How to fix dense sourdough bread

Why Is My Sourdough So Dense? – Let’s Fix It Step-by-Step!

How to fix dense sourdough bread
Updated on
August 27, 2023
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

If your sourdough bread is consistently dense, I relate to your frustration! Many sourdough troubleshooting tips found on blogs, Facebook groups and Youtube “gurus” are just plain silly. I regularly see these “ultimate sourdough fixes” work against science and sometimes worsen the problem.

So if you’ve tried other tips to resolve dense sourdough bread and still end up with bread that’s as hard as a brick, it’s no surprise! If you want to stop making dense sourdough bread, here are the steps to follow!

Why is my sourdough so dense?

Sourdough needs plenty of time for the wild yeast and bacteria to produce enough gas for the dough to rise. If proofing is rushed or the starter is damaged or unripe, your bread will be dense. Another cause is the gluten structure may be undeveloped and can’t stretch fully to retain the gas.

1. Use a ripe sourdough starter

The most common cause of dense sourdough bread is an immature sourdough starter. Your starter will create the carbon dioxide gas needed to make your bread rise. It also enhances the bread’s structure, taste and aroma.

An unripe starter lacks the required lactic acid bacteria and yeast cells to produce sufficient gas. The result is a crumb structure that remains compact.

A new starter takes around three weeks until it’s ready to use. And even then, results tend to improve over time.

What to look for in a ripe starter:

What to look for in a ripe sourdough

If you can’t get your starter to rise, check my Why isn’t my starter rising article to fix your problem.

Storing a sourdough starter:

In the week, many home bakers store their starter in the fridge, getting it out for weekends for baking.

Storing your starter in the fridge slows fermentation activity, so you don’t need to feed it so often. But when left unfed for long periods, the gluten in the starter will degrade, and sitting in its dormant state lowers enzyme activity.

If you follow this method, remove a portion of the starter a couple of days before making bread and feed it twice daily to mature. After 3-4 feeds, it will have woken up and be more vibrant.

The best way to maintain an active starter is in a warm environment. The recommended temperature for activating a starter is between 20-35C.

Keeping your starter at a consistent temperature will accelerate the multiplication of wild yeasts and acidic bacteria, providing a superior leavening agent.

Sourdough home proofing box

The Sourdough Home – Starter Proofer

For the ultimate starter, you need to keep it at a constant temperature. And with Brod and Taylor’s Starter Home, you can do just this!!

Create a more robust starter, experiment with different flavours and never worry about feeding times again! The Starter Home is the perfect product for any serious sourdough baker!

2. Use your starter when it peaks

Sourdough starters rise after being fed (refreshed) fresh flour and water. A healthy starter will reach the peak of its rise after 4 to 12 hours of refreshment. Once peaked, it’ll sit there for an hour or two before it collapses.

A sourdough starter rises, peaks and then collapses

Use your starter when it’s at its peak, as the yeasts and lactic bacteria will be at their highest quantities, making it as active as possible.

If you leave a starter to collapse, activity will decrease, leading to a denser loaf.

TIP: The Tartine method uses the starter before reaching its peak to produce a lighter-flavoured sourdough bread which is perfectly acceptable. Just expect a longer rise.

3. Measure your ingredients accurately

I bang on about using scales all the time! Why? Because accurately measuring your ingredients prevents many of the most common baking failures, including preventing sourdough bread from ending up dense.

It's best to weigh all of your ingredients when making bread

The industry-standard scales home bakers use (does that make sense?!) are from Myweigh. I use them too! They are great.

MyWeigh scales

MyWeigh KD8000 Digital Food Scale

If you want to take your bread baking to the next level, a decent set of scales is a must!

The My Weigh KD-8000 Digital Food Scale is the perfect scale for bakers. It’s durable, fast to turn on, VERY responsive and most importantly, has chunky buttons that are easily pressable when you’ve got dough on the go.

The My Weigh KD-8000 is a new version of My Weigh’s top-selling kitchen scale, updated with baker’s math and percentage weighing.

