Home » Bread Baking » Sourdough FAQs and Troubleshooting

Sourdough FAQs and Troubleshooting

A look at common sourdough problems and some possible solutions to troubleshoot your sourdough bread.

round loaf of sourdough bread on white towel

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.

If you have any questions or problems, just ask and I will try to help you.

109 thoughts on “Sourdough FAQs and Troubleshooting”

  1. I have used sourdough starter discard to make scones which turned out well. I developed runny upset tummy after eating one. I live in Greece and it’s about 30°. Is this the problem, I was leaving it on the counter but now keep it in the fridge, adding to it when I feed the main starter. Is it too warm for that too?

    Reply
  2. I find that my white bread is very tough to eat
    I make my bread over two days 1 st making the dough then let it rest . 2/4 hours later I will knead the dough for 10 mins stretching and folding then I put it in the fridge overnight. Next day I will knead the dough for another 10 mins, place it in a Dutch oven and let it rise 3,4 hours or double in size then bake in hot oven 15 min lid on then 20 mins lid off
    It smells and tastes great but is very tough . Where am I going wrong?

    Reply
    • Martin, often sourdough is just a bit tougher (especially the crust). try adding honey, milk, or oil to your dough in the beginning and reducing the water to compensate. you can also bake at a lower temperature. if you want a truly soft loaf, I have a recipe called “sourdough egg bread” that you might enjoy.

      Reply
  3. My rye sourdough bread bakes well but when I cut into it it appears to be a little sticky. What causes this? Even if I cut the loaf the next day after baking it is a little sticky. Please advise.

    Reply
    • I don’t bake much with rye so I’m not sure! but I would guess its just very dense and that’s why. I’d try adding in some white bread flour, maybe 30%, and see if that helps!

      Reply
  4. My starter is great: doubles in 3-5 hours after feeding, bubbly, smells good. Have made delightful biscuits from the cast off portion. Once I begin a recipe (have tried 3 different), after mixing the ingredients together, including the specified amount of starter, it just becomes a large starter, roughtly doubled in size, no matter how long it is left (checked at even hours through the loose clear plastic wrap covering; 2, 4, 6, etc., up to 42 hours). It is pourable, cannot be shaped/kneaded, and is in every way just a large batch of starter, bubbly, fragrant, and pourable though thick like my starter. The first time, frustrated, I added more flour to get it to become an actual tacky ‘dough. It took 3 CUPS of additional flour. Did not make a satisfactory bread.

    Reply
    • tennis, what recipes have you tried? a lot them are way too high hydration (I think). also try having your bread rise overnight in the fridge, it will help it keep its shape better.

      Reply
      • Two from friends who have used them successfully, and one from the internet, which call for 1/3c-1/2c of starter. Should I maybe try using the starter BEFORE it’s fed for the day?

  5. I’m in the UK. I have tried making sourdough bread twice now and seem to have come up against the same problem on both occasions. I’ll describe the second attempt…

    My starter was about 10 days old since inception. I took it out of the fridge in the morning, and fed it immediately. Within two and a half hours, it had doubled and was bubbling well, so I decided it was a good time to use it within the next 90 minutes.

    I mixed my flour and water (560g of 100% Allinsons white bread flour, with about 72% hydration) for a minute or two (the water had a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of olive oil added before mixing). I then let it autolyse for an hour before folding in 100g of my starter (thick batter consistency) and 12g salt.

    Over a further two hours, I carried out 4 stretch and folds. The gluten developed well and by this time, the dough was holding some shape reasonably well, strong and elastic, and coming away from the sides of the mason bowl. No other kneading was carried out.

    I then left it to prove at about 24/25 degrees C for a further 5 hours, covered in cling film.

    When I looked next, bubbles were appearing on the top, and the volume of dough had increased by a half, but the surface was not domed, and the dough had lost its structure and turned sticky again (almost looking like gloopy honeycomb, if that paints a picture). As soon as I tipped it out of the mason bowl onto a floured surface, of course it just collapses into a spongy mess.

