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How to Strengthen Sourdough Dough: Full Guide with Top Tips

With sourdough bread being a completely different beast to yeasted bread, one of the biggest challenges most bakers find (including myself), is developing strength in their dough sufficient enough to rise well in the oven.

To effectively strengthen sourdough, you need to follow a 7 stage process. 

  1. Autolysis
  2. Kneading
  3. Bench kneading
  4. Lamination
  5. Coil folding
  6. Pre-shaping
  7. Tight shaping

In addition to this, you must take into consideration other factors such as type of flour, hydration levels, etc.

The reason why getting strength in your dough is challenging, is because the doughs strength is developed through many different steps. And there are many different nuances to think about before simply following the steps.

In producing that delicious loaf of sourdough bread, there are a few rules you need to follow, especially when it comes to the strength of sourdough. So, in this article we’re going to learn:

  • What is so essential about sourdough strength
  • Why we need to focus on strengthening the dough
  • How you actually strengthen dough
  • What does dough strength depend on besides the methods you use
  • Tips on making your dough super strong
  • Common mistakes to avoid

Firstly, let’s take a deeper look into the different stages that help develop strength in sourdough, and whether they all of them are necessary or not. (As you may know, I’m all about simplicity, and if it’s not necessary, I won’t do it!)  

What Exactly is ‘Strength’ in Sourdough?

Your sourdough needs gluten to be able to rise in the oven, stand tall, and have a good bread structure. And gluten is developed when flour is mixed with water.

Gluten is extensible, viscous, and elastic and gives bread its springy texture, allowing the dough to stretch. It provides stabilization, texture, and flavor to the loaf and dough strength to the sourdough. 

‘Strength’ in sourdough refers to how well developed the gluten is in the dough, and how extensible and elastic the doughs characteristics are. The more extensible and elastic your dough is, the ‘stronger’ it is considered to be.

You want to get a nice strong dough if you want your bread to have good structure, texture, and shape. So how do we go about developing strength in our dough? Firstly, we need to understand what will help develop a strong dough before we even start the bread making process!

Why is it Important to Develop Strength in Sourdough Dough?

Without enough strength, your sourdough will flatten out on the sides and lose its shape instead of rising. A strong, firm dough has a well-developed gluten network that traps and holds together the air produced by the yeast and bacteria. 

Having no strength in your dough will result in a flat, uneven loaf of sourdough with a weak texture.

What Do We Need for Strong Dough?

Although the various steps in the bread making process help add strength in your sourdough, one of the most important factors to get right with sourdough is using the right type of flour. Different flour contains different amounts and strengths of gluten (aka protein).

So, if you use a flour that has a really low level of gluten/protein, or a weak type of gluten, then it will be extremely difficult to add strength to your dough, because there is no foundation for you to develop strength.

You’ll need to use a flour that has a high protein content. My flour guide here will walk you through all the different types of flours, and which ones may be best to use depending on what kind of result you are looking for.

The types of flour that may be suitable for a strong dough would possibly have the following wording on the pack:

  • strong flour
  • bread flour
  • extra strength flour
  • High protein percentage

TOP TIP: You want to look for flour that has a protein content of at least 12%, especially if you are a beginner bread baker. This protein/gluten level will be easier to shape, knead, and develop strength.

What Helps Create Strength in Sourdough?

Autolyse is a process that helps develop strong dough when making sourdough

Now that you know the prerequisite to producing a strong dough (using strong bread flour), let’s take a look at the other factors that help develop strength in your sourdough…

Autolysis Contributes to Dough Strength

Autolysis (or autolyse) is a technique in bread baking that acts as a first step to strengthening your sourdough. I have an article here that walks you through the autolyse process, including tips on when it helps and when it doesn’t. You can check it out here.

Generally speaking, autolysis delivers a dough that’s easier to work with and shape, and it gives the loaf better texture, rise, and flavor. 

The process involves mixing flour and water before adding any other ingredients. It allows the flour to hydrate and boost gluten development. This, in turn, kicks off the first step in developing strength in your dough.

NOTE: The autolyse process involves simply mixing the flour and water, NOT kneading. For more detailed information on the autolyse process, check out my article here.

