Problems and Solutions - Pre-ferments and Sourdough Starters

Problems can occur when making bread recipes with PRE-FERMENTS AND SOURDOUGH STARTERS. They can also be traced back to PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS WITH YEAST STARTERS.

What should my bread look like when baked?
Generally, the crust should be a rich golden brown and crisp.

Slash or razor cuts, which allow built up steam to escape during baking and help shape the loaf, should show a gradation of colors, each of which carries slightly different flavors. If the dough looks convex at the cuts, it means you have a dry dough or insufficient rising time.

Inside (crumb) should contain holes (alveoles) of varying sizes, although this will vary somewhat depending on the type of bread

My bread rises, but it does so horizontally, resulting in a very flat loaf.

  • Free-form loaves tend to spread sideways, though, and moist dough will tend to spread more than a stiffer dough.
  • Some bakers use special floured bannetons or even colanders lined with floured towels which give the dough support during the final shaped rise. 
  • To keep the dough from spreading further in the oven, use a baking stone in a well-preheated oven so that the dough has what is called "oven spring.")
  • Use a higher protein flour. You'll get a chewier crumb but it will also be stronger and spread less.

My bread rises, but then it falls during baking.

  • Make sure you have 3/4 to 1 teaspoon of salt for every 3 cups of flour or follow the recipe.

My bread just doesn't seem to rise properly. It turns brown and gets a crust before its time.

  • Make sure you catch your sponge at its peak when you add it to the bread's ingredients, which will help to rise the bread more. Get some ascorbic acid and add a hefty pinch (about 1/8 tsp) to the dough. This is very helpful, especially if the starter yeast is not that active.

My bread is not chewy enough.

  • The longer the starter has fermented, the more chewy the bread. Let the dough go through its first rise in the refrigerator overnight in a plastic bag. The next day, remove the dough, form the loaves, punch down and shape.
  • Use a higher protein flour. 

My bread is not crispy enough or browns properly.

  • During the first 5 - 7 minutes of baking, use steam to keep the bread in a humid environment causing a crispy crust to form.

When I slash my loaves, my knife tears and stretches it.

  • Use a wet razor blade (in France, this is mounted to a holder and called a Lame, pronounced lam). Or, use a very sharp serrated knife that is wet; run it under the tap with cold water before each slash.

My bread just doesn't rise enough.

  • Knead in 1 teaspoon of diastatic malt to your recipe. Diastatic malt breaks down the starch in the flour into simple sugar on which the yeast can feed more efficiently. Commercial sourdough bakers use this ingredient all the time; for home bakers you can get it online. 
  • Knead in ascorbic acid for activating the yeast.
  • Add vital wheat gluten (1-2 tsp per 3 cups of flour) so your bread will rise better. 
  • Add one, 1/4-ounce packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) of active dry yeast to the dough. The flavor won't be the same, but it will work.  

My bread is not sour enough. 

  • Extend rising time
  • Add 1/4 dark rye flour to the starter in your next feeding; it will dramatically increase the sourness of the bread.
  • Add rye flour to recipe.
  • Let the sponge go past its peak before using it; it gets very, very sour after it peaks.

Sour taste too strong.

  • Reduce rising time,
  • Reduce rye flour content of recipe.

Bread sags and is soggy.

  • Work in a bit more flour and knead longer.

Bread tastes damp.

  • It may have not baked long enough or the bread wasn't kneaded long enough.

Bread flat and doughy tasting.

  • Avoid over-proofing (rising)

Slices are doughy or have small lumps.

  • Dough was not mixed or baked properly.

Pale crust, gummy insides, and less volume.

  • Insufficient oven heat. Use an oven thermometer to check its accuracy.

Gummy insides with a burned crust.

  • Too much heat. Use an oven thermometer to check its accuracy.

Rise takes too long

  • Make sure starter is fully active before using it, use more starter, or rise bread at higher temperature.

Rise was too fast

  • Use less starter, let bread rise at a lower temperature, consider rising bread in refrigerator.

Loaf didn't rise, though dough did in earlier rise.

  • Make sure you knead the dough before forming the loaf.

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