Your guide to solving sourdough bread problems. There are lots of things that can go wrong when baking sourdough bread. From a gummy crumb to a lack of rise and everything in between.
The good news is, there's always a way to fix your sourdough bread problems for your next bake!
Sourdough baking is a never ending journey of learning - and that's what makes troubleshooting it so damn interesting!
Solving Sourdough Bread Problems
Sourdough bread problems are often multi faceted and you will find that they are not always caused by one issue.
For example a gummy crumb can be caused by a starter that's too young and or under fermented dough.
A lack of oven spring could be due to a shaping issue, under fermentation or poor gluten development - but more often than not it's a combination of a few things.
Why Is My Sourdough Bread Gummy?
PROBLEM - Gummy sourdough (dense, moist crumb) is the most common sourdough bread problems facing home bakers.
The bread is heavy, hasn't puffed up in the oven and has a moist, dense texture inside.
CAUSE - gummy sourdough can be caused by a starter that's too young or inactive and or under fermentation.
More often than not, gumminess is a result of under fermentation (cutting the bulk fermentation time too short).
There are generally two causes of this (it can be a combination of both):
- Your sourdough starter is not ready to bake with yet and needs some time to mature or you need to take steps to strengthen it.
- You haven't let your dough bulk ferment for long enough so the yeast and bacteria have not been able to do their jobs effectively.
SOLUTIONS - Depending on which of the above has caused your gumminess, you can fix by:
- Allowing your sourdough starter to mature (it needs AT LEAST 14 days to be viable and often several months before it's mature). You can read more about this here.
- Take some time to strengthen your sourdough starter (particularly if it's been in the fridge for a while or it's doubling consistently). You can read my five best tips for strengthening a sourdough starter here.
- Extending your bulk fermentation time to allow your dough to rise and ferment properly. If you're having trouble understanding the timing of bulk fermentation, I've written an easy to follow guide here.
My Dough Spreads When I Flip It Out of the Banneton
PROBLEM - Your bread dough spreads and loses shape when you flip it out of the banneton to bake.
CAUSE - Spreading can be caused by a few factors including under fermented or over fermented dough as well as poor shaping technique.
SOLUTION - Depending on the cause of your spread, you can implement the following fixes:
- Ensure that your dough is well fermented prior to shaping. If your dough is under fermented it will lose shape quickly and spread when it's tipped out of the banneton.
- Work on your shaping techniques. A tightly shaped dough that has been stitched when placed in the banneton will hold together better when tipped out for baking. You can find resources on shaping here.
My Dough Splits Other Than Where I've Scored It
PROBLEM - Dough splits in places other than where you've scored or even splits messing up your decorative scoring. This is a one of the most frustrating sourdough bread problems to have.
CAUSE - This most likely caused by under fermentation, but can sometimes be a shaping issue too.
SOLUTIONS - These are the things you can do to try to avoid your dough splitting naturally:
- Extend your bulk fermentation time. Dough that splits in this way is almost always under fermented. It has more energy than it should have left when it hits the oven - meaning you might get a great oven spring - but it destroys your scoring (and will more than likely be gummy inside).
- Concentrate on shaping evenly and with plenty of tension to ensure your dough rises evenly and doesn't split other than where you've scored.
- Ensure that you have scored enough - you need one good score to ensure that your dough expands. If you are doing decorative scoring, it's still advisable to have one "utility" score and then your more shallow, decorative scoring. If you only want decorative scoring, you will need to push your bulk fermentation to the limit.
My Bread Has a Very Uneven Crumb
PROBLEM - your sourdough bread has an uneven crumb. More often than not a tight crumb with a number of larger holes - but it's not even or open. It can also be called Fool's Crumb where the bread appears to have an "open crumb" however the holes are large and surrounded by an uneven, tight crumb that is not desirable.
CAUSE - a tight and or uneven crumb is generally caused by under fermentation, but can also be due to not having a mature or active starter.
SOLUTION - The solution to this problem is to ensure that your dough is fermented correctly.
- The uneven crumb occurs because fermentation has not been long enough to allow the gases produced by the yeast to evenly distribute, resulting in some larger holes (generally in the middle). Extending bulk fermentation will help to fix this problem.
- Ensuring that you a strong gluten network is also essential in aleviating this issue. A well developed gluten network has the strength to hold the gases and produce an even crumb.
Sourdough Deflates When I Score It
PROBLEM - Sourdough bread dough deflates (like a balloon)when removed from the banneton and scored.
CAUSE - the dough has been over fermented and/or over proofed and has too much air trapped in the shaped dough. When the lame scores the dough, the air escapes causing the dough to collapse. The gluten structure has become weak and is unable to hold up.
SOLUTION - reduce proofing time. Also check the temperature of your fridge to ensure it's 4C or under. It's possible that the dough is rising too much during the cold retard which will also cause this issue.
I've written a full guide to why sourdough deflates after scoring here.
My Sourdough Has a Cone Shape Rather Than a Round Shape
PROBLEM - My sourdough bread has an unusual cone shape after baking. It's wider on the bottom and almost pointy at the top, rather than having a rounded shape.
