Sourdough Problems from My Beginnings

The 5th April 2010 is the most significant date in my sourdough life.  That’s it above, my very first loaf, using a starter  GillthePainter  put in the post to me.  I followed her advice of baking it in a pot, I used an inexpensive cast iron pot of mine,  and produced a loaf.  Ok it’s not an attractive looking one but still looks like and tasted like a loaf.  I’m going back 18months and I feel it’s been much longer than that.

The learning curve of my sourdough journey has been going up, but in the last 4-5 months since I decided I wanted to be a baker has been so steep it’s hard sometimes to remember all the problems in the beginning.  This is what brings me to this quick post for beginners.  I had a couple of questions from a home baker about trouble with her loaves and I thought it would be a good idea of seeking out my very first photos and share the same problems I had in the beginning of my baking.  This year I’ve been posting lots of detail on sourdough, as you read this I’ve linked past posts full of detail that will help.

My First Ever Sourdough

It’s a good idea to bake in a pot, especially if your oven seems to lack power, but you don’t have to.  It does produce a thinner crust if you’re fan of thin crusts.  If you do use a pot, use baking paper to sit the dough on top of, and not greaseproof paper as I did here.  Greaseproof paper is cheaper, but ends up sticking to your loaf as it did on the bottom of mine.  Here’s Gill’s post on baking her loaf in the pot.

Baking  Without a Clue

I’m not good at reading manuals…including how to use my camera…yep…I use to sellotape the flash down when it popped up automatically, because didn’t know how to turn it off!   This bad habit of mine extends to reading up on sourdough, it all just seemed too complicated.  I think experienced sourdough bakers revel in their terminology, can be quite daunting for a novice.

Below was my second day attempt at a sourdough, this time I didn’t use the pot, baked on oven tray.  It’s flat for 2 reasons, one is, I didn’t refresh my starter to use for this baking.  I didn’t realise you were suppose to refresh your starter before baking every time.  If you’ve been reading recently here you’ll now know the longer you leave your starter without feeding the less wild yeast it has, therefore it has no power to make your loaf rise. Read this post here on the cycle of Sourdough Starter part II, of what your levain should look like.

The second reason a loaf spreads out too much is because I’m using a tiny bit too much water for the type of flour I have.  If you want to know all about how 20 grams of water can make a difference to your dough read this experimental post of mine here.

You can see from inside there’s big open holes, again an indication I was using quite a lot of water for this flour.  This flour just can’t cope with my method of proving on a baking sheet and baking, I don’t use a basket to prove.  By the way…I had no idea what I was doing wrong here.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Below was my third sourdough, 7th April 2010, baked on baking sheet, much better getting a rise.

 Finally on the 6th Attempt 

And then 10th April which apparently was my 6th loaf of sourdough I produced one I was really happy with.  Obviously using a recently refreshed starter, managed to shape and it appeared like a loaf I was proud of.

I carried on baking every week, and a month later 6th May 2010, below is a photo of a recipe I took from the Wild Yeast Site, but didn’t follow any of Susan’s kneading method.  I was still at this time doing my no-kneading method.  I managed to produce a really soft texture sourdough crumb for a sourdough.  I was really please with the crumb feel.

My Standard White Sourdough

Below is just my standard white sourdough which is Dan’s Handmade Loaf recipe,

  • 500g white bread flour
  • 200g levain (starter fed in last 6-12 hours or less see here for details)
  • 320g water (for the lower protein flours use 290-300grms)
  • 10g salt

Knowing Your Flour

I carried on making a white sourdough.  The loaf below was then my standard Dan’s but with no-knead, and because I wasn’t very good at shaping tight enough and was using a little too much water for this flour, it would spread out.

At this point it didn’t click that some flour coped better than others for the standard amount of water I was putting in.

Oven Spring

But even with the spreading you can see it had an oven spring.

For a long time I use to deliberately under-prove my loaves because I could be sure they would rise with oven-spring.

