FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

I gathered below the answers to some of the most common sourdough bread troubleshooting questions
For a full Q&A, including my go to recipe & schedule, the step by step process explained, check my Sourdough Bread guide.

I’ve grouped the questions by phase in the bread making process. But first.

Does sourdough contain gluten? YES, it does, unless you use gluten free flour for both your starter and for preparing the dough.

BULK FERMENTATION 

In my experience, bulk fermentation can last anywhere from 3.5 to 7 hours. It depends on the recipe, flour, amount of sourdough starter used and most importantly, ambient temperature.

The wild yeasts perform best in a warm environment, anything between 24°- 27°C / 75° – 80.6°F. If colder, bulk fermentation will take longer than when warm in your kitchen

Fermentation speed will also be influenced by the amount of starter in a recipe. If using less sourdough starter in a recipe (standard is 20% of the flour amount in the recipe), bulk fermentation will take longer. And the other way around

Sourdough bread troubleshooting

Proper fermentation is crucial in sourdough baking, otherwise can result in an under or overproofed dough. Bulk fermentation happens at room temperature and it’s when the gluten network and the dough tension is created through the sets of folds (stretch & folds or coil folds). Performing the folds also helps you sense how quickly your dough is fermenting. Not enough folds and your dough might be too slack during shaping and flatten during baking.

How do I recognise the end of bulk fermentation?
  • Use time as a guide, but not the only indicator
  • The dough has grown in volume, not necessarily doubling – do not wait for that as you may overproof your dough
  • The dough has gas bubbles throughout the dough (felt at touch). It almost feels light if you were to lift it.
  • The dough will become less & less stretchable with every folding
  • The dough is jiggly when you shake it
  • The top of the dough is domed and smooth
  • The dough feels aerated, it should be generally easy to shape. If difficult to shape, it’s your sign that bulk should have been shorter
  • Check this video
If the dough is wet and sticky, can I add more flour later in the process?

It is advised NOT to add more flour. Adding too much flour that hasn’t fermented can create inconsistency in the texture of the crumb (e.g large holes, tunnel)

Which folding method should I go for?

Both are techniques used during bulk fermentation to strengthen the dough, help the development of the gluten network, equalising dough temperature and trapping little air into the dough. It also gives the baker the opportunity to check on the progress of the dough regularly

There is no technique better than the other, I’ve made amazing breads using both techniques.

I would use a stretch & fold:

  • as the first folding set, at the beginning of the bulk fermentation, when the dough tends to be stickier and wobblier. For every dough I make.
  • whenever dough feels tight, especially for low hydration doughs
  • when a dough feels too wet and difficult to handle
  • when I am making the dough in between other tasks and want to keep things easy and clean

On the other hand I would choose a coil fold:

  • for any dough that feels ‘right’ after the first stretch & fold. And by this I mean a dough that’s not too wet or too sticky
  • because I find it to be more gentle to the dough, as it only relies on the weight of the dough and you can’t over stretch it and tear it as with a stretch & fold
  • because it gives that smooth surface to the dough, which you won’t get with the stretch & fold. Plus some lovely small bubbles on the surface
  • whenever I take my time to make the dough, moving the dough to a shallow bowl to allow coil folds brings me joy rather and it’s not perceived as a hassle

No matter which one you choose, be gentle to the dough, do not try to stretch it more than it naturally does, you don’t want to tear it.

Wet your hands before any stretch & fold, that should help you avoid the dough sticking to your hands,

Why is my dough so sticky?
  • The starter – either too young OR not active enough. OR overfermented where the yeast activity is compromised (too weak to leaven the dough)
  • High hydration doughs, i.e. you’ve put too much water; it might be that you followed my (or other) recipe closely, but your flour needed less water. Try with 10% less water next time if using the same flour
  • The type flour you are using  – for example rye flour will make the dough stickier than wheat flour
  • An over fermented dough by the end of bulk fermentation will make dough sticky and shaping extremely difficult
  • Over kneading / over mixing (especially when using a stand mixer). This increases the temperature of the dough and forces fermentation, but it can also start degrading the gluten network – both causing sticky dough
  • High ambient temperature and the bulk fermentation happens too fast
  • Insufficient gluten development 
HOW LONG SHOULD I MIX FOR WHEN USING A STAND MIXER?

