Is your sourdough dense or not turning out the way you had hoped?
Maybe your sourdough isn't holding its shape. Maybe you're wondering 'why is my sourdough not rising?' or 'why is my sourdough flat?' Or perhaps ' why is my sourdough dense?'
If your dough isn’t doing what it should, this sourdough bread troubleshooting guide is for you. Read through this and it will help you decipher what went wrong.
Sourdough starter posts
I have much of this information written in various areas of the blog already, but I think a dedicated post on sourdough bread troubleshooting is best.
In my sourdough starter post and sourdough loaf post, the ‘jump to recipe’ button skips through all the explanations, which means most of the sourdough information is missed.
I want to talk through the process of bread making and all the important parts that I have found to play the biggest part in a good loaf of sourdough. I’ve only included the crucial steps, so it shouldn’t be too overwhelming.
So, here's to no more dense sourdough!
It’s hard to write an exact recipe with timings and temperatures as every environment is so different and there are so many variables. I believe it’s best to understand what is actually happening while the sourdough is being made, and what is happening in your sourdough starter.
Once you understand that you can tailor things to suit your individual spaces and loaves.
You can use this blog as a guide for a better understanding of the sourdough process and what is happening inside your loaf - but also as a way to delve into specific issues, you may be experiencing.
So, let’s start with the key part of any sourdough loaf: The starter.
This troubleshooting guide isn’t going to show the recipe to create a sourdough starter. It is going to assume you’ve already got one set up.
However, even if you have an active starter already made, how it’s maintained is actually very important to the working and development of your bread dough.
A starter is a collection of yeast and bacteria that feed on flour. The yeast is responsible for the rise in the bread and will help create a light and airy sourdough. The bacteria on the other hand create a sour taste and ferment the bread. The bacteria produce both lactic acid and acetic acid.
It is very important to establish if your starter is active enough to bake bread in the first place. In a starter, the yeast is the slowest to grow and colonize starter. Even if your starter is full of bubbles, that doesn’t particularly mean the yeast colony is big enough yet.
The bubbles can be made by both the yeast and the bacteria that let off-gases.
Feeding the starter
When I first start a starter from scratch I will feed it 1:1:1 daily, equal parts starter, flour, and water in weight. This is introducing a small amount of fresh flour and water each day that the yeast and bacteria can consume while they establish themselves.
It’s important you measure this in weight and not volume. Water is much heavier than flour, so if you measure equal spoons or cups instead of grams, your water balance will be way off.
As the starter begins doubling quickly (within 5-6 hours) I will begin feeding 1:1:1 twice daily. These constant feedings are what help to establish the yeast colony.
Starter activeness test
To check if the starter is ready to bake with, I like to perform a little test. To do this I will feed the starter 1:2:2. This means 1 part starter and 2 parts flour and 2 parts water. I want to see if the yeast can colonize this extra fresh flour and water fast enough before the bacteria create too much acid. (An overly acidic starter can be problematic and I’ll address this further below).
In general, at a room temperature of around 21°C, if the starter is properly ready, I would expect it to easily double, even triple, within 6 hours. If it takes longer than this, your yeast colony may not be established enough yet. They are not going to have the strength to raise your bread and you'll end up with an under proofed and dense sourdough
Continue with the twice-daily feedings until it is established.
The acid in the starter
There is always acid in a sourdough starter, as it is the byproduct of the bacteria. However, too much acid in your starter can be very troublesome when it comes to working the dough.
If you use an overly acidic starter, it can break down the proteins in the gluten so much that they don’t hold together. The dough becomes sloppy and unworkable.
The dough not holding shape and spreading out like there is too much liquid is one of the most common issues I hear. The most likely culprit for this is the starter. If this sounds familiar to you, please read on.
The longer the time between the feeding of your starter, the more acid that accumulates in your starter. A starter that was fed 6 hours ago at 1:2:2 will have less acid than one fed 10 hours ago at the same ratio.
Also, the higher the ratio of seed starter used in the feeding, the more acid there is.
