You can put a lot of time and effort into making sourdough bread, but it can still come out of the oven and be disappointing. Whether it spreads out flat or just doesn’t rise as much as you expected, it’s always a let down.
Although it’s disappointing now, it’s a chance to figure out what went wrong and learn what you can do next time to improve it. The trickiest part is figuring out where you messed up.
If your sourdough bread doesn’t rise much during baking, it could be because a weak sourdough starter was used, the dough wasn’t shaped properly, or steam wasn’t utilized. A strong starter should be used, the dough should be shaped tightly, and plenty of steam should be used to delay crust formation.
These three are the most common issues, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only problems you might deal with. There are all sorts of mistakes to be made when making sourdough bread and you want to avoid making any of them.
Why Your Sourdough Bread Doesn’t Rise In The Oven (With Fixes)
It’s no secret that making good sourdough can be very difficult. Sourdough takes a lot longer to make than the majority of normal yeasted bread recipes, and it takes a lot of experience before you can start making perfect sourdough loaves.
There’s a good chance that quite a few of your first sourdough attempts don’t work out well. You could try making 5, or even 10 sourdough loaves and they could all fail miserably.
Whether you’ve messed up one or ten sourdough loaves, there’s definitely something you’re missing or doing wrong during the process. You need to figure out what’s going wrong so you can try again in the future with a slightly tweaked recipe. With enough practice and learning, you’ll be able to bake great sourdough loaves almost every time.
Here are the most common problems that you’re likely facing and what you can do about them:
1. Weak Sourdough Starter
If you’re eager to start making some sourdough bread after cultivating your starter, you might end up making this mistake.
For many new sourdough starters, it can take weeks, or even months to get up to its maximum potential (to become very strong). If you’re trying to use your starter after only a week, it may work, but there’s a high chance that it’s not going to be anywhere near strong enough to rise your dough effectively.
I know how hard it is to have to wait for sourdough bread after you’ve created your starter, but patience is key throughout all aspects of the sourdough-making process, so you just need to wait it out and only start making sourdough when the starter indicates that it’s ready.
Solution: Look For Signs That Your Starter Is Strong
You want your sourdough starter to be doubling, or even tripling in size consistently before you start using it. Do keep in mind that although this is a good sign, it still doesn’t mean that you can go ahead and throw the starter in right away.
You want to see your starter rising and falling over a period of 4-12 hours every time you feed it. If your starter can do this consistently, it’s a good sign that it should be able to rise the dough.
2. You Didn’t Use The Starter At Its Peak
When making sourdough bread, timing is essential. You need to be able to determine when your sourdough starter is at its peak, when the bulk fermentation is complete, and when the dough has proofed and is ready to bake.
Without understanding when your sourdough starter is ready, you’re risking ruining the whole process.
In order to get the most effective rise from your sourdough, you need to be using the starter when it’s at its peak. This allows for the maximum rise and therefore the best results.
Using the starter too early or too late will result in a dough that doesn’t rise as well as it could and should.
Solution: Know When To Use Your Starter
If you haven’t done much research into when it’s best to use your starter, you might be using it when it’s too young or too mature. There a sweet point between being too young or too mature, where the starter has fully risen and has only just started to dip. This is known as the starter’s ‘peak’.
At this point, the starter has just finished consuming all of its ‘food’, so it starts to dip. This is the perfect time to use it because you can catch it just as it runs out of food and provide it with more food by mixing it into the dough.
3. Your Oven Wasn’t Hot Enough
Having a hot oven is key to getting a good oven spring. As soon as the high heat comes into contact with the dough, it will start to rise rapidly and you’ll get a great rise.
If the temperature isn’t high enough, the oven spring will happen much more slowly, which may lead to the crust setting before it has chance to rise completely.
Many people make the mistake of either not preheating their oven enough or letting too much heat escape whilst loading the oven. Although this can be a big problem, there is one very simple solution.
Solution: Preheat It Higher Than You Think
High heat is essential when making any form of crusty bread, like sourdough loaves. Getting your oven extra hot helps to create more steam, allows the dough to rise faster, and allows the bread to develop a good crust.
Generally, you want to get your oven as hot as possible so you don’t have to worry about too much heat loss when opening the oven door and so the dough can rise as much as possible during the first part of baking.
Once the dough has risen sufficiently, you can either leave it at that heat or lower the temperature so the crust doesn’t brown too quickly once it’s exposed to the direct heat.
One thing to keep in mind is that your oven’s thermostat may be off, so it’s not preheating to the right temperature. It’s important to check what temperature your oven is actually getting to so you can know if you’re baking at the right temperature or not.
4. You Didn’t Utilize Steam
To ensure that you’re maximizing the amount of oven spring your bread can get, you need to use plenty of steam. Without steam, the crust of your bread will form too fast, which inhibits its rise.
Steam gelatinizes the exterior of the dough, making it more elastic and preventing the crust from forming too quickly. The extra time the dough gets before the crust forms allows it to rise more, leaving you with a taller and nicer loaf of bread.
A good sourdough loaf uses steam to get extra oven spring, so it’s a good idea to start doing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be hard.
Solution: Create Plenty Of Steam
Steam allows for better oven spring, so you’re really limiting your bread’s rise by not using it. Almost anyone can add steam to their oven in one way or another. It’s not actually difficult to add steam to most ovens.