Initial mix (water, flour and starter) for 4-6min. Start on low speed, increasing to speed 2/3. Second mix (adding in the salt) for another 4-6min. Do not wait until the dough is passing the window pane test, or until the dough comes off the sides of the bowl. While these are signs to be after for an enriched dough (where butter has been added), not as relevant for bread making.

Are both pre-shaping and final shaping necessary?

Not always.

The scope of pre-shaping is to give additional tension to the dough, if required. If the dough is rather tight, which means that it would not fully relax after pre-shaping, you’d rather only go for the final shaping. Otherwise you risk tearing the dough unnecessarily. By the dough to relax I mean dough going flat on the surface, 20-30min after the pre shape and before being given its final shape.

Pre shaping is when you loosely gather the dough in a round shape, by going round and tucking it underneath, which will leave you with a symmetrical piece of dough for the final shape.

As with everything to do with sourdough, there are 2 possible ways of pre shaping. If your dough still feels slack and weak, pre shaping should be more aggressive, since you want to give that additional strength and surface tension. If the dough feels smooth and strong, you can be gentle and do less movements.

A dough with low hydration – around 70% or under would most likely not require a pre-shape as it would be strong enough.

Any tips for the final shaping?
  • Practice makes perfection, so does watching tutorials. It’s the only way to learn.
  • Be firm and confident when doing it, dust your hands with flour, dust the top of the dough before turning it upside down on the counter, otherwise the dough might stick and will make handling more difficult.
  • Try not to catch flour in the dough when shaping it.
  • Use a scraper for handling the dough, it will make your life easier. Also use rice flour if you can instead of bread flour, it won’t stick to the dough.
  • If the dough at this stage is super sticky and can’t be handled – dust the surface of the dough with flour, and using a scraper turn it upside down directly in the banneton, skipping the shaping. Instead you can do some stitching directly in the banneton and let it proof. You might get a wild crumb, but will be ok (unless dough is overproofed).
which flour should i use for the shaping & dusting the banneton?

I choose rice flour, it’s gluten free and it doesn’t stick that much to the dough. It helps to avoid having the dough stuck in the banneton. Alternatively, you can use ground dry discard. More here.


proofing
What banneton size should I buy ?

Here is some guidance based on the bannetons I use, two things to consider. Dimensions and final weight dough.

Round shapeOval shape
19 – 20 cm / 7.5in : 500 – 600g final dough13x21cm / 5x8in : 500 – 600g final dough
24 – 25cm / 9.5in : up to 1kg final dough16x22cm / 6x9in : 700 – 800g final dough
15x25cm / 6x10in : up to 1kg final dough
Banneton size guidance

I always use a liner, as it helps to absorb the moist released by the dough during proofing (especially during the long cold proofing in the fridge). The other benefit is that you minimise the risk of the dough getting stuck in the banneton.

Some other tips

  • Make sure you dry the banneton after using it, otherwise mold grows on it over time. And once that happens, there is no way back.
  • Wash the cotton liner ideally with water only, by hand. And let it dry completely before using it again
  • You don’t need to wash the banneton after every bake, just remove the flour and dry it.
What if I don’t have a banneton?

You could instead use a bowl or even a sieve, and line it with a kitchen towel so that it absorbs the moisture released by the dough, especially when placed in the fridge for cold proofing.

Which proofing method should I use?

Ambient method – when you want to have fresh bread for dinner OR you have to bake the same day OR you prefer a milder, less sour bread.

Cold proofing – if you like the sourness to be stronger. Long proofing in the fridge also helps with the digestibility of the loaf. It also allows you to bake first thing in the morning.

Do I have to cover the dough while in the fridge for proofing?

For AMBIENT PROOFING, when the dough is left to proof in the banneton on the counter, at room temperature.

I tend to use a plastic disposable shower cap, which I then reuse multiple times. At room temperature it is more likely for the dough to dry and form a skin, so I always make sure to cover it. And plastic helps seal in the moist. 

