The 13 Most Common Sourdough Bread Mistakes
Sourdough may very well be the official pandemic passion project. The whole world seemed to have been baking it at some point, whether that's because everyone craved the comfort inherent in raising and baking it, or bakers were just trying to get through the temporary shortage of commercial yeast.
Indeed, you didn't have to look far to see how widespread the sourdough love went. Starters made bubbly appearances all over social media, loaves of every size and shape cooled on countertops, and bread flour was harder to find than hand sanitizer.
More people than ever have realized the satisfaction of being able to bake delicious artisanal breads at home. For that we give two thumbs up and are happy to offer support to any new or not-so-new sourdough bakers.
While sourdough is not hard, per se, there are a lot of mistakes that people can make along the way. And you don't want to waste any of that flour. As someone who has been keeping two starters for several years and bakes nearly all of the household bread, I have made all the possible mistakes at some point. Here are the big errors to avoid when working with sourdough.
1. You Bake Too Soon
If you have not adopted a piece of someone else's established starter, you are going to need at least a few days to a week to get a starter that will actually leaven a loaf of bread. Yes, your starter might be bubbly, but that doesn't make it strong. It takes a lot of little wild yeasties to make a heavy dough rise, so be patient with your new pet before you tax it with breadwork.
The good thing is that while you are waiting, the discard from your daily feedings is still a great ingredient to work with. Now is the time to master the simple stuff like, sourdough pancakes, waffles, or crackers.
2. You Use Unfiltered Tap Water
Tap water is full of chlorine and other things to make it potable, but that can kill your yeast. If you have a filter, use filtered water. If you don't, leave a pitcher of water uncovered on your countertop for 24 hours so that it can off-gas and will be ready to use for both feeding your starter and making your breads.
3. You Use Water That Is Too Hot or Too Cold
Room temperature to tepid is the perfect water temperature for feeding and for breadmaking. Too cold and you will shock the yeast and slow its activity; too hot and you can kill it. I leave all the water I plan to use for both feeding and dough making at room temp in a pitcher for ease.
4. You're Impatient
Sourdough is not a fast bread. (But we do have lots of recipes for great quick breads.) Even under the best of circumstances, you are looking at a couple of days between making your dough and eating your bread. The long, slow cold fermentation inherent in sourdough making is the key to texture and flavor. Without these steps, there is almost no point in making sourdough. If you need bread today, baking with commercial yeast is the way to go. But it also doesn't take long to get into a good routine with your sourdough baking.
I always look at my week to see when I need fresh bread and work backwards based on my personal technique and recipe. The good news is that this patience can really pay off once you get in a groove with your baking, since the bulk fermentation process is pretty flexible. I have left my bread dough in the fridge for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours before forming for the final proof, so there is a lot of leeway to make the bread fit into your schedule.
But being impatient comes into play at multiple steps in the sourdough-making process. In fact, the next three mistakes point to more times when patience really is a virtue.
5. You Don't Autolyse Your Dough
An autolyse is an important step in the bread-making process. During this period, you combine flour, water, and starter without salt, and you let it sit so the flour can properly hydrate and the yeast can take hold. Then you add the salt, which will retard the leavening. I recommend you do not skip this step. Period. Yes, it adds about 45 minutes to your dough-making, but I find that my bread is lackluster without it, and my rise is never as good. And because it's a hands-off step, you can be off doing something else.
6. You Don't Let Gluten Develop Properly
Whether you are kneading by hand or by machine, gluten development is key to a successful loaf. Your dough should pass the "windowpane test": a small piece of dough should be able to be stretched between your fingers to create a thin patch of dough that you can see light through. If the dough breaks while trying to do this, you have not developed enough gluten. This can be especially difficult with whole-grain flours, which have less natural gluten in them, but you will find the work at the early stages will help you tremendously when it comes to forming your eventual loaves.
RELATED: How to Store Flour So It Stays Fresh
7. You Don't Let the Bread Proof Long Enough
Bread, for all of the stuff written about timing and precisely measured amounts of things, is as much an art as a science. You will eventually be able to read the cues your dough is giving you as to what it needs. But the easiest and most dangerous rookie mistake to make is not letting it proof long enough.
Under-proofed dough will result in huge uneven tunnels in your finished bread, or a leaden damp texture. A finger poked into your dough should leave an impression that does not fully fill back in. The strength of your starter and the temperature of your fridge or kitchen will impact how the proofing goes. I use 24 hours as the bare minimum for a cold-proofed sourdough, which is super forgiving. If you are proofing at room temp for a faster bake, you will want to keep a strict eye on the dough.
8. You Don't Form the Bread Correctly
If you keep ending up with flat pancakes instead of loaves, you have not formed your loaf properly. You have to use the forming process to create surface tension on the outside of the loaf, to ensure that the bread rises up and not out. There are many techniques for this, but most will use a series of pulling motions against the natural traction of your countertop to stretch the outside of the dough taut around itself. Your formed dough should sit up a little proudly on the counter surface, and not slump.
9. You Don't Score the Surface of the Bread Properly
Scoring loaves before baking allows dough to split slightly when it has its last push of energy in the oven. You score bread on top so that the bread will push up towards that natural fault line. If you don't score, or don't score deeply enough, your bread could burst along the side, causing blowouts and making your finished loaf misshapen and dense. Score with a razor blade or very sharp serrated knife, and score deeply enough to breach the tight outer surface and go a bit into the dough underneath; about half an inch is your goal.
10. The Baking Time Is Too Short
Underbaked bread is doughy and damp and unpleasant to eat. If you do not feel confident about your timing or the old-school "thump test," a meat thermometer is your best pal. Bread with an internal temperature of 200 degrees F (95 degrees C) is fully baked.
11. The Bread Doesn't Rest Long Enough
Warm bread is the most tempting thing on the planet, but resist the temptation to break into your loaf too soon. The cooling and resting process with sourdough isn't there to prevent you burning your mouth on hot bread, it is actually the final step in the baking process. The interior of the bread is still cooking, and the moisture is evaporating. If you slice the loaf before it has completed this process, it will affect the texture of your finished bread.
If you must have a warm loaf to eat, let your loaf cool completely. Then refresh it in the oven at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 10 minutes.
12. You Throw Away Sourdough Discards
The magic gloop that is your sourdough discard is a gift that keeps on giving, so don't let it go to waste. I store mine in a tub in the fridge and use it to make many sourdough recipes, from loaf cakes to scones and muffins, to bagels and biscuits. It requires no feeding, stays good for ages, and can make for really fun bonus baking to fill in between loaves.
RELATED: How to Store Bread to Keep It Fresh
13. You Don't Store the Bread Properly
You have worked so hard to bake these loaves; be sure you make them last as long as possible! Store uncut loaves in a bread box or in a paper bag. Cut loaves can be stored cut-side down on a board at room temp or in a bread box.
Freeze loaves whole wrapped in plastic wrap and then foil, and then in a zip-top bag, and refresh the thawed loaves by holding the loaf under running water to wet the entire crust. Then, place the loaf on the rack of a 350 degree F (175 degree C) oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
Any bread that goes stale, cut into cubes, and toast for croutons, or store in the freezer for future stuffing or bread pudding, or toast to completely dry the bread out and blitz in your food processor for artisanal breadcrumbs.