During this stage, it may look as if nothing’s happening, but as soon as you handle the dough, you’ll notice that the dough is already a lot stronger than it was. If you’d tried stretching the dough before you let it autolyse, it would have torn easily.

After autolyse, you will find that the dough has more ‘stretch’ to it. It becomes smoother and more elastic to touch, all because of the autolyze stage. (I talk about how to check for strength in your dough later in this article). 

Agitating the Dough Helps to Develop Strength

I have used the word agitated because the purpose of agitation is to move the dough around to give all the gluten strands a chance to reach more sugars and starches within the dough to feed on.

As the dough is moved or ‘agitated’, gluten strands can find more sugar and starch to access, feed on, and make your dough more elastic, stretchy and extensible.

Agitating the dough will help to develop strength and can involve any of the following processes:

  • Kneading
  • Slap and fold
  • Stretch and fold
  • Lamination
  • Coil fold

All of these methods are different ways to get gluten moving around and getting access to more pockets of sugar and starch to feed on. My video course, Path to Sourdough Mastery, gives full detail on how to use each of these methods and which ones work best when. But if you’d like a bread recipe, that uses the stretch and fold method, check out my beginner friendly recipe here.

TIP: Each time you agitate your dough, it is important to let it rest for at least 20 minutes so the gluten has time to ferment and develop. Resting your dough is just as important as kneading it, and is an important part of developing strength.

Simply Resting the Dough Helps it to Develop Strength

Resting the dough for long periods of time, better known as bulk fermentation, is an extremely important part of developing dough strength. It gives gluten a chance to do its thing and develop fully.

You will find that simply leaving your dough alone for a while will change its structure. It will over time become stretchy and extensible even if you haven’t done anything else to it!

Shaping & Preshaping are Helpful in Developing Dough Strength

Preshaping and shaping both help to strengthen the dough

Preshaping and shaping your dough is another way of agitating it, but at this stage, you are also forming the doughs eventual shape and helping to organize the gluten into a neat shape that will help it rise nicely in the oven and give it an even crumb texture inside.

NOTE: I have a more detailed article about preshaping here. It goes through the different methods of preshaping and how to know when you can completely skip this step!

Here’s a summary of things that help to increase the strength of dough:

  1. Using a high protein flour
  2. Giving the dough enough time to rest
  3. Agitating the dough via kneading, stretching, or some other method that moves the dough
  4. Preshaping and shaping

What if My Sourdough Still Doesn’t Have Enough Strength?

Here are few quick things that you can try if you are not happy with how stretchy or extensible your dough is:

  • Try and find a stronger type of flour (flour that has a higher protein content)
  • Extend your autolyze time (anything up to 2 hours is fine if needed)
  • Leave the dough to rest for longer periods of time
  • Add in more agitations (like coil folds or ‘stretch and folds’)

Other Things You Can Do to Add Strength to Your Dough

If you need to add strength to your dough because there isn’t enough gluten development taking place, you can try one of these substitute ingredients:

  • Solubilized wheat gluten 
  • Protein isolate 
  • Complexed gluten 
  • Hydrolyzed wheat protein

However, if you use one of these substitutes, you’ll need to increase the water in your recipe. But beware. If you add too much gluten to your dough, the dough will be dry, and have too high an oven spring.

I personally wouldn’t recommend doing this as it’s not strictly traditional, and you will lose some of the health benefits. Instead, take extra time to experiment with different flours and hydration levels until you find a rhythm that works for you. If you need extra support in making great sourdough, check out my step by step video course here.

How Do You Know your Dough is Strong Enough to Make Good Bread?

If you are new to sourdough bread baking, the best way to check for dough strength is to use ‘the window pane test’. This is where you take a piece of dough and stretch it out as much as you can without tearing it. If you can stretch it enough to be able to see through it without it tearing, then you have a strong enough dough for a great bread result.

Over time and experience of course, you will be able to ‘feel’ the dough is strong enough without having to do the window pane test at all.

TOP TIP: It’s handy to do the window pane test several times through the bread making process to get a picture of how the dough is changing over time.

Here’s a step-by-step summary of how to check sourdough dough for strength:

  1. Using wet hands, pull out a piece of dough from the bulk
  2. Using both hands, stretch out the piece of dough as far as it will go without tearing.
  3. If it stretches enough that you can see through it while still intact, it is ready. If not, it will need more steps and/or time to help strengthen it further.

