Sourdough bakers often complain about their bread having too dense a texture. It was certainly a problem I had when I first started to bake sourdough bread, especially when I was using whole wheat flour. But as I became more experienced I learned a few tricks here and there that gave me a lighter and fluffier result.
There are several ways to manipulate sourdough bread at different stages to encourage a lighter loaf with a less dense texture, from simple adjustments, to extra steps in the baking process. Here are my top tips to a lighter, less dense sourdough bread.
Tip #1: Increase the Hydration Level of your Dough for a Softer Textured Sourdough
The amount of water you add to the dough affects how open the crumb is in the final result (open crumb means bigger holes and a softer texture). The higher the water level, the more open the crumb will be. The caveat to that is that a wetter dough is far more difficult to handle.
Try increasing the water and/or decreasing the amount of flour in your loaf by a only a little. See how well you are able to handle the dough, especially at the shaping stage. If you managed it like a pro, increase the hydration a little more next time until you find your limit.
You will find that the bread is softer and lighter the more water you add. Continue to do this until you find a happy balance between a hydration of dough you can handle, and the density of the bread.
Tip #2: Switch up the Type of Flour you use to give Sourdough a Softer Texture
The type of flour used in your mixture will make a massive difference to the end result of your bread. Gluten strands are what hold up the bread when the yeasts produce gases in the dough. This means using flour that has strong gluten in it will give you the best possible chance of getting a good rise in your sourdough bread. (For a more detailed information about using different flours for your sourdough bread, read my flour guide here.)
Strong white bread flour (milled from hard wheat) is your best bet when it comes to the most airy, fluffy bread result. It’s also the easiest flour to handle when kneading and shaping your dough due to it’s elasticity.
Using low gluten flours such as rye will make it impossible to get a good rise in your bread. Whole wheat flours, including whole wheat versions of spelt, or any other type of flour may offer superior flavor (and nutrition), but it won’t do anything towards giving you a lighter texture.
A good way to get the added flavor of other flours such as rye, is to use a mixture of strong white flour with other flours. This way, you still get a nice rise in your bread, but don’t compromise on the flavor that other flours may give. The higher the proportion of strong white, the lighter your bread will be.
Tip #3: Use Sifted Flour to Make Sourdough Less Dense
If you still choose to use whole wheat flour, try sifting some or all of the flour to get rid of part of the bran. Bran in your whole wheat flour act like tiny little sharp bits that cut through the gluten strands, stopping them from holding up the air in the dough. Getting rid of part of the bran will help keep more of the structure formed by the gluten and give you a lighter loaf.
Tip #4: Soak Flour Beforehand for a Lighter Sourdough Loaf
Soaking whole grain flour overnight before adding it to the final dough mixture will allow the bran in the wheat to soften and become more flexible. Then, when you add it to your recipe, it won’t affect the gluten as much by cutting the developed strands and losing all the gas build up. Hence, giving you a taller loaf with bigger air pockets. Soaking in this way is often called a ‘soaker‘ and here’s a quick guide to making one.
How to Make a Soaker for Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread:
- Measure out the amount of whole wheat flour your recipe requires into a mixing bowl.
- Add some, or all of the water or liquid that your recipe requires to the flour. You want to add enough liquid to be able to make sure all the flour is incorporated, ending up with at least a dry dough consistency. The amount of liquid you use should be made a note of, as the rest will be used in the recipe later.
- Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave on the countertop overnight or for a minimum of 6 hours.
- When ready to begin making your dough, add this entire ‘soaker’ to the recipe along with all other additional ingredients and continue making your bread in the usual way.
Taking this additional step will mean you will end up with a loaf that is less dense and more flavorsome. Soakers can be made in advance and kept in the fridge for up to a week. (For more detailed information on how to an autolyse i.e. soaking the flour, check out my article here)
QUICK TIP: If you’ve sifted some/all of the bran out of your flour, you can simply make a soaker out of the bran and add it back into your recipe!
Tip #5: Bake Sourdough Bread in a Dutch Oven for Better Results
Steam retention during baking is extremely important when it comes to getting a good rise in sourdough bread, and the best way to keep steam in your oven, is to bake the whole loaf in a Dutch oven so as not to let any of the steam escape.
The more steam there is in the oven, the longer your sourdough bread’s crust will take to form, and the longer the bread has to rise until the crust prohibits any further growth. This tip personally made the biggest difference to my bread results and now I consider it to be pretty essential to bread making.
