Sourdough Bread Troubleshooting Guide and FAQ
Here you’ll find answers to the following questions and much more:
- How much sourdough starter should I use in my dough?
- I can’t find bread flour. Can I substitute all purpose flour?
- What is your favorite baking vessel?
- Why are my loaves coming out dense or gummy? How can I achieve an open crumb?
- How can I prevent the bottom of my loaves from browning too quickly?
Note: If you have additional questions, please leave them in the comment section.
Skip to Various Sections:
Sourdough Bread Baking FAQ:
Q: How much sourdough starter should I use in my dough?
Every recipe will vary, depending on the technique and timeline, but a common baker’s percentage for sourdough starter is 10%-20% of total flour weight.
This will vary depending on other factors, but higher amounts of sourdough starter will generally speed up bulk fermentation and lower amounts of sourdough starter will slow down bulk fermentation.
You can read more about baker’s percentages in my sourdough starter troubleshooting guide.
Q: I can’t find bread flour. Can I substitute unbleached all purpose flour in your recipe?
Yes, but you’ll need to make some changes. If substituting all purpose for bread flour, you’ll want to reduce the water quantity.
Unbleached all purpose flour is lower in protein than bread flour. Example: King Arthur All Purpose Flour is 11.7% protein. King Arthur Bread Flour is 12.7%. Some brands of all purpose flour are significantly lower in protein (ranging between 9%-11%). All of these factors are important and impact crumb texture, etc.
Due to the lower protein levels, all purpose flour does not absorb as much liquid as high protein bread flour and can’t produce as much gluten strength. If you’re substituting all purpose flour in my sourdough bread recipe, I recommend reducing the hydration to roughly 300 grams to be safe.
Q: I can’t find any flour. Do you have any good resources?
As grocery stores and supermarkets have struggled to keep up with demand and supply, many people are struggling to find flour at supermarkets. This isn’t due to flour shortage issues, but supply chain problems with major brand names.
If you’re struggling to find flour, I highly recommend finding a local mill in your area (many are shipping!) or reaching out to your local bakery to see if you can buy some from them. You can also order larger quantities (5o lb bags) and create a bulk buying system with friends or neighbors in your area.
Here is a great resource of local flour mills in every state: https://challengerbreadware.com/where-to-buy-grains-flours/ Note: Freshly milled flours can vary in protein levels, extraction rates, and often ferment more quickly.
Q: Why do some recipes call for different mixing and folding methods (stretch and fold, coil folds, lamination, etc.)?
The good news? There are a million ways to make sourdough bread and everyone has their own preference. The bad news? This can create a lot of confusion, especially if you’re just starting out.
I recommend learning as much as you can about the various techniques, trying your hand at each method, and figuring out what works best for you and the type of the bread that you want to make.
If you’re looking to delve into these methods in detail, I recommend Trevor Wilson’s Open Crumb Mastery e-book (not for beginners).
Q: How can you build more tension and strength into dough?
The trick to sourdough bread is creating just enough tension in your dough. Not so much that you are degassing or hindering it’s development, but not so little that your dough collapses and can’t trap pressure air/gases created during fermentation.
If you’re struggling with slack or undeveloped dough, I highly recommend reducing the hydration (water quantity) until you’re confident. Slowly your way up to higher hydration levels as you continue to bake.
Q: How do you know when bulk fermentation is done?
Bulk fermentation is the time period between when you add your starter (levain) to your dough and when you turn it out for shaping. Bulk fermentation time will vary depending on your ambient holding temperature, dough temperature, starter strength and quantity, and other variables.
In my opinion, judging bulk fermentation time is one of the most difficult parts of baking sourdough bread. Dough will develop differently depending on flour type (is your loaf whole grain? or made with white flour), sourdough starter strength, and how the dough is handled and developed.
For my sourdough bread recipe, I push bulk fermentation far as it has a very short rest (often it doesn’t rest at all) before being transferred into a very cold fridge. I generally look for 50% increase in volume, signs of good fermentation on the surface (bubbles of varying sizes), and a dough that looks alive and aerated (if you gently shake the bowl, the dough will jiggle).