4. Understand gluten development

You’ve got the perfect starter, and your ingredients are correctly measured. You’re almost there! The next priority is understanding gluten development.

Gluten is a protein found in the flour that bonds dough together. The amount of gluten in the dough depends on the flour’s protein ratio.

Gluten strands

Bread flour has a high protein percentage (around 12-13.5%), all-purpose flour has a medium amount of protein (11-12.5%), and UK plain flour or cake flour contains less protein (8-10%).

The gluten proteins give the dough its strength and stretchiness. A weak structure means less gas captured during proofing – that bread is going to be dense!

Gluten structures compared

Our role as “the baker” is to activate the gluten and encourage it to form a robust structure. There are four ways to develop gluten:

1. Slow kneading

Slowly knead your dough to begin

The initial kneading or incorporation stage should be slow and gentle when combining your ingredients in a mixing bowl.

Water needs to be soaked up by the gluten to allow the strands to unwrap and lengthen before being stretched. When making sourdough bread, I recommend slow kneading for around 5 minutes.

2. Fast kneading

Kneading quickly develops the gluten matrix by breaking old bonds between strands and building new ones. Fast kneading is the most efficient way to form the gluten structure whilst reducing oxygen absorption.

Oxygen has little use in sourdough bread as yeast fermentation does not require oxygen (it’s anaerobic, unlike yeast respiration). Oxygen initially strengthens the gluten bonds, but as sourdough matures over several hours, over-oxidation of flour occurs, breaking down gluten and destroying the bread’s flavour.

Kneading intensity can be increased by increasing the speed of a dough mixer or using a more aggressive hand-kneading technique.

I recommend at least 2 minutes of fast kneading for most sourdough recipes.

3. Natural development

When gluten is hydrated, it lengthens and forms new bonds. We use this to our advantage in no-knead bread recipes. There are four ways sourdough bakers can utilise natural development:

Bulk fermentation: After kneading, sourdough rests in a covered container for several hours. The process of bulk fermenting sourdough should take between 2 to 8 hours. DON’T RUSH THIS STEP!

Dough during bulk fermentation

Naturally, the gluten develops into a defined matrix. Whilst fermentation activity occurs – more on this later!

Proofing: After bulk fermentation, the dough is shaped and (usually) placed into a banneton to rise. The proofing stage is the final rise. It’s often forgotten that gluten continues to mature during this time.

Sourdough proofing in a banneton

The starter: A sourdough starter isn’t just about creating gas. The cultured bacteria and wild yeasts produce maturing products to improve the gluten structure.

The flour in a starter has matured for several hours, so adding it to fresh flour and water also provides a handy initial maturity boost!

A ripe starter

A recipe using high ratios of starter will reduce the amount of development the gluten requires.

Autolyse: Combining the flour and water in a bowl and leaving for several minutes (or hours) before adding the salt, starter, and any remaining ingredients, is a method called Autolyse.

This extra step allows the gluten strands to hydrate and kickstarts enzymic reactions. The dough becomes more stretchy (extensible), and more sugars are available for fermentation. You’ll notice a faster rise during proofing and a more significant rise in the oven.

To make sourdough bread less dense, begin your recipe with a 30-60 minute autolyse.

4. Stretch and fold

Returning to ways to develop gluten, stretch and folds are commonly used in sourdough baking as the dough rests during bulk fermentation.

Stretch and fold’s readjust the gluten structure, and redistribute the ingredients. They increase fermentation activity and improve the gluten matrix.

Stretch and fold sourdough

There are many methods to stretch and fold. A gentle stretch and fold technique is perfect for well-kneaded doughs.

The more intense “coil-fold” or “lamination” methods are popular techniques for sourdough bakers.

Do one stretch and fold every 60 minutes during the first rise – unless your recipe says otherwise!

Testing gluten development – The windowpane test

To check how well gluten has matured, use the windowpane test.

Remove a small piece of dough. Pinch it with both hands and stretch it apart. If it passes the test, the dough will stretch so thin you can almost “see light” through it.

The first rise ends once the dough has risen 50% and gluten development is achieved

If it tears easily, like in the image below, continue bulk fermentation.

