15 Sourdough Bread Problems: Troubleshooting Common Challenges

by leavenly
6 comments

When you’re just starting out baking sourdough, it’s common to run into some challenges with your bread. If you need help with your sourdough bread, you’ve come to the right place!

There are many times as a beginner baker that you may need help with your sourdough bread. You may want a crunchier crust, or maybe you’re not sure whether to autolyse with leaven or without. This troubleshooting guide should help you with your challenges!

This list will be updated often and will grow as I receive more questions relating to sourdough dough and sourdough bread.

If you’re dealing with sourdough starter problems, head on over to Sourdough Starter Problems: Troubleshooting Common Challenges.

Leavenly was launched to help busy moms become Sourdough Mamas. We are all capable of making bakery-quality bread in our own homes for our families, and Leavenly is here to support you in that journey. This post and other resources on Leavenly.com were designed to provide help and support for you to become the best sourdough baker that you can be!


Sourdough Bread Problems: Troubleshooting Common Challenges
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Why Sourdough Bread?

Sourdough bread is one of the most nutritious breads out there. It’s full of prebiotics that our guts love, and because it’s essentially pre-digested by the millions of microbes in your starter, many people who are gluten-sensitive are able to eat sourdough with no digestive issues. 

Sourdough breads are made with wild yeasts and bacteria. Three basic ingredients – flour, water, salt – come together in a beautiful symbiotic rhythm to raise the bread naturally, as has been done for thousands of years. Congratulations on participating in a millenia-old tradition!

Troubleshooting

But what happens if you need help with your sourdough bread? Why is it so flat? Why does the bottom get burned? How can you differentiate between all those types of flour?

There are many questions that sourdough bakers ask themselves when troubleshooting common problems, and sometimes bakers might even give up altogether because of their frustrations. They need help with their sourdough bread and they don’t know where to find it. By writing this post, I’m hoping to save some bakers from giving up and instead, offering ideas and suggestions to troubleshoot their bread.

Check out the list of common sourdough bread problems below, and let me know if I’ve missed any that you’ve personally dealt with. I’d also love to help you troubleshoot your bread if you’re having problems right now! Just send me an email to heather@leavenly.com and I’d love to help.

Let’s start solving your most common challenges and getting you help with your sourdough bread!


15 Sourdough Bread Problems: Troubleshooting Common Challenges

Table of Contents

  1. Flat loaves
  2. Baking cold vs room-temperature dough
  3. How to get a crunchy crust
  4. Bottom of loaves are burned
  5. Autolyse: With or without leaven?
  6. Avoiding burning the ear
  7. Flour confusion
  8. How temperature affects fermentation time
  9. Oven spring
  10. Terminology
  11. All about hydration
  12. Bakers percentage
  13. Scoring 101
  14. Scheduling
  15. When to add additional ingredients

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Flat loaves:
My baked loaves are flat! When I pull them out after the final overnight rise in the fridge, they seem deflated, and when I flip them out on parchment, they are floppy and spread out. They aren’t rising with a nice domed top. What’s going on? 

It sounds like your dough is over-fermented, and is a problem I struggled with for close to a year. This is a common issue when beginner bakers need help with their sourdough bread. I recommend some trial and error experimentation.

First, make sure your dough temperature isn’t too warm. For a sourdough bread recipe like mine which uses mostly white flour, you want your final dough temperature (after bulk fermentation) to be 78°F to 82°F. If it’s much warmer than this, it will ferment faster and may end up over-fermented. (The Perfect Loaf has a great post called The Importance of Dough Temperature in Baking that you should check out for very detailed information on this factor!)

Another factor is time. I’ve learned that living at elevation causes fermentation to happen faster. Don’t ask me why, but it’s been my experience from day one. To combat this, I reduce my bulk fermentation to three hours, and it seems to help. I also bake my loaves directly from the fridge, and don’t bring them to room temperature first.

The finger dent test is your best bet to determine if your dough is over-fermented. When you pull it from the fridge, gently poke a finger about an inch into the dough. If it pops right back out and the dent disappears, it’s actually under-fermented. If it stays indented completely, it’s overfermented. If it slowly tries to return to normal but stays slightly dented, it’s perfect and ready for baking.

Don’t fret if your dough appears over-fermented before baking. Just bake it as usual. It might surprise you and come out beautifully! And if not, you’ll have long slices of bread that I guarantee taste delicious. Take notes and keep trying!


Baking cold vs room-temperature dough:
After my dough has cold proofed and it’s ready for baking, do I bake it straight from the fridge or let it come to room temperature first? 

I’ve experimented with both, and I personally like to score my dough when it’s cold. It works best for me because the dough is more firm and easier to score, and because I live at elevation, allowing it to come to room temperature first would risk over-fermenting the dough.

