The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

First loaf was a brick... help?

somethink.different's picture

First loaf was a brick... help?

Hey all! I just tried making my first loaf of sourdough bread, and it was sort of a flop. Can anyone shed some light on what I did wrong?


The recipe I used called for a sponge made with 1 cup starter, 1.5 cups water, and 3.5 cups flour (I used unbleached all purpose). I let it sit overnight, and in the morning found it relatively bubbly and pleasantly sour-smelling. That was the only thing that seemed to go right.

I added 2 teaspoons each of salt and sugar, and 2.5 cups of flour. It seemed awfully wet and sticky, but I figured I'd give it a try and just follow the recipe. I turned it out on the counter and tried to knead it, putting flour on the counter and water on my hands to keep it from sticking; I added close to a cup more flour in an attempt to keep it from taking over my counter, but it did very little to help.

After almost half an hour of kneading, it was still sticking and I still couldn't make the gluteney-dough-windowpane, but I figured that was the best I was going to get. I put it in an oiled bowl, stuck it in the oven with the light on, and left it to rise while I went to run errands. I arrived home several hours later to find that it had barely budged, much less doubled in size. I threw it in a loaf pan anyway (it being too wet to hold its shape especially well), and left it in the oven over night to see if it would make any progress. 

After twelve hours more it still hadn't done much, so I decided to bake it just to see what would happen. I preheated the oven, popped the bread in, poured some water in the steam pan, and prayed for a miracle. In about half an hour I pulled out a wonderfully sour, crusty, golden-brown... brick. It tastes marvellous, but has the texture and density of a block of clay. Should I have added more flour for a stiffer dough? Or was it a starter problem?

Chrissi's picture

Hi, I am still new at this, so somebody more knowledgeable may come along to help more or correct me if I've said something wrong.  However, I'll tell you what I've learned recently that may help you with your problem.


When a recipe creates very sticky dough, that's all right.  Don't worry about it.  Just knead it despite it being sticky - it will stick to the counter and to your hands, but that is perfectly fine.  There is a method called the "french fold" which I've adopted recently to knead sticky doughs, and it works really, really well and in terms of having fun kneading - I find it way more fun!


Here is a video showing the french fold technique:


When I first saw it, I thought it looked CRAZY and thought, why would I ever bother doing that?  But it's actually easier, and look at what the dough does eventually.  It develops the gluten really well, so it stops being sticky.  You don't have to do it for half an hour... I find doing it for just 5 minutes, then letting the dough rest for 10-30 minutes, then doing another 5, works pretty well and develops the dough very nicely.

The reason you want to just leave it and not add extra flour to make a more "workable" dough, is because generally, the more water the better.  Too much flour is more likely to make a brick.  The more water there is, the more steam the bread will create inside when in the oven - this contributes to oven spring (the rising the dough does in the oven).  So your dough will generally be lighter the more water it has.


Secondly, you might have fallen to the very first error I realized I made when I was first baking sourdough - it's possible to proof for TOO long.  12 hours might have been too much, ESPECIALLY in a warm place.  Contrary to popular belief, a warm area isn't required nor desired.  Find the coolest place in your kitchen other than the fridge.  Maybe in a cupboard.  A longer, colder rise will produce better flavour.  And it's easier to control and check when it's ready - if you put it in a warm place, you might miss the perfect opportunity.


When you proof for too long (or too warm), the dough will rise, then fall again and you won't notice that it has risen.  You may think it hasnt' done anything at all, when really it's done all its work while you were gone.  If you need to leave dough unattended, put it in the fridge - then you can be sure it won't overproof.  It then needs to warm up to room temperature to proof some more.


I hope that was understandable!  I must admit I haven't produced a very good sourdough loaf yet.  But I have made some quite mediocre ones ever since my very first loaf, which was almost inedible!  It's something about sourdough... it's so much more challenging than yeasted doughs.

LindyD's picture

Tell us about your sourdough culture: how old is it and have you ever baked bread with it before?

restever99's picture

Sounds like you over proofed the starter and the wee beasties died.

For future attempts I would build the culture into a firm starter, avoid adding sugar, let rise for around 4-5 hours, stick in the fridge overnight, and when your ready to make the bread let it sit at room temp for about a hour to take off the chill.

You can also spike the dough with some commercial yeast and lower the proofing time.

My first few loaves were pretty dissapointing as well.  Don't give up and keep trying!

Chuck's picture

Some questions:

First, did the recipe give any guidance how "wet" they expected the starter to be? Is it possible the recipe expected something thick, but what you had was runny? Could more water than the recipe expected have snuck in that way?

Second, is it possible you mis-measured something? Even with the (unrealistic) suppositions that the cup of starter was entirely water and that no additional flour was used, my calculations give a peak possible hydration level of around 76% - even though that's fairly wet, it doesn't seem to quite match your description of just how sticky and formless your dough was.



