Why is My Sourdough So Dense?

Sourdough bread is known for many things, such as the slightly sour flavor, the crispy exterior, and the fluffy interior that’s sprinkled with picture-perfect holes. What it’s not known for is being dense. So, if your sourdough loaf comes out dense, you need to figure out why.

Hey, everyone! I’m Michelle, and my family and I eat sourdough regularly. And while I initially found it somewhat complicated, throughout my journey, I’ve learned how to bake wonderful sourdough loaves and combat issues such as denseness.

Sourdough bread can become dense for many reasons. One of the most common reasons is using the wrong type of flour or trying to equip an inactive or weak sourdough starter. 

However, other (less common) issues can include under-kneading, under or over-proofing, lack of moisture, or improper scoring and temperatures.

If you want to learn why your sourdough is dense and how you can fix it for next time, keep reading!

7 Reasons Why Sourdough is So Dense  

Many issues may be causing your sourdough to turn out unappealingly dense. Here are the leading causes.

1. Wrong type of flour

If you’re using flour that’s low quality or has a low protein content, you will struggle with density. That’s because they cannot create strong gluten networks, essential for your dough to rise and create a light, airy finish.

2. Inactive or weak sourdough starter

One of the main ingredients of sourdough bread is a sourdough starter. Sourdough starter is a natural leavening agent utilizing bacteria and yeast. While it’s highly beneficial to sourdough loaves, it can be somewhat challenging to make.

For starters, sourdough starters need at least a week to be “active,” although most bakers won’t try to use it until the two or three-week mark. Secondly, it must be fed. If you don’t feed your starter at least every 12 hours, it will be weak – or even dead.

Using an inactive or weak sourdough starter will render dense sourdough. That’s because the yeast isn’t working as it should – aka, it isn’t consuming sugars to release the necessary carbon dioxide gasses for proper rising.

Sometimes, your sourdough starter can die by accident. For instance, you used bleached flour that still contains bleach residue, or you added salt and yeast simultaneously. Regardless, a dead sourdough starter won’t work, and you’ll be left with a useless loaf.

3. Under or Over-Proofing

Proofing is a vital part of any bread-baking adventure, including sourdough. Sourdough is recommended to proof in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours, with 12 hours being the minimum. (At room temp, sourdough can proof in as little as three or four hours).

Under or over-proofing is going to cause a dense mess. 

Under-proofing won’t allow enough time for the yeast to “work its magic.” Over-proofing will cause an excessive accumulation of yeast. So much so that the gluten strands begin to bend and break. Either way, you will end up with an overly dense and unappetizing sourdough loaf.

4. Under-Kneading

Few people actually enjoy kneading. It’s a time-consuming process that can leave with aching hands and wrists. (Which is why many people opt to let their bread machine do the work).

As much as we might dislike it, though, kneading is essential for bread-making. The gluten structure is created during the kneading process, which will eventually retain gas to create a lightweight texture. 

The gluten network won’t form properly if you don’t knead for long enough. Therefore, your dough will be unable to rise as necessary, causing a dense outcome.

5. Lack of Moisture

A wetter dough will render a moister, airier texture – which you want from your sourdough. Sure, it might be a bit more challenging to work with, but it will be worth it in the end. 

6. Improper Scoring

Some people might not think that scoring their bread (sourdough or otherwise) is essential, but let me tell you, it is. Scoring will allow the bread to release some steam, creating an abundant rise and lovely texture.

If you don’t score or score improperly, your bread will be left to its own devices. This means that everything will get trapped inside, and you will have dense bread – not to mention some unsightly cracks riddling your loaf.

7. Incorrect Temperatures

It’s always best to follow along with your recipe – and your recipe will never tell you to settle for cooler temperatures when it comes to baking sourdough. Sourdough works best with high heat, so a cooler temperature may lead to a more extended baking period and, therefore, denser bread.

7 Ways to Prevent Dense Sourdough 

Clearly, there are a lot of reasons why sourdough can end up dense. Luckily, there are some easy ways to prevent it from happening. Here are my top seven tips and tricks to consider the next time you’re baking sourdough!

1. Use a different flour

Whatever flour you’re using right now, stop and swap it for strong white bread flour. It’s the most highly recommended type of flour for sourdough. Why? Because of the protein content, which ranks anywhere between 12% and 15%.

Tip: Avoid using bleached flour. Any leftover bleach residue can kill your sourdough starter. Always sift your flour to eliminate any lumps or clumps that can cause problems down the line.

2. Use an active and ripe sourdough starter

Using a dead sourdough starter will lead to a dead end, while using inactive and underripe starters will render odd results, such as dense sourdough. With that in mind, always ensure your sourdough starter is active and ripe.

