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Help! Sourdough is rising wonky!

Toriorioria's picture

Help! Sourdough is rising wonky!

Hi there!

Sourdough newbie here! My boyfriend and I began our starter on the 21st February and have been baking once or twice a week with it ever since it was ready to work with.

We are using the starter and recipe from Richard Bertinet's book 'Crust'. I believe it's a 50% hydration starter

The first loaves turned out well shapen and with a good crust, but the crumb inside was very dense and doughy.

The second batch was really good, still not perfect, it had much bigger holes inside.

The third attempt we won't discuss because it was a disaster!

The fourth batch was good, the dough stuck to the baskets, and the flavour is good (as it has been for all but the first batch) but the loaves rose unevenly.

The fifth batch was pretty much the same as the fourth, although we have switched to rice flour when dusting our baskets which has worked like a dream.

My boyfriend took some starter to Ireland with him and has been baking in his family home. The same uneven rise has happened to him, and as I type this, my sixth batch is in the oven and it is yet again wonky. 

I've proved for 21 hours (got stuck late at work!) 16-18 hours as suggested in the book and today I tried 13 hours but they have all got a wonky rise! 

Please can someone help!!!!?!? 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Are you shaping wonky?  :)

Have you got a picture of the crumb, a cross section?

Tell more about the rising... how much, any handling, temps, and how many times?  Are you proofing only one time or a series of rises?


Toriorioria's picture

Thanks for replying!

I shouldn't think its the shaping, since they sit in a proving basket for the whole time.

Here is a picture of the finished bread, followed by a picture of the crumb.  Obviously the part with the huge hole is the part of the loaf that rose colossally and the more even part is from the shorter side.

So I made the dough, this time at a lower hydration than previously, before it was 74%, I think I ended up with about 69/70%, kneaded for 15/20 minutes using the slap and fold technique and adding the salt after about 10 minutes. I didn't add any flour to my worksurface.

Then shaped into a round by folding all the edges to the centre, left in my ceramic mixing bowl covered with the bakers linen cloth and rested for just over an hour. Then took the dough back onto the surface, folded in again and rested for another hour. Room temperature was somewhere around 17.5/18 degrees.

Finally, split the dough in two, and shape so that it was nice and firm and not all floppy, folding in all the edges to the centre, placed smooth side down into the proving baskets which were dusted with rice flour.

I left these overnight covered with a couple of layer of bakers linen, temp was about the same as before.  This morning the temp rose to about 18.5/19 - I've been running around trying to find a cooler place as the recipe calls for 16-18 hour prove at 16-18 degrees.

I tried doing a poking test but ended up just getting more confused, it seemed like they were already overproved after 11 hours, because the dough wasn't springing back up very quickly at all, but I left it a couple more hours because I've read that the wonky shape can be down to underproving. Ended up baking it after 13 hours proving at around 17.5-19 degrees.

The recipe makes two loaves so the other one I have left and it is still proving downstairs. It's been there for just over 16 hours now.

Hoping you can help shed some light on this because whenever you read something about the symptoms being that of an underproved loaf, you then find another 5 telling you its the opposite! :(

Thanks in advance!

Reynard's picture

With wonky breads too. Had exactly the same problem last year. It's a combination of two things really, and very easy to solve...

One - shaping, as Mini Oven has already pointed out. Good one I've found for boules is to stretch out your dough into a circle, then fold the outsides into the middle. Next, turn your dough upside down on a floured board i.e. with the seams now on the bottom. Put your hands behind the dough, and pull it towards you. Rotate through 90 degrees and repeat. Do this half a dozen times or so - each time you pull the dough towards you, you will be getting good tension on your loaf. Good shaping will help stop the large holes inside the bread.

Two - the crust is setting before the bread has fully finished expanding. Again, that's easy to remedy by baking your bread under a cloche for part of the cooking time. That way, it bakes in its own steam and stops the crust from hardening too soon. If you haven't got a proprietary cloche or clay baker, use an upturned stock pot over a baking sheet.

HTH :-)

Toriorioria's picture

Thanks for the advice Reynard!

Funny thing is, about a month ago (i.e. when I first started baking sourdough!) my friend gave me a cloche that she had never used but said her dad swear by it.  There I was thinking it was just a big old bulky thing that wasn't necessary!

Perfect, I'll give that a shot now, although my other loaf is proved in a long oval basket so it'll be a pretty tight squeeze! How long would you say to keep it under the cloche for?

At the moment I am misting my oven with water spray as Bertinet suggests, would you still do this or is that a contributory factor in why the crust is setting so early?

Thanks so much for your help! 

Reynard's picture

I actually use a chicken brick for batards and the upturned stock pot for boules or tin loaves :-)

My bakes are usually around 45-50 mins depending on the size of the loaf. I tend to bake covered for the first 25 mins at 230C and then the remainder uncovered at 200C. You'll probably have to see what works for you, as what works for my oven and my bread won't necessarily work for you. But hope I've given you a starting point :-)

I started baking under a cloche because I *can't* steam my oven - it has vents in the door you see... If you're baking under a cloche, no need to spray water into the oven. The moisture in the dough will generate its own steam.

