Why is My Sourdough Bread so Dense? 19 Tips for Perfect Sourdough

Creating the perfect sourdough bread in the first instance, isn’t always achievable. Trial and error are going to be your best friends, at least during the first few tries. While dense bread isn’t the most horrible thing in the world, it’s certainly not the light, airy and crispy loaf we’d have hoped for. If your sourdough is dense, then you’re probably itching for a solution. But let’s take a look at the causes first.

Dense Sourdough Bread

Dense or heavy bread, can be the result of not kneading your dough long enough.

Yeast releases gases when it engulfs the sugars in the flour. These gases become entrapped inside the dough by the mesh the gluten creates. This is what makes your bread so beautifully fluffy.

Kneading your dough is vital as this is what causes the mesh to form. If you’re not kneading enough, you’re not giving your bread the chance to build that mesh. However over-kneading can be a problem too, causing your dough to become old or overworked, resulting in the yeast losing its effectiveness.

What Makes the Bread Light and Airy?

The overall texture of the sourdough bread relies on two separate attributes:

  • Gas Produced in the Bread
  • Gas Retained in the Bread

Gas Produced in the Bread

Carbon dioxide gas is released on yeast fermentation. The more gas that is released, then the lighter the texture of the bread at the end. This is solely controlled by yeast activity. There should be substantial yeast activity in the sourdough starter as well as the dough.

Before the dough is ready to pop into the oven, there should be plenty of yeast that should have experienced yeast fermentation and released enough carbon dioxide to make the dough light.

Simply put the yeast should be active or the sourdough starter should be ripe, with a well fermented dough before going into the oven.

Gas Retained in the Bread

We’ve ensured that there will be enough yeast activity, with enough gas production in the dough. We have to make sure that our dough is perfectly capable of retaining that gas.

This is possible through the development of a strong gluten structure, shaping the dough correctly, and building the tension on the surface of the dough.

How Can I Make my Sourdough Less Dense?

One solution is to use a lighter flour, meaning that you should avoid using hard red wheat and whole wheat flour. You can achieve the light sourdough bread by using spelt or einkorn wheat. Just switching to a flour with less gluten, will result in more rise and less dense bread.

Technically you can’t get low-density bread with low gluten bread flour from rye, as it doesn’t have enough elasticity to hold itself up while baking. You’ll get a flatbread in the end. If you wish to use rye flour, mix it with strong white flour, so it can actually rise and have a light, airy structure. Another option is to sift through the flour, and remove heavier parts. Doing this with even a small part of the bread results in a lighter flour, no matter what kind of flour you’re using.

The only way to achieve a less dense sourdough bread is through sifted flour or mixing sifted flour with whole grain flour to get lighter flour, therefore a lighter loaf. The goal is to remove the bran that seemingly interrupts the gluten strands preventing them from forming long strands, that essentially hold the bread up as its baking.

dense sourdough

What Makes the Bread Dense?

Too dense sourdough bread occurs due to insufficient yeast activity in the dough. The initial cause could be under-proofing. In sourdough bread, if you do not give enough time for the wild yeast to multiply and reach its appropriate population where it can cause enough leavening, your bread will undoubtedly become dense.

Another possible reason for a super dense bread could be because the yeast has died for reasons such as, chlorinated water or bleached flour that still has a high percentage of bleach residues.

Why is my Sourdough Bread so Dense: How to Fix

There are several ways to manipulate sourdough bread at different stages to encourage a lighter loaf with a less dense texture.

Here are some tips to a lighter, less dense sourdough bread:

  • Increase Hydration Levels
  • Switch Your Flour
  • Use Sifted Flour
  • Soak Flour in advance
  • Use a Dutch Oven
  • Moisten the Dough’s Surface
  • Ferment the Dough
  • Use the Starter at it’s Peak
  • Increase the Oven Temperature
  • Bake Sourdough at the Precise Time
  • Handle the Dough Gently
  • Use a Veteran Sourdough Starter
  • Use a Preferment
  • Enrich the Sourdough
  • Sweeten the Dough
  • Add Baking Soda
  • Pre-Shape the Dough
  • Gentle Flour Dusting
  • Scoring the Dough

Increase Hydration Levels

The amount of water you add to the dough affects how open the crumb is in the final result. The higher the water level the more open the crumb will be. Unfortunately a wetter dough is far more difficult to handle.

