If you want to make your own sourdough, getting it to hold its shape is often a major challenge. If you find your loaf is sloppy and messy, what should you do about it?
Lots of things can ruin the shape of your sourdough, leaving you with a messy loaf that looks disappointing. This may be due to poor gluten structure, too much hydration, or possibly a lack of surface tension. It may take a while to figure out exactly what’s wrong, but once you’ve done so, you should be able to improve future loaves.
We’re going to use this article to understand what stops sourdough bread from holding its shape, and how you can solve these problems. This will hopefully leave you able to make beautiful loaves every time!
Why Does Your Sourdough Keep Losing Its Shape?
Sourdough bread can fail to form a good shape for a whole range of reasons. Note that in this article, we aren’t going to look at things that cause rising problems – we’re specifically going to focus on shaping issues. This will help if you’re struggling with loaves that are flat when you tip them out of the basket and get them ready to bake.
Several things can cause this problem, including:
- Using the wrong kind of flour
- Poorly developed gluten
- Not using a banneton
- Proofing it for too long
- Shaping it badly
- Adding too much water to the dough
We are going to look at each of these by turn, and then explore ways that you can fix the problem.
Using The Wrong Kind Of Flour
Flour is obviously one of the most important ingredients in your bread, and if you don’t use the right kind of flour, your sourdough won’t come out well. Changing the flour can easily change the shape, texture, and taste of your bread.
Different kinds of flour absorb water at different rates, and develop gluten to different degrees. Being aware of this is key. If you use a flour that doesn’t absorb much water, your dough will be wetter.
That means if you swap something like all-purpose flour for wholewheat flour, you’ll find your dough is drier, because the wholewheat soaks up more moisture. You therefore need to make sure you are using the flour that your recipe recommends.
The protein content in flour is particularly important in determining a bread’s texture and structure. If you use a kind of flour that doesn’t contain much protein, your bread will lack structure, and may fall apart.
Most people use strong white bread flour to make sourdough bread. This is high in protein, and will usually give you a good rise and excellent structure.
Poorly Developed Gluten
Part of the proofing process is about developing the gluten in the flour. This gluten is what helps the bread to create a structure, and it’s key to ensuring your sourdough holds together and looks good. If you find that the dough won’t rise or falls flat, it may be lacking in gluten.
You should check how the dough behaves if you place it on a flat surface. If it spreads out into a pool, the gluten has not developed sufficiently, and you won’t get bread that looks good. Instead, it should mostly remain in a ball.
Not Using A Banneton
A banneton is not absolutely critical to making sourdough, but it makes a big difference. A banneton is a basket that supports the bread while it’s proofing and while the gluten is developing, and it will make a big difference to how the dough looks.
Without a banneton, your sourdough’s rise will be weaker, and it will struggle to maintain its shape when it has finished rising.
If you don’t have a banneton, you may wish to create a makeshift version that will support the dough. Overall, though, placing your dough in a banneton and putting it in your fridge to proof should give you a good shape and plenty of structure.
Proofing It For Too Long
Like other kinds of bread, sourdough should not be proofed for too long. After a certain period, the gluten will start to break down, and the dough will not rise properly. It won’t be able to hold its own shape.
You can still bake it in a loaf tin and eat it, but the result won’t be particularly enjoyable. Make sure you read the recipe carefully and use a timer so you don’t overproof the dough. If you do accidentally leave it for too long, there isn’t really a way to fix it, unfortunately.
Shaping It Badly
You can’t just put the dough in the fridge and hope that it will form a good shape on its own. You need to create some surface tension, or you’ll just have a messy blob. You must stretch the surface of the dough around the rest of the dough to tension it and hold everything together.
You can find plenty of videos online that will show you how to do this, or ask somebody else you know who bakes sourdough to demonstrate. Essentially, you will be stretching the dough toward the center and pressing it down to make it taut.
Think of it like creating a skin that holds the rest of the dough together. Without it, the dough will slop around and you won’t get a good shape.
Adding Too Much Water To The Dough
The more water your dough contains, the more it will spread. This is logical; water doesn’t hold a fixed shape, and wet dough can’t either.
Sourdough does need quite a lot of water in it, but if you add too much, you’ll really struggle to shape your loaf. You may find that it helps to practice with slightly less water to begin with, and gradually increase as you gain practice and become more skilled at shaping the dough.
Aim for a hydration level between 60 and 75 percent. You might find that the texture isn’t perfect because of the reduced hydration, but this will make it easier to shape the bread.