Lazy Loafer's picture
Lazy Loafer

I find that I have to prove my sourdoughs overnight in the fridge. If I leave it in a cool place (my basement, for example) for the length of time that Bertinet recommends it's way overproofed.

From the looks of the large hole in the middle (or off-centre, giving you the wonky rise), it's a combination of shaping and overproofing. Reynard's description of shaping is very good. If you simply fold the edges into the middle and don't add the step of tightening the dough (by cupping your hands around it on a clean dry surface and pulling it towards you), you might just be trapping a big bubble of gas in the middle where you folded. Hope this makes sense. There are some good videos on Youtube about shaping loaves of fairly we dough. Check out Ken Forkish's FWSY videos, for example.

Stuart Borken's picture
Stuart Borken

Your kneading and shaping is what is making your dough rise wonky.  The issue that your boyfriend in Ireland had the same thing happen to his breads just tells you that both of you used the same flawed technique of shaping.  You will have perfect breads from now on.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

for the yeast in the dough.  The crumb looks not over-proofed to me but under folded,  the resulting crumb appears over-proofed because it stood so long in the baskets too soon.  Wait for the dough to get some volume before folding and shaping.  Give the yeast a chance to build so that you can fold and even it out and shape.  Shift some of the proofing rise time into the bulk rise time.  

Would also like to see more heat under the loaf as it bakes.  Bottom crust seems pale to me or is that just the camera angle?   

oursus's picture

in the lower of the two pictures, they all appear to be in almost aerofoil section.  This is caused when sliding off your "peel"  into the oven, particularly with higher hydration doughs, you can minimise friction with a smooth action & by either using parchment underneath, or sufficient coarse flour.

The uneven crumb & overly pronounced alveolation in the core of the loaves is because your shaping has "knocked back" the outer portion of your dough ball, but not the core.

By the way, the techniques that Bertinet uses are very "authentic" & traditional, but Raymond Calvel made some advances about 45 years ago which you may find of interest :) (the bread bakers guild of America certainly did!)


martusia's picture

Hyia, non-english newbie here.

This is a very interesting discussion in which I believe I've found some answers for troubles I got into with my shaping. Thank you oursus and Mini Oven for your explanations, they are extremely helpful.

Sitll, I have one question: what do you, oursus, mean by "knock back"? I have trouble in understanding some part of coloquial language as english is not my mother tongue :(

oursus's picture

Hi Martusi,

"knocking back" is deflating the dough after bulk ferment, (first prove) it's more pronounced in Northern European or British baking techniques, which require a closer, more uniform crumb. 

The present popularity of exaggerated alveolation usually dictates a higher hydration & or longer fermentation.  Since these doughs require a gentler touch when shaping,  there is a temptation to attempt to avoid working them at all, (for uniformity of final structure, the larger bubbles should be excluded in the first shaping, just don't go overboard!)

martusia's picture

Thank you oursus for your explanation :)

So, how much exactly should I be working on the dough? I'm trying to master Forkish's White Poolish Bread and I have no idea what to do. I have constant problem of gluten surface not tight enough and my dough more or less spills in the oven and I really want it to hold the shape. Will preshaping help?

oursus's picture


No problem at all :)

As I just mentioned to @Mini Oven, there is always a part of a new process that is about learning which direction you don't want to go in!

If the dough is slack, there are a few factors that will affect things:  Hydration, enzyme activity (the dough digesting itself & losing strength) Shaping & scoring...

Hydration is easy to overdo - 10g of water will make a noticeable difference to a 400-800g loaf, so make sure you are measuring accurately, also bear in mind that different batches of flour will absorb water at different rates - if you are having problems handling the dough, reduce the water a little next time, it will make it way easier to handle & will retain more height.  

If you are fermenting, a poolish will peak after a time, losing structure -  the end product has that much less gluten.... (eventually turning into a pancake)  So you want to see activity, but not let the poolish fall before building to the dough.

Preshaping... have a play with it, see if it improves your loaf, my advice would be don't worry about the process too much, and don't be tempted to think "I'll just do that again"!!

with no particular prejudice:

alfanso's picture

Boy, look at the difference between the almost no raw flour used in the SFBI video, vs. the NW SD video, ~ minute 1:05.  Ugh.  It seems almost criminal to me to be adding so much raw flour to the workbench, hence to the already fermented dough surface.  Which, when shaped, will almost definitely be incorporated into the interior of the dough.

Needless to say, I am not a fan of that aspect of the second video.  If any of you ever catch me doing that, feel free to yell at me.


oursus's picture

There certainly is a fair amount of flour on that surface, isn't there?

To be fair, I hadn't intended it as a "what not to do" - more just a different case - not the best surface, unworked dough, high hydration etc...