A ripe sourdough starter will have doubled in size and produce tiny, foamy bubbles on top. It may have a slightly yeasty or alcoholic scent. 

Tip: Don’t use sourdough starters less than two weeks old, as they will not be mature enough to bake sourdough. Use sourdough starter at its “peak,” typically two to four hours after it has been fed.

3. Proof for the correct amount of time

Avoid under-proofing and over-proofing by proofing for the correct amount of time. While your recipe should share the ideal time and environment for your sourdough, the general rule of thumb is that sourdough does best in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours.

Tip: Keep an eye on your sourdough! If it has doubled in size and passes the “poke test,” it’s ready. Simply poke your dough. If it springs back slowly and leaves a slight indent, it’s ready to be baked.

4. Knead for the correct amount of time

Kneading sourdough is easier than kneading other types of bread. It doesn’t require nearly as much time. However, that doesn’t mean you should be nonchalant about how long you’re kneading. 

By hand, you should knead your sourdough for up to six minutes (but not longer). If using a mixer, knead for up to ten minutes maximum. 

Tip: Keep kneading until your dough passes the “windowpane test.” Basically, you will want to take a piece of the dough and stretch it into a square. If light passes through it and it doesn’t tear, it’s appropriately kneaded. 

Use the “stretch and fold technique” and be gentle. The last thing you want to do is accidentally force the gas out of the dough.

5. Add more water

Adding more water to your dough can be an easy way to make it more lightweight and avoid density. Start by adding ¼ cup of water. If your dough is easy to manage, consider adding another ¼ cup. Don’t overdo it, though, as this can potentially cause issues down the road.

Tip: Make sure you’re not using highly chlorinated water, as this can accidentally kill the yeast. Your water should have less than two ppm (parts per million) or chlorine.

6. Score it before baking

Scoring can often be overlooked as “unnecessary,” but it certainly serves a purpose; you can get it done in about ten seconds. So why wouldn’t you take that little time out of your day to score it?

Scoring is a cinch. Use the criss-cross pattern with ½-inch cuts for beautiful sourdough.

If you use different patterns, be careful. Designs utilizing smaller cuts don’t need to be as deep. If you’re only doing a slice here and there, they’ll need to be deep, but not too deep. Try to keep it at about ½ an inch.

7. Bake at a higher temperature

Sourdough is not your “average” loaf of bread. With that in mind, you should be extra picky about the temperatures. Start by turning on your oven as hot as possible (500F for most household ranges). Bake for about 20 minutes, then reduce the temp to 450F and bake until done.

Tip: Make sure that the oven is preheated before placing your sourdough inside! Using a Dutch oven will render the best results. 

FAQs

Wow! Lots of information. But it’s all well worth the read, wouldn’t you agree? While I’m sure I have answered most of your questions and concerns already, I went ahead and tossed in these commonly asked questions – just in case.

Can you over-ferment sourdough?

Although sourdough requires a lengthy fermenting period, you can overdo it. Luckily, it’s much less common than under-proofing, but still possible. The best thing to do is to keep an eye on it. Don’t allow it to ferment for longer than 24 hours, or you run the risk of over-fermenting it.

Can you overfeed sourdough?

Remember earlier how I recommended using the “stretch and fold” technique? Well, I stand by that statement. The only thing I will add is that, yes, you can over-fold sourdough. You shouldn’t need to do this for longer than five or six minutes.

How do you know if sourdough is Overproofed?

Over-proofed dough is pretty easy to spot. For one, it will be more than doubled its size, pouring out the sides of the pan or bowl. Secondly, when performing the poke test, the indentation will remain permanently – absolutely no springing back.

How do you make a thin and crispy sourdough crust?

There are many ways to achieve a thin and crispy sourdough crust. I recommend adding some type of fat to the exterior, such as olive oil (which pairs wonderfully with sourdough flavor). You should always use a Dutch oven and avoid using an excessive amount of flour on your work surface.

Say Goodbye to Dense Sourdough Struggles for Good!

Dense sourdough is a disappointment, no doubt. But now you have the knowledge and tools to say goodbye to dense disasters! The key takeaway is that you should always use an active starter, equip high-protein flour, and don’t under-knead or under-proof.

Have you ever struggled with dense sourdough? What did you do to fix it in the future? We would love to hear from you!

About Michelle
I have been a lover of sweets since day one. This led me on a self-taught baking journey starting at the age of 13. It's been over 10 years since the start of my baking adventures, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Now, people rave about my delectable treats, whether it’s a chocolate cake or a strawberry crepe.

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