Six biggest challenges when starting sourdough baking and how to overcome them

When I first tried sourdough bread baking four years ago it was anything but easy. I gave up several times. Moldy sourdough starter, sourdough bricks and breads with large irregular holes and tight crumb. Not really edible and let alone great looking. Sounds familiar?

Four years later after my first sourdough bread, I can see clearly now, how easy sourdough baking can be. So today, I want to share what my biggest challenges were and how I overcame them.

1. Sourdough starter doesn't get active or it takes too long to get active.
I used store-bought all-purpose flour to make my first sourdough starter and then I waited and I fed it and waited and fed it, etc. But nothing happened. I threw it away and started all over again - many times before it finally worked and became stable so I could use it to make a sourdough bread.
One of the reasons your starter doesn't get active is because there is no life in the flour you are using - no wild yeasts, no bacteria, no enzymes. I advise you to use whole grain, organic, unbleached or home milled flour. I like to buy my flours at the mill so I always know I get the best quality flour and it is also a great way to support the local farmers.
For the last two years, my favorite way of starting a sourdough starter from scratch has been using a wholegrain rye flour. Rye ferments really fast, so you can have your starter ready and stable in just 3 days and there is no wasted flour due to excessive feedings. Once your rye starter is active you can always use it to make starters using other flours (white wheat starter, spelt starter). You can download step-by-step tutorial on how to make rye sourdough starter from the scratch here.

Rye sourdough starter

Fully active rye sourdough starter in just 3 days

2. I don't know when my dough is ready to be put in the oven.
This one took me the longest time to figure it out. My loaves were either under-proofed (see the photo below) with tight crumb or over-proofed with no oven spring. Open crumb and nicely colored crispy crust loaves were more or less random. I was confused because the recipes I found on the internet said I should rise my bread for 2-4 hours at the room temperature or 8-14 hours in the fridge. OK, but when exactly (or near to exactly) is the the dough ready for the oven (besides seeing the difference in the volume of the bread)? Years have passed, I after many trials and errors, I find out that the poking test served me the most (besides seeing the difference in the volume of the bread). To use the poking test method, just make an indent into the dough and observe its reaction. If the indent springs back quickly, your dough is not ready yet, let it rise longer.

3.  The crumb of my sourdough bread is tight or there are only small holes. I want big holes! How can I get big holes?
Factors that affect the openness of the crumb are:
- hydration level of your dough (water quantity). The lower the hydration lever, the tighter the crumb. If you are using whole grain flours which absorb more water than white flours, use more water.
-   how you handle the dough after mixing,
- how strong your flour is (with low-gluten flour we usually don't observe big crumb openness).
- how well developed and stretched your dough is (well developed dough has stronger gluten strands which can hold the bubbles or carbon dioxide better). You can develop your dough by kneading, stretching and folding, slapping and folding, long cold fermentation...), etc.

4. Sourdough bread baking takes so much time, I should be at home all the time.
I like simplicity most of the times, so being at home all day to make bread was not option for me. Well, it was in the beginning, when I was still learning and doing stretch and folds every half an hour (which I still do if I am home, just for the therapeutic purposes). There are many ways to bake sourdough bread in a way that fits our (busy) schedule without having to give up things we also like or have to do throughout the day.

And yes, it takes more time to prepare a sourdough bread than the one with commercial yeast - but here is the trick - you can do other things while the dough is fermenting. I ferment most of my breads when I am at work or sleeping and bake them when I come home or when I wake up. You can check these sourdough bread recipes: corn sourdough bread, whole grain wheat sourdough bread, rye sourdough bread with yogurt.

5. Sourdough bread will taste really sour.
This one is quite subjective and very dependable on many, many factors. I eat a lot of other fermented foods, like fermented vegetables and yogurt, so the sourness is not an issue. But hey, although it is called sourdough bread, it doesn't have to be really sour - you can use really young starter made with white flour, you can ferment your dough for less time at the room temperature, use white flours for the dough, ...