    This is almost exactly what happened first time – it is the batch rise that seems to scupper everything. The only option I have at this point is to add a load of flour to make it even partly workable, but there’s just no surface tension left in the dough at all (as I’m used to with a dry yeast), and there’s no way I can lame the dough, so whilst it bakes, the end product is on the dense side and poorly aerated.

    Any thoughts on where I might be going wrong ?

    Thank you

    Gary

    Reply
    • Gary it sounds over proofed. Shorten that second prove time to a couple of hours, or better yet, just leave it overnight in the fridge. It may not visibly rise but you will get oven spring if you use a Dutch Oven and I think you’ll be happy with the result

      Reply
      • Katy,

        Thanks for taking the time to reply. To be honest, I’m comparing my disappointing sourdough proof results with a lot of pizza dough that I’ve made, again using 100% bread flour but with dried yeast and just the single two and a half hour proof. That pizza dough has NEVER failed me: I realise we are talking two different processes here, but my pizza dough starts its proof structured like a small ball of soft marzipan with a dry skin and uniform texture (the nearest description I can think of); other than doubling in size, however, it comes out of the proving bowl STILL with the overall structure of a ball of soft marzipan with a dry skin, with the gluten holding together, and is just so easy to knead/work. When I see a lot of the sourdough website and YouTube tutorials, it SEEMS like the experts are reproducing that dry-skinned pizza dough structure I’m used to making but with a sourdough mix, and so it is doubly frustrating why I cannot do the same!

        I’ll try shortening that room temperature proof – or moving it to the fridge – next time and see if it makes a difference.

        I notice you didn’t mention reducing the hydration level ?

        Gary

      • Hi Gary! The reason I think it is over proofing rather than too high hydration is this: you say at first it is easy to work with and holds it shape relatively well, but it collapsed after the second proof. If a dough is too high in hydration it never really behaves the way it should. But it’s very possible that reducing the hydration will help as well. I think for clarity’s sake, you should first try your existing recipe with an overnight fridge proof. If that doesn’t solve your problems, THEN lower the hydration. Either way, you’ll have more knowledge going forward. If you’d like to try my recipe, search this site for dutch oven sourdough. I am very partial to it ????.

  6. I’ve been making sourdough for 3 years now. I recently moved to d uk and having made a starter, was surprise to see how acive bubbly and even overflowed from the jar.
    Yet I’ve never tried the float test until now. So why is it if my starter looks bubbly and active having doubled in d jar it never passes the float test.Ive not had a good loaf since moving here. Can you help? Thank you Indi

    Reply
    • indira, I wonder if it has something to do with the flour or the climate in the uk? that’s really baffling that it would be such a change! does the dough rise okay?

      Reply
      • Hi Katie, well I’ve since been experimenting a lot with different flours etc, I’m just amaze to see how active my starter gets even on a cold day..but I gave had some truly amazing bread as my goal was to start a baking business.
        However I had my first hiccup yesterday.
        I never discard any starter. since making a jar I keep it on d counter feed it once a wk and when I bake take a little activate and voila!
        the thing is any unused starter gets thrown back in the jar… Is this ok? or do I have to discard or should I now make a completely new jar.?

  7. I’ve been trying to make starter for weeks. Followed all the steps. Get a starter that shows some bubbles on the top but it has never grown or doubled in size. I don’t want to give up. Have used the oven with light for right temp. House temp varies depending on weather. Live in the northeast so temp never consistent. I have been doing it in a plastic container. Does that make a difference? Help!

    Reply
    • sometimes it. really just takes a long time! don’t throw it out because once you have bubbles you’re on the right track. if you can get your hands on a little rye flour It give it an. extra boost

      Reply
  8. I’m in the middle of making my first batch of sourdough bread. I’m worried something is off. I have done 4 cycles of stretching and folding and the dough is not tightening up and actually is still very sticky and pulls apart easily. I must have done something wrong but I’m not sure.

    Also how soon before using your starter for bread should the last feeding be? So I I did the normal feeding the day before am I ready to bake the next morning or do I need to feed it again before baking?

    I’m trying so hard not to give up!