Read more below on under-proofed vs. over-proofed dough.
Q: Do I have to retard my dough in the refrigerator prior to baking?
No. You can allow your dough to finish proofing at room temperature prior to baking. I prefer to retard my dough overnight in the fridge prior to baking for several reasons:
- This final cold retardation of the dough helps develop more complex flavors in your final loaf.
- Baking cold generally produces significantly better oven spring and crust development.
- Cold dough is much easier to handle, transfer, and score.
Bread Baking Equipment Questions:
Q: What baking vessel do you use to bake your bread?
When I first started baking, I used a standard 5.5 Quart Dutch Oven for all of my bread baking.
As of January 2020, I do all of my bread baking in my Challenger Bread Pan (generously gifted to me). The unique shape and design allows you to make batards (ovals – my preferred loaf shape), demi-baguettes, and boules (rounds).
It is an incredible baking vessel due to it’s design and ease-of-use. Loaves baked in my Challenger Pan have better oven spring, color development, and crust texture.
It makes transferring of dough significantly safer, easier, and avoids the waste of parchment paper. If you’re serious about bread baking, it is a great investment. The bottom griddle can also be used for focaccia and other baked goods, or used similarly to a cast-iron skillet.
Q: Can I still make sourdough if I don’t own a Dutch oven, combo cooker, or Challenger Pan?
Yes, but steam is very important for sourdough bread baking and you’ll most likely have to resource to various tools (lava rocks, roasting pans with hot water, etc.) as alternatives.
Dutch ovens, combo cookers, and the Challenger Bread Pan allow you to cover and easily trap steam in the first stage of baking (mimicking a bakery deck oven). This helps prevent your dough crust from setting too quickly, which can hinder proper oven spring and crust development.
Q: I don’t own a banneton. What should I use instead?
You don’t need a banneton to make sourdough bread, but it is a very useful tool (it helps draw moisture from the dough during resting, which leads to better crust development) and relatively cheap investment if you’re looking to delve into sourdough bread baking.
If you don’t own a banneton, you can use a bowl (be sure to use one that is similar in shape and dimension to the recommended banneton size!) lined with a well-dusted kitchen linen.
Q: What can I use to score my dough if I don’t own a bread lame?
A bread lame is simply a tool that holds a curved or straight sharp razor blade. It allows you to quickly and easily score bread (which allows your bread to expand properly and steam to be released during baking).
If you don’t own a bread lame, the next best alternative is any sharp razor blade. The sharper the blade and cleaner the scores, the better results you’ll see. Cold retarded dough is much easier to score than room temperature dough.
You can also use a sharp knife or kitchen scissors, but they’re not ideal. If you’re looking to play with more intricate scores or achieve beautiful ears, I recommend investing in a good-quality bread lame.
Q: I don’t own a baking scale. Can you provide volume measurements for your recipe?
Unfortunately, no. Volume measurements are wildly inaccurate in general, but especially problematic for sourdough bread baking. There is no way to accurately measure sourdough starter using cups.
Metric weights are standard in bread baking and will yield the best and most consistent results. They also allow you to easily scale up or scale down any recipe (or adjust baker’s percentages). Basic kitchen scales cost less than $10 and are a must-have tool!
Q: My dough is taking forever to gain volume and is still very dense and lifeless at the end of the recommended bulk fermentation time.
It sounds like your dough and/or your ambient temperature is very cold or you’re working with a weak, under-active sourdough starter.
Yeast and bacteria prefer warmer temperatures. Try placing your dough in warmer area of your kitchen (75F-80F is ideal) – monitoring your final dough temperature to keep it as consistent as possible – or consider investing in a bread proofing box.
Q: My dough is too slack and is not developing good strength. Help!
If your dough is not developing enough strength, this can be the result of poor mixing or dough development through bulk fermentation. Add an extra set or two of stretch and folds and see if that helps, or reduce the hydration on your next loaf.