This dough requires more gluten development

See my table measuring gluten development in dough.

5. How to manage bulk fermentation

Bulk Fermentation, or the First Rise (as otherwise known), has two key actions.

We’ve covered how the gluten matrix forms with natural and mechanical development. The other is fermentation

Fermentation is the process of the sugars derived from the flour processed by the yeasts and lactic acid bacteria.

As the sugars ferment, they produce carbon dioxide gas, which gets captured in the gluten matrix. It’s this captured gas that makes the dough structure inflate!

Sourdough fermentation processes:

fermentation and respiration routes
If you’d like to become a real sourdough geek, once you’ve finished up here, read the science of sourdough fermentation!!

We can see how much fermentation activity has occurred by measuring how high the dough rises.

Mark your container to track the amount of rise during bulk fermentation

When you’ve attained your desired rise, the fermentation part of bulk fermentation is over. However, gluten should be at peak development simultaneously.

Ending bulk fermentation

Knowing when to end bulk fermentation so you can begin dividing and shaping the dough is tricky. The optimum time to complete it is when the dough has risen 50%, and the gluten matrix is 100% developed.

This should be the case if you’ve gently kneaded the dough and applied the necessary stretch and folds.

If gluten development is just behind gas production, say 80% developed, you can continue with shaping. You’ll still make a great loaf of sourdough.

How to increase gluten development during bulk fermentation:

But if you are keen to improve gluten development, there are a few things you can do:

Increase stretch and folds – Use a more aggressive stretch and fold method to develop the gluten, such as a coil fold, and do more of them.

Place the dough in the fridge – Cooling the dough slows down fermentation activity whilst gluten continues to develop. Use in conjunction with additional stretch and folds.

Shape and place in the fridge – The gluten structure will continue to mature after the dough has been shaped. Placing the moulded dough in the refrigerator overnight before baking the next day will improve the texture of the bread.

Make a note to knead more next time – If gluten development is lacking, yet your timings fit your routine, knead the dough a few extra minutes next time.

But, also, the rate of fermentation can change!

Depending on how much starter you are using, the maturity of the starter and the temperature of your dough, the rate of fermentation changes.

If gluten has reached peak development, but the dough hasn’t risen by 50%:

  • Increase the quantity of starter used in your recipe next time
  • Improve the activity of the starter (regular feeds etc.)
  • Increase the proofing temperature up to 35C
  • Use gentle stretch and folds, primarily to redistribute the ingredients

It is possible to make sourdough bread rise further than 50%. A gassy dough like this will need especially gentle shaping and a reduced second rise – likely over in an hour or two.

I rarely enjoy good results with such a gassy dough, so I recommend keeping the rise around 50%. This should take 3-5 hours.

6. Create the perfect environment for your dough

Yeast and lactic acid bacteria found in a sourdough starter work best when warm, but not too warm! The temperature range for sourdough during bulk fermentation and proofing is usually around 23-28C.

For the dough to be between 23 and 28C during bulk fermentation, you can adjust the dough temperature by warming or cooling the water when measuring.

72 - Room temperature - Flour temperature - 18 = Water temperature

Adjusting the temperature of the dough ensures your bread has the right foundations. Despite being a convenient step that I advise you to take, it’s only temporary.

Adjust the water temperature by adding hot or cold water

Sourdough is best “proofed” in a temperature-controlled environment. This is true during the first and second rises.

It’s often possible to find a warm spot in your house (or cold, depending on where you are!) at the ideal temperature for sourdough.

But, if not, or for ultimate control (and fewer headaches), a home-style proofing box makes sense.

Folding Proofer & Slow Cooker

Brod and Taylor Home Proofing Box

The problem with proofing bread at home is that the kitchen temperature is too cold, and if it isn’t warm enough!

Fortunately, the Brod and Taylor home proofer fixes these issues!! With one of these, you can select the perfect proofing temperature and create humidity. Never have a slow-rising loaf again!

7. Master your shaping skills

Shaping is vital in determining how your sourdough bread looks and the texture of the crumb.

