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 didn’t 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 to mix and form into a dough (see right photo below).
2) I didn’t know when the dough is strong enough for proofing.
Whether I autolyse (keep the salt off for 30 min- 2 hours) or no autolyse (mix all the ingredients at once), it doesn’t matter, as long as I get the window pane effect after I stretch and fold (S&F).
Usually, after mixing the flour, water, and salt, I leave the dough for at least 6-8 hours at room temperature and let the bacteria and yeast do the work if I want to bake the same day.
If I don’t feel the stretch, I do some more mechanical twisting, kneading, and cajoling.
If my day gets busy, I throw the dough in the refrigerator for cold retard. Sometimes I leave it there to ferment for a day or two. Three days give me a really sour tasting bread. The longest I’ve left it in the refrigerator is 6 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) I didn’t 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.
But sometimes, I overproof it. What I do is just reform it again. Pull the dough’s skin tight onto itself then wait for a couple of minutes (10-15min) for it to regain the rise and then bake immediately. Don’t be surprised if the crust browns faster. So watch that timer and adjust accordingly.
4) I didn’t 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. A technique I find useful is to tip the dough from the banneton into a plate or skillet (to maintain the form) with a parchment paper under it, to score the dough. Do this just before taking out the preheated baking ware from the oven. The parchment paper makes transferring easy from the plate or skillet into the hot baking ware.
5) I did not steam while baking in the first 15-20min.
Now I always steam and there are two ways to do this:
a) External steaming
Put a pan at the bottom of the oven while preheating and pour water on the pan as soon as the dough is inside the oven. Do this when you don’t have a Dutch oven or baking without a lid.
b) Internal steaming
Use a preheated Dutch oven and bake the dough covered.
I steam for 20 minutes. This ensures my crust doesn’t harden before the dough has fully risen. After 20 minutes, I take out the pan (external steam) or the lid (internal steam) and bake the bread for additional 15 minutes.
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 highs from baking always come from rising from our lows. There’s no fun when you don’t get the burnt marks or bleeding egos from baking sourdough bread. 🙂