If you are working with new flours or flour brands, I prefer to hold back some water during the autolyse and see how the dough is developing (can I use my fingers to stretch it very thinly with no tearing?).
If I feel confident that the dough can handle more water, I’ll add a portion of it back when I incorporate my starter.
Q: My dough was a sloppy mess after bulk fermentation and couldn’t be shaped. Help!
It is extremely hard to diagnose sourdough bread troubleshooting issues without knowing more details as to your specific situation. What recipe are you following? What flour are you using? How old is your sourdough starter? What is your ambient kitchen temperature, etc.?
Higher hydration sourdough recipes, by nature, can be challenging to work with if you’re unfamiliar with them. For more tips on pre-shaping and shaping, be sure to watch my step-by-step Youtube video.
If your dough develops nicely during bulk fermentation and turns into a sloppy, disintegrating mess during shaping, this is a sign of over-proofed dough (is your kitchen very hot? did you extend bulk fermentation too far? are you using freshly milled flour?) or potentially collapsed dough structure due to poor development.
Substantially over-proofed dough is impossible to shape. Your best option is to turn it into a well-oiled sheet pan and bake it immediately. Try again and watch your bulk fermentation carefully. Let the dough call the shots!
Q: My loaves are dense and gummy or have huge air pockets surrounded by a tight crumb. Why is this happening?
Extremely dense, gummy loaves or loaves with a few massive air pockets surrounded by a tight dense crumb are the result of under-proofed dough. This is extremely common problem among beginners.
This is often the result of a weak or under-active sourdough starter (be sure to read my sourdough starter troubleshooting guide for more details) or undeveloped dough. Try building up your starter strength for another week or extending bulk fermentation on your next loaf or finding a warmer spot in your kitchen!
Be mindful that cold ambient temperatures can create problems as well. Try placing your dough in warmer area of your kitchen (75F-80F is ideal) or consider investing in a bread proofing box.
Q: How do I achieve an even, open crumb structure?
Please remember that there are many different types of bread and crumb preferences are subjective! Different techniques will result in different results. Figure out what type of bread you want to make.
However, if you’re looking to achieve open, lacy crumbs, I highly recommend Trevor Wilson’s Open Crumb Mastery e-book (not for beginners).
Q: Why aren’t my ears or scores opening nicely?
Prominent bread ears and well-developed scoring are due to a combination for factors: proper fermentation and dough development and proper tension, shaping and scoring skill/technique, and oven temperature/steam.
Regardless of how you score your dough, under proofed dough will yield dull scores and pale crusts. Over proofed dough will have better color, but won’t have any strength to support scoring.
In addition, if you don’t score quite deep enough or at the right angle, ears will not develop as nicely. As you can see, there are a lot of variables at play. Keep practicing and keep at it. The more you bake, the better baker you will become!
Q: The bottom of my loaves are darkening too quickly. Is there a way to prevent this during baking?
First and foremost, I recommend a separate oven thermometer to ensure that your oven is well calibrated (ovens can be off by as much as 25+ degrees) and adjusting temperatures as necessary.
If this continues to be an issue, try placing a baking sheet (or two stacked baking sheets) under your baking vessel to add some extra insulation. Do not preheat the baking sheets! If the bottom of the loaf darkens rapidly and the crust is pale, this can also be an indication of poor fermentation.
Q: My Dutch Oven can’t be preheated to 500F. Can I reduce the baking temperatures?
Some brands of Dutch ovens are not supposed to be preheated to high temperatures due to the material of their knobs (or other factors).
Try experimenting and preheating at a lower temperature or invest in a stainless steel replacement knob if the brand offers that option. Most high-quality Dutch ovens are safe at these temperatures, but please check the brand manufacturer’s instructions before proceeding with any recipe.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my other sourdough bread baking resources:
- Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting Guide
- Artisan Sourdough Bread Recipe + Step-By-Step YouTube Video
- Favorite Sourdough Bread Tools and Resources
- How to Store, Freeze, and Refresh Bread
- How to Bake Sourdough in a Dutch Oven (and Shape a Boule)