Sourdough Troubleshooting: A Guide To Understanding What Happened To Your Sourdough When Baked

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If you’re new to baking sourdough bread, you may come across some issues with your bread that you’d like to solve. We get loads of questions in our Sourdough Facebook Group around sourdough troubleshooting and I thought it would be a great idea to put some of the more commonly asked questions around “baking problems” into a post so you can use it as a point of reference.

If you’re looking for troubleshooting your sourdough starter – you’ll find a list of the most FAQ here.

There are lots of things that can go wrong with your sourdough when you put it in the oven. The good news is, there’s always a way to fix it for your next bake! Sourdough baking is a never ending journey of learning – and that’s what makes it so damn interesting!

Rubbery, Gummy Texture Inside

This would have to be one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to baking sourdough – “why is my sourdough gummy and rubbery when I cut it open?”. There are few different things that can cause this issue, but they are all easily fixed!

Troubleshooting sourdough - under fermented sourdough bread.

Now before I go into this sub topic – I just want to make a note that a chewy, gummy texture is not always a bad thing. Sourdough is essentially quite a chewy bread and indeed the higher the gluten content in your flour, the gummier the texture will tend to be. If you really want to take the protein and gluten level of your bread down a notch, try subbing some of your higher protein flour for some all purpose or plain four.

Underproofed Dough

This is probably the most frequent cause of a gummy, rubbery texture. When you don’t allow your sourdough to ferment properly, you are not enabling the yeast to produce enough carbon dioxide. Simalarly, you’re also not allowing your dough to have developed strong enough gluten networks to carry the bubbles of carbon dioxide.

Troubleshooting sourdough - underproofed sourdough bread.
Dough that has not been fermented for long enough will have a tight crumb with a few larger, very uneven holes.

You just need to let your sourdough ferment for a bit longer. It needs to double. It should be pillowy, full of bubbles all the way through (if you use a glass bowl you’ll be able to gage this better). Your dough will be elastic and have some stretch. When you poke it, it should spring back and fill your indent about half way. Properly fermented dough will not be sticky and you’ll be able to shape it easily.

You can read about bulk ferment vs cold ferment here.

Cutting Your Sourdough Too Soon

Sourdough can take up to 24 hours to fully cool and come to room temperature. Cutting it too soon stops your sourdough from completing the cooking process and results in a gummy, wet texture when you cut it. You can read more about how to avoid this here. A tell tale sign that you haven’t let your bread cool properly is having a “sticky” knife when you remove it from your bread. This is because of the moisture that remains in your sourdough.

Sourdough bread that has been cut while still warm.
This bread was cut before it properly cooled – you can see the horizontal lines left by the knife on the bread’s surface.

Let your sourdough bread come to room temperature before you cut into it. I find if you bake at night, take it out of the oven and cut it in the morning. That way you’re not tempted to cut it too soon!

My Sourdough Didn’t Puff Up In The Oven

We’ve all baked a hockey puck. It’s like a sourdough baking initiation, right? And we’ve all learned from it. Generally, flat loaves will still taste ok, they just lack that beautiful airiness we want to see in our sourdough.

we've all baked a hockey puck when we first start our sourdough journey, right?
This loaf definitely lacks oven spring. You can see where the loaf was scored on the left – the loaf did rise a little but not enough to pronounce the scoring.

When your sourdough loaf comes out flat, it’s lacking oven spring. It can be caused by both overproofing (more often than not) but can also be an underproofing issue too! There are several factors that contribute to good oven spring – you’ll find all of them here.

Lack of oven spring is corrected by ensuring that each step of the sourdough process is carried out well. One of the biggest factors that influences oven spring is shaping in order to give your dough enough structure and strength to stand tall in the oven. You can read about all 6 factors here.

Here’s an under proofed dough:

Under fermented sourdough does not spring up in the oven - it's one of the most common issues when baking sourdough.
This is an example of a loaf which lacks oven spring due to under fermentation.

Here’s an overproofed dough:

This is dough that has over proofed. It is runny and has no structure at all – so would be impossible to shape into a loaf. The gluten network has completely broken down.
Overproofed sourdough looks very flat and fails to spring up in the oven.
This dough is overproofed and had no energy left to spring up in the oven.

My Sourdough Has Tunnels of Air

You may have baked a loaf of sourdough which appears to have large tunnels of air or just one big hole surrounded by a tighter or dense crumb. This is typically caused by underproofing your dough, but can also happen through using too much flour when you shape your bread.

You may find that your bread has one huge tunnel or bubble. It may also have just a few large holes, while the rest of your bread has quite a tight crumb. The tunnel or large bubble occurs in under fermented bread because:

  • the gluten network has not developed properly
  • the yeast has not fermented for long enough and still has too much energy to burn when it hits the oven
  • the poorly developed gluten network does not allow the carbon dioxide bubbles to distribute evenly
  • the yeast lets off too much gas all at once when it hits the oven

You just need to let your sourdough ferment for a bit longer. It needs to double. It should be pillowy, full of bubbles all the way through (if you use a glass bowl you’ll be able to gage this better). Your dough will be elastic and have some stretch. When you poke it, it should spring back and fill your indent about half way.

My Sourdough is Underbaked

Underbaking is a common problem when baking sourdough, mainly because you can’t actually see inside the bread until you cut it – and then it’s too late. A simple way to check that your dough is cooked through is to tap the base. A hollow sound indicates that it’s cooked.

Troubleshooting sourdough bake - undercooked or underbaked dough
This is an example of under baked sourdough – it has some good rise -although it is a little under fermented – but unfortunately has been taken out of the oven too soon.

If you’re still unsure a good thing to do is to let your bread cool in your oven. Turn the oven off, leave the door slightly ajar and place your bread directly on the oven rack. This will ensure that the bread is cooked all the way through.

You can also use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the bread (it should be around 205F or 96C – but to be honest – I find that cooling it in the oven is easier. Plus it will stop you from wanting to cut it open straight away!

Crust Too Pale

There are a few reasons your crust is too pale. It may just be that you need to leave it in the oven longer with the lid off your Dutch Oven. An extra few minutes can usually do the trick.

This dough has a pale crust because it has been under fermented.

However, under fermenting your dough will also cause you to have a pale crust that just doesn’t brown up, even when you cook it longer. An underfermented sourdough loaf will have a shiny, pale crust that lacks crunch. Under fermentation causes a pale crust because it doesn’t enable caramelisation of the sugars in the dough.

Overproofed bread will also have a pale crust because the yeast has used all the sugars and therefore there are none left to caramelise the crust.

You could also make sure that you spray plenty of water onto the outside of the dough before placing it in your Dutch Oven. This will result in a more glossy, coloured crust because of the steam that the water mist creates.

Thick, Hard Crust And/Or Burnt Base

If your sourdough has a very thick base which is burnt or just very tough, there’s a very simple fix for this. You just need to reduce the heat on the base of your Dutch Oven or baking tray. Placing a baking tray underneath your Dutch Oven should do the trick. You can read more about this trick here.

If you want to reduce the crustiness of your sourdough loaf overall, a simple trick is to wrap it in a cotton tea towel when it’s hot out of the oven. The cloth will cause the loaf to sweat and it will soften the crust a little. It will still be crusty, but more chewy than “break a tooth” hard.

A huge thank you to the wonderful people in my Facebook Group for sharing their photos for this resource that we can all learn from 🙂 You guys are awesome! Come and join our Sourdough Baking for Beginners Facebook Group. We’d love to welcome you into our community!

Want to know 10 things that will instantly improve your sourdough bread baking? You’ll find them here!

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