Feeding your starter at a ratio of 1:1:1 brings a large amount of seed starter into the new mix. This means that this new mixed starter will rise quickly because the yeast and bacteria don’t have a large amount of flour to inoculate.
This is fine if the starter is refreshed multiple times daily, and used before the starter passes the peak and collapses, however, I rarely use this ratio.
I much prefer a 1:2:2 or 1:3:3 ratio. This brings a small amount of seed starter into the fresh mix and there is plenty of food for the yeast and bacteria.
This gives a slower rise, so you have more time to use it before it passes its peak. This means there is more time before the food runs out and too much acid accumulates. However, as mentioned above, if your starter takes longer than 6 hours to double at 1:2:2, it may not be quite ready.
When to use the starter
If you regularly refresh your starter and keep the seed starter amount small, then you’ve got quite a window of opportunity to use it for bread.
It has to at least double, or even triple.
However, you should use it before it passes its peak. The peak is when the starter has done all the rising it can. There is no food left, so it starts to collapse. A peaked, collapsed starter is too exhausted to bake with, and too much acid has accumulated.
Acidic starters like this are great in discard recipes such as pancakes. That’s because these recipes rely on the acid the bacteria produces. It reacts with baking soda to give the rise.
How quickly the starter rises will depend on the maturity of your starter, how much seed starter was initially used, and the temperature of your room.
My Top Tips for the best starter health and success:
- Weigh out your quantities when feeding your starter and use ratios depending on how soon you are wanting to make bread with your starter.
- Take note of how long it takes for your starter to double and then reach its peak - this will give you an idea of the window you have to use your starter.
- Don't be afraid to keep your starter in the fridge in between uses - just make sure you feed it beforehand.
The dough and autolyze
When it comes to a sourdough bread recipe, I think the actual amounts of water and flour are the least important. In fact, I make bread by eye a lot and just tip in flour and water and mix it until it feels right.
This means some days it is really wet, other days not so much. The point is, don’t get too hung up on the amount of water and flour in the actual recipe. Sourdough recipes can range in hydration, usually between 65-80%. If you’ve got a good starter with a low acid load, it can handle the wet dough.
The flour type
The type of flour makes a difference though. I think when just starting out the sourdough journey, using a strong white flour with a protein level of at least 11% is the easiest. It can help you get used to gauging the dough. Once I had a few loaves like that under my belt, I let the experimenting with different flours begin.
When introducing different flours such as spelt flour, rye, wholemeal, etc, it helps to start with small amounts and work your way up. 10-15% of the total flour amount is a good place to start.
An autolyze helps too. This is the mixing of the main bread flour and the water to create a shaggy dough. This hydrates the gluten and makes a real extensible dough. I like to start my autolyze at least 30 minutes before mixing in the starter.
Folding and bulk fermenting
The bulk ferment is the term for the fermenting and proofing of the dough will do at room temperature. Usually, there is some folding, or kneading of the dough that happens at this stage at the same time.
In my recipe, I coil fold the dough for 3 hours and then leave it to ferment further until it has reached the ideal proofed stage. I always use wet hands when I am folding my dough as it stops it from sticking to my hands. My dough is always sticky and wet, even if the videos I have of my folding don’t show that fully. However, I build up the structure and elasticity in the dough so it holds together.
It is normal for the bread dough to spread back out a bit after folding, especially with doughs that have higher hydration. However, you should feel a difference in texture as it develops.
Folding and building the structure in the bread is important for an open crumb. You need to develop the glutens. A coil fold isn’t the only way to do this, there are many kneading or folding methods. I find a coil fold the easiest and I appreciate the smooth top it gives the dough once folded. I can easily see the bubbles form in it as the dough proofs.
However, if your starter isn’t ready or it’s passed its peak and is too acidic, your folding won’t build the structure you need. If you find your dough is really liquid after the first few sets of folds and doesn't strengthen, I would reassess the starter.
The dough needs to proof for long enough if you want a light and open crumb. You need to give the yeast time to work through the sugars in the dough. As they do, they release carbon dioxide. The gluten structure that was built up during the autolyze and the folding will hold this gas in little pockets. This gives rise to the dough.