If you’re looking to buy a Dutch oven, be sure to check out my guide to buying the right one for sourdough bread. If you don’t have a Dutch oven, have a read of my article “3 Ways to Make Amazing Sourdough Bread WITHOUT a Dutch Oven”.
Tip #6: Moisten the Dough’s Surface Before Baking for More Rise
Many sourdough bread bakers use this tip, particularly if they don’t have a Dutch oven (but also if they do). Spraying the surface of the shaped dough generously with water just before putting in the oven will keep it the surface flexible for longer, giving it a better oven spring, and a better rise in your bread.
QUICK TIP: Alternatively, you can brush an egg wash on, which will also give the bread a nice color once baked!
Tip #7: Ferment the Dough Correctly for Best Results
The dough should be fermented for the correct amount of time to give the best result. Under or over fermenting your dough will both result in a denser loaf.
Under proof your dough, and:
- it hasn’t had enough time for the gluten to develop long strands to catch the air bubbles
- not enough carbon dioxide has been produced yet to give it an aerated texture
Over proof your dough, and:
- the gluten strands begin to break down
- the sugars and starches in the flour have run out and the dough has no energy to continue rising
You want to catch your dough when it has risen a significant amount yet is still on it’s way up. As a rule of thumb, if using strong white flour, the bulk ferment should see it roughly double in size. It will be less for whole wheat flour, but err on the side of caution and shape earlier rather than later. Waiting until you see a deflation means you will probably end up with a denser loaf.
Tip #8: Use the Starter at its Peak
To get the biggest rise in sourdough bread, use the starter when it is at its peak. This means using it when it has reached its peak height in the jar, just before it begins deflating. For more information, read my article “When to use sourdough starter at it’s peak to bake good bread”
Tip #9: Make your Oven Hotter for a Higher Rising Sourdough
It’s very common for bakers to not have their oven temperatures high enough for the first part of the bake. Having a high heat in the intitial phases of the baking process in the oven is extremely important to how high the bread will rise.
Knock up the temperature to as high as it will go and make sure the oven has preheated for long enough. The hotter the oven, the better. This will give the bread the strongest boost to burst open and give a high rise. Using a baking stone increases the temperature of your oven. There are a variety of different baking stones available on Amazon to suit different budgets. Here’s one with superior heat retention qualities, but a budget one is also pretty effective.
After the initial phase and once the crust has formed (around 20 minutes), it is fine to turn the oven temperature down again to give the inside of the bread time to cook through.
Tip #10: Bake Sourdough at the Right Time to Give it the Best Rise
Once the the bread is having it’s second proof, put it in the oven at just the right time. You want it to have fermented most of the sugars and starches and done almost all of it’s rising, but you need to still have enough strength left in it for it to rise properly in the oven. Here’s how to tell when the right time is:
Gently make a dent on the shaped loaf with the tip of your finger:
- If the dent springs back up quite quickly, there is still some time needed for it to further rise.
- If the dent stays where it is, you have over proofed it. Unfortunately it has passed it’s oven spring peak and you will hopefully have better luck next time.
- If the dent comes up slowly, bingo! Time to put it into the oven. (I hope you remembered to preheat it!)
Over time you will get to know roughly how long that period of time will be just by looking at the dough, but as a beginner, it may be best to preheat your oven nice and early so that it is hot and ready as soon as your bread is.
QUICK TIP: If you’re not sure, it is better to get bread in the oven earlier rather than later, as this will ensure there is still enough energy in the bread to give it a good oven spring.
Tip #11: Handle the Dough Gently to Protect the Air Inside it
Sourdough needs to be handled gently. It’s very easy to be too heavy handed when shaping sourdough, especially if you are used to handling commercially yeasted bread dough. Sourdough needs to be degassed in a very gentle manner so as not to release all the precious gas that has developed over a period of hours/days. It should never be heavily ‘knocked back’.
Tip #12: Use a Veteran Sourdough Starter to give you Better Bread
Bread recipes need A LOT of strength to rise properly. And for sourdough, that strength is going to come from your starter. If you have made a starter from scratch, it should be at least 2 months old for it to be strong enough to rise bread properly. You may find that your bread will get better as you go along purely because your starter is also maturing and developing more yeasts.
Tip #13: Use a Preferment to give Sourdough Bread a Boost
If you are not doing so already, using a preferment (also known as ‘levain‘) adds an extra boost to the dough and gives it additional energy to rise further. A preferment is essentially where you add a larger amount of flour and water to some of your starter, and then use this as your starter in the recipe.