Why the shower cap (or even a plastic bag) rather than the cling film? This is because I don’t want it to be airtight, plus, I want to leave enough room for the dough to expand without sticking to the cover. 

For COLD PROOFING (overnight in the fridge)

I found that covering it in plastic seals in the moist, creating condensation, which in some cases can lead to a rather wet, sticky dough. In this case I would cover it with a tea towel or simply leave it uncovered. This proved to work best for me in the past 3 years.

Regardless of the proofing method, once the dough is placed in the basket, I would dust it well with flour. It’s the rice flour I use.

The way you choose to cover (or not) the dough during proofing will also depend on the climate you live in.

If you live in a humid environment, you’d be probably be better let more moisture escape out of the dough, so you might want to stick to the tea towel. Whereas if you were to use in a dry climate, you might benefit from sealing it the moisture, so loose plastic might be better in your case.

As always, best would be for you to try and see what works best for you, as what might work well for some of us, might not for others.

The dough doesn’t hold its shape when out of the banneton? Why is that?

This can happen for a couple of reasons and the below should help you identify the cause.

🌾If once baked is flat as a pancake, no ear and it feels heavy when you lift it. The crumb is dense, possibly gummy when you cut it. This means the dough was UNDERPROOFED. Next time consider extending the bulk fermentation, especially if your kitchen is cold. This can also happen if your starter is rather weak and doesn’t have enough strength to leaven the dough, do not underestimate it.

🌾If once baked is flat as a pancake, no ear, but if feels airy and light when you lift it. The crumb is rather aerated. This are the signs of an OVERPROOFED dough. Next time consider reducing with the bulk fermentation.

🌾If once baked the bread has nicely risen, has got a nice ear. This is your sign that you have used a high hydration, without giving the dough enough tension through bulk fermentation. Next time, consider either reducing the amount of water OR increasing the number of foldings, plus adding a preshaping in case you skipped it

One last thought. A dough that has been proofed ambient, will naturally collapse more than one that has been proofed overnight in the fridge.

How do I know my dough is ready to bake?

With time you’ll just know. At the beginning it is best to use the schedule you’ve been given.

There is the famous poke test – the dough should come back slowly, but not completely leaving a gentle indent on the surface of the dough. That’s your sign it’s ready. If the dough springs back quickly, give it more time. If it doesn’t spring back at all, it’s overproofed, so go ahead and bake it.

Is the oven preheating really necessary?

Well, in my experience baking in a cold oven results in a chewier crust and more moist crumb as well. Not my favourite, but you could give it a try as lots of other bakers would use this method.


baking
How do I get a good ‘ear’?

🌾The No.1 reason in my view is the lack of steam. 

If you bake in a normal domestic oven, on a baking stone or tray, it can be quite a challenge to get that ‘ear’. I’ve been using a baking stone for the first 3-4 months until I got a dutch oven & I haven’t seen a ‘ear’, not even one. The explanation for this: in the absence of steam, the crust of your bread will form too quickly, not allowing the dough to expand at its maximum potential

🌾How to create steam though – boiled water in a tray at the bottom of the oven, mist/spray the dough & around the dough once you place it in the oven, ice cubes on the baking stone, make sure though it’s not touching the dough. I’ve read about lava stones, never tried those though

🌾Scoring is equally important, best done is by holding the lame at something like 30 degrees angle to the dough, and not perpendicular. This is likely to increase the chances to form an ‘ear’ for an open bake. Less strict when using a dutch oven. Make sure you score deep enough and you have a sharp blade. For open bakes, scoring in the middle of the dough works better for me than on the side

🌾Let’s not forget about the proving. If overproofed, the dough won’t rise and won’t open up – yeast won’t have enough strength anymore and the gluten network is weakened too. Same if under-proofed.

🌾Not enough tension is given during shaping

CAN I BAKE SOURDOUGH WITHOUT A DUTCH OVEN?

