Bread and Sourdough Troubleshooting Part 2

Sad, weak sourdough ball

Here is a compilation of things I think I've learned about baking bread, sorted by category:


Starter doesn't rise or double in height

The problem:

Your starter doesn't rise.  Generally this is caused by having a yeast and bacteria population that is too low.

Potential causes:

  • You haven't given it enough time: If your starter is fairly new, it may take a number of days and regular feedings to make your starter healthy.
  • Your starter is overripe: Eventually the byproducts of yeast and bacterial metabolic activity will create alcohols and acids that will start to kill off the yeast and bacteria that you are trying to cultivate.  If your starter smells very sour, this may be the case.
  • Other bad stuff is growing in there: With feedings at the right interval, you will cultivate a yeast and bacteria population that will prevent mold and other undesirable stuff from growing.  If the balance is off and your yeast and bacteria population is depleted, other organisms can have the opportunity to grow.  You can usually tell by smell.

How to fix it:

  • Make sure your starter is active and doubling (or more ) between feedings.  If your starter rises and then falls between feedings, you may need to feed your starter more regularly or determine actions that you can take to slow its activity, like reducing its temperature or changing your feeding ratio.

Related links:

  • None yet

Sourdough starter smells bad

The problem:

Your sourdough starter smells bad.  There are a lot of smell descriptors that are used to describe a good starter.  Sometimes it smells nutty, fruity, sweet, sour, or even a little alcoholic.  But it shouldn't smell like mold or body odor.  Moldy starter smells awful.

Potential causes:

  • The population of your yeast and bacteria isn't strong enough to prevent other organisms, like mold from growing.
  • The walls of the starter container are not clean.  Yeast and bacteria die off along the walls of your container, and then mold and other bad things grow.

How to fix it:

  • Some advise starting over with a new starter.
  • You may be able to "rescue" your starter.  If there's mold growing in it, it may not be growing on more than just the surface.   Some of the good yeasts and bacteria may be living in the bottom of your starter container.  You can remove some of that, move it to a new jar, and then feed it and see how things go after a few feedings.
  • Change starter containers once in a while.

Related links:

  • None yet

Bulk Fermentation


The problem:

The weather was recently very warm, and I let a sourdough bulk fermentation go on for too long.  I'd estimate that it got about 10 hours at 80F.  The dough had doubled in volume, but it appears the acids and enzymes eventually destroy the gluten and leave you with a sticky, lumpy mess.  Apparently, when the gluten breaks down, water is released, which makes the dough stickier.  It was a pain to handle, and didn't hold its shape at all during pre-shaping, as this time lapse shows: (5 minutes of time is condensed into a few seconds)


Sad, weak sourdough ball


There's no strength in the dough at all, it's lumpy and shaggy, very wet, and falls apart almost immediately.  This is different than overproofing, as the dough was falling apart before making it to the proofing stage.

How to fix it:

  • If it's too hot, try using cold water in your mix to slow down fermentation
  • Find a cooler place for the bulk fermentation
  • Ferment for a shorter amount of time
  • Use less leaven/levain or starter

Related links:


Loaf too flat, too dense, or no oven spring

The problem:

No large airy holes, very dense and flat loaf.  Possibly decent flavor, but dense and gummy on the inside.

This might have many potential causes which are generally related to a lack of strength in the loaf and a lack of bubbles and CO2 :

  • Weak yeast or sourdough starter
  • Shaping technique did not generate enough tension in the loaf
  • If there's very little yeast activity at all, you'll notice poor color development in the crust and a "raw" flavor

How to fix it:

  • Make sure your starter is active and doubling (or more ) between feedings
  • Pre-shape and shape your dough to generate adequate tension and gluten deveopment

Related links:

  • None yet

Loaf explodes, blows out, or tears open

The problem:

Hot steam and carbon dioxide have nowhere to go during the bake, and eventually cause your loaf to blowout or explode.

How to fix it:

  • Score the top of your loaf with a lame.  This will help guide the loaf when expanding and hopefully provide you with more oven spring.

Related links:

  • None yet

Bagels version 0.3

Wow, a lot has changed since my last try at making bagels.  My version 0.2 post was more than a year ago!  (Also see the sad version 0.1)

What’s different this time around?

– I used a sourdough starter instead of conventional active-dry yeast.

