Sourdough Bread Troubleshooting

Sourdough Bread Troubleshooting
Published on
06 October 2020
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

Earlier in the week, I made very disappointing sourdough bread. It was supposed to be a round sourdough “boule” but it ended up cone-shaped. It tasted “ok” -but only “ok” and definitely wasn’t nice looking. I knew what I’d done wrong, sometimes I push the boundaries too far and I lose. To help you troubleshoot your sourdough bread issues I’ve explained what went wrong in my cone-shaped bread and other sourdough bread disasters I’ve dealt with before. For help with your starter, I have a page dedicated to sourdough starter troubleshooting.

Implementing a few of these simple changes enables me to make professional-quality sourdough bread at home – ones that aren’t usually cone-shaped!

Why was my sourdough bread cone-shaped?

Basically, your starter is weak. Even though it had been fed for a couple of days it was not strong enough to raise the bread. Wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria did produce some gas, the issue lies in the lack of dough conditioning. The smell of the sourdough wasn’t well perfumed which is a sign of it not being ripe.

Sourdough Bread Troubleshooting

A young starter will have some unusual smells. It needs time for the lactic acid bacteria to overpower the unwanted bacteria and create a stable ecosystem. In the case of this bread, the lower levels of lactic acids led to poor gas retaining properties in the gluten. The dough wasn’t able to capture the gas effectively during proofing and oven spring.

Why have I got a frisbee bread?

If your bread is completely flat it’s likely that the dough has been over fermented or there is too much water in the recipe. Start again using a reliable recipe such as my sourdough bread recipe for beginnerscheck your starter is nice and active and that the temperatures and timings are correct.

Why have I got tunnelling in my sourdough bread?

Tunnelling, or long air pockets that go through the length of the bread are a common sourdough bread troubleshooting issue. They appear because the gluten structure is weak and the dough has become excessively acidic. This is due to a lack of dough maturity and a long fermentation or proofing time. The reason why this is so common is that the starter wasn’t ripe enough and the baker pushes the rise until the desired height is achieved. If you discover tunnelling, feed your starter at least once a day for a week to increase activity before trying again.

How to get my sourdough bread to stay fresh for longer

To keep sourdough bread fresh, adding fat or oil to the dough will help to lubricate it and extend its life. One of the biggest causes of staling in sourdough home-baked bread is that it spends too long in the oven and moisture is lost. Reducing the baking time by increasing the heat can transform the quality and freshness of your bread. If you are baking sourdough using the cold oven method, switching to a preheated baking stone often makes a massive improvement to shelf life.

Keeping the kitchen clean and using clean hands and equipment prevents new bacteria from being introduced and creating mould or spoiling the flavour of the bread.

Another trick is to seal the bread before it cools down completely. Once the bread cools to 35C (95F), get it wrapped and it will lock in moisture without going mouldy.

Sourdough troubleshooting frequently asked questions

Why is my sourdough bread so dense?
The probable cause is a lack of activity from your starter. This could either be due to it being too cold, not given enough time to develop or a starter that is not ready. Other causes of dense sourdough bread are created by the flour choice or a cool oven.
How to add more flavour to sourdough?
Fermented flour should taste amazing. If you feel your sourdough should taste better try switching flour brands and increasing the length of fermentation. Many bakers add a little bit of rye flour to their sourdough starters for extra flavour and to increase lactic acid bacteria.
Is my sourdough bread over or under steamed?
Both will cause a poor oven spring. If the crust is pale and the cuts don’t open up properly the bread has had too much steam. If the crust is thick, soft and dark it has not had enough steam.
Why is my dough sticky?
Allowing flour to autolyse and ferment allows the flour to soak up the water so if it feels sticky straight away, it will probably be ok later on. If it comes to shaping and the dough is still overly sticky it means the flour you are using doesn’t absorb as much water as the one that was used to create the recipe. I never like to add flour later on in the process, but you add a handful if you really need to. Next time reduce the water by 20 grams per loaf, you should notice an improvement.
Why is my dough not shiny and lush?
Have you ever seen a professional baker’s dough and wondered why it looks so much better than yours? The silky shiny texture that you see is formed by the natural oils in the flour being released during fermentation. These are found in high quality flours so to achieve a shiny and lush dough you should consider upgrading.
Why does my sourdough bread taste funny?
It could be the quality of the starter, the flour or because you added other ingredients to the dough. Always stick to a simple sourdough recipe to start with and make changes once you’ve mastered it.
Why is my dough excessively runny?
You’ve probably made a mistake with the weighing of the water or the flour. Check again, this happens quite a lot! It is best to just start again.

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Comments (5)

  • Doing the 1-day bake and when I add the salt slurry the dough doesn’t want to soak it up. When I try needing it in, the dough kinda start to separate. It won’t really fold together on itself and little chunks start to completely separate.


    • Hi Darrin! It should bind if you keep going with the kneading. It can take a few minutes. You can try adding more water to your dough in the first instance to make it easier to bind with the salt, or just skip the autolyse altogether by adding the salt and all of the water at the start.

  • What do you mean my sourdough needs to be fed for longer if it smells like cheese? Our starter is three weeks old. Fed weekly with 1 cup whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup water.

    • Hi Aaron, sounds like you are almost ready to use. Starters can smell cheesy when they are young. It’s a sign that they have not quite dropped below 4.3 pH. Until it reaches this level of acidity it will be harbouring harmful bacteria so it’s best to give it a few more regular feeds before using it. The smell should be replaced by an aromatic, wheaty smell with a hint of alcohol.

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