6. Sweet sourdough goods? No way!
Yes, there is a way - a highway, actually! The most simple sweet goods you can make are pancakes, waffles, or other cakes where you can easily use your excessive starter if you have any. And if you feel more olympic, you can make these fluffy chocolate sourdough doughnuts.

What was your biggest challenge with sourdough baking or issue that you would like to know more about? Let me know in a comment below.

41 thoughts on “Six biggest challenges when starting sourdough baking and how to overcome them

    1. Thank you so much Renee for stopping by and for your thoughts :) Yes, it is very bubbly and interesting world and each bread holds its own story, that’s why there is still so much to learn every day :)

  1. I love sourdough bread and for nearly a year now, I have an all-purpose starter & a rye starter in my fridge. But I’m not sure if I should give up one of those two. Have you noticed any differences when feeding a wheat starter with rye flour or vice versa? Do you have one or more starters? I’m just curious ;-), Ursula

    1. Hi, Ursula!
      Yes, in my case rye flour starter ferments faster than white wheat flour starter so I always make sure I have some rye (or any other whole grain flour like wheat or spelt) flour at hand. But whenever I need white wheat starter I just take a teaspoon of my rye starter and mix it into white wheat flour and water and it gets active very fast. I believe you could do viceversa with white wheat flour, especially if you have some organic wheat flour that works well.

      And when I don’t bake for a week or two, I feed my starter with more flour than water (stiff starter) so it rises slowly in the fridge. After one or two weeks in the fridge it gets sour, but that’s normal, when you need it again, just take it out and feed it as normally and he (or she) will get back in hours.

      I have two starters – one rye starter for my gluten breads and one millet starter for gluten-free bakings :)

      Natasa

        1. Tougher than we think, we should learn from them :)

          But if I knew your starters have names, I would say: keep them both,it changes everything :) Rudi and Hermann :)

    1. I am really happy to hear that, thank you :) If you have any other challenge, feel free to ask :)

  2. Hi Natasa!
    Just wanted to thank you for this post and the guide! I’ll start my starter tomorrow and see if I manage to keep it alive (so far I have always killed them).
    Victoria

    1. Thank you Victoria :) Hope it works for you! Let me know, how it went, and if you need any help, let me know as well :)

      Natasa

  3. I found you thru instagram, and checked out your site. Very awesome! For discarded starter, do you have a waffle recipe? I have one starter that is a mixture of sorts. Its was started with whole wheat. But since then I’ve added unbleached white, spelt, oat flour, wheat bran. Its quite lively.

    1. Thank you Caleb! :) Honestly, I’ve never made waffles before (thank you for reminding me to get myself a waffle pan!), but I often make pancakes or shredded pancakes. You could mix your starter into the dough (eggs, buttermilk, flour, melted butter, sugar) and leave the dough to ferment overnight (or until doubled) or you could just make a sponge (=very runny starter; take your discarded starter and mix it with buttermilk and some fresh flour) and let ferment it overnight. In the morning, mix in the butter, eggs and salt. 100 g flour/1 egg + 60 g buttermilk should work fine + butter + starter (100% hydration) could work OK.

      Thank you for your idea, I will get back soon with the exact recipe! :)

  4. Dear Natasa,
    I am so glad I found your site. I have been making yogurt for years and have just started experimenting with sourdough a couple of months ago. It’s been a journey: a couple of great loafs (beginner’s luck), a couple of bricks, and a couple of wet messes that fell apart. It is encouraging to read that you have struggled at first, too, and that you are set out to share what you have learned.
    I have a very specific question: my current starter (rye-based) peaks at about 4-6 hours and then collapses again. Am I supposed to mix it with the dough ingredients at the moment of peak or would you let it activate for 12 hours anyway (as most instructions call for) and mix the dough then? Does it matter?
    Thank you again for this site and congratulations on your nomination for the SAVEUR blog award. I will root for you!
    Nada

    1. Dear Nada, thank you so much for your support! :) This post is about something I wish I was told when starting sourdough baking, so I am always happy if it is of value for somebody else as well.