Sourdough rising is so much slower than commercial yeast so it might look like there is nothing happening during the bulk ferment, but there definitely is.
It’s hard to know exactly how long it needs or when it has proofed enough (or too much!) but this is something that can be learned with practice.
What to look for in a bulk ferment
In my usual sourdough loaf, I look for my dough to bulk out by about 50%. That doesn’t mean it doubles, it’s just fuller by half the amount. I take a photo of my dough at the beginning and then compare it at the end.
After folding and the dough has sat a few hours proofing, give it a prod with a wet finger. It should leave an indent that fills back out slowly but only about halfway. If it bounces completely, leave it to ferment longer.
In my kitchen, the temperature can fluctuate depending on the time of year. In the peak of summer, my bulk ferment is much quicker than in spring, autumn, or winter. The yeast will rise much faster when it is warm.
Under fermented sourdough
Under-proofing the dough is a very common issue. You can tell if your loaf was under-proofed after it has been baked. A thick and chewy crust (that is hard to cut), a gummy and undercooked texture, a dense crumb, a few large sporadic holes...these are all signs of an under-proofed loaf.
Under fermented loaves can sometimes have quite a good oven spring and give a great rise once baked. However, often that’s a few uneven large bubbles at the top of the dough that has done that.
A too-short bulk ferment or an immature starter that wasn’t quite ready to bake with can be the cause of an under-fermented dough.
Here are a few under-fermented doughs. They all look different, but what they have in common is their lack of proper fermentation.
A well-fermented dough has a much more even crumb once baked. It’s open, lacy, and light, without dense patches.
Below are a few well-fermented doughs.
How wild the crumb is of a well-fermented dough depends on the hydration of the dough as well as the flour type. Wetter doughs will give a wilder and more open crumb, while a dough with lower hydration will have a tighter crumb. Bread made with a lower protein flour, such as all-purpose flour will have slightly less strength and a less open crumb too.
Now on the other end of the spectrum, you can also over-ferment your dough.
This can happen if the weather is really warm, or the dough has just sat for too long.
An over-proofed dough is when the yeast has created so much gas that the gluten structure cannot hold it anymore. The dough becomes extremely fragile and can collapse. If you prod an over-proofed dough with your finger it will leave an indent that doesn’t fill back out at all.
Learning to gauge your dough to see when it is ready is something that you will learn over time, and I encourage you to keep practicing and perfecting it. Watch the dough and not the clock.
Doing a pre-shape can help gauge if your dough has been proofed enough. Once you think bulk fermentation has finished, perform one more set of folds to shape the dough into a ball.
This pre-shape will let you feel if it is airier and fuller, with visible bubbles. Leave the pre-shaped dough ball to sit for and relax for 15-30 minutes before shaping.
However, if the dough still feels quite heavy and thick, leave it to proof longer.
The shaping of the dough happens before it goes into the fridge for the cold-proof. It is the shaping that creates a little parcel of dough, with some surface tension so it holds its shape when it’s baked later on.
Going right back to the basics, if your starter wasn’t ideal, and therefore neither was your folding, then your shaping will be difficult too.
How you shape can differ. I have a video of my shaping on my recipe post but don’t worry if you do it differently. As long as you create a semi-tight shape (without degassing it too much), and some surface tension by sliding/rolling the dough on a clean bench. A well-shaped loaf is much easier to score.
A dough with a lower hydration level will be much easier to shape than with a higher level.
Unlike folding, you should lightly flour your hands and workspace when shaping the dough so it doesn’t stick and tear. Once the initial shaping is complete, the surface tension rolling should be done on a non-floured part of the bench though or it will just slide around and you won’t create that tightness.
Once the loaf is shaped, place it in a towel-lined banneton basket (or bowl) that is liberally floured. A well-shaped loaf will be easier to place in the banneton basket and also to remove from the banneton basket in the morning.
If you find your dough always sticks even when heavily floured, I would assess the shaping that was done. A loose shape without the tight and smooth surface tension on the outside of the dough can stick.