Try to increase the water, or decrease the amount of flour in your loaf by a tad. See how well the dough is able to cope especially at the shaping stage. If you managed to handle it well, then increase the hydration a little more the next time you bake, until you find your desired limit.

You’ll notice the bread is softer and lighter when more water is added. Continue to do this until you find the perfect balance between a hydration of dough that you can handle, as well as the density of the bread.

Switch Your Flour

The type of flour used in your mixture will make a huge impact to the end result of your bread. Gluten strands are what hold up the bread when the yeast produce gases in the dough. This implies that using a flour with strong gluten will give you the best possible chance of getting a good rise in your sourdough bread.

Strong white bread flour – milled from hard wheat – is a good option when it comes to achieving an end result of the most airy, fluffy bread. It’s also the easiest flour to handle when kneading and shaping your dough due to it’s elasticity.

Using low gluten flours like rye will make it impossible to produce a good rise in your bread. Whole wheat flours may offer superior flavour and nutrition, but it won’t do anything towards providing you with a lighter texture.

A great way to obtain the added flavours of other flours such as rye is to use a mixture of strong white flour with other flours. This way, you’ll achieve a wonderful rise in your bread.

Use Sifted Flour

If you’re determined to use whole wheat flour, then try sifting some or all of the flour to get rid of part of the bran. Bran present in your whole wheat flour, act like tiny sharp bits that pierce through the gluten strands preventing them from holding up the air in the dough. Ridding part of the bran will help keep more of the structure formed by the gluten, giving you a lighter loaf.

stainless steel strainer on white background

Soak Flour in advance

Soaking your flour overnight before adding it to the final dough mixture will allow the bran in the wheat to become soft and flexible. Therefore it won’t affect the gluten as much, by cutting all the glands, consequently providing you with a taller loaf with larger air pockets.

Use a Dutch Oven

Locking steam during baking is extremely important when it comes to achieving a good rise in the sourdough bread and the best way to keep steam in your oven, is by baking the whole loaf in a Dutch oven, so that no steam can escape.

The more steam there is in the oven, the longer your sourdough bread’s crust will take to form, and the longer the bread will rise until the crust prevents any further growth.

Moisten the Dough’s Surface

Many bakers choose this approach, especially if they aren’t in possession of a Dutch oven. Spraying the surface of the shaped dough, generously with water just before putting it into the oven will keep the surface flexible for longer, giving it a better oven spring, and an improved rise in your bread. Alternatively you can brush an egg wash on, which will also give the bread a nice colour once baked.

Ferment the Dough

The dough should be fermented for the correct amount of time to help it achieve the best results. That being said under or over fermenting your dough can both achieve a dense loaf.

If you under proof your dough it would mean that:

  1. It hasn’t had enough time for the gluten to develop long strands to catch the air bubbles.
  2. Not enough carbon dioxide has been produced yet to give it the perfect texture

Over proofing your dough would mean:

  1. The gluten strands begin to break down
  2. The sugars and starches in the flour have ran out and the dough has no energy to continue rising
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Use the Starter at Its Peak

To get the highest rise in sourdough bread, use the starter when it’s at it’s peak, meaning that you should use it when it has reached its peak height in the jar, just before it begins to deflate.

Increase the Oven Temperature

It’s quite common for bakers to not set their ovens to a high enough temperature during the first half of the bake. Having a high heat during the initial stage of the baking processes in the oven is extremely reliant on how the bread will rise.

Amp up the temperature to as high as it will go, making sure that the oven has been preheated for long enough. The hotter the oven the better. This will give the bread the boost it needs to burst open and rise. Using a baking stone will increase the temperature of the oven. After the initial phase and once the crust has formed, you can turn the oven down, allowing the interior of the bread to cook through at its own pace.

Bake Sourdough at the Precise Time

Once the bread is having its second proof, put it in the oven at just the right time. You want it to have fermented most of the sugars and starches and done almost all of its rising, with enough strength remaining for it to rise properly in the oven. If you’re unsure how to make an accurate judgement, then here’s what you’ll need to look out for:

First gently make a dent on the shaped loaf with the tip of your finger:

  • If the dent springs back up almost instantly, then it requires more time to rise.
  • If the dent stays where it is, you have over proofed it, and unfortunately it has passed its oven spring peak, so nothing further can be done to fix it. Until next time!
  • If the dent bounces back up slowly, then eureka! Time to put it into the preheated oven.