      Regarding the starter – from my experience, it doesn’t really matter – if will be more sour if you let it ferment longer but the rise will not be affected. Just last week I mixed into the pizza dough my starter that has been in the fridge for 3 days before. It looked quite unpleasant (it collapsed on itself completely and it had really really sharp sour smell) but the dough rose as with the starter that has been active and fresh, like you wrote after 6 hours.
      My opinion is that you can use starter whenever looks ready and healthy and alive, whether it’s after 3, 6 or 12 hours or 3 days in the fridge :), regardless the instructions but more being flexible regarding your own schedule and what you observe. And this is the beauty of sourdough baking. Hope I answered the question, if not, just let me know :)

      Happy baking :)

      1. Thank you Natasa! It sounds like I am in luck since I prefer a more sour taste *and* feeding in the evening and letting it activate overnight is most convenient for me ;-) I will try this out on the weekend.
        And your site is definitely hitting the mark: When I first started out, I searched the internet and found information that was either mysterious (instructing you to go by ‘look & feel’ which is not helpful if you don’t know what it is supposed to look and feel like) or made it sound like sourdough-baking was an exact science that you have to get right by the minute and by the gram. Your approach is so much more helpful and real-life.
        Thanks again and greetings from New York

  5. This is a great blog! Found it through the Saveur 2015 Best Blogs post. I have a starter that my local bakery gave me and I have been using it for my bread for the past several months (I have baked three times using the Tartine Country Bread recipe). What are your thoughts on forgetting to feed your starter for a day or two? I just forgot last night and I was going to feed it tonight but was wondering if there was anything different I should do after missing a day of feeding. Thanks again for the great blog!

    Jackson

    1. Hello, Jackson and thank you so much! :)
      I think that forgetting to feed your starter is nothing crucial, especially if your starter is healthy and responds well to your feedings. How often do you bake?
      I bake once per week, so I keep my starter in the fridge most of the time (to avoid excessive feedings and flour wasting), and when I am ready to bake, I take it out, take off the upper part if necessary, feed it and use it in the dough when ready. I feed the part of the unused starter as well, leave it at the room temperature for an hour or two and then back to fridge for another week :)

      Last week I tried to bake pizza with my starter straight out of fridge (after 3 days and without being fed prior to mixing it into dough) and it worked really good as well.

      If a case of forgetting to feed your starter a good choice is to place it in a fridge to avoid catching some molds (is it humid and hot where you live?). I experimented how the starter would turn out after being left unfed couples of days at the room temperature – not good :)

      Natasa

      1. I bake once per week usually two loaves. My place isn’t really “extreme” or humid in temperature. I started feeding my starter again after a day and it appears to be reacting well and active after feedings. Although it does smell a little more vinegary than I recall before I forgot to feed it, but I may be being paranoid.

  6. Love your blog. Great information. Can you help me. Like you I have been baking sour dough bread for a few years. Have excellent starter quality (I use half and half organic whole wheat and white flour milled by me) and it passes the float test every time. I also get great rise of the bread and have no problem doubling it but cannot create structure. The dough is of a consistency that it tears easily and never gets that smooth silky texture that is shown in all the step by step photos. It deflates when I put it in the baking vessels (I use cloches and cast iron double broilers) and work the dough in the Tartine and no-knead method. Any ideas how I can add structure. I have tried through different proofing methods, so far no luck??? Thank you

    1. Hello, Brigitta!

      If the dough is deflated and it tears when you put in baking vessels, it might be overproofed and it might also mean that not enough strenght has been developed in the rising period (bulk fermentation), which might be the case in the no knead method if not left long enough to developed the gluten strands.
      You can develop strength (and the silky look) of the dough with stretch and fold or slap and fold methods or simply by kneading it for couple of minutes and by keeping the dough in the appropriate temperature (25-28°C).
      Tartine method is well known for the stretch and fold method – do you apply it?