Now the dough undergoes a cold-proof. The yeast action will slow right down during this stage, but the bacteria can now get to work. A cold-proof brings a sour flavour to the bread. It can also give the bread a better oven and spring and can make scoring a bit easier as the dough will be firmer.
I bake my loaves in a hot preheated oven and a preheated cast-iron dutch oven pot. The cast iron holds the heat really well and the dutch oven aspect captures the steam to help get a good oven spring.
After an initially covered bake, the lid is removed and the rest of the loaf can brown up.
You can alternatively use any pot with a lid, or a preheated oven tray alongside a ramekin of water or ice to create steam.
Before you bake, scoring your loaf will help direct where the steam bursts from.
Whatever you use for scoring, it needs to be as sharp as possible. I personally only like using fresh razor blades. I either place them in a lame or just hold them.
After a few weeks, they’ll become blunt and I’ll switch it for a new one. Razor blades allow smooth cuts that glide through the dough without pulling at it.
For decorative scoring it doesn’t need to be deep, about ¼ cm is good, but there should be at least one deep slash in the bread somewhere for the steam to escape, especially in bread with lower hydration. One that is around ½ cm deep.
This designated deep slash will help stop the steam from bursting out of other places.
I usually do a deep slash down the middle of the bread, holding my razor at a slight angle. Then I do the decorative scoring on the other side.
Once it has baked, you should let it cool completely. Warm sourdough can seem slightly gummy, even if the bread was proofed well.
This sounds like the bread is under-proofed. A too-short bulk ferment or an immature starter that wasn't quite ready to bake with can be the cause of an under-proofed dough.
Increasing the hydration can help achieve a more open and wilder crumb, but ensure your starter is not too acidic so it can handle the wet dough. Ensure the dough is properly proofed too.
Taking a picture of the dough at the beginning of the proofing time to compare it at the end can help. Prod the dough with a wet finger. It should leave an indent that fills back out slowly but only about halfway. If it bounces completely, leave it to ferment longer.
Definitely. You can use any pot with a lid that will help create the steam. Alternatively, just use a preheated oven tray and add a ramekin of water or ice cubes to create the steam.
Heavily flour your towel if using plain flour. Alternatively use rice flour. Also, creating good surface tension during shaping will create a tighter dough that will stick less.
This sounds like the bread is under-proofed. A too-short bulk ferment or an immature starter that wasn't quite ready to bake with can be the cause of an under-proofed dough. A thick and chewy crust is a tell-tale sign of this.
Yup feed it each time after using it.
Do you discard every time you feed your starter?
Yup I do, you can read more about how I feed my starter here
Hi Eileen. Thank you for your informative article. I am a relatively new sourdough baker. My last attempt produced a gummy, dense loaf after having better luck previously. Little was changed. Here are my questions: First, I use a 1-2-2 ratio for my 4 week old starter with half the flour white and half rye. It doubles around 4 hours and peaks and triples around 6+ hours. When is the better time to use it, 4 or 6 hours, to reduce my risk of gumminess? Secondly, after 4 sets of folds at the start of the bulk ferment, the dough barely rose at all. 10 hours in and it had expanded around 20%. I even had a crust forming on the top. I was pretty sure that dense gumminess awaited and I was right. Thoughts? Thanks!
Wonderful, informative article. I've been baking sourdough since 2012. The bread has always been good, and so I have hesitated tinkering with it. During the pandemic, however, I started watching a lot of YouTube videos showing bread with a texture that was more open and consistent than mine. (Better opening and ears too!) I'm just now beginning to tinker with some changes, and your article has been the most helpful resource I've found, so ... thanks so much for it.
I see your URL is from New Zealand. I'm from the U.S., but I lived in NZ for two years in the 1970s. (North Island: Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga) Wonderful country; great people. I hope to return for a visit someday.
Home Grown Happiness says
Hey Earl, so happy you found the article helpful! Very cool you lived in NZ for a bit too 🙂 it’s such a beautiful place