A look at common sourdough problems and some possible solutions to troubleshoot your sourdough bread.
Of all the things in the kitchen that are finicky and unpredictable, sourdough might be number one. You can follow the exact same technique and even weigh things precisely and come out with different results. It’s just how it is. Part of it is the state of your starter. It may be the temperature of your kitchen. And sometimes it is just the bread gods. But there are also things that you can control to affect the success of your sourdough baking. Here are some of the most frequent problems that occur with sourdough bread, and some possible answers.
Common Sourdough Bread Problems and Solutions
Why didn’t my sourdough bread rise?
There are two big possibilities: either your starter is not healthy, or conditions were not right.
Your starter should look very vigorous and should have been fed a few hours before baking with it. There should be obvious bubbles and a lot of activity when you peek in. If your starter is young (less than one month old), it is probably not ready to bake a full loaf with by itself. Add a pinch of commercial yeast to your dough until the starter matures a bit. It’s nothing be ashamed of!
If you are confident that your starter is mature and healthy, then something went wrong during the bread making process itself.Â
Think about the temperatures your dough has been exposed to. Did you accidentally add hot water and kill the starter? Did you try to proof in a cold room (this will actually work fine, but it will take at least 5 hours)? Did you proof in a warm oven that was too hot? Any of these can kill the starter or fail to encourage growth.
Another thing that will cause your loaf to be flat is an underdeveloped structure. If you have a high hydration (wetter) loaf, it needs to be built up over time so that it is strong enough to stand on its own a bit. Otherwise, it will act like a pancake batter, spread out, and be flat. Did you knead your dough and/ or do the “folding process” adequately (more information on the folding process in this video).
Overproofing can result in a flat loaf as well. Sourdough rising times are flexible, but there are still limits. After 12 hours, even in the refrigerator, you are pushing the limits of how long your wild yeast can keep working. I’m not saying that it won’t work, and many people report success with a 16 hour refrigerated final proof, but you are up against the limits. Try reducing your rise times are see what happens.
If you feel that your starter is strong, you kneaded properly, and your loaf is still flat… try using steam. Sourdough’s final rise heavily depends on oven spring, or its ability to quickly puff up when it hits the heat of the oven. The best way to aid this is with steam. You can achieve this with a lidded Dutch oven, or with an empty rimmed baking sheet preheated in your oven. Simply pour in one cup of water the same time you put your bread in, and the steam will help.
Why is my sourdough bread so dense?
This is often related to issues with rising, but not always.
If your bread seems dense but it rose well and had good oven spring and doesn’t seem too flat, then there is something else going on.
The main issue with density is flour. The lightest, airiest bread will be made with white bread flour. If you want whole wheat, rye, spelt, or any other crazy flours, you have to accept that you are going to have a denser finished product. Try adding other flours in at ten perfect of the total amount of flour, and increase it until your bread is too dense for your liking.
How can I make sourdough bread more sour?
You can do a longer, cooler fermentation period (just watch out for over proofing).
You can feed your starter less often, which makes the starter itself more sour and sours the bread more.
You can mix whole wheat or rye flour into your starter, which also makes the sourer bacteria thrive.
You may notice that all of these things work against having a light and airy loaf. This is true.
If you want a light, open crumb sourdough that is also very sour, the best thing to do is to simply add citric acid at the beginning of the bread making process. Normally less than 1/2 teaspoon will have an effect on the flavor.
Why is my starter not healthy and bubbly?
Sometimes this is a simple issue of your starter not being old enough. It takes weeks of regular feedings for your starter to be healthy. If your starter seems sluggish and you are keeping it in the fridge, try storing it on your counter so you can keep an eye on it and use it more.
Don’t be too quick to give up on a starter. They can recover from a lot of neglect, although it will take time to get it back to a state that is suitable for baking. When you are trying to revive a neglected starter, the best thing to do to get it back up to speed is feed it twice (or even three times!) a day, keep it on the counter, and dump out half of it twice a day. This keeps the correct balance of the right bugs in there. Once it seems healthy again, go back to a more minimal maintenance schedule.
Why is my sourdough bread gummy inside?
This is a common problem, and the most frequent reason is that it needs more time to cool. I try to wait at least 2 hours after baking before slicing into the bread. Many people recommend waiting 4 hours, or even overnight.
The good news is, even if you cut into it too soon and it seems gummy, the texture will still improve as it cools. You may have squished down some of the air holes by cutting too early, but the gumminess will go away.
I’ve found that these are the main issues that people have with their sourdough bread. If you are still having trouble, try backing up a little and do a recipe that uses a little commercial yeast too until you are more comfortable.
Here are some great recipes for sourdough beginners:
All these recipes use a small amount of commercial use and act like a normal bread dough. As your confidence grows and your starter gets healthier, you can leave out the yeast.