– I now use a Kitchenaid stand mixer instead of kneading by hand.  Much easier, especially with a dry dough like bagel dough.  (Shout out to Angry Man Eats for making the stand mixer happen.  The blender and mixer still live together.)

– I did the recipe by weight and used a 55% hydration ratio.

– I left the bagels to proof for 24 hours in the fridge.  The 24 hours was mostly out of convenience – I couldn’t bake until then.  I don’t think I had them proof at all last time.

– I had poppy seeds and caraway seeds this time around


How’d they turn out?

– The crust was a bit crispier than last time.  I’m not sure the cause.. will have to do some research.  Baking Bread 101 says it’s because there wasn’t enough steam in the oven, but I did bake over a pan of water.  Then again, maybe it was crispy because I ate the bagel 5 minutes after I took it out of the oven.  The bagels were much less crispy and quite a bit chewier the next day.

– Also, the crust in the center of the bagel tore.  I am not sure what caused this either, other than the crust couldn’t expand as fast as the oven spring wanted it to.  Perhaps I could bake at a lower temperature to stop the crust from forming so soon.  Or maybe I boiled for too long?  Sobachatina’s answer on Stack Exchange has some good tips.  I can’t really slash the bagels though.

– The bagels were much smoother than last time.  I think this was due to the fact that I actually proofed them and probably did a better job kneading. . or at least the mixer did a better job.

– They tasted great and the torn (and crispy) crust doesn’t really bother me.


For anyone who is interested (and since I typed this up for Sean anyways), here is what I did:

– Refreshed starter for 2 cycles – I hadn’t baked in 3-4 weeks, I think, so it needed some love.  S
– Mixed ingredients, kneaded in kitchenaid stand mixer:
[table “” not found /]

– I set the dough out to rise overnight (about 8h) at room temperature (about 65F).  In the morning, the dough hadn’t risen much – it spread out a bunch though and increased in volume by  maybe 75%.   I figured that this might happen since I used such a large quantity of starter.
– Formed dough into balls
– Proofed in fridge, covered, for about 12 hours
– Put holes in the balls, stretched them to get the bagel shape
– Boiled each bagel in a pan with ~1 inch of water and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar for 1 minute on each side
– Added toppings
– Baked at 450F for 25 minutes, uncovered, with a pan of water underneath the bagel pan

the bread project: loaf 24

30% rye 10% spelt sourdough loaf, top view

As some of you know, I’ve been trying to bake a lot of bread.  I’m experimenting with the idea of creating a bread diary.  This is loaf #24, a 30% rye 10% spelt and the rest white King Arthur bread flour loaf with a sourdough starter.  hydration was about 68%.

30% rye 10% spelt sourdough loaf, top viewTop view – kinda funky ears.  slashing could be improved


30% rye 10% spelt sourdough loaf3/4 view of the loaf


30% rye 10% spelt sourdough loaf, side viewside view.  Didn’t rise as high as I’d like because I had this loaf retarding in the fridge for 4 days.  Better flavor though..


30% rye 10% spelt sourdough loaf, crumbsome big holes at the base.  gigantic ear on top.  Tasted great.


Finally, a bread experiment worth posting about (Loaf #19)

After baking a number of failures (that’s a separate, loooong blog post) this morning I’ve finally baked a sourdough loaf to show off:


20% rye, 10% spelt sourdough loaf.  top view.



from another angle


pretty good crumb.  I’m happy with it at least.

roughly, here was the recipe in terms of bakers percentages:

  • * 20% rye flour
  • * 10% spelt flour
  • * 70% bread flour
  • * 72% hydration
  • * 20% sourdough starter (just all-purpose flour.  the yeast was fairly active)
  • * 2.2% salt

and so I can remember, here was my technique:

  • * mix everything together with the kitchenaid at power setting 2 for ~12 minutes (maybe a bit long but whatever)
  • * put the dough straight in the fridge (I didn’t have time to bake that day!)
  • * take the dough out 2 days later (dough didn’t rise much in the fridge)
  • * let the dough warm to room temperature with the oven on low for 2-3 hours (the dough rose a bit during this time)
  • * fold and shape the loaf
  • * place in bannetton and back into the fridge overnight (~6 hours)
  • * score the loaf
  • * bake at 450F in the lodge dutch oven for 55 minutes straight from the fridge
  • * open the dutch oven and take pictures of the unexpected results