Poorly shaped sourdough
Poor shaping leads to irregularly shaped bread.
Well shaped sourdough bread
A rounder loaf is achieved with better shaping skills.

You can be firm when shaping if you’ve followed the earlier advice and reached optimum gluten development within a 50% rise. Pushing gas out of the dough allows you to form a robust structure that rises evenly.

Shaping begins with a “preshaping” or “balling” stage, where the dough is divided into pieces and shaped into a ball or batard:

A “bench rest” of 15-30 minutes, covered with a cloth to prevent them from drying out:

Cover your dough with a cloth as it bench rests

And a “final shaping”:

If your dough is gassy, you must be gentle when you shape it. If you push the gas out during shaping, it’s unlikely enough will be generated in the second rise to raise the loaf fully!

8. Proof your sourdough to perfection!

Once you’ve shaped your sourdough, proof it inside a banneton until ready to bake.

Proofing sourdough in a banneton

IGNORE THE TIMINGS STATED IN YOUR RECIPE!! Instead, learn to read the dough and understand when it is fully proofed.

The final proofing time depends on many factors, including:

  • Starter maturity
  • Dough temperature
  • Water quantity in the recipe
  • How tightly the dough was shaped
  • Flour qualities

Therefore, it’s implausible that your dough will rise at the same rate as the recipe author!

To tell when sourdough bread is fully risen:

  • Check that it has risen to the top of the banneton. Give it a wobble, and the dough should wiggle yet, return to position.
  • Use the poke test:
  1. With a wet finger, poke the surface of the dough 3-4 mm and pull away.
  2. Upon removing your finger, an indent will be visible in the dough. The dough is ready to bake if the dent remains after 3-5 seconds before bouncing back.
  3. If the dough pops straight back up, it needs more time to proof.
TIP: To speed up sourdough proofing, warm the proofing area up to 35C.

Reviewing the baked result is the best test of how well sourdough was proofed. You can see if it’s over or under-proofed by the shape of the baked bread.

The loaves in the images below were baked one hour apart from the other. Notice how their qualities change:

Less proofed sourdough


Low-medium proofed sourdough


Medium-well proofed sourdough


over proofed sourdough


Increasing the height of the rise provides a lighter and more airy texture. It also produces a more sour flavour in your sourdough bread!

Baked sourdough bread with 1 hour between baking
Baked loaves, 1-4 left to right

Notice how the bread is wider and more voluminous when proofing is increased. Too much proofing (over-proofing) then results in a wide yet flat loaf with a more compact crumb due to gluten deterioration.

TIP: If you’re unsure if your sourdough is fully proofed, I recommend baking it and reviewing the results to make adjustments next time. It’s best to be slightly under-proofed than over-proofed.

9. Score your dough correctly

Bakers frequently need to pay more attention to dough scoring. The purpose of scoring is more than just a lovely pattern!

When bread bakes, carbon dioxide and water vapour rapidly emerge from the core of the bread, forcing the bread to rise. Mastering sourdough oven spring is essential to a light and crispy loaf.

If the dough is scored too deeply, you’ll get less volume from the oven spring. If the scores are not deep enough, the extra gas produced will rupture the crust instead of raising the bread evenly!

To get started, I recommend using a simple “cross” design with ½-inch cuts, but see my bread scoring guide for more ideas!!

10. Bake sourdough bread in a Dutch oven

You can bake high-quality sourdough bread in a Dutch oven. When baking sourdough bread, creating steam is essential. A humid environment stops the crust from hardening immediately, meaning the bread can rise in the oven.

When baking sourdough bread in a Dutch oven, the water vapour released from the bread gets retained in the enclosed environment. It means you don’t have to add steam to the oven, and it makes an impressive loaf every time!

A Dutch oven is a cast iron pot with a lid. A quality skillet retains heat well and provides excellent baking results. Sometimes, they are enamelled, like the Uno Casa pot shown above.

But here’s the Challenger oven I recommend, as its baking area is pretty hefty! – and you can preheat it!

