We’ve all been there. A perfectly crispy loaf of freshly baked sourdough bread…awesomely scrumptious looking…sourdough scent filling the air…and then you slice it into what you imagine to be evenly sliced impressive pieces to share, but what do you get? A messy pile of not so good looking bread; some thick, some thin, and some that don’t even look like slices! What went wrong?!
When do you cut sourdough bread to get even beautiful slices? Sourdough Bread continues to cook throughout the cooling period. To get even slices with a perfect interior crumb, it is essential to wait until the bread is completely cooled down to room temperature before slicing open.
Of course how long this time period is, will depend on the size of your loaf, and other factors like what type of bread you have. And waiting too long can also have a negative impact. Understanding the cooling process will help a baker determine the optimum time to slice open a loaf of sourdough bread to give the best outcome.
How Long Should you Wait to Slice Sourdough Bread?
A unique characteristic of sourdough bread is that it needs longer than other homemade breads to cool before slicing. Although an average sized loaf (1.5 lbs) of homemade conventional bread would take around 2 hours, the same sized loaf of sourdough would take at least 4 hours to cool. This time is increased even further if rye flour has been used because rye has a much higher moisture retention rate. Rye sourdoug would take anything between 24 and 48 hours to cool to get the best slices!
The denser your bread is, the longer it will need to cool, so wholegrain loaves will also take longer than white sourdough breads.
Here’s a table with recommended cooling times for different sizes/types of sourdough bread:
|Approximate size of sourdough bread||Approximate cooling time|
|small dinner rolls||30 minutes|
|small white loaf (1 lb)||4 hours|
|large white loaf (1.5 lb)||8 hours|
|small wholegrain loaf (1lb)||5 hours|
|large wholegrain loaf (1.5lb)||10 hours|
|small rye loaf (minimum 25% rye flour used)||24 hours|
|large rye loaf (minimum 25% rye flour used)||48 hours|
Using these times as an approximation will mean you will not only get the best cut when you slice it open, but the bread will be at it’s optimum texture and flavor. This is because:
- The entire baking process will have been completed
- It has been sliced open while it’s still within it’s window of optimum freshness and moistness.
There are consequences to the quality of flavor and texture of your bread if you cut into it too early OR too late.
What Happens if I Cut Sourdough Bread Before it has Completely Cooled?
There is something so satisfying about eating bread fresh out of the oven. It’s that comforting aroma and warmth that is completely irresistable. Every bread baker has done it even though they know they should wait. And that’s fine, but at this point you’ll probably find it is better to just tear the bread open rather than slice it.
The texture of the bread will be too moist at this point, and the structure of the bread will not have settled yet. So if you try and slice it at this stage, you’ll squash the bread and find a gluey doughy dense middle. Not to mention the comedic scene of your bread sticking to the knife like glue and making it impossible to produce anything close to resembling bread slices!
Even if you don’t slice it fresh from the oven, but still slice it before it has properly cooled, the texture of the bread will be gluey. It will be cut open before the bread has finished the baking process and the moisture and heat will dissipate too quickly.
Here are the results of slicing open your bread too early i.e. ‘undercooling’:
- The crust and sides of the bread will be too weak to withstand the knife pressure and will ‘pill’.
- There will be excessive moisture in the loaf, and the crumb will be too soft, making the slices look ragged and likely to tear as you cut.
- The knife will stick to the inside of the bread as you slice, damaging the structure of the bread.
- Bread will have a drier texture later due to moisture escaping too quickly.
What Happens if I Cut Sourdough Bread Too Long After it has Cooled?
Waiting too long to cut into sourdough bread will give you a bread that has passed it’s optimum texture and moistness. In other words, the bread will have dried out too much. This may give you even slices, but it will be alot tougher to slice into, as the crust would have had too much time to harden.
Here are the results of slicing open your bread too late i.e. ‘overcooling’:
- The bread will be more difficult to slice into as the crust will be too hard.
- The inside of the bread will be drier and firmer, and will have lost some of it’s elasticity.
- The loaf of bread will stale much faster.
(If you’re sourdough bread has become too hard/stale, check out my tips on using up leftover sourdough bread)
What Happens During the Cooling Process of Sourdough Bread?
When bread is fresh out of the oven, it has an inner temperature of 200F – 208F (93C – 97C). This temperature is maintained for some time and is enough to keep cooking the bread until it it cools down to about 90F – 110F (32C – 43C), which is the optimum temperature to cut your loaf open. i.e. room temperature.
During this cooling period, the bread goes through several stages of what is known as starch retrogradation.
The Effect of Starch Retrogradation on Sourdough Bread
Stage 1 – Before it is baked
During the bulk fermentation of raw dough, the starch molecules in the flour swell up as they absorb water. This is when you physically see the dough increase in volume, and at this point the dough is flexible and very moist.
Stage 2 – Once it starts baking
Once the bread is in the oven, the starch continues to gelatinