Or if you want the easiest way to begin or a method to simplify your sourdough baking if you already have lots of experience, my Once-a-Week No Knead Sourdough method is a game changer.
I use this method every week and the course includes videos to show you how to make sandwich loaves, country loaves, focaccia, pizza, pan pizza, bagels, and english muffins!