    Reply
    • Amanda, you want your starter to be at its height when you bake with it. if you feed at the ratio of 1:1:1 it will probably “eat” that whole feeding in the middle of the night and start deflating in the morning. if you want to feed it and bake in the morning, you’ll want to give it a bigger feeding, like 1:3:3. search my site for starter maintenance if you need more help.

      sa far as your bread dough: what recipe are you using? seems like there’s too much water in there. this can happen if you use all purpose flour instead of bread flour, if its humid in your area, or just because the recipe is a difficult one! 🙂

      Reply
  9. can you help me? I baked two beautiful loaves but they were NOT sour at all. We like sour sour dough. Can you tell me all the ways that I might make a successful SOUR loaf. I am ready to give up.

    Reply
  10. Hey, I was making sourdough per usual (I am fairly new but I have done this a few times), and everything was going fine, I put my bread in the oven to rise, and went to bed. Slept way past my alarm and work up to a very gummy sticky, dough. (Kind of like if you forget to feed a starter for a day, it has a ton of small bubbles in it) It is clear my dough rose, but sunk back down. What should I do?

    Reply
    • Hi mike it’s overproofed and there’s no way to get that structure back. I know it’s the worst ive done it many times. I would try using it as a pizza dough

      Reply
  11. Hi again Katie. So once I bake what I want with my starter and discard starter. Is it best to leave my starter in the fridge till I’m ready to bake with it again and just feed it weekly? Is that the correct thing to do? I’m new to this. This is actually my first attempt at making sourdough bread and other things……
    thanks again in advance!

    Reply
  12. Hi Katie! How long do I let the dough rest on the counter before putting it into the bread machine? And I fed my starter today it’s doubled and I’m ready to start my bread but it is now too late in the day to start. What do I do with my starter? Leave it out till the morning (14 hours) or refrigerate it till morning? Please and thank you

    Reply
    • diane, let it rest about 30 minutes. You’ll want to bake with your starter when its at its peak. I would leave it on the counter, and discard and feed again early in the morning.

      Reply
  13. I’ve been making a starter, it’s over 6 wks old now but I’ve never succeeded with the float test. My starter is really active and bubbly but when I do the float test it just sinks, so is it still ok to bake with it in this state?

    Reply
  14. Hi Katie – I have a very active and robust starter that is a little more than a month old. My first few boules were amazing. Beautifully rounded, chewy, golden crust and great holes inside. Starting last week – although I’ve done nothing different that I can tell – my loaves began to rise less. They are about half as domed as they were before. Bread still tastes good but seems a little more dense. Also the dough – which I’ve always made fairly wet – has become extremely sticky. Before I could remove dough from proofing bowl snd there would be no residue stuck to the bowl. It was sticky during shaping but after a couple turns and tucks I could handle it pretty easily. Now it seems like no amount of flour will prevent it from sticking to my hands and pastry board. Any ideas what is going on?

    Reply
    • Mary, my first guess would be a change in the weather. Your flour can absorb more moisture in storage when. It is warm or humid. You are lucky because your first loaves were successful and you can use that experience as a guideline. This is one reason I don’t like when people get obsessed with measuring in grams. Different flours, different conditions, etc will all change the outcome of your bread. Decrease your water a bit and see how it goes. Good luck ??

      Reply
  15. Hi there…..I’ve been using my cast iron pot for final rise and bake, and I preheat oven to 240 ish, then place pot on heated tray with water. My bread tastes great but has a flat (crusty and chewy) top, with no dome! Also, I’ve tried slashing the top pre bake with a razor but either the dough is too soft to cut or it deflates. By the way my starter is a month old, I leave the dough to proof in the pot at least 12 hours. Help please! I so want to make the perfect loaf!! Thanks…

    Reply
    • sounds like there is a little too much water in your dough if its flat and too soft to cut. cut back on the water and see if that helps. (also, when you do the final proof is it in the fridge? 12 hours at room temp and the dough might overproof and collapse)

      Reply
  16. Hello, how should my starter look when I use it to bake bread? Is it about 4 hrs after I feed it? Also can I use my bosch machine mixer to mix the dough? Even though the dough hook is metal? Thanks for your help. – Lianna

    Reply

Leave a Comment