It was a much safer bet this way than pushing the loaves too far, proving too long and have them collapse on me.  Of course what I didn’t realise then was sourdough is slower at rising therefore better tolerances than yeast loaves, it can cope with much longer proving times.

Under-Baking Sourdough

A common problem people have and was happening to me in the beginning was under baking my loaves.

They look baked and feel hard but they weren’t properly baked inside.  This is one of those times you must not trust your eyes nor the feel of your loaves.  I’ve learnt by trial and error with my oven.  I know if making a loaf with 500g of flour it needs the minimum of 50 minutes in a very well pre-heated oven for 30-40 mins at Fan 200C.  And if the loaf has retard overnight in the fridge it will need an hour.

A very experienced baker Paul Merry taught me how to sound out for vibrations of a baked loaf holding it in the palm of your hand protected with a damp teatowel and tap with the other hand for vibrations down to the bottom of the loaf.  This is not the same as the “sounding hollow” which is a bad guide to see if loaves are baked.  Paul’s way is hard to explain and needs photos to accompany it and even after that lots of practice.

Under-baking and Crust Softening

I use to take them out when they appeared to look baked and feel hard but once my loaves were out of the oven the crust would soften after 20mins or so of being out.  This would really annoy me because I love a crisp crust, that’s why I love a home baked freshly-out-of-the-oven loaf, there are those who don’t like crust but to me crust is almost everything.

Someone on a forum said how they had read if your crust softens after coming out it’s because it’s still under-baked and there’s too much moisture inside, as the loaf cools that moisture will come out through the crust, softening it.  This made so much sense to me.   If I imagined my oven as a drying machine and once the loaf was set in shape it needed to dry out inside.  This helped me with the crust I wanted, alongside getting good steam in the oven.  Bake for far longer than you think you should…don’t mind your nerves.

Below back then the under-baked loaf, after 20mins out of the oven the crust softening.

And sometimes the crumb would be on the side of just slightly under-done too.


What helped me in the first few months of baking sourdoughs was making hybrids, just adding 2 grams of dried yeast helped me a great deal.  I think hybrids are fantastic at getting sourdough baking right, it’s like a security blanket.

I know there’s some bakers who see hybrids as somehow not sourdough but really I think hybrids have rights you know!

Dog With a Bone

I have been compared to the dog, Jack russell…urm…no…not for the looks…at least I don’t think it was...they referred to my persistence.  When I put my mind to something I’ll be at it until I’m happy.  It’s a good way to be in bread making.

These photos below date back to June 2010 and it was pretty much my standard of mixing Dan’s recipe, let it prove, take it out on to a very floured surface fold it and pinch it together underneath into a tight boule shape, turn it over put it on to baking sheet, let if prove, slash and bake.

I use to make this loaf all the time every week.  This is how I basically taught myself how to look out for changes, see how the same recipe changed by little differences I made.  I cut my baking teeth with this recipe and the repetition of it.  And all my other learning has come from here.

Now if I have a new flour to try, be it a white wheat flour from a mill I’m experimenting with or even an ancient grain I use Dan’s white loaf as my starting point and see how the new flour feels, proves, rises and so on.


My advice is find a standard recipe you like, whether you add some rye flour or wholemeal to it, it doesn’t matter, if you have a standard recipe you know well, it will give you a measuring stick for future experiments.

Reducing the Water

It was through the repetition of my standard loaf I first realised how reducing as little as 20 grams of water can make all the difference.  Remember above my loaves spreading too much on the baking sheet, well here below, 30th June 2010, was when I first started playing around with holding back some water, 20 grams and realising how this flour held its shape much better.

All throughout this time I was using standard bread supermarket flour, which I would change depending on the supermarket.  I started to see how some flour would absorb water better than others.  If you click on my post here  where I go into detail on different flours.