CAUSE - This odd shape is caused by under fermentation. The yeast has too much energy when it hits the oven and this excess energy causes a "rush" when your dough hits the oven.
SOLUTION - extend your bulk fermentation to enable the yeast in your dough to release some of their energy before hitting the oven. It really is a delicate balance to ensure that the yeast have consumed enough of their food to produce those beautiful pockets of air - but not too much so they can still provide oven spring at baking time.
Why Does My Sourdough Bread Feel Wet When I Cut It?
PROBLEM - My sourdough feels moist or wet inside, even though it's well fermented.
CAUSE - cutting into your bread too soon! Sourdough can take up to 24 hours to fully cool and come to room temperature.
Yes you read that right! Sourdough made with bread flour can take up to 6 hours to cool properly. If your bread contains rye, it can take up to 24 hours!
SOLUTION - Allow your bread to cool for AT LEAST 90 minutes (much longer for rye bread).
Sourdough does not stop cooking when you take it out of the oven. The steam that is trapped inside needs to move towards the outside. It's not until all of this steam has escaped that your bread actually finishes cooking.
Cutting it too soon stops your sourdough from completing the cooking process and results in a gummy, wet texture when you cut it.
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.
Let your sourdough bread come to room temperature before you cut into it.
Why Didn't My Sourdough Puff Up In The Oven?
PROBLEM - My sourdough never puffs up in the oven. I am constantly baking hockey pucks!
CAUSE - Your sourdough is lacking oven spring, which means your dough is not growing in the oven as it should. It can be caused by over fermenting or under fermenting your dough, but also by other things like shaping issues.
SOLUTION - Lack of oven spring can be a complex problem. I've written about 6 things you can do to ensure you get good sourdough oven spring (and leave the hockey pucks behind) here.
Generally, flat loaves will still taste ok, they just lack that beautiful airiness we want to see in our sourdough.
My Sourdough Has Tunnels of Air ... What Happened?
PROBLEM - 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.
CAUSE - This is typically caused by under fermenting your dough, but can also happen through using too much flour when you shape your bread.
SOLUTION - Tunnels can have a few solutions:
- Make sure that you're not using too much flour when shaping your dough. Excess flour at shaping can mean that your dough does not seal back onto itself, causing tunnels of air to form when baking.
- Make sure that you develop your gluten network really well during the stretch and fold stage. You ideally want to achieve a window pane. Having a strong gluten network means that the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast will be evenly distributed.
- the yeast has not fermented for long enough and still has too much energy to burn when it hits the oven
- the yeast lets off too much gas all at once when it hits the oven
My Sourdough Isn't Cooked Through
PROBLEM - My sourdough isn't cooked all the way through.
CAUSE - Logically, the cause of this is not baking your bread for long enough. However under fermented dough will not cook all the way through, so this sourdough bread problem can have a deeper cause.
- A simple way to check that your dough is cooked through is to tap the base. A hollow sound indicates that it's cooked. The loaf will also feel light in your hand, rather than heavy.
- Many people use food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of their bread. A thermometer like this will allow you to check the inner temperature of your dough to check for readiness. You want a basic sourdough loaf to be around 208F (97C).
- 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. Don't close the oven door or the crust will become soft and wrinkly.
Why Is My Crust Pale?
PROBLEM - Pale crust hasn't browned. It can be leathery rather than crispy.
CAUSE - 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. If it doesn't brown no matter how long you leave it there may be other things happening.
- Under fermented dough will also cause you to have a pale crust that just doesn't brown up, even when you cook it longer. An under fermented 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.
- Making sure you get bulk fermentation correct - you'll find my best tips here.
- 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.
Why Is The Base of My Bread So Thick and Chewy?
PROBLEM - Base of my sourdough bread is thick and chewy. Often the bottom of your sourdough is burning.
- More often than not a thick crust developing on the base is caused by cooking your bread in a Dutch Oven. Even with parchment paper, the base of your bread is sitting on the hot base of the Dutch Oven causing it to cook more quickly.
- A tough crust can also be caused by a lower hydration recipe.
- 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.
- Use a higher hydration recipe for a thinner crust overall.
- Use water mist or ice inside your Dutch Oven to ensure you get a thinner crust.
My Sourdough Bread Collapsed Once It Cooled - What Happened?
PROBLEM - My sourdough looked great when I removed it from the oven - it was crusty! But as it cooled, the crust wrinkled and collapsed ... what happened?
CAUSES - There are number of causes here, but the main one is that it was not baked long enough for the moisture in the dough to be baked out of the bread.
- Leave the sourdough bread in the oven to cool after it's baked (you'll find a full guide to stopping your sourdough bread from collapsing here).
- Ensure gluten development and fermentation are correctly executed.
- Use a lower hydration recipe.
I hope this guide helps you to troubleshoot your sourdough bread problems and ultimately bake a better loaf!
If you're not sure about some of the terms used in this article, you might find this sourdough glossary helpful.