As time goes on you will become familiar with the dough just by taking a quick glance at it, and assessing its overall condition before popping it into the oven.

Handle the Dough Gently

Sourdough needs to be handled with gentle hands. It’s very easy to be heavy handed when shaping the dough, especially when accustomed to handling commercially yeasted bread dough. Sourdough needs to be degassed in a very gentle way, so as not to release all the precious gas that has developed over a period of hours or days.

Use a Veteran Sourdough Starter

Bread recipes require a lot of strength to rise properly. And for sourdough, that strength is obtained from the starter. If you have made a starter from scratch, it should be at least 2 months old for it to be considered strong enough to rise bread properly. You may discover that your bread will get better as you go along, this is because your starter is maturing and developing more yeasts.

Use a Preferment

If you haven’t already, then add some extra boost to your dough using a ferment. It’ll provide your dough with the additional energy to rise further, and its pretty much a task off adding a large amount of flour and water to some of your starter, then using it as your initial starter in the recipe.

Theoretically, you have to give your sourdough starter an epic amount of food – preferment – so that it’s super happy. Then you can go ahead and feed it some more from your recipe straight after, so it becomes immensely giddy with happiness, the result will most definitely give the bread an impeccable rise. Here’s a closer look on how to use a preferment in a sourdough recipe:

  • Take a small amount of starter and add it to a larger amount of flour and water from your recipe (a quarter of the amount should suffice)
  • Let it ferment on it’s own for 8 hours or more
  • Use this instead of the starter in your recipe
  • Don’t forget to adjust your recipe accordingly so that you are still using the same proportions of flour and water in total.

Enrich the Sourdough

Replacing some of your water with milk and adding a smidge of butter to the dough will give it a softer and fluffier texture. This is known as an enriched bread, and you will discover that the texture is far softer and fluffier than traditional sourdough. When adding extra ingredients, you may have to cook it for longer. The more milk or butter it has, the longer it will need to cook due to the high fat content.

Sweeten the Dough

Give your bacteria and yeasts some simple sugars and starches to feed on and they will ensure your dough has some extra carbon dioxide bubbles in there. Extra sugars and starches provide the starter with a boost of easy access energy to do their thing, and you will end up with a lighter loaf. Some common starches and sugars that can be added are:

  • Potato starch
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Sugar
  • Molasses

With only a teaspoon or two being enough to get it going. Make sure that the sweetener you use is not labelled as “calorie-free” as this defeats the purpose of granting your starter with extra energy.

Add Baking Soda

Combining baking soda into the dough at the shaping stage will give the sourdough bread an extra boost, helping it become lighter and more airy. Baking soda is a heavy alkaline and becomes reactive when added to strong acidic sourdough. The reaction creates a release of gasses that help decrease the density of the dough. Sometimes the reaction takes place right in front of you!

Pre-Shape the Dough

Maintaining good structure is important in achieving a taller rise in sourdough bread, and adding an extra step in your shaping, which can help it develop a better structure. Here’s how to pre-shape your sourdough bread:

  • Shape your dough roughly in the same manner and leave it on the countertop seam side down
  • Lightly flour the dough’s surface and cover with a light cloth
  • Let the dough rest on the countertop from between 30 minutes to an hour.
  • After the dough has rested, shape it once again for the final proof in your usual way, and you will find that the dough will hold shape better and stand taller once it has been baked, giving you a less dense texture.

Some bakers choose to pre-shape more than once to enhance the effect of pre-shaping on the final result.

Gentle Flour Dusting

It is very easy to add lots of flour, during the shaping or kneading stages, to handle the mixture or dough. Remember that if you dust too much flour, you’ll end up decreasing moisture levels in your dough, giving you a more dense loaf. Try to sprinkle as little flour as possible at the shaping and kneading stage, that won’t heavily impact the final stages of the dough, which should result in a lighter loaf.

Scoring the Dough

Scoring helps make the sourdough bread lighter. It exposes an escape line for the dough to rise and grow as it springs up. Not scoring can cause dense bread and the bread will rip open at uneven places.