The theory is, that you have just given your sourdough starter an epic amount of food (the preferment), so it’s super happy. And then you go ahead and give it more from your recipe right after, so it gets crazy happy and becomes super active! I have personally tried the same recipe using a preferment, and not using one. The result? The preferment DEFINITELY gives the bread a better rise.
How to Use a Preferment in a Sourdough Bread Recipe:
- Take a small amount of starter and add it to a larger amount of flour and water from your recipe (about a quarter of the total amount is a good amount).
- Leave to ferment for 8 hours or so.
- Use this instead of the ‘starter’ in your recipe.
- NOTE: Remember to adjust your recipe accordingly so that you are still using the same proportions of flour and water in total!
Tip #14: Enrich the Sourdough to Make it Softer and Fluffier
Replacing some of your water with milk and adding a little butter to the dough will give it a softer and fluffier texture. This is known as an enriched bread, and you will find that the texture is far softer and fluffier than traditional sourdough. Check out my super soft bread roll recipe!
NOTE: When adding these extra ingredients, you may need to cook it for slightly longer. The more milk/butter it has in it, the longer it will take to cook due to the higher fat content.
Tip #15: Sweeten the Dough to Make it Less Dense
Give your bacteria and yeasts some simple sugars and starches to feed on and they will make sure your dough has some extra carbon dioxide bubbles in there. Extra sugars and/or starches give the starter a boost of easy access energy to do their thing, and you will end up with a lighter loaf. Some common starches and sugars that can be added are:
- potato starch
- maple syrup
A teaspoon or two is enough to get it going.
NOTE: Ensure that whichever sweetener you use is not a ‘calorie free’ one as this defeats the purpose of giving your starter extra energy.
Tip #16: Add Baking Soda to Sourdough for a Boost
Mixing baking soda into the dough at the shaping stage (just after the bulk ferment) will give sourdough bread an extra boost and help it become lighter and more airy. Baking soda is a heavy alkaline and reacts with the strong acidity of sourdough. The reaction gives off gases that help decrease the density of the dough. Sometimes you can see the reaction before your very eyes!
Tip #17: Pre-shape the Dough and It will Grow Taller
Good structure is important in ensuring a taller rise in sourdough bread, and adding an extra step in your shaping can help it develop better structure.
How to Pre-Shape Sourdough Bread:
- Shape your dough roughly in the usual manner and leave on the countertop seam side down.
- Lightly flour the dough’s surface and cover with a light cloth.
- Let the dough rest on the countertop for anything between 30 minutes to an hour.
- After the dough has rested, shape it once again for the final proof in the usual manner. You will find that the dough will shape better and stand taller once it has been baked, giving you a less dense texture.
QUICK TIP: Some bakers even preshape more than once to enhace the effect of preshaping on the final result.
Tip #18: Go Easy on the Flour When Dusting
It is very easy at the shaping or even the kneading stages (if hand kneading) to add too much flour to make it easier to handle the mixture/dough. Remember tip #1 about moisture levels of the dough? If you dust too much flour, you also decrease the moisture level of your dough, giving you a more dense loaf. Try to sprinkle as little flour as possible at the shaping and kneading phase that you can get away with, and this should result in a lighter loaf.
Tip #19: Change One Variable at a Time and Practice!
This is probably my biggest tip in developing yourself as a sourdough baker. There are so many variables when it comes to sourdough bread, and changing too many things at a time will mean you won’t know which one made the difference! Change one thing at a time so that you are able to compare the result of your bread and really understand which factors affect your bake.
Tip #20: Enjoy the Process!
Have fun and take the rough with the smooth. Every sourdough baker will have a few bakes gone wrong, but it’s all part of the journey. It’s important to enjoy the process of experimenting and understanding what works for you and what doesn’t. The art of making sourdough bread requires patience on every level, but the reward is definitely worth it. After a few goes, you will be making super light and airy sourdough bread like a pro!
Check out my article “Awesome Sourdough Oven Spring in 10 Easy Steps” for more information about getting the best oven spring for your sourdough bread.
If you would like to learn how to make good sourdough bread, using an easy fool proof method, attend one of our workshops. Or if you’re not in London, join our mailing list and be the first to hear about my online courses!
My Baking Tools section contains useful information on what equipment you need to get started with sourdough baking.