      What kind of flour do you use for the dough and what is the hydration level of your usual dough?
      By the great rise of the bread you mean great oven spring or the dough doubling in volume during the first (second proof)?

      Would be grateful for your answers to answer you more precisely :)

      Thank you, Natasa

  7. Thanks for writing this blog post! I’ve been trying desperately to figure out why my bread comes out so dense when it rose so well during the bulk fermentation. I think it may have something to do with when I put it in the oven. I will definitely try your recommendation of poking it and making sure that it doesn’t spring back too quickly. Aside from the poke, is there another good indicator of when it’s ready to go in the oven?

    Thank you!
    Ayala

    1. Hi, Ayala!

      Thank you for your question. The oven part is also very important ragarding the development of the crumb – there should be steam provided in the beginning of the baking to allow the dough to expand as the crust doesn’t seal down too early. If the crust can’t expand, neither will the crumb and there will be small oven spring.

      The other indicator to tell if the dough is ready is the volume and the puffiness and liveliness of the dough – during the second rise the dough usully rises by the third of the initial volume. However, this method is accurate if you use the same rising baskets and you know how much is one third of the dough’s volume. There should also be tension on the surface of perfectly fermented bread.

      I found the poking test – the resistance test to be most reliable indicator, it rarely gives underproofed breads. However, make sure you don’t apply poking test soon after shaping, since it will not give you the right picture – so, combining poking test with volume should work. You can also use a palm to press the dough just to feel how it resists.

      Hope this helps.
      Natasa

  8. Hey! I’m pretty new to sourdough baking. My sourdough is approximately a month old but I’m really enjoying the experience and learning about it! Today is the first day I got a really good crumb and oven spring so woohoo! A few questions about your article if you don’t mind? Trying to learning as much as possible from people with experience because it’s really something I want to keep up and incorporate into my schedule!

    Just wondering by what you mean with “how you handle your dough after mixing” and also could you tell me more about proving your dough while you’re at work or sleeping (I’m presuming neither of these things are half day acitivities!)

    I’m interested to read more of your blog posts tho! You seem in the sourdough know ;)

    1. Dear Maria,

      first apologies for late reply and congratulations on the oven spring, it is a good feeling, isn’t it? :)

      Regarding the dough handling – with this I had in mind actions taken in the bulk fermentation (first rise) – whether we do stretch and folds, how the dough feels aerated and strong and how we shape the bread as well (by pressing too much or by overworking it we can affect the openness of the crumb).
      Thank you for pointing out the missing explanation, I will add it.

      During the week, I left home at 6 am and come back at 4 pm, so fitting the baking into the schedule takes a little bit of planning and most importantly knowing your flours, the activity and quantity of your starter in the dough and the temperatures in your house (or where you proof the dough) and the temperature of the liquids added. By being aware of these variables you can fit the sourdough baking perfectly into your schedule. At the beginning it takes a little bit of experimenting, but it pays off :)

      The easiest sourdough breads that take small amount of planning are sourdough focaccias and breads baked in tins. With these two you would literally mix the dough, knead it a little bit, transfer it to a tin or a baking pan and then let it rise until doubled in volume. Rising time depends on the time you are not home – if it’s shorter, you add more starter or your let it rise at warmer temperatures and vice versa. So, in the best case scenario, they are perfectly proofed when you come home and you only need to bake them.

      In this way, you could also make a regular bread, like boule or batard, or pizza dough. You would just have to knead it to develop gluten strands (or not, if you are making no knead bread :)) and let it rise until passing a poking test. You would just need to find the right amount of starter and the right temperatures to adjust the rising time.

