The starter seems to be fermenting OK, but when you make a Production Sourdough and then the Final Dough, it doesn’t work. So you left your loaf to rise (‘prove’) for a long time but it didn’t rise very much, if at all. You finally decided to bake it and, though the flavour’s wonderful, the texture is dense and very sticky.
What to do
Before suggesting reasons why the above may be happening, here’s a check on what a Starter and a Production Sourdough should look like.
If this hasn’t been refreshed for a while, it will look inactive (i.e. few if any bubbles on the surface) and some grey-brown liquid may have risen to the surface. This is quite normal. Don’t assume that your starter is dead. It isn’t. It’s just resting.
This is the term for the dough formed by adding a small amount of old starter to some fresh flour and water, a process known as refreshment. The aim is to enable the yeasts and bacteria in the starter to multiply so that there will be enough of them to flavour and raise (aerate) the final dough. What a viable Production Sourdough looks like depends on the flour(s) on which it is based and the amount of water in the mix.
Rye starters are almost always made very wet and sloppy; wheat starters can be made like this but are usually more like a soft dough in consistency, i.e. definitely not pourable. Several (10-16) hours after refreshment, a rye starter should show signs of bubbling on the surface. A rye Production Sourdough will usually froth up after a few hours in a warm place. Eventually, the bubbling (which is the evidence of the yeasts working) subsides and the dough relapses back to its former height, leaving a ‘tide mark’ on the sides of the jar or bowl it is in. The bacteria keep on working, creating more acidity which begins to inhibit the yeasts. Eventually the acidity becomes so great that the bacteria themselves go into a kind of dormancy.
Wheat starters: refreshment times are typically shorter for wheat (four hours at room temperature is a rule of thumb) but this depends on dough temperature and consistency. Stiff doughs rise more slowly, as do cooler ones. Unless it is very liquid, a wheat Production Sourdough will increase in volume rather like an ordinary dough. For a typical flour mix, it might double in volume before gently collapsing down on itself as the yeasts stop producing gas in the increasingly acid environment.
So… if your Production Sourdough (PS) seems inactive and/or your Final Dough did not rise very much, this could be caused by
If you are sure that you have a vigorous PS, the problem must be occurring in the final dough. Logical trouble-shooting steps that a baker would take include:
- excess acidity, inhibiting the yeasts. Remedy: make a fresh PS using only half the prescribed percentage of starter (e.g. 25 g of (rye) starter, 150 g of rye flour and 300 g of water). This will dilute the acids in the starter and bring in proportionately more new wild yeasts with the fresh flour.
- insufficient water: if your sourdough is too stiff it can take a very long time to ferment. In fact, this is one way of conserving a sour for storage or travel, i.e. make it very stiff.
- contamination with a ‘biocide’, e.g. heavily chlorinated water, residues of fungicides in non-organic flour, residues of washing up liquid, salt etc. This is very unlikely but possibly worth considering. Try making the next PS with water that has stood in an open bowl for 24 hours (to let the chlorine evaporate). And always use organic flour, especially wholemeal, because any chemical residues are disproportionately found on the outer bran layers of grain.
- is there too much salt? This is by far the commonest problem in breadmaking (other than no salt at all), caused by inaccurate scales, misreading of decimal points, short term memory loss etc.
- too little liquid – see above – making the dough too stiff to move
- some other contamination (unlikely)
- proving temperatures so low that fermentation times are greatly extended (remember every 5°C drop in temperature doubles the fermentation time)
- proving temperatures so high (> 40°C) that yeasts suffer; again, unlikely, but sometimes people start their breads off on a hot surface (like the back of a range cooker) which is much hotter than 40°C and can locally stress the yeasts. As to texture, if you are not familiar with 100% rye breads, they can seem very sticky and chewy. Rye holds on to much more water than wheat, so it will always seem ‘heavier’ than refined white wheat bread. The texture improves with keeping, so try not to cut your rye bread until at least 24 hours after baking. The pay-off is a much longer reasonably moist shelf-life than very aerated wheat bread (without additives, of course).