Steam is commonly trapped around the loaf of bread in a lidded dutch oven, so it can rise, then the lid is removed so the crust can form and the bread can finish baking.
It can also be done by pouring boiling water (or ice cold water) into a ripping hot, thick pan or baking tray. This does a great job too.
Of course, there are other ways to create steam, but most aren’t as effective as the previous two mentioned methods.
5. There Was A Lack Of Surface Tension
If your dough isn’t strong enough, it’s just going to go flat when it comes to baking. So, without the correct shaping technique, you’re not going to get a well-shaped sourdough loaf.
It’s extremely important that you start to build surface tension on the dough in order for it to hold its shape. This will help it to rise upwards and maintain a good alveoli structure rather than spreading out and losing its structure.
Solution: Tighten The Surface Of The Dough
For the dough to maintain its shape once it’s turned out of the banneton, you need to ensure that you’re tightening the gluten on the surface so it can hold its shape for much longer.
This is generally done by folding the dough over itself to create a tight and smooth surface before putting the dough in the banneton, seam side up.
Here’s a video showing one of the methods you can use to shape your sourdough.
6. Your Dough Was Overfermented
When sourdough overferments, the gluten begins to break down and turns into a sticky pool of liquid. Once you get to this point, there’s no going back and there’s absolutely no chance that your dough will rise when it’s baked.
This means that all the effort you put into making your sourdough will seem wasted. Although it seems like you’ve wasted all that time, this is the perfect opportunity for you since you can learn from your mistake and do better next time.
Sourdough will generally overferment when you’ve left if for too long, so make sure to keep an eye on it every so often and try to get your timings right or you might regret it.
Fortunately, it’s unlikely that you’ll let your sourdough badly ferment unless you forget about it or completely misjudge the timing/temperature.
Solution: Learn To Know When Your Dough Is Proofed
It’s tricky to know when your dough is proofed enough and ready to bake. If you’re not very experienced with sourdough, you’ll most likely have no idea when it’s ready and you’ll either bake it under or overproofed.
A common method to use for determining whether your sourdough is proofed or not is the poke test (or finger dent test). This simple test is done by poking your finger into the proofing dough and observing the result.
Here’s a video that explains the test in more detail:
7. A Lack Of Gluten Development
Gluten is your best friend if you want your bread to have any structure at all. It’s quite literally what creates your bread’s foundation, so you can’t get anywhere good without it.
In order to get the most rise out of your bread, you want to maximize gluten development. This is done either with a lot of physical kneading, with time, or a combination of physical kneading and time.
When the gluten is developed completely, it’ll be able to hold its shape, contain gases much more easily, and get more oven spring during baking.
Solution: Use The Right Techniques To Maximize Gluten Development
If your gluten network isn’t developed properly, it’s likely either because of your flour or the techniques you’re using. If you’re struggling, first identify what protein content is in your flour. For the best results, your flour should contain above 12g of protein per 100g flour. A form of bread flour is best for this.
The next thing to consider is your kneading technique. You might want to use an autolyse to start for easy gluten development, then followed by another kneading method, such as stretch and fold, slap and fold, rubaud kneading, etc.
Whichever way you choose, you need to make sure that the dough is very elastic and doesn’t tear easily when stretched.
8. You Didn’t Score Deep Enough
If the surface of your sourdough is tight and your score wasn’t deep enough, the rising potential of the dough may be restricted.
When the dough is shaped too tightly, you either risk it bursting out at unwanted points, or it won’t burst out at all but the oven spring will be seriously restricted.
If you’re not scoring your dough deep enough, it’s not going to allow the dough to burst out as it should, so there can only be limited oven spring.
Solution: Develop A Better Scoring Technique
Scoring your dough is essential if you don’t want the bread to blowout and look ugly. When baking sourdough, you want it to look good, so it really pays off to learn how to score it properly.
Getting the right blade and scoring around 1/2″ deep will give you great results. You don’t want to score too shallow or the dough may adhere back together, but you don’t want to score too deep or you’ll risk deflating the dough too much. It’s tricky to get it right consistently, so you need to use the right tool for the job and figure out what depth works best for you.
The best blades you can use would be a bread lame or a very sharp knife. The sharper the better as this will help you cut through the dough with ease.
Additional Tips For A Better Rise
Here’s a list of tips to help you improve your sourdough-making skills even more:
Dampen The Surface Of The Dough Before Baking
By lightly brushing the surface of the dough with water before you put it in the oven, you’re helping to gelatinize it, which helps it expand more in the oven and delays the crust formation.
Score At A Shallow Angle
If you’re wanting your loaf to get an ear, scoring at around a 45-degree angle will give you the best results. That’s because scoring at a steeper angle causes the dough to expand in a sort of flat V-shape, which may slightly limit the amount of oven spring you can get.
By scoring shallower, you’re allowing the dough to expand more and develop an ear.
If you don’t want an ear and want a decorative loaf, there’s no need to score at a shallow angle.
Use A Proofing Box
By using a proofing box, you’re providing the dough with a consistent temperature. This gives you much more reliable results and helps you to know when your dough is nearly proofed every time.
You can replicate these results by using a warm microwave or oven, but they’re not as accurate.
Be Very Gentle
The last thing you want to do is compress too much air out of your sourdough, so you need to be very gentle when handling it, especially after it’s proofed. Don’t apply too much pressure to it or throw it about or you risk releasing some of the built up gas.
Gently turn it out of the banneton and apply very little pressure when scoring it.