      With boules I normally use other approaches as well – I mix the dough in the evening, bulk ferment it for 2-3 hours, so it develops strength, shape it and than put it in the fridge overnight until proofed. I bake it in the morning. The dough can rise in the fridge for long, more than 20 hours- but we should be aware how much starter we add (or how the dough is developed after bulk).

      If you want, we can discuss into more details for your schedule and the breads you would like to bake and how to know when they are done, just let me know ;)

      Wish you a nice rest of the week,
      Natasa

  9. Hi, Natasa! I love your blog. A lot. And would truly love to try your breads…
    However… last year I first tried to grow my own yield (a levain made of flour, pineapple juice and water) and it grew beautiful and strong on first attempt. I was the proudest human being on Earth and I made a lovely bread on a Wednesday night. On Thursday morning I woke up covered in red dots, with an alergy that my doctor said could be because of pineapple or the fermentation process. Have you ever experienced (or know someone who experienced) something like that? I am afraid of trying it again, as I do not know how I may react… Any thoughts?
    Anyway… I keep coming here every day, at least to admire your beautiful work.
    Have a happy 2016!
    Renata.

  10. I’m glad I came upon this! I’m struggling to get a starter going myself so this was helpful. I see you are in Slovenia – I have just moved to Slovenia and still have to learn the language. I live near a wonderful organic shop and perhaps I can find a good flour there for a starter. Are there any key words in Slovenian I can look for on packaging? Looking up “rye” in the translator right now. ;-)
    Hvala!

    1. Tina,

      welcome to the blog and to Slovenia! :)
      In which part of Slovenia are you living now?

      Yes, rye is rž, spelt is pira, wheat is pšenica, barley is ječmen, oat is oves and polnozrnata means wholegrain and sveže mleta means freshly ground.

      If you need any help with anything (even with the language), just let me know! :)

      Nataša

      1. Super, thank you!

        I got some organic rye flour and am starting to make a rye starter using your tutorial. I am optimistic. :)

        I’m in Vrhnika/Verd…really beautiful place!

        ~Tina~

  11. I just found your blog and I love it. :)
    I started sourdough cooking in 1982 and have been addicted since. Mostly just bread, hotcakes and waffles. I found you whilst looking for donut recipes…….. found those and several other things I wanted to try.
    Have you ever proofed your starters or let your breads rise in your oven, light on with a LARGE pan of very hot water, changed every 45 minutes or so? If not try it…… it can really save time if you are in a hurry. (No need to cover your loaves this way too)
    Thanks for the information and ideas.

  12. I’m completely new to this and am unsure if my starter has become stable enough to relax about it yet.

    Thank you for saying that you had a lot of challenges when you started. So many sites make it sound like it’s a piece of cake to do this and my attempts have been pretty futile. It never occurred to me that my cheap flour might be kind of sterile. Up to now, I’ve been thinking that the problem has been the temperature in my apartment.

    Anyway, I’ve had more success with the Alaskan recipe where you use potato water … and from the advice of another source, have thrown in small amounts of sugar as well.

    So, everything is all frothy and bubbly at the moment but only if I stick with potato water. Otherwise, it seems to go more toward flat and dormant.

    What I’ve used so far has yielded good results but I’m not sure that the starter is stable enough to put in the fridge. I don’t want to have to start over yet again.

    Have I cheated too much? Do I have to go to straight water in order to get it stable? It is, and will obviously be become more and more of a pain to be preparing potato water all the time.

  13. I am quite new to baking bread (literally started making my own bread/buns for the first time about a week ago and they have been amazing), and I am now attempting to conquer the art of sourdough. I was just wondering if you could answer a few questions for me.
    I made my starter using 500g unbleached bread flour and 500g of warm, filtered water. I left her on the counter for approximately 48 hours and she doubled in size and was plump full of air bubbles. Just for fun I decided to try the float test (before any additional feeding) and it worked! Is it normal for a starter to be this developed so soon? I know young starters can still have “bad” bacteria, so to be safe I discarded half and replaced the discard with 250g bread flour and 250g water. The plan is to wait another 24 hours and feed again simply because I want to follow the instructions that I have read online. Do you have any advice about if it is possible to have a starter be ready so soon, or if I could use my starter now (because it passed the float test) even though it is only a few days old?

