8 Reasons Why Sourdough Bread Is Not Rising

Why is my sourdough bread not rising?
Published on
15 May 2021
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

Ever made sourdough bread that doesn’t rise? You’ll know that sinking feeling you get when you give up waiting and bake it anyway! What is wrong with me? Why can’t I make a good loaf of sourdough bread like my friends seem to be able to do so easily? Well, after reading this, you will know why your sourdough bread is not rising and how to fix it. Here’s the short answer:

The most common reason why sourdough bread is not rising is an immature starter, but if your starter is fully active, then it’s likely that you’ve not given it enough time to ferment. Give your sourdough bread at least 4 hours to bulk ferment, plus a further 3-4 hour second rise before baking.

But if this doesn’t answer your question or you’ve tried, and it still doesn’t rise, I’ve got you sorted, as always!

There are only eight reasons why bread doesn’t rise or doesn’t rise much, so let’s discuss them in detail:

#1 The levain was inactive

The reason your sourdough bread didn’t rise could be due to your starter not being ripe. When you first parent a sourdough starter you will want to get baking as soon as you see bubbles!

This can work when adding a little bit of yeast, but it won’t be fully active until it has been carefully looked after for many months. A starter should be fed at least once daily for 3-4 weeks before it is ready.

The optimum point to feed your starter is when it rises to its peak. Leaving it to collapse between feeds encourages the wrong bacteria and enzymes to multiply. Feed it too early (before it peaks), and the necessary wild yeasts and bacteria won’t have enough time to populate.

Expect a starter to triple in size within 6 hours and smell deeply aromatic before it’ll make quality sourdough bread.

Aside from being too young, there are other suggestions to consider in a starter. These won’t prevent the bread from rising completely but lower its activity:

The starter was fed a new flour and it didn’t rise

Flour introduces bacteria to a starter’s ecosystem. The enzymes in the ecosystem break down the bacteria and starches so the yeasts and lactic bacteria can develop. Changing the flour used to feed your starter will temporarily deteriorate activity whilst your starter learns to create the necessary enzymes to break down the flour.

I’ve had many complaints over the years where a baker has listened to (sound) advice and added rye flour to their starter when feeding. The inclusion of rye improves the organic activity in the starter in the long run but can be sluggish for a few days until it recovers. Expect at least three days to adjust to a new type or even brand of flour.

The starter wasn’t fed recently

If the starter passes its peak and collapses before being fed, it will be less effective. Regularly refreshing it for a couple of days at room temperature is necessary. If it’s a matter of a couple of hours since peaking, it’ll probably be ok, but if left for days or several weeks (even in the fridge), you’ll need to recover it before use.

The starter was taken straight from the fridge

Bread can be made from a starter that’s been left in the fridge, just expect it to take a little bit longer.

Keeping a starter in the fridge is a great way to slow its activity to an almost dormant state, so you don’t have to feed it as often. But asking something asleep to fire on all cylinders and raise bread suddenly is too big of an ask.

Tip: If you want to get baking with a starter that isn't quite ripe, add a pinch of yeast to your dough to boost gas production.

#2 It’s too cold!

Bacteria prefer being warm. The ideal temperature band of bacteria and enzymes in bread dough ranges between 25C and 38C (77-100F). There are arguments for proofing at higher or lower regions in my bread proofing temperature post.

You may have used or heard of using the fridge to store your dough when making sourdough. Using the fridge for your sourdoughs’ first or second rise is a great way to manipulate flavour and maximise gluten development. It can also make your personal baking schedule more sociable!

A fridge rise is fine, yet dough should also spend time above 25C (77F) to allow fermentation activity to be carried out.

Cool temperatures lead to less activity

The activity of your starter is temperature dependant. Proofing sourdough below 25C (77F) will rise slower than it should. When it drops below 15C (59F), activity is slowed drastically and the chance of your sourdough not rising, or barely rising, increases. If this is your issue, you need to warm up your dough. Place it in a warm spot, or use a proofer.

Solution: Use a proofer to control the proofing temperature

Having your own controllable “warm spot” could sound like a far-distant dream, but owning a home-proofing box is possible these days. Thanks to Brod & Taylor for making their affordable home proofer. It’s a fantastic tool to make baking bread at home so much easier:

With your own proofer, you can select your exact proofing temperature and enjoy the options of speeding or slowing down the rise or examining how proofing temperature alters the different acid bacteria strains to change the flavour of your bread.

#3 Warm water killed the starter

Mix the starter with water over 68C (155F), and it’ll damage the yeast cells and bacteria it contains. It’s best to use room-temperature water to feed your starter or make your bread. However, if it’s warm in your kitchen, you might opt to use chilled water to slow down the rise.

#4 Too much salt was added

Salt slows down the activity of the yeast by trapping its water supply through osmosis. Adding too much salt slows fermentation and, therefore, gas production. For too much salt to be the contributor to preventing a sourdough loaf from rising at all, it is highly unlikely. There would have to be so much added that the bread would be unpalatable.

#5 Too much sugar!

Like salt, sugar diverts water from the yeast by soaking it up. This slows the yeast’s ability to respire and prevents the dough from rising. If you want to sweeten a sourdough loaf with sugar or any other sweetener:

  • Increase the amount of starter used.
  • Add the sugar later in the development stage (near the end of mixing or midway through bulk fermentation).
  • Switch to a liquid form of sugar to be added later on and incorporated easily.

#6 There was too much fat in the dough

Adding fat to a dough weakens its gluten structure which makes it less efficient at trapping air. It won’t be the sole cause of sourdough bread not rising, but it can contribute to making dense sourdough bread.

It’s uncommon to include large amounts of fat in sourdough bread, but if you do, add it midway through the first rise. This will mean the gluten structure has time to mature before its inclusion.

#7 Your water isn’t suitable for making sourdough

This can sound like a bad workman who blames his tools when things go wrong. Most of the time, the water isn’t causing an issue, but there are exceptions.

In some areas, tap water will reduce the enzymic activity of a sourdough starter. If your water is heavily chlorinated or you use a reverse osmosis water filter, you might need to take extra steps when making bread.

Using heavily chlorinated water for bread

If your tap water has a lot of chlorine, fill a jug of water and leave it to sit on the counter for 30 minutes before measuring. This lets the chlorine evaporate so you can use it to make bread. You might also find joy in using a water filter, but I cannot find scientific proof of this.

Using a reverse osmosis water filter to make bread

A reverse osmosis filter removes the bad bacteria from the water alongside the good stuff. This decreases the activity of the water; therefore, adding the salts back in is a good way to recover from this. That said, it’s not perfect, and you will most likely find that buying bottled water is the only route.

Should I use a water filter if I have hard water?

Living in a hard water area gives you the perfect water for making bread. The extra minerals in hard water provide food and activity to bacteria in the starter. Buxton infamously houses many of the top breweries in the UK as it has very hard water!

Bread made with hard water will rise faster than soft water, so you don’t need to use a water filter to make sourdough bread.

Note: If your starter uses the same water as the bread and rises, your problem isn’t the water.

#8 The dough became hard during final proofing

If you leave dough uncovered, it is probably going to dry out. Moisture leaves the crust area of the bread and forms a skin. If the skin gets dry, it can become so thick and heavy that it prevents the dough from rising. Expect to see some big rips as the oven spring explodes the crust as it bakes.

So why did your bread not rise?

Let me know in the comments why you think your bread didn’t rise. Are there any other reasons that you think are preventing your bread from rising? I’d love to hear how you fixed your sourdough not rising problem!

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