Troubleshooting Common Issues
Here are answer the some common of the questions we have seen the Facebook group. There is not always an easy answer as everyone’s method and circumstances can vary drastically.
We will continuously be adding and updating these over time.
Problems and Answers
Although making sourdough bread is, in theory, quite easy, in practice it can be challenging. The quality of your bread is contingent not only on the quality of your ingredients, but also on mastery of your technique. Stretching and folding, proofing, and shaping the dough all impact how your bead turns out. And, like any art form, it takes practice to perfect your technique, and perfecting your technique will help eliminate the big air pockets under the crust.
There are three areas you should focus on.
First, make sure you are adequately shaping and folding your dough. Stretching and folding helps ensure gluten formation, which makes the dough more pliable and allows gases to be more evenly distributed throughout the dough. This creates an open crumb to the bread. If the gluten doesn’t form adequately, gases will break through the dough and float to the top. As you proceed through your stretch and folds you will feel a change in the quality of the dough. It will tighten up and stick to your hands less. This is good. It is gluten formation.
Second, get your timing right. The timing of your proofs, especially, the bulk proof, is critical. How long to proof your dough depends on a number of factors—how much starter you’ve used, the temperature of your kitchen, the flour you’re using, etc. Thus, you will need observe your dough during proofing and assess when it has proofed enough. Generally, it is best to shape your dough for the final proof when the dough is doubled in volume. If you shape it too soon, it could lead to big air pockets. If you wait too long it there will be no oven spring (i.e., it won’t rise during baking).
Finally, you will want to practice how you shape your dough for the final proof. Handle the dough gently and avoid folding the dough onto itself as this will defeat the even distribution of gases and increase the likelihood of getting flour inside the boule (which won’t cause air pockets, but ill produce streaks of uncooked flour in your bread).
Making sourdough is like learning to ride a bike—you’ll fall off at first, but once you get the hang of it you will ride without fail. Keep trying!
Factors that may impact oven spring:
1. Crust formation: if oven spring is to occur, expansion of the dough cannot be inhibited by early crust formation. That is, if the crust on your bread forms too soon during the baking process, the dough inside will not be able to expand up and out. Crust formation can be delayed by adding steam while baking. Commercial bakers have ovens the inject steam into the oven while the bread is baking, but most of the rest of us use Dutch ovens or cloches with the lids on to trap the moisture. Sometimes placing ice on a sheet pan at the bottom of the oven will help. Either way, the goal is to keep the dough moist to delay the formation of the bread.
2. Baking temperature: If your oven is too hot, it can kill the yeast, which is necessary for the dough to rise during baking. It can also dry out the dough, which means the crust will form sooner. It is unlikely that your home oven gets hot enough to kill the yeast, but it may be hot enough to dry out the dough. You may try adding more moisture (see above) or lower the heat.
3. Proofing. If you allow the bread to bulk proof too long, there will be no gas left in the dough to produce the bubbles that create the lift. Let your dough bulk proof until it doubles, but no longer. If you let it rise more there will be no umph left for the oven and you won’t get oven rise.
4. Flour: The quality and type of flour you use will make a difference. Whole grains and heavier grains like rye flour will not rise as much. You will have a denser crumb and less over spring. Also, flour with more protein, like bread flour, will create a better spring. And, it has been my experience that cheap flour does not rise as much.
5. Hydration: A higher proportion of water in your dough will also produce a better oven spring.
Crust is a matter of taste. Some people like it crisp and chewy others like it soft and pliable. Controlling the hardness of your crust is really a matter of controlling the amount of moisture in your oven, which is mainly in the form of steam.
Commercial ovens, and some home ovens, can actually inject steam into the oven, but for most of us we must find other ways to control moisture.
The most common way is to bake your bread in a Dutch oven or clay cloche with a lid. The lid traps the moisture emanating from the dough and turns it to steam, which in turn will soften your bread. If you want a harder crust, take the lid off before the bread finishes baking.
You can also try putting a pan of ice at the bottom of your oven, which, of course, will turn to steam as the bread bakes.
Some people try using a spray bottle and spraying water into the oven. In my opinion, though, opening the oven door too often will not only allow what steam there is to escape, but also lower the temperature of the oven. So be cautious doing this.
An uneven crumb is most likely due to the handling of your dough when you stretch and fold your dough or when you shape the final loaves.
Stretching and folding does two things: First, it promotes the development of gluten, which gives the dough flexibility and the ability to accommodate the development of carbon dioxide evenly throughout the dough—this helps create an even crumb.
Also, stretching and folding will distribute the temperature more evenly as the dough proofs. This results in fermentation at more equal rates throughout the dough. That is, its not fermenting faster in the warmer places than it is in the cooler places. Again, this promotes a more even crumb.
That said, you don’t want to undo the benefits of stretching and folding when you shape the dough. After the bulk proof, you should handle the dough carefully. If you are making multiple loaves from your dough, you will need to divide your dough separate boules. Do so as gently as possible. Then when you shape it, also be gentle. Do as little as possible to get the dough into the shape you need. And always make sure you don’t fold any flour into the interior of your dough—the raw flour won’t bake.
The bottom line is that you have to practice and you must develop your technique. Most importantly, don’t give up. Sourdough is an art—the more you practice the better you get.