    Thank you so much!

  14. Hi there. I am just starting out with my sourdough making but loving every minute. So far things are going well but I would love a slightly paler more chewy crust. Mine is quite dark and crisp. Can you give me any clues??
    Thanks

    1. Hey Keely!

      Apologies for really late reply – I didn’t get any comment notification to my e-mail, so sorry.

      So, to make paler crust, you can lower the temperature at the second stage of baking (when you take the lid off, i.e. without steam) or you can simply avoid baking with steam.
      Another way of making your crust chewy is to put some fat into the dough (like oil, butter, eggs, milk).

      Hope this helps.

      Nataša

  15. Hi, have sourdough proofing at the minute. Third attempt, issues are the second proof, the dough does not rise at all second time round!! Made a sponge yesterday and that had tripled in size overnight. Starter very active. As the sponge had proofed overnight and again today when made into dough do I need to proof again before baking? Hope this makes sense, any help appreciated!!

    1. Hi Daniel,

      If I understand correctly, you fermented a sponge, then you added the rest of the flour to make the dough and you let it proof again. When did you shape the bread? Before the last proofing? What was the ratio of the flour in the sponge to the flour you added later?
      When I make a sponge, I let it ferment, then mix the rest of the flour, leave to rest for 10-15 minutes, then shape the loaf and let it to proof and then bake it.

      Nataša

  16. Thank you for this site. It is a godsend to people like myself. I have baked only two “bricks” so far and ground them up to use in my meatloaf recipes. I bought a “proofing box after making one from an ice-chest and tried to follow directions from a book entitled “Classic Sourdough” that I bought from the same people that handle “San Fransisco culture”, among other cultures from around the world. The crumb is dense and the crust is veeery tough. I’d prefer the sourness to be a little less than it is. I’ve been using Gold medal unbleached flour with no additives, but I do have some “arrowhed” organic whole wheat I’m going to try. Oops! I just noticed the expiration date of January 12th, 2010 and this is 2016. How did that get past me? But I just made some prune-cheese danish pastry that turned out superb with it.
    Stoll, would you suggest putting a pan of boiling water in the oven with the bread to soften the crust, or did I read you wrong on the “steaming advice”?

  17. Hi
    You have a wonderful website.
    I hope you can give me an adice (an please sorry form my English):
    I am not totally satisfied with my bread crust. When I take out the bread from the oven it has a great crust (crunchy). After three hours it is not crunchy anymore. I don’t pack it in a bag or plastic bag.
    It is maybe over fermented? (4 hours autolyse in the fridge, 4 hours at 26 c bulk fermentation (with stretch and fold) and then i let it overnight in the fridge. Ist this process maybe too long?
    Or what other reason can it be? Also the crust doesnt open very well.
    (I bake the breads in a dutch oven)
    Thank you very much for your helf in advanced.
    Sibylle

  18. I have a very active starter.
    I used strin bread flour to make my sourdough loaf. I followed the exact recipe ( 1080 g flour, 649g water, 250g starter). I have two problems: my dough doesn’t rise well and there is no good oven spring? Please help

  19. I have been trying to make a nice loaf of sourdough bread but I am having trouble. My starter is about 4 months old and looks good. My problem is I cannot get a good rise on my dough. I finally let it rise overnight and it rose about a inch and a half over the pans. I found that the dough had a dry top to it and when I scored it just before placing in the oven it deflated. Should I wet a tea towel and put it over the dough ?

  20. Help! I’m very new to making sourdough and it isn’t rising like the recipe said it should. How do I fix it? Should I add some instant yeast?

    My instincts say it’s too dry but won’t I kill the dough if I knead it again?

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