Long slow (i.e. cool) rises will give your breads more flavor. The very fast rises that were in fashion a while back were mainly about enabling a homemaker to produce something for dinner even though they didn't start until after lunch. You'll occasionally have a use for rising tricks like putting the dough on top of a radiator or heating vent or in an oven with the light (electric) or pilot (gas) on, but you shouldn't need them routinely least not in summertime.

New possibilities have opened up as breadbakers have gotten better at using refrigerators to their advantage. Now you can do part of your breadmaking one day and the rest the next day, rather than having to do it all at once. (When you're ready to learn yet another new thing sometime in the future, search for "retard".)


ww's picture


im goign to jump in and reply tho i don't know how useful my answer will be to you because others have been very helpful when i started and because i had two failed attempts with bread that made me put off attempting bread for more than a year.

First of all, i would ask if you have tried straight dough breads before? sourdough bread has more variables so if you are not familiar with straight doughs using just fresh/dry yeast, then perhaps you could start off with that to familiarise yourself with the mechanics of breadbaking and what to look out for.

If the above doesnt apply, then perhaps it's your starter? I had a similar experience before where the dough just seemed like one wet swamp absorbing as much flour as i could throw in and just refusing to take on any sort of shape whatsoever. Like you i just threw the whole glob into a flattish pan and baked it up. It was wonderfully tangy-tasting but i hadn't set out to make flat bread!

I think what i had made then was one giant leaven or starter. I didnt know then, but my leaven was in no state to be used because i had not been feeding it right. All the while i had been adding a refreshed leaven to an old one, so my leaven was always a combination of some old and some new, and the yeast in it had probably died or was overwhelmed. Leavens are such a complex and delicate balance of all sorts of bacteria and yeasts and acids - there's a whole lot of literature out there which you can read - but mine was probably very unbalanced, i realised only with hindsight. And appearances can be deceiving - mine grew, bubbled and frothed, but there are different types of bubbliness as i have found out :) And am still finding out! If it looks frothy but weak, thin or runny then it is probably overripe.

So in short, what i'm saying is maybe you want to examine your leaven. Use a very reliable method of refreshing it, refresh it a few times to get it solid before using it. Then i would suggest using a very reliable bread recipe and following it to the letter - i'm not good at that myself, but it was only when i did it correctly did i find out what i was doing wrong. And am still finding out! Don't give up!

wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

That sounds like my first foray into sourdough breads. I think I used Hamelman's rye starter. 

I let them rise (or try to) for 12+ hours.

They didn't make much progress, but I baked them anyway.

The result: bread stones.

I kept them for souvenirs (still have both of them 10 years later; they're mummified or something by now, but still hard as brick).

It turns out that my starter was too weak to leaven a dough that was kneaded too much.

Once the starter improved, it would leaven my house if I'd let it. ;)

somethink.different's picture

Thanks for the input! From what you guys have said, I think my starter needs to be refreshed. I fed it daily when it was out (it's snoozing in the fridge at the moment), but was inconsistent with it... sometimes I would discard, sometimes not, and the ratio of starter:water:flour wasn't always the same. How would I go about getting the little guy back on track?

wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

He's probably still alive, so allow me to introduce:

Wiggy's Darwinian Method of Starter Revival (pardon, too much beer as I type, mumbles something about survival of the fittest).

I'd use three quart-size Bell jars with usual caps (find at Ace Hardware, etc.)

Mix the old starter well, juices and all, assuming juices don't look like overly aggressive bathroom scum, and then put a little of it in each of the three jars (~1 tablespoon).

Feed each jar 50 g flour / 50 g water a couple times a day for a few days and see if they get happy again. They're happiest in an environment not unlike that of your typical house plant. 

Keep the happiest one and toss the rest.

If none are bubbly and just begging for a leavening after three days, the original was indeed dead and will produce no viable offspring.

Start over from scratch.

Yogibaker's picture

My first loaves were all bricks, it took a while, but now they are coming out much better, so it's worth persisting. Comopletely agree about overproofing - it seems you left this dough far too long without giving it any attention. Also, you say you added another whole cup of flour whilst kneading? This is way, way too much and will ruin the proportions of your recipe. Anything you add during kneading (flour or water) will be absorbed during kneading and will change the consistency of the dough. Stick to the recipe, and use only a little oil on your hands and the work surface when you are kneading. This will stop the dough sticking and help you to manage it better. Best still, check out Dan Lepard ( and look at his suggestions on how to treat dough - mix it together, leave for 30 mins. Then knead (or learn how to stretch and fold - much easier if your dough is very soft/high hydration levels) for 15 seconds. Leave for 45 mins. Continue like this 4/5 times, and then shape. Leave to rest for 15 mins, then re-shape, place in banneton (or lined basket) to proof - overnight in the fridge, or for a couple of hours or so (depending on ambient temperature - ie less during the summer, more in winter) in the kitchen. Then do the proof test .... press your finger into the dough. If the dough springs back immediately, more time needed. If it only comes back a bit, then it's done. Bake, cool, and eat! I hope this helps, good luck with the next one!