Always score the sourdough bread with deep slashes, especially if you’re doing one or two. Make enough slashes if you’re doing decorative and multiple slashes, as it helps lighten the sourdough.

Do not score over-proofed sourdough bread, as it will remove the trapped air and the bread will fall flat and become more dense.

What to do with a Dense Bread?

When you end up with a dense and gummy bread, realizing that the texture is not at all what you had hoped it would be, the next thing you’d be wondering is, what to do next?

Well, it actually depends on how dense your bread is.

There are lots of things you can do with your dense bread.

For instance, you can make bread crumbs out of it. Then sprinkle them on your favorite salad, or into a chicken broth. You just need to make sure that the bread has been baked well. Then you can allow it to cool, slice the bread into thin pieces, and pulse it in a blender. You can flavor this bread with herbs of your choice and salt.

Stale Sourdough Bread Recipes

Dense sourdough bread doesn’t always mean failure. When you’ve managed to bake bread that isn’t quite there yet, there are many things that you can do with it. Similarly with bread that has been abandoned for a while, can be revived and used to create delicious recipes, that can be eaten as a snack, or whenever you wish.

Here’s some ideas for you to try:

  • Breadcrumbs
  • Frozen Bread
  • Thickener for Sauces
  • Pie Filling
  • Croutons

Breadcrumbs

Stale or dense sourdough bread are ideal candidates for artisan style, flavoursome breadcrumbs, and they are super simple to make. Make a batch using your heavy, dense sourdough bread, and freeze it for later use.

Here’s a quick method for you:

  • Roughly chop up the stale, hardened bread into chunks.
  • Place it in a blender, and blitz the bread until fine breadcrumbs are produced.

Breadcrumbs form best when the bread is dry. If you feel like your bread isn’t dry enough, then pop them into a toaster before tearing them up and blending.

Place it in a freezer safe bag and plop them into the freezer for later. Freezing the breadcrumbs will give you the right durability to use it when needed. Just take as much as you need whenever you want.

Frozen Bread

This one can be chucked into the freezer and forgotten about.

Simply tear the bread into chunks and place them in a freezer bag. Label the bag to avoid forgetting what’s inside.

Thickener for Sauces

The breadcrumbs that had been abandoned somewhere deep inside your freezer can be added to sauces as a thickener instead of cornstarch. It will give your sauce an extra texture and flavor.

Just add it to the sauce and stir. Once the breadcrumbs have had a little time to absorb the flavors from the liquids, it will start to thicken the sauce. The more breadcrumbs you add, the thicker the sauce will become.

Pie Filling

When you’re making a pie dish with moist filling, add your frozen pieces of bread to it for an improvement in texture. You don’t need to defrost, just throw them straight in! The bread will sink into the pie, absorbing all the wonderful flavors, while adding its own texture to the dish.

Add extra liquid, or gravy to the pie filling when adding bread pieces. This is because the bread will act like a sponge, soaking it all up beautifully.

Croutons

Croutons are the superb way of adding a powerful crunch to your salads or garnishing your soups. Maybe just enjoy them as a tasty crunchy snack.

They’re super easy to make too:

  • Preheat the oven to 350F
  • Dice or tear up the pieces of stale sourdough bread
  • Toss the pieces in olive oil, salt and pepper
  • Place them on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes or until they’re golden and crispy.

Once they’ve cooled they will stay crunchy and fresh in an airtight container for up to a week. You can even add some herbs and spices of your choice, with a splash of olive oil before baking for an extra kick.

A Dense Sourdough

Could be the case for many reasons, perhaps your starter is starving, or your oven isn’t set to the hottest temperature. Perhaps there’s far too much moisture in the dough. Or the dough has been handled so rough, it’s too torn to provide a healthy rise.

There’s never perfection upon first instance. These errors will dissipate with time. Expect making several more mistakes before achieving the results you’d been praying for.

FAQs

Why is my Sourdough Bread Heavy and Dense?

Sourdough is often dense when a weak starter is used. An unripe starter doesn’t have enough lactic acid, bacteria and yeast cells to produce the gas required to raise the loaf.

Why is my Homemade Sourdough so Dense?

One of the most common mistakes is having a dough temperature that’s too low for the starter to feed on all the flour in the dough, resulting in a dense crumb.

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