That said, it’s entirely up to you! Give both a try and see which one you prefer. Take notes along the way, including the temperature of the room, how long it sat at room temp, and what your baking result looked like. If both work well, just choose the method you like best!


How to get a crunchy crust:
I like a hard, crunchy crust. What’s the best way to achieve this?

If you like a hard crust, I would aim for a longer time with the lid off. If you were doing 30 minutes with the lid on and 15 minutes with the lid off, for example, you could play with shortening the lid on time and extending the lid off time. Just make sure your total bake time is always 45 minutes.

Another technique you could try is to spritz the dough with water right before putting it in the oven. This creates little water droplets on the surface that evaporate quickly, leaving behind beautiful blisters. You may find that it increases the crunchiness of your crust as well.

You’ll always get a crunchy crust when using the Challenger Bread Pan, which is my favorite piece of sourdough kitchen equipment that I own. I wrote a full review about it from a home baker’s perspective, which you can find here!


Bottom of loaves are burned:
The bottom of my loaves are always a little bit burned. How can I prevent this?

This is also a pretty common sourdough bread challenge that sourdough home bakers need help with. You may have to do some trial and error until you figure out what works best in your oven. Here are some things I would try:

  • It’s possible your oven is hotter than you think, so you may want to get an oven thermometer to rule out that variable. 
  • If your baking vessel is close to the heat source, it will scald the bread. Move the oven rack up as high as you can, while allowing the baking vessel to fit. 
  • Try placing a cookie sheet or pizza stone on the rack just below where your baking vessel will go. Preheat the oven with it inside. This may help deflect the direct heat and help spread it more evenly.
  • Another option is to spread cornmeal on the bottom of your baking vessel, then placing parchment paper on that. It helps to keep the dough lifted off the bottom of the pan, though some people complain that it burns and causes a smell. 
  • If you have a convection oven, this may also help. If you do use convection, reduce your temperatures by 25°F. For example, if you normally preheat to 475°F and bake at 450°F, then just preheat to 450°F and bake at 425°F. During the final minutes, keep a close eye on your bread, especially the first few times you use convection until you have it mastered. Make sure you keep notes on the time and temps you used so you can replicate your successes!

Autolyse: With or without leaven?
During the autolyse, is it better to mix the levean, flour and water together, or to autolyse with just water and flour, and to add the levean later? 

It entirely depends on who you ask. Some bakers prefer the former, and some prefer the latter. 

I experimented with both ways and I found no difference between autolysing with or without leaven. 

So, I autolyse with the leaven because it’s one less step later on, and less of a chance that I’ll forget to add it. After all, I have young kids running around and am constantly distracted, so the less chance of forgetting something, the better!


Avoiding burning the ear:
Since I want to bake as long as possible to get a hard crust, I end up with an ear that is burned on top.  Any way to avoid this? 

You can use the old pie baking trick that ensures the crust doesn’t burn while the middle still cooks to help with this sourdough bread problem! Try putting a strip of tin foil over the ear for the last 10 minutes of baking. This should deflect the heat and protect the ear from burning at the same time.


Flour confusion:
I’m confused by the different types of flours. I see whole wheat flour, and whole wheat bread flour, and then I just discovered there’s a white whole wheat?! Help!

The options and names of different flours can be overwhelming, but here’s what you need to know: 

  • White flour is either all-purpose flour or bread flour. It’s been highly processed and has had much of it’s nutrition removed. These two types have slightly different protein levels, and while some bakers insist on bread flour for their sourdough, I use both interchangeably with no noticeable difference.
  • Whole wheat flour is less processed and so has higher fiber and nutrition content. White whole wheat flour is not a blend of both, but rather a whole wheat flour made from a specific type of wheat. Finally, whole wheat bread flour is a higher protein flour made from whole wheat.

For making sourdough, all you need is whole wheat flour and white flour, either all-purpose or bread flour. As a beginner baker, don’t stress too much about the type of flour you’re using. As you become more familiar with the type you usually use, you can start experimenting with different types and brands, but I don’t advise that until you’ve mastered your current recipe.


How temperature affects fermentation time:
My bread seems to behave much differently in the summer than it did in the winter. It’s much looser and doesn’t have as much oven spring. How can I fix this?

Temperature affects fermentation in a major way. The dough that you’re used to working with in a 65°F kitchen is not the same dough in an 85°F kitchen! If your house gets screaming hot in the summertime, your dough is likely over-fermented and you’ll need to play with your fermentation times. Try these steps:

  1. Reduce the folding time. If you usually do four folds in two hours, try doing four folds in 90 minutes, or even 60. The dough will have the same number of folds and therefore strength, but the total time is reduced which is what will help with the over-fementation problem.
  2. Reduce the bulk rest time. If you usually leave your dough alone for two hours after your folds are completed, try reducing that total time to one hour. Like step one, this will reduce the risk of over-fermentation.
  3. Cold proof in the fridge. If you usually proof your bread at room temperature, you’ll absolutely want to start cold-proofing in the fridge. Don’t proof longer than 18 hours if you’re worried about over-fermentation.
  4. Finally, bake directly from the fridge. Some bakers let their dough come to room temperature before baking, but this encourages further fermentation and, in a hot kitchen, could be the tipping point between perfectly fermented and over-fermented. Once your oven and baking vessel are preheated, pull the dough from the fridge, score it, and slide it right into the oven.

