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Sourdough fruit loaf
Photograph: Jess Ho

13 reasons why your sourdough is fucked, according to a bread nerd

It's a long road to a good loaf.

Written by
Jess Ho

Have you stopped following your friends on Instagram who have fallen down the sourdough hole? How many kilos of flour have been sacrificed to the food waste gods since we’ve all been in isolation? Sadly, the answer to this is too many. 

People who were previously ridiculed for making sourdough in their spare time are now used as free troubleshooting resources for people who previously thought they were too good to play with flour. Well, this is where we have our last laugh because all your loaves are inedible pancakes. The calls for help may be genuine, but it is difficult to help you when we aren’t working with you every step of the way.

So, as a handy guide, here are 13 reasons why your sourdough is fucked.

Your starter isn’t active

The first step to making sourdough is making your starter. If you’re impatient, I would advise going to your local bakery, buying something and asking if you can have some starter. More often than not, they’d give it to you for free and you’ve saved yourself a week of stirring and waiting and you have the insurance of an active starter. If you like to do things from the ground up, making a starter is basically you trying to capture wild yeast and lactobacilli in a mixture of flour and water. When your mixture of flour and water starts bubbling, that is when you know it is active and ready to use.

One huge mistake that people make is thinking that keeping starter in a warm environment is going to give it a headstart and therefore decide to put it in the sun. Don’t do this. Light kills bacteria, so you’ll be taking one giant step backwards and making flour soup. It’s simple science that we all got taught in high school. If in doubt, keep discarding and feeding as this will only make your starter stronger. Writing the birth date and naming your starter isn’t a bad idea, either. You’ll form an unhealthy emotional attachment to it and dictate your schedule according to feed times. After all, starters are the Tamagotchis of 2020.

You don’t fully understand the method

Autolyse, window paning, slap-folds... what? If you haven’t made bread before it is very important to read, read and read again so you completely understand all the new terms in relation to baking. Don’t be standing around your bowl of dough like David from Schitt’s Creek being told to fold in the cheese. You will have a very bad time. 

Use the most important learning tool available today and Youtube a step you don’t understand. There are a scary number of videos (some more boring than others) that break down exactly what every single stage is and how you can do it correctly. If all else fails, hit Instagram and fall in a very deep and mesmerising bread-making tundra. 

Photograph: Jess Ho

You’re not weighing things

If you see a recipe using cups instead of grams, abandon it immediately. It was written by a cowboy for a cowboy. Baking bread is basic science, so if your margin of error lies in a cup, it will not be your friend. 

Bread making relies on percentages and density of ingredients, not volume. Even Americans use the metric system when making sourdough. Accuracy is everything. Digital scales are around $15 from any homewares shop and one of the few items that will make the difference between a successful loaf or a fail loaf. Be wise and invest. 

You’re not using your hands

A Kitchen Aid, bench scraper, proofing basket, Dutch oven, fancy lame, ancient strains of flour... you don’t need them. Sourdough is one of the cheapest things to make (it is flour, water and salt for crying out loud) and you don’t need an entire kit of things to make a successful loaf. Stocking your kitchen with all these things is the baker’s equivalent of buying a whole new workout wardrobe to join a new exercise fad. Don’t be a tourist.

What you do need is a bowl, a tea towel, a colander, a baking tray, scales and your hands. In fact, you shouldn’t be using a mixer at all (I never have). Incorporate the flour and water with your hands, recognise the temperature of a ripe levain, understand the stretch of the gluten and feel when things are coming together and the point where the magic happens. Watching a machine beat around a lump of dough isn’t going to teach you how to feel a change in structure, temperature or even gas being present in the dough. If you can't identify these things when you're asking someone to troubleshoot, they can't help you. It might require more work, but as the saying goes, nothing good is ever easy (and if she’s easy, she won’t be cheap). 

Fruit sourdough
Photograph: Jess Ho

You don’t understand baker’s percentages

You may have taken the initiative to Google some recipes but they’re all percentages. Wait, how come there is 50 per cent whole wheat, and it is also 80 per cent hydration? That’s cos they’re baker’s percentages, honey. 

Bakers percentages are percentages of that element in relation to the total flour weight. Flour will always represent 100 per cent in any recipe. If you take the per cent of any element of a recipe and multiply it by the quantity of flour, you will get the specific amount you need. This is because baker’s don’t bake one loaf at a time, but hundreds. I will break this down assuming the total flour weight is 1,000 grams to keep it easy. 