Here’s an example of a dough that passes ‘the window pane test’:

The window pane test is a handy way of checking for dough strength when bread baking

You will also notice whenever you handle the dough that it changes over time. It becomes easier to handle, less sticky, more stretchy and smooth. These are all signs that your dough is developing strength to make a good bread.

Is Too Much Sourdough Strength a Weakness?

I know this sounds contradictory, but it’s actually true! You can have dough that has too much strength in it! When this happens, your dough becomes so elastic that it can’t actually expand against its strength.

This means that every time you tried to stretch it out, it would simply keep bouncing back. What you want is actually a balance between strength, extensibility, and elasticity.

The dough needs the elastic to rise, but at the same time, it needs to expand correctly, and be strong enough to hold itself.

You can do several things to get more extensibility in your dough, including:

  • A longer autolysis. 
  • Autolysing in a cold environment (such as the fridge) where it can be left overnight if needed.
  • Adding more water to the dough to increase the hydration level. (More water will make the dough weaker, giving it more extensibility).

So, other than the autolyse, the next factor will be hydration when it comes to finding that balance…

The Importance of Hydration & its Effect on Sourdough Strength

The hydration level of dough significantly impacts the type of bread you end up with. Hydration is an essential factor in determining the texture and look of your bread, and it also indicates how the dough will behave during mixing, fermenting, and shaping.

NOTE: If you’d like a more detailed guide on hydration levels and their effect on sourdough, check out my hydration guide here.

Along with a higher hydration, comes the challenge of working with a wetter dough! The higher the hydration, the more difficult it is to develop strength. So here are some tips for developing strength in a high hydration sourdough…

5 Tips to Help Strengthen a High Hydration Dough

Tip #1: Don’t Skip the Autolyse Stage

My autolyse article goes through when you are able to skip the autolyse phase, but for developing strength, it is always best to add in this part of the process.

Once your dough gets to a higher hydration level, having autolysis can be the difference between a dough handling well and a dough that can’t hold its shape.

Autolysis allows the dough to become more flexible and extensible, making it far easier to work with. And this becomes increasingly important with wetter dough.

My top tip is to autolyze until you actually see change in the feel of the dough. The dough will go from breaking apart if pulled to becoming extensible with some stretch without breaking.

The autolyze stage will take anything from 20 minutes to a few hours to complete. And you can go for even longer if necessary, by placing it in the fridge.

Tip #2: Retard the Dough

You can retard the dough by placing it in the fridge for a while. This will stiffen it up slightly, making it easier to work with.

Making it stiffer and easier to handle, means you can work on the dough far better to help it develop strength.

The dough will also ferment at a slower rate in the fridge, which gives the gluten more time to develop in its entirety.

NOTE: For more information on how temperature affects sourdough, check out my temperature guide here.

Tip #3: Use Wet Hands when Handling your Sourdough

Using wet hands when handling sticky sourdough, will allow you to create dough strength without the dough sticking to your hands, and give you more opportunity to agitate it.   

Simply dunk your hand into a bowl of water and shake off the excess water on your hands just before handling the dough. 

Tip #4: Use a Bench Scraper

When working with high hydration sourdough, a bench scraper can be really useful to help knead, fold, and shape the dough; it’s easier than using your hand. I prefer to use a silicone one like this one on Amazon, as it has more flexibility.

Wet the bench scraper as you would your hands, and use it as the dominant contact for your dough, with your other hand supporting it.

Tip #5: Pre-shape the Dough 

Although pre-shaping isn’t always necessary, a wet and sticky dough will benefit from a pre-shape before its final shape. It will help to develop the extra strength it needs to structure the loaf well.

BONUS TIP: Remember that rest is also an important part of developing strength. With each step, you must leave the dough to rest for a minimum of 20 minutes to one hour in between the different stages.

Hopefully these tips will help you be well on your way to producing amazing sourdough bread results. If you’re interested in how to get an amazing oven spring (rise in the oven), check out my article “Awesome Oven Spring in 10 Easy Steps

Hi, I’m Aysha

I love spending time making the most helpful content I can so you can become a better sourdough baker.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned, consider saying “Thanks!” by leaving me a tip here. I appreciate your kindness and support 🙂