Once you’ve become more experienced, you can increase the hydration of the dough, and you’ll be more likely to get great results. Work your way up gradually, and you should master the technique.
How Do You Make Sourdough Hold Its Shape?
We’ve covered some of the main reasons that sourdough might not successfully stay together, but now let’s look at what actions you can take to more actively encourage good shaping. There are quite a few techniques you can use that will improve your bread’s chances of looking the way you want it to.
- Increase the surface tension
- Follow proper proofing techniques
- Refrigerate the dough
- Encourage gluten development
- Check the hydration levels
- Add rye flour or wholewheat flour
Some of these have been touched on in the sections above, but we’re going to cover them in more depth now.
1. Increase The Surface Tension
Earlier, we discussed the fact that too little surface tension can cause shaping issues. This is something that you should actively be aware of when you are working with your dough. The more time you spend creating surface tension, the better your bread’s shape will be.
When you shape your sourdough bread, you must make sure you are pulling the outside “skin” of the dough tightly around the rest. This is key to holding everything together.
It’s a skill that you should develop with time, but don’t rush it or skip over it in your early loaves just because you are a beginner. You must learn how to do this right. You want to make sure there is a layer of gluten on the outside that will tightly bond around the dough and support its weight.
If you are having trouble with this, you might want to try the double-shaping method. This is an excellent way to further increase the surface tension.
It involves shaping the bread as you would normally do, and then setting it aside for 15 minutes. Leave it to rest, and then repeat the process, shaping it a second time. This will pull back any areas that have become lax and tighten up the dough beautifully.
2. Follow Proper Proofing Techniques
Proofing is often challenging at first, and sourdough proofs very slowly, which makes it trickier. However, you will need to master this to get good dough.
Remember, it’s better to underproof the dough than to overproof it. If you underproof your sourdough, it’ll be a bit tough, but still edible. If you overproof it, it won’t be able to rise and won’t make a good loaf.
You’ll learn what your dough looks like when it’s finished proofing with time, but follow your recipe closely when you first begin making sourdough. This should help to ensure your bread gets proofed correctly.
3. Refrigerate The Dough
When you proof bread, the strands of gluten in it will get tighter as time passes. This tightness is something you want, because it makes the bread light and elastic. However, if you just leave the sourdough to proof on the counter, it will be ready before the gluten strands have finished tightening.
You therefore want to slow down the process and give the gluten more time. You can do this by placing the dough in the fridge. The gluten will stiffen and will support the bread’s shape far better. You do need to proof it for longer, but this is generally worth the extra time.
Most people do this for the second proofing of their sourdough. You can allow it to proof on the counter for the first rise, and then knock it back, shape it, and place it in the fridge in a banneton. This should solve many shaping issues.
4. Encourage Gluten Development
Of course, you need a good amount of gluten for any of this to work at all. That means choosing a flour with plenty of protein in it, and either kneading the flour thoroughly or giving the dough plenty of time to proof – or both.
Sourdough breads don’t tend to involve much kneading, which is why the proofing time becomes so important. However, if your flour is low in protein, you won’t get much gluten development even if you give it plenty of time. Make sure your flour has at least 12 percent protein.
5. Add Rye Flour Or Wholewheat Flour
Although a lot of people make sourdough with strong white flour, adding a bit of rye or wholewheat can make a massive difference. They will soak up more water, letting you hydrate the bread without it becoming sticky. The dough will be easier to handle and easier to shape.
You only need to add about 20 percent of this flour to make your dough significantly easier to handle. This will change the flavor, of course, so experiment with different ratios and find one that you like.
Should you knead sourdough?
Although sourdough shouldn’t be worked too much, it’s important to do some kneading to develop the gluten.
Can you add seeds and nuts?
Additions to your loaf disrupt the chains of gluten, and can make the dough lose its shape. You should soak them in boiling water for a few hours before mixing them in to reduce this issue. This will soften them and stop them from breaking the gluten chains as much.
Can you add water to your dough?
You shouldn’t add flour after you have done the bulk fermentation process. This will alter the dough’s chemistry too much, and may ruin the loaf.
If your sourdough won’t hold its shape, check the issues above, and reduce the hydration until you have got a better grasp of tensioning the surface and encouraging the gluten development. Don’t despair if it takes you a while to master this; making sourdough bread tends to involve a bit of a learning curve, but it is worth the trouble!