The recipe could be 20 per cent levain, 2 per cent salt, 15 per cent seeds. If I’m going to do a basic algebra formula for you it would be:

Q Levain = % Levain x Q flour = 2% x 1000 = 200

You can do the same for every single ingredient except for water. The hydration isn’t necessarily the amount of water you add, but the water in the dough measured against the percentage of flour. Don’t forget, your levain alters the effective hydration of the final dough because it may have been built with a different hydration. 

Let’s assume your recipe asks for 80 per cent hydration with 20 per cent levain. The maths some people would assume is (if the levain is a standard 100 per cent hydration meaning equal parts water and flour):

Hydration % = (water added + water in the levain) / (flour added + flour in the levain) which is (800 + 100) / (1000 + 100) ≈ 82% ≉ 80%

This error wouldn’t normally make much of a difference unless you’re making a large quantity or the hydration of the levain is different. So, how do you calculate the right amount of water?

Calculate the amount of fresh flour and add it to the amount in the levain (for this recipe it is 1,100). Multiply the desired hydration by the total flour to work out the total water (1,100 x 80% = 880). Account for the water that is already in the levain (100) to work out the quantity needed in the dough, so 880-100 = 780. 

Hydration = (780 + 100) / (1000 + 100) = 80%

I know. First science, now maths. Don’t you wish you paid attention in school? (Well, you’re trying to make sourdough, so I can assume you did pay attention, you big nerd.)

You haven’t got a feel for your flour yet

Is it stone ground and from a farm an hour’s drive away, or a super processed bag from the supermarket? They both react differently, have different amounts of protein in them and will also take up different amounts of water. It sounds tedious, but every time you use a different flour, you have to try out the most basic recipe you can to gauge the difference from what you have been using. Scarier than that, is that the temperature of the water coming out of the tap, the humidity in the atmosphere and the temperature of your hands will affect the final product. This is why you need to make sourdough often if you want to master it. Even the most experienced baker will fumble due to a major change in any of these areas. At least flour is something you can control. 

Potato and rosemary sourdough
Photograph: Jess Ho

You’re trying a complicated loaf too soon

You know that saying ‘walk before you can run’? It definitely applies to sourdough. Start by mastering sourdough using white flour and slowly sub in a percentage of white flour for wholemeal and gradually go from there.

Going from making barely passable loaves to an 85 per cent hydration emmer and rye loaf with sprouted seeds is guaranteed failure. Learn what a stretch and fold is and how to laminate your ingredients into the dough before you start going down the ancient grains track. All this speak of single-origin and ancient wheat varieties are ways to make bread sound sexy, but you can’t have a sexy loaf if you’re baking a puddle with seeds that smell like wet dog swimming around in it. 

The temperature isn’t stable

The first thing that people think is that you have to make bread in a warm environment. This is not true. If it is colder, things may take a little longer to happen, but it will happen. To combat this, you can put warm water in your dough when you go through the autolyse stage, some people like to work their dough until it gets to 26 degrees, but this must be done at the beginning stages of breadmaking and not introduced somewhere in the middle or the end. Some people turn on the heater while they make bread, but this probably means that the dough is cold at the beginning of the process and too warm by the end. All this leads to uneven fermentation, which isn’t the end of the world, but results in giant air pockets where your butter will fall through and stain your clothes. Worst case scenario, you will overproof your loaf and it will be inedible. 

The only exception to the stable temperature rule is putting your dough in the fridge to retard for an extended period of time instead of doing an ambient proof. This will result in flavour development and easier handling when you turn it out to score and bake. 

You’re not building enough surface tension

People might call this shaping, but that’s probably the incorrect way to think about it. Sure, you’re giving your loaf of bread the right shape, but you’re also trying to build surface tension on the dough to give you the right shape and great crust. If you don’t do this, your bread will fall into a wet, floppy mass when you’re not manipulating it and it will pool when you bake it, undoing all your hard work. Take control of the bread, don’t let it control you. 

You’re overconfident

The number of people who throw their levain, flour and water in a mixer, toss it around a few times and bang it in the oven only to wonder why they’ve baked a doughy rock is more than you’d think. They tend to think that if all the ingredients are loosely incorporated and they have no connection to the dough, they will magically end up with a success. Making bread is not like making a cake where recipes are quite forgiving and even if it is a bit bung, the sugar and fat will keep bringing you back to eat it. 

Sourdough is made of three ingredients, which means it is an incredibly unforgiving food to make. Any mistake will show up on the final product. Only the most resilient (read: obsessive) can master sourdough. 