One key characteristic of over-fermented dough is a loose, almost runny consistency. The best way to test this is with the finger dent test: gently poke your index finger into the dough in your proofing basket, about an inch deep. If the dough pops right back out and the dent disappears, it’s actually under-fermented. If it stays indented completely, it’s over-fermented. If it slowly tries to return to normal but stays slightly dented, it’s perfect and ready for baking.

Remember, if your dough is over-fermented, don’t fret. It won’t affect the taste, but you likely will have a flatter loaf come out of the oven. This bread is still delicious to eat! Just keep taking notes and try for that perfect fermentation level next time.


Oven spring:
My bread doesn’t rise great in the oven; is there anything I can do to get better oven spring?

I had this same problem when I was starting out, and I realized I was being far too gentle with the final shaping process. I was so afraid of degasing the dough that I was barely even handling it, and it needs some serious handling.

For the final shaping, it is a technique much easier learned by observation, so I recommend looking up some YouTube videos on boule shaping. The take-home message is this: you can be much more firm with your dough than you think, and you want it to feel taut in your hands. As soon as it is, pick it up and put it in the proofing basket.

The other key is to make sure your dough isn’t over-fermented. See above question for lots of advice on this.


Terminology:
I’m new to sourdough baking, and I’m getting confused by the terminology like leaven, starter, bulk, proofing, fermentation, etc. Can you describe what these things mean?

Great question! Like learning anything new, different words and terms come up that we may not understand. I will quickly describe the most common terminology below.

  • Starter: Made from flour and water, this is your little jar of magic that you will leaven your bread in place of commercial yeast, baking soda or baking powder. Starter needs to be fed water and flour to keep it alive.
  • Leaven: Think of a supersized starter, and that’s a leaven. You feed more flour and water to a larger volume of starter, and about 12 hours later you’ll add this (the leaven) to your dough. It’s the middleman between your starter and your dough.
  • Lactobacillus: the type of bacteria we want to grow in our starter. These bacteria are the powerhouse that will leaven your dough and rise your bread in the oven.
  • Folds: During the first half of your bulk fermentation, you will fold your dough about four times. There are stretch-and-folds, which entails grabbing one edge of the dough and folding it over itself, and repeating all around the bowl, and there are coil folds, which entails sliding your hands under the dough and pulling upwards, tucking the dough ends under the center from each direction.
  • Autolyse: This is the period from when you mix your flour, water and leaven together to the point when you add the salt. My recipe calls for a 30-minute autolyse, but some bakers autolyse for two hours. The autolyse period allows the flour proteins to soak up the water and to relax, gluten bonds to form, and the dough to become stretchy and extensible. It all happens without any intervention from the baker.
  • Bulk fermentation: This is the time after the autolyse, once you add the salt to your dough. Generally around four hours, the first half of the bulk fermentation is when you fold the dough, and the second half is the resting time for the dough to relax, ferment and rise. 
  • Bench rest: The bench rest happens after the bulk fermentation is over. The dough is dumped onto the counter, divided and pre-shaped, and then allowed to rest for 30 minutes. This is the bench rest.
  • Shaping: Essential for good oven spring, shaping happens after the bench rest is completed. The baker uses firm but gentle hands to create surface tension on the dough, sometimes using a bench knife to assist the shaping process.
  • Cold-proofing: Once the dough is shaped and in its proofing baskets, it goes into the fridge for cold-proofing. The low temperature of the refrigerator slows fermentation, allowing for deeper flavor development without the risk of over-fermenting the dough. I recommend a cold-proof of 18-24 hours.
  • Scoring: This is when the baker takes a sharp razor blade and creates deep cuts in the dough to allow gases to escape during baking. Some bakers do one simple slash, others make intricate designs.

All about hydration:
What does hydration percentage mean and how does it affect the final loaf?

Hydration is the term used when discussing the percentage of water in sourdough, and is always based on the total percentage of the flour. (See Bakers percentage, below.)

For example, if you have a dough that is 1000 grams of flour and 800 grams of water, your hydration would be 80%. It may depend who you ask, but I believe anything over 75% hydration is considered a “high hydration dough” and will be more difficult to work with.

If you’re new and finding it hard to manage a high hydration dough, try lowering the hydration to 60-70% and see if that makes things easier for you.


