Don’t let those perfect Instagrams you’re looking at intimidate you. We’re here to help. 

By Stacey Ballis
May 12, 2020
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Here in the New Sourdough Era, as starters are born and old ones proliferate, as former non-bakers suddenly find themselves ordering artisanal bread flour in 25-pound sacks, the sourdough community boards on social media are awash in questions from new adopters about how to improve their basic bread practice. So, I thought it might be time to address a few of the top problems you might be having with your sourdough bakes, and how to address them.

Problem #1: You may have killed your starter.

The key components to your starter are flour and water, so if you think something is awry, those are the first places to look. The water you use to feed your starter and to make your dough should be either filtered or allowed to sit uncovered at room temp for 24 hours to allow the chlorine to off-gas. Tap water straight from the tap, depending on how it is treated in your community, can kill your starter.

When it comes to flour, the most vibrant starters I know are fed a half and half mix of bread flour and whole wheat flour for regular bread, or a combination of bread flour and rye flour for rye breads. Unbleached if possible. Think of it like a meal for yourself. The whole wheat is like the protein in dinner and the bread flour is the carbs. The water is the sauce. Or something.

Get the Recipe: Sourdough Starter

Problem #2: You have a brand-new starter and your breads are not rising.

New starters—the ones you have begun with water and flour yourself—take a while to fully reach their leavening potential. Some “recipes” will tell you a week to ten days, but in my experience, you are not going to get great rise until the starter is established two weeks at a minimum. Use the float test: If a tablespoon of active starter floats in a cup of water, it should be able to rise a loaf.

Quick fix: If your starter is young, and you have access to commercial active yeast, try adding just a half-teaspoon to your initial dough. No need to bloom in water—just toss it in with the flour, starter, and water pre-autolyse. That little bit of yeast will serve as kind of training wheels for your starter; once it’s mature, you can stop adding it. Want to bake while your starter is still young? Stick to discard recipes like English muffins, biscuits, bagels, scones, and crackers.

Problem #3: Your loaves are either flat disks or have “blow-outs” and crack in strange places.

You need to get better at forming and scoring! Oven spring, that last push of the yeast to rise those loaves, is counting on equal parts surface tension to make them rise up and not outward, and strategic scoring to give them natural fault lines to release along, so that they can expand in a guided way to make good loaves.

Watch some YouTube videos on how to best form your loaves to create that surface tension, and then be sure you are scoring properly. You want to hold your lame or blade at about a 45-degree angle and slash into your bread about 1/4 inch deep. For bâtards, or oval loaves, make one long slash down the middle; for round boules try either an X shape or a #.

Problem #4: Your bread is too dense without any open crumb structure.

If you are looking for those magical holes (and not finding them), you are looking at incorrect hydration levels. Hydration percentage—a baker’s term—is the amount of water as a percentage of the weight of flour. So, if you are making dough with a kilogram of flour, or 1000 grams, and you are using 650 grams of water, that is a 65% hydration dough, because 650 is 65% of 1000. (If you are feeding your starter flour and water in equal parts by weight, you have a 100% hydration starter—something you may have seen mentioned in recipes.) The higher hydration, the slacker the dough, and the more water to generate steam bubbles that create those holes in the crumb during baking.

I personally like a 65% hydration dough, which gives me some holes, but not so many that all the butter leaks out of my toast. It is also a level of hydration that makes shaping and forming easier. I will sometimes go as high as 75% if I want a more open crumb. I always recommend 60-65% as a starter baseline hydration for newbies. Once you feel confident, you can start to experiment with higher hydration levels.

Problem #5: Your bread feels doughy and raw in the middle.

Likely you are underbaking. Breads do not have a timeline. You should, in all aspects of breadmaking, listen to the dough and the bread, not the clock or the recipe. Your oven temp, room temp, general atmospheric humidity, brand of flour, and calibration of your oven will all play a role in your breadmaking. Thumping on bread to test for doneness is an imperfect science at best for new bakers.

If you want to know if your bread is done in the middle, use a digital probe thermometer. Sourdough and other regular breads are baked through when they reach 205-210 degrees; enriched breads that contain cream or butter or sugar are done at 190-195.

But also—and this is important—you have to let breads cool completely before cutting into them. Like resting meat. The final step of baking occurs outside the oven as the last of the steam evaporates out of the loaf, the interior dries a little, and the crumb sets. If you cut while warm, you will get that doughy damp interior, and it will taste raw even if fully baked. If you really want that warm loaf experience, let the loaf cool completely, then refresh it for 10-15 minutes unwrapped on the rack of a 350-degree oven.

Bonus Pro Tip: How to refresh your bread

You bake bread, and the first day it is amazing. A day later, the crust is chewier and has lost its oomph. Or you make a couple of loaves and freeze one for later use and when you thaw, the crust isn’t what it was. But you can refresh your loaves by running the exterior under the tap (I know, weird and counterintuitive) and then putting the newly wet loaf on the middle rack of a 350 oven for 10-15 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes on a rack and you will have what tastes like a new loaf.