You haven’t failed enough

Unfortunately, part of learning is failing. There are a million recipes and methods out there that suit different people. Everyone has different ingredients to work with, different aged starters, different hands, different dexterity, so one method does not fit all. Try a few methods at a time and see what works best for you. If you’re anything like me, you’ve taken a few techniques from a bunch of different methods to produce the best bread you can. 

The scary thing about sourdough is, the more you know, the more you realise you know nothing.

You’re relying on a recipe

Here’s a controversial idea: recipes are just suggestions. There are a lot of variables in making bread that are outside your control (temperature is a big one). Learn what a properly worked dough feels like, or how to look for a properly proofed loaf. The timings in recipes are never accurate because the atmosphere you cook in is never the same. As for bake times, everyone’s ovens are different. Some run hot and some run cold. There will always be a hot spot. If a recipe tells you to bake a loaf at 230 degrees with steam for 20 minutes and then to lower the oven temperature to 200 degrees and to continue cooking for 30 minutes, it is a suggestion. You don’t have the oven set up they have, and I bet you probably don’t have a fancy steam oven, either. If you’re hell-bent on having steam in your oven, chuck a tray filled with boiling water in there while you bake (beware the steam burns).

Think of baking bread as trying to seal the crust as fast as you can so all the bacteria that is trying to burp will burp as much as it can to cause it to rise and steam the interior. Personally, I like cranking the oven to the hottest it will get and baking it for 20 minutes and then lowering it to 210 for 25-ish minutes to finish a 900-gram loaf. But that’s me and I also like a super caramelised crust. There are definite rules to sourdough and then there are no rules. The only way you’re going to find out what you like is by baking a bunch of different loaves. Dutch oven or no Dutch oven? Screaming hot Dutch oven or bake from cold? Steam or no steam? You’re going to have to try them all.

You’re aiming for an Instagram loaf

Much like the lifestyle and perceived happiness of an influencer, Instagram breads are highly unachievable. They’re also not very desirable to eat. Sure the big, lacy crumbs look great on Instagram, but how are you meant to enjoy the lashings of butter you want to put on it if it is going to fall right through? Also, charcoal, matcha and butterfly pea flowers have no place in bread. Aim for the Target model of bread, not the Kate Moss of bread. Manage your own expectations according to your ability and desire to eat something delicious.

Breads are also like people: it is what is inside that counts. Giant ears and a blistered crust don’t actually contribute to the flavour. Nail the crumb, the folding, shaping and fermentation before you start working on the appearance. There’s nothing worse than cutting into something that looks great but tastes like one of the top five things you never want in your mouth, ever again. 

Remember how I said the more you know, the more you realise you know nothing? Keep pushing, keep learning because there is always someone with more experience who knows more than you and is willing to be generous with their knowledge. Think of this as a life-long pursuit rather than a passing hobby. After all, there are starters all over the world that are over a century old

Sourdough loaf
Photograph: Jess Ho

The method I have ended up adopting:

You’ve made it this far, I’m not going to leave you hanging. Everything is hand mixed and wet shaped because that is what I like. If you’re the kind of person who likes to shape with flour, then do it. Work with what you’re comfortable with. If this doesn’t make sense, refer to the second point in this article. 

For a regular loaf, I like to run with these specs: 80-85% hydration depending on the flour/s used, 2-2.5% salt, 20% levain.

  1. Make levain.
  2. Autolyse for 1-4 hours. Hold back 5 per cent of the water and dissolve your salt into it.
  3. Add levain to autolyse and mix. Once this is incorporated, add your brine and mix.
  4. Thirty minutes in, perform one set of stretch-folds.
  5. Thirty minutes later, laminate. (If there are add-ins, add them at this stage.)
  6. Every 30 minutes, perform a set of coil-folds. Do this 4 times in an oiled, rectangular container.
  7. After the last set of folds, leave to sit for 1 hour or until 30-40 per cent larger in size. 
  8. Preshape and allow dough to relax for 45 minutes. Prepare bannetons/bowls/colander or whatever vessel you’re using.
  9. Shape, load into vessel and stitch. 
  10. Cover or put into sealed plastic bags in the fridge for 48-72 hours.
  11. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees with Dutch oven in there for one hour.
  12. Unmould dough, slash and load into a hot Dutch oven with a giant ice cube with the lid on and bake for 20 minutes.
  13. Remove the lid of Dutch oven, lower the oven temperature to 210 degrees and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the loaf is done.
  14. Allow loaf to cool completely before slicing. 

Finally, if this sounds like iso-life will be over before you perfect sourdough, save your money from buying sacks of flour and head to your local bakery instead. Here are our favourites

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