The fella from SFBI does have a lovely touch though eh?  I especially like about 7:15 where you can see the "Heavy heel, light palm" in action, sealing the seam, but not impacting the batard

One thing, I think, the first video does show is how little the dough can be manipulated when making lighter continental breads...

martusia's picture

Thank you :) I really learn a lot from your advices.

My bread is right now about 68% of hydration, when I get to 72% I also get the flat boule and the dough sticks to the bannetton. Unfortunately in Poland we have relatively poor flour and the differences between mills are really discouraging. My poolish once had a consistency of a pancake dough and I could literally spill it from the bowl :D

Yesterday I did that bread again and I get the idea that I'm degassing it somehow. The crumb is not dense, but bubbles are small (comparing to Forkish's huge ones). I dunno if it's the gluten structure or my constant mistake on whatever the stage... I always think that I do everything wrong and thus I don't know where to start fixing.

About the poolish: Forkish says that it's okay when poolish triples the volume, the surface looks like a bit, umm, ripped (don't know what would be the right word for it), with some scars in the middle, but I never get to the stage when I see the air bubbles popping on the surface. Is it okay? Should I wait more?

oursus's picture

Hi Martusia, 

If you have an established starter & you have fed (organic flour) in short intervals  (feed, rise, feed again) to get everything balanced & active, then it will be good to bake with.

N.American flour is very "Strong", most of the pictures that you see on the web or coffee table books are also using a large percentage of refined flour - if you are using a coarse stonground flour, then sifting out some of the bran may help - European flours generally will not take as much water as American ones though, so you will need to compensate. - I bake an open textured loaf at 60% hydration, but they can go over 90% with different flours, and get  trickier to work with as the water content rises.

I understand your frustration with not knowing what to change!  I think the answer to this, is to change only one thing at once -

If you are looking for the "Show loaf" find a flour that is acceptable (perhaps mix 1:3 Wholegrain:Strong white) & stick with it.  (I know Amazon has opened in Poland now, can you buy Manitoba flour on there?)

If the crumb is tight(which, to be honest is how most bread should be!) and you want more pronounced alveolation (the large holes) You can:

Prove at a lower temperature for longer, perhaps in your fridge, but not set too low.

Shape gently, in order not to deflate (but make sure you have still shaped effectively - you will see the little striations (stretch marks) on the surface & the dough will sit higher when resting.

Improve your oven heat & steam - depending on what oven you are using, there are differing techniques for that.

The most important thing to remember is bread isn't for looking at or taking pictures of, it's for eating,make sure you practice that!

Reynard's picture

Krupczatka, Martusia?

I'm in the UK - my typical loaves are around 65% hydration, but I rarely go above 67% unless I'm working with a high percentage of wholegrain, else I end up with an unmanageable, sloppy mess. To be truthful, I do use some Polish flours in my breads and I find them ok to use. Melvit is the brand I get over here.

What kind of hydration are you using for your poolish / levain btw? A very liquid poolish won't give you the bubbly structure you are looking for. I tend to stick to 100% hydration for my poolishes & levains, except when I'm making babka. A 100 % hydration poolish or levain left out on the kitchen counter should be ready for use in about 12 hours.

As for the big bubbles - to quote another poster on TFL - they don't hold the marmalade. ;-) While bread with big bubbles might look "showy", I personally prefer the practicality of a tighter crumb. Much less messy in the long run LOL

Put aside what "celebrity bakers" and "bread gurus" have to say and just concentrate on the bread you are trying to bake - what works for them might not necessarily work for you. And after all, you're the one who's got to eat it ;-)

Trevor J Wilson's picture
Trevor J Wilson

Very well said.



Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Oursus, precise wording, great!   (I'm always short of the right words these days.)

"The uneven crumb & overly pronounced alveolation in the core of the loaves is because your shaping has "knocked back" the outer portion of your dough ball, but not the core."

I think this happens a lot in the beginning.  Fear of deflating the dough beyond "the point of return" or touching the dough might be involved.  

oursus's picture

Hi @Mini Oven

I apologise if I don't respond promptly, for some reason TFL doesn't want to play nicely with tapatalk.

I guess it's all about gaining your reference points, right?  When moving from commercial to sourdough, some things move faster, some things slower... you can perfect anything if you monitor, make notes & change only one thing at a time!

As you so accurately identified, shaping/deflating/knocking back later  will mean there is a more uniform crumb, with less pronounced alveolation, shaping too late can mean less rise - if I think about my (un-malted, unimproved sourdough) bulk ferment - I guess I look for a little over 50% increase, how about you?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

the profile or shape of the rising dough.  With my changing humidity and temps, I have to respond to the dough with a watchful eye.

 If I'm not happy with the curve of the dough; the expanding dough curving upward from the peel or parchment as the dough is rising, or after it is turned out of a banneton;  I will give the dough another folding and shaping however close to the baking time.  The action to gently reshape the loaf so short to baking time seems to always reward me with a nice lifting all around the edges.  It may delay baking by 10 to 20 minutes but I find it worth the effort.  

I'm not so convinced that shaping late results in less rise.  Too late would mean the dough is already tearing and falling apart.  Hate that.