Challenger Bread Pan

Challenger Bread Pan®

A revolutionary cast iron bread pan designed by bakers, for bakers. The shallow base makes loading dough easy, its shape fits a variety of shapes and sizes of bread, and the sealed environment retains the perfect amount of steam.

Made in the USA, the Challenger is the easiest way to make beautiful bread at home. It’s pretty simple: You won’t regret getting one of these if you aim to bake regularly.

Baking steps:

I recommend baking at around 220-230C, but there is more to the perfect bake than setting the temperature dial.

Using a baking stone transforms the quality of your sourdough bread by improving the oven rise. Preheat it on the lower oven shelf for around an hour at 250C. If using a cast iron Dutch oven, preheat it on the shelf above the stone as well.

Preheat your Dutch oven and baking stone before baking

Once your dough is ready to bake, remove the Dutch oven and the shelf it sits on from the oven. Drop the dough gently into the Dutch oven using a “sling” made out of greaseproof baking paper.

Score your bread dough before baking

Make your scores, close the lid and put the Dutch oven in the oven.

Drop the oven temperature to 230C (450F). After about 20 minutes, remove the lid of your Dutch oven to release the steam. Turn the temperature down to 210-220C (420-430F), depending on how much colour is on the crust already.

Remove the lid of your Dutch oven after 20 minutes to allow steam to escape

Continue baking until the baking time exceeds 35 minutes. The bread should sound hollow when tapped.

If you wish to bake sourdough without a Dutch oven, see How to bake sourdough without a Dutch oven.

11. Cool sourdough bread to avoid a dense loaf

Who doesn’t get excited when your precious sourdough bread comes out of the oven? Hopefully, if you’ve followed the steps in this post, your latest loaf will look super delicious!

But cooling bread properly is a vital stage in the process, so hang on a bit!

Cooling allows the crumb to set and moisture to escape. You should wait until the temperature of the bread drops below 37C(100F).

If you don’t wait until the bread is cool before slicing, it will have a gummy textured crumb and the crust will soften.

To properly cool sourdough bread:

Once baked, remove your bread from the Dutch oven or loaf pan (if using one) and cool it on a cooling rack, ensuring ample space between loaves.

Leave to cool for 2-3 hours or until it reaches 37C (100F).

Cool sourodugh bread in a cooling rack

12. Other fixes for dense sourdough bread

Don’t bulk ferment dough for too long

If your bread dough looks perfect as it rises but collapses or spreads outwards during the final proofing stages, it’s because the first rise was too long.

Shorten the time next time, but consider increasing the amount of starter you are using if fermentation activity is slow.

Add more water to your dough recipe

Increasing the amount of water in your sourdough recipe can prevent dense bread. Adding more water softens the crumb and makes the texture of the bread lighter, as the gluten can stretch further.

Tip: When preparing a high-hydration sourdough, the crumb can remain wet and gummy after baking. The solution is to lower the oven temperature during the later stages of baking and increase the baking time.

Switch the flour for a better rise and softer texture

The flour you use has a significant factor in making bread. If you’re using flour that’s low quality, your bread may collapse.

It is possible to use low-protein flour (<11%) to make sourdough bread as a medium-length bulk-rise allows damaged gluten strands to repair themselves.

But if the flour is low-protein and low quality, the weak gluten strands will break down during proofing, forcing the dough to collapse.

When using high-protein flour(above 12.5%), a more rigid structure is formed in your sourdough bread, which can have a hard and chewy texture.

To counteract this, use a high-hydration recipe or include olive oil to tenderise the gluten.

Note: Flour with a higher protein concentration usually requires a longer fermentation period than a low-protein variety.

Sift your flour for a less dense sourdough

Sifting whole wheat flour removes some bran. Bran has sharp edges that tear the gluten. It also contains phytic acid.

Sifting to remove some of the large bran particles makes lighter sourdough bread.

Soak flour beforehand for a lighter sourdough bread

Soak the flour in water before kneading is an effective way to soften heavy bran when using whole wheat flour. After soaking, the bran won’t harm the gluten strands.

