8 Reasons Why Sourdough Bread Is Not Rising

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

Have you ever made sourdough bread and it doesn’t rise? You know – that sinking feeling you get, when your bread can’t sink as it’s not risen! 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:

If your starter is fully active then the reason your sourdough bread didn’t rise is most likely down to not giving it enough time. Give your sourdough at least 4 hours to bulk ferment, plus a further 3-4 for its 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 8 reasons why bread doesn’t rise or doesn’t rise much so let’s discuss them in detail. Here are the common reasons your bread didn’t rise.

#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 is often fine but it won’t be as active as one that has been carefully looked after for many months. A starter should be fed at least once a day for 3-4 weeks before it is ready to use. Expect it to smell deeply aromatic and triple in size within 6 hours before you’ll get quality results. Aside from being too young, there are other suggestions to consider. Although these won’t prevent the bread from rising completely, they will lower its activity which can slow things down and make you give up. Reasons include:

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

Flour introduces bacteria to a starter’s ecosystem. Changing a portion of the flour to say spelt or rye will improve the organic activity in the starter in the long run, but is likely to deteriorate initially. See, the bacteria change upsets the balance of the starter. Some enzymes may initially be in too high quantities, others too low. Expect it to take at least 3 days to adjust to a new type or even brand of flour.

The starter wasn’t fed recently and has little activity

If the starter repeatedly passes its peak and collapses before being fed, it’s going to be less effective. Depending on how long and how regularly the starter is left, it might need to be regularly refreshed for a couple of days to revive it. If it’s days since it peaked you’ll struggle to make a decent loaf, if it’s a matter of a couple of hours you’ll probably be ok.

The starter was taken straight from the fridge and the bread didn’t rise

Keeping a starter in the fridge is a great way to slow down its activity to an almost dormant state. But asking something that’s asleep to suddenly fire on all cylinders and raise bread is too big of an ask. Bread can be made from a starter that’s been left in the fridge, just expect it to take a little bit longer.

Tip: If you want to get baking with a starter that isn't quite ripe, try adding 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 of this band which can be found in my bread proofing temperature post.

Some of you will be tempted to use a fridge rise in your sourdough production. Incorporating a fridge first or second rise into your routine are great ways to manipulate flavour and maximise gluten development. The use of the fridge can also help to make your personal baking schedule more sociable. Using the fridge for sourdough is fine, but the dough should spend some time above 25C (77F).

If your starter is weak, and the temperature is cold, expect very little rising activity.

Cool temperatures lead to less activity

A proofing sourdough that’s below 25C (77F) will rise a lot slower than it ought to. When it drops to the sub 15C (59F) region the chance of the sourdough not rising at all, or at least barely rising, increases. If this is your issue, you need to warm up your dough. Place it in a warm spot, or better still, 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:

#3 Warm water killed the starter

Mix the starter with water that’s over 68C (155F) and it’ll damage the yeast cells and bacteria it contains. You won’t necessarily 100% kill the starter, but it will lower its effectiveness.

#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 will slow fermentation, but for 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, the bread would be unpalatable anyway.

#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 your sourdough loaf you should:

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

#6 There was too much fat in the dough

Adding fat and sugar to the dough weakens the gluten structure making it harder to trap air. It’s not going to be the sole cause of sourdough bread not rising but will be a contributor. Again, the amount of fat added would have to be considerable for it to ruin the dough’s ability to rise. Over 25% of the flour weight at least!

#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 need to take extra steps to make bread.

Using heavily chlorinated water for bread

If your tap water has a lot of chlorine in it, fill a jug of water and leave it to sit on the counter for 30 minutes before measuring. This lets the chlorine to evaporate so you can use it to make bread. You might also find joy in using a water filter, but I am unable to find scientific proof for 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?

If you live in a hard water area, you have the perfect water for making bread. The extra minerals that exist 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 in soft water areas so no, you shouldn’t need to use a water filter for making 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 really dry, it’ll get so thick and heavy that it’ll prevent 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 reasons that you can think of that are preventing your bread from rising? I’d love to hear how you fixed your sourdough not rising problem!

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