The biggest challenge and source of frustration for a sourdough baker is to find a rockhard bread in the oven after all the hours you spent feeding the starter, measuring and autolysing, stretching and folding, bulk fermenting, proofing, and scoring.
Although I have been baking my own bread for years, by hand or by bread machine, but when I was introduced to a commercial-yeast-free bread, that’s when the learning curve began. I had hit-and-miss days.
Through the months, here are the hard lessons I learned and strategies I adopted to get more consistent results.
I observed patterns which helped me drew my own conclusions on why my sourdough failed to rise. I adopted techniques to troubleshoot my weak points.
Here are the top reasons why I failed to get a good spring and what I did to correct it:
1) I did not know when the starter is ripe enough.
Different starters behave in different ways. Young ones tend to be more unpredictable. Old and ancient ones are resilient and are low maintenance. I had to note down how long before they become bubbly, how often they needed to be fed, etc. Now I know my ancient starter can go without feeding even for a month or more. To wake them up, one feeding is enough. After 12-18 hours, I get a positive float test.
Float test gives me confidence that it’s ripe enough and awake (see right photo below).
2) Did not know when the dough is strong enough for proofing - now I know autolyse or no autolyse, it doesn’t matter. As long as I get the window pane effect after I stretch and fold. If I don’t, I do some more mechanical twisting, kneading, cajoling or just leaving it at room temp to ferment and let the bacteria and yeast do the work, or even do cold retard and ferment in ref for 3 days. Whatever means I do, there’s only one outcome I want: the window pane effect where the dough is strong enough to be stretched thinly.
3) Did not know when I proofed enough - now I rely on the poke test. There’s a certain bounciness in the formed dough that tells you, this will rise some more. “Catch it on the rise,” as they say. When I overproof it, I just reform it again then wait for a couple of minutes (10-15min) for it to regain the rise and then bake immediately.
4) I did not preheat my baking ware - Now I always preheat the baking ware (450-500F) before putting the scored dough. It seems to jolt the dough to spring and rise instantly.
5) I did not steam while baking in the first 15-20min - now I always steam and there are two ways that I choose from: either external steaming (by putting a boiling water on a pan at the bottom) and bake it open or internal steaming by using a Dutch oven and bake it covered for the first 15-20 min.
Never fails to spring when I do all these steps.
If your sourdough remains livid as a mummy, compare your process with my list above and see where you could have erred. Good luck and enjoy the process. The high from baking always comes from rising from our lows. There’s no fun when you don’t get the burnt marks or bleeding egos from baking sourdough bread. 🙂