Dan’s Loaf – The Folding Breakthrough 22 July 2010

It was then in July when I really had a great breakthrough with my loaves, I started doing the folding method Dan does and produced a loaf I felt like shouting about, my original post here.

The no-kneading method works and produces a good loaf, but, you’ll find that it’s easier when it comes to shaping the loaf if you have folded it.

I don’t take it out of the bowl to do it, like Dan does, but I make sure the bowl is wide enough to give me space to stretch it as I fold the dough, see the step-by-step photos in this post.

Steam in a Domestic Oven

Right from the beginning I managed to produce good crust once I sorted the baking times in my domestic oven, even better than in a cheap commercial oven that have no steam.  I should do a future post on crusts because there is a small element where quality of flour plays a part but this is the difference between getting a good crust and a super-crust.  All the time I’ve been baking up until the last few months I’ve used supermarket flour and still managed to get a very good crust.

Steam method One – I talk in detail again in this post about steam, have a read.  I add cold water to a roasting tray on the bottom of the very hot oven, shut the door,  I let that water come to temperature, start to steam up for good 10 minutes before adding the loaves.  Yes you lose some steam on opening oven but you still have plenty of steam left, believe me.

Steam method Two – If you follow Dan’s method of adding boiling water to the tray on the bottom of the oven, then you don’t need to wait for the water to heat up, you can add the loaf straight away.

Now pick which way you want, but either way it creates great steam.  Ideally you want the water to dry up about halfway through baking.  I never saw the point of spraying water into the walls of your oven as the only way of adding steam.  I’ve also heard people ruining their oven doing that.  Where’s adding water to a roasting tin after a period of time will warp your tin, not your oven.

Baking Many Loaves

Sometimes I have to bake 4 loaves at a time in my 90cm wide oven like I did below when baking 16 loaves, and it’s harder to achieve as good crust.  Back in the summer when I gave Gregoire a Walnut & Raisin loaf, I had unfortunately baked it in a large batch, as I was baking for others, which meant the crust wasn’t as good as it could’ve been…still kicking myself.

Leaving Sourdough to Rise Fully

When producing lots of loaves like the photo above and I have no space in fridge to retard loaves.  I leave them on baking trays lined with baking paper on my dinning room table, open window to keep room cool at about 10C, at about 11pm.   Up early at 6am to heat oven and first loaves go in at 6.40am, 4 loaves at a time.

The 13hr proved crumb at 8-10C 

When I leave out the loaves on dining room table they rise into a huge loaves, giving you the lightest crumb, quite a noticeable difference from a 6-8 hour crumb. But you’re at the edge of ripeness of the dough…so have to handle your nerves.  If you really want to produce a large size loaf without any bread improvers, this is it, take dough to the edge of ripeness.

Today’s Loaves

Here we are, a full circle, my 2 loaves today, still Dan’s white sourdough recipe.

This one below is under experimentation with only adding 100 grms levain.

How I Bake a Loaf

I’ve tried many ways of baking and one way is to mix dough in the morning (having fed starter before going to bed).   Leave the dough most of the day covered in a bowl, when I go past it and remember I fold it on 2 separate occasions, 3 if I have time.  These folding occasions can be 20mins apart or an hour apart.  So after 3rd fold and rest again, I shape, place on lined baking sheet.  Leave to prove for 1-3 hours depending again on time and how much they’ve risen.  Bake by the end of the afternoon.  The whole process can take 6-8 hours.

My Favourite Way

This following way of making bread has become my favourite.  Feed the starter at about lunchtime (can be done earlier in the morning) then mix dough early evening, say 7-8pm.  During the evening do 2 folds as per normal.  Just before going to bed (10-11pm) shape loaf place in baking lined sheet, place in fridge overnight.  Take out fridge (can be 6am or 8am) and leave out for 30mins – 2 hours (depending on time I’ve got).  Bake.  That’s how I baked today’s loaves.  You have full flavour and I have fresh bread for lunch!