Yes, you can. Couple of things:

  • use a baking stone or steel if you can, it does its job at retaining heat. If you haven’t got one you can use the oven tray or even a tin
  • unlike the iron cast pan or a dutch oven where the lid holds in the steam released by the dough in the first 20min of baking, when not using one you have to create the steam using different tricks.
    • pour boiling water in a hot tray at the bottom of the oven
    • spray the dough with water just after placing it in the oven, before closing the door
    • add ice cubes on the baking stone, next to the dough, making sure ice cubes are not getting into contact with the dough
  • do not put the fan mode on, unless you prefer a very dark, burnt like crust. Use top bottom setting
  • bake at 230C / 440F for the first 20min, with steam; the rest of 25min at 200C / 390F without the steam
My loaf comes out too dense

Here there are couple of possible factors

  • high % of wholemeal flour in the dough. The bran in the flour would interfere and interrupt the gluten network, which affects its ability to trap the gas released by the yeast during fermentation process. It’s healthy and flavoursome, but obtaining an open crumb can sometimes be a challenge. You could sift the big particles of bran, that should help improve the airiness of the crumb. It’s healthy and flavoursome, but obtaining an open crumb can sometimes be a challenge. Be mindful that when removing some of the bran, you also remove nutrients. Bran can be reintroduced to the dough after being soaked, or partially used to coat the dough (dust the bottom of the banneton).
  • low hydration dough – too little water for the flours you have used to make the dough. In my experience, the more wholegrain flours you use, the more water is required as the bran acts like a sponge.
  • a starter that’s not mature enough, or over fermented, can lead to a dense, but also gummy crumb
  • underproofed dough – will be dense, flat and feel heavy
  • very tight shaping. If the dough feels rather stiff during bulk, skip preshaping, go straight to the final shaping. And keep it loose.
  • all purpose flour can lead to small bubbles, instead of the big lovely holes in the crumb you get when using bread flour. This is because the gluten network is not as strong.
What is the right size for a dutch oven?

I’ve got an oval 29cm / 11.4in in length and a round 24cm / 9.4in in diameter. They are both perfect for baking up to 1kg dough.

AFTER BAKING
HOW LONG SHOULD I LET THE BREAD COOLING BEFORE CUTTING IT?

A minimum of 30min, to allow the interior to set and avoid the a gummy/tacky crumb. Ideally 2 hours if you can wait that long 🙂

THE CRUST IS RATHER HARD WHEN I REMOVE THE BREAD FROM THE OVEN.WILL IT SOFTEN?

Yes, it will soften. As it cools, any moisture that’s left in the dough will escape through the crust, which ultimately cause softening.

how to keep sourdough bread fresh for longer? best way to store sourdough bread

Below I am sharing my routine, but also what people in my Instagram community has shared with me.

In my house, a loaf doesn’t last more than 2-3 days. I prefer to bake smaller loaves and more often, as there’s nothing better than fresh bread. I store my bread in a paper bag, sometimes wrapped in a tea towel (sometimes not), but always in a drawer.
This works best for me, as I don’t like the bread being too soft, especially the crust. If the crust hardens a bit too much, I would pop it in the toaster, to warm it up.

I have noticed that a 100% bread flour loaf will go stale much faster than if I were to use more wholemeal, flour I mill myself or even stoneground white wheat flour.

If I were to bake an extra loaf, I would then let it cool down, slice it, put it in a ziplock bag and pop it in the freezer. I would then take one slice at a time, defrost in the toaster (can also be done in the oven).

Other ideas for storage some you have shared
🌾in the cool oven or in the cool dutch oven (not when in use though). I have tried this one myself, bread in paper bag and then in the oven, it keeps it soft for 4-5 days.
🌾on cake stand with glass top
🌾in reusable ziplock bag
🌾a linen bread bag (some of you put this in a bread bin too)
🌾in a bread box
🌾beeswax wrap (some of you put this in a bread bin too)
🌾in the fridge
🌾wrapped in a tea towel, put in a ziplock or put in a bread box or in the oven
🌾in a paper bag or parchment paper, put in plastic bag
🌾plastic bag or cling film
🌾in a tote bag

IF YOU WANT TO TRY MY SOURDOUGH BREAD RECIPE & SCHEDULE

Check this page for details.