Soaking also breaks starches in the flour down to form sugars, accelerating the first rise.

See: Using the autolyse or soaker method when making bread

Avoid activated malt flour in sourdough bread recipes

The purpose of activated malt flour, also known as diastatic barley malt or diastatic malt powder, is to break down the starch in the flour to help feed the yeast.

While it benefits quickly-made bread, malt flour can harm long-fermented products like sourdough bread.

Using activated malt flour in sourdough recipes often produces too many simple sugars, which weaken the crumb structure and create a dense and gummy loaf.

Fat makes sourdough soft and fluffier

Partially replace the water in the recipe with oil or dairy products such as butter or milk to produce bread with a fluffier and softer texture. This is called enriching the dough.

TIP: Due to the higher fat content, enriched doughs require a cooler oven temperature to prevent the bread from burning.

Extra sugar increases gas production

Starch in flour starts to get broken into simple sugars as soon as it is hydrated. The sourdough levain uses the simple sugars provided in its respiration and fermentation processes to produce carbon dioxide bubbles.

If the starter produces more gas, the bread will have more volume and rise higher. Adding a tablespoon of these products to your bread dough can offer a quick boost:

  • Brown sugar
  • Maple syrup
  • Honey
  • Corn syrup
  • Molasses
  • Switch water for potato cooking water (cooled)

Remove the chlorine from your water

Many water companies use chlorine to kill off any harmful bacteria in the water. Yet its presence can also damage the helpful bacteria in your sourdough starter. If you’re worried that chlorinated water is impacting your bread-making, measure your water and leave it to stand for 20 minutes before using it.

How to make sourdough bread with an open crumb?

Sourdough bread with an open crumb has two crucial requirements. If these points are achieved, the open crumb should appear every time.

The dough must have a high level of acidity – A ripe starter and plenty of fermentation during bulk fermentation are both required. A 30% inflation during the first rise is enough if the starter is mature!

Gluten must be sufficiently mature – So the crumb structure of long strands can develop the dough should pass the windowpane test.

Then there are two options for developing an open crumb:

  1. If the dough is gassy, you must rely on trapping uneven amounts of air in the dough. Be gentle when you shape so that some air remains in the dough.
  2. If the dough is not overly gassy, shape it firmly and allow it time to rise slowly. I often place mine in the fridge overnight (or 36 hours). A long second rise (is believed to) allows acids to repel and form the open crumb structure differently.
Sourdough bread with an open crumb

Conclusion and my final tip to avoid dense sourdough bread!

We’ve covered many ways to fix dense sourdough bread, hopefully in a way you can work through and eliminate potential errors. Going forward, my biggest tip for you is, “Don’t make too many changes at once!”

Change one variable at a time and track what produces better results. Then continually make adjustments to achieve your perfect texture.

If you’ve found value in this article, please do me a favour and tell me in the comments. It gives me a much-needed morale boost, encouraging me to keep writing bread-related articles.

Likewise, if you hate this write-up, need clarification, or want further help, ask in the comments below.

Making sourdough bread at home can be tricky, especially at first. Making one loaf on a weekend is probably harder than making the dozens I do at work! But once you’ve got a basic process nailed down, making sourdough is much more satisfying!

If you’ve enjoyed this article and wish to treat me to a coffee, you can by following the link below – Thanks x

Buy Me A Coffee

Comments (5)

  • I use whole wheat and whole grain rye flour to make my sourdough. The taste is very good. However, the bread is very dense. Will dividing the flour amount to two parts whole two parts rye and one part bread flour help lighten up the density without losing the rye flavor? Thank you

  • Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really loved browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing in your newsletter and I am hoping you write again soon!

    • Not sure if there are any tests you can do at home. Never heard of one. Maybe someone else reading this has the answer?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep up to date with the latest Articles, Recipes & Bread Baking info by joining my mailing list

Join The Weekly Bread Baker's Newsletter!

Join my weekly baking newsletter to be notified with the latest bread baking tips and trends.
Busby's Bakery

© Busby's Bakery. All rights reserved.
Designed by Joe Joubert.