Baker’s percentage:
In my cookbooks, I keep seeing references to baker’s percentage in terms of ingredients. What is this?

Many bakers, new and experienced, get confused with this while baking sourdough bread and need help. Baker’s percentage is an ingenious way to allow the baker to scale the recipe up or down quickly without affecting the outcome. Baker’s percentage will always be 100% flour, and the rest of the ingredients are written as a percentage of the flour weight.

Here’s an example using a sourdough recipe:

Weight of ingredientBaker’s percentage
1000 g flour100%
800 g water80%
200 g leaven20%
22 g salt 2.2%

By doing this, you can quickly work out the weight of the ingredients if you wanted to scale the recipe.


Scoring 101:
What’s the best way to score the dough to get an ear? Also, is decorative scoring as complicated as it looks?

The best place on a boule to score for an ear is halfway between the top and bottom of the dough, a half-inch to an inch deep, at a 45-degree angle. You’ll want to slice it all the way from north pole to south. But in order to have that ear rise, you must also get good oven spring (see Oven Spring, above).

Decorative scoring is not difficult! The key to remember is that you always want a primary score first – this is your deeper slash that gas will escape from. Then, you can decorate with secondary scores that make the loaf look pretty. 

My favorite is to design stalks of wheat, and all that entails is a top leaf and angled side leaves. Don’t score the stalk, because this will split apart and make your wheat look funny. This is how I score my wheat stalks:

Sometimes I do them straight, sometimes I do them curved, but the basic idea is still there.


Scheduling:
I haven’t baked sourdough yet because I’m worried I’ll end up having to bake in the middle of the night. Can you make a timeline for what to do and when?

Of course! Many new bakers need help making a schedule for their sourdough bread so they don’t run into this exact problem. I usually recommend a three-day process because it’s much more manageable for busy mamas. Here is the schedule I use to bake my bread:

Day One: Make leaven before bed (9pm-ish)
Day Two: Mix dough in morning (7am-ish), shape and cold-proof around noon (12pm-ish)
Day Three: Bake loaves in morning (7am-ish, until about 10am-ish)

I’ve been using this same schedule for years because it works so well for me. It’s not much time in the kitchen, and once the morning tasks are done, I have the whole afternoon with the kids. It works out perfectly!


When to add additional ingredients:
I’d like to start playing with additional ingredients like olives and seeds. When should I add these in? 

Some additions will require pre-soaking beforehand, like certain seeds or dried fruit. Otherwise they’ll suck the water from your dough, resulting in a drier loaf. The general rule is to add in your additions during the third fold; this prevents the ingredients from messing too much with your fermentation, but still gives enough time to mix them in thoroughly with the third and fourth folds.


Did I miss something?

If you were looking for an answer to a question that isn’t here, send me an email or leave a comment below!


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6 comments

Janey b August 19, 2020 - 3:28 pm

I I have difficulty shaping my loaf.. Just can’t seem to put any tension on the boule. So it’s floppy, and baked up to be rather flat.

Reply
leavenly August 20, 2020 - 1:49 pm

This sounds typical of over-fermentation and is a problem many, if not most, home bakers run into! Check out the first issue in this list and see if the solutions work for you! If not, please let me know and I’m happy to troubleshoot with you 🙂

Reply
Joyce September 12, 2020 - 7:42 pm Your comment is awaiting approval

Can you cold-proof the bread longer than 24 hours?

Reply
leavenly September 15, 2020 - 9:21 am

Hi Joyce, you absolutely can! I’ve done upwards of 30 hours. Some people have had success with two whole days! It’s fun to play with it and experiment. Remember to take notes so you remember what you did when you get a loaf you love!

Reply
Melinda Johnson September 14, 2020 - 12:46 pm Your comment is awaiting approval

My dough spreads so much when I flip it onto the parchment to bake that it is always too big for my 4 quart, 9 inch diameter dutch oven. My scoring gets buried as I squeeze the dough into the pot. And I can’t do much scoring, as the loaf just spreads more and more.

So the loaf bakes ok, tastes good, but looks horrible.

Do I just need a bigger pot? Better tension and shaping? I am doing 75-85% hydration loaves. I am thinking of buying the Challenger bread pan– will that help? I get oven spring, but I think I should get more.

Reply
leavenly September 15, 2020 - 9:28 am

Hi Melinda, it sounds like your dough is overfermented. This is a common challenge when working with high hydration dough, like your 75-85% ones. Fermentation happens faster in the presence of more water. I would play with reducing your hydration for the next few bakes so you can get a good feel for what your dough should be doing. Aim for a 70% hydration, and you should notice a difference in the texture and “looseness” of your dough as you’re scoring. You can also play with reducing the bulk fermentation time by 30-60 minutes, especially if you’re in a hot kitchen, and this will help avoid overfermentation as well. I don’t think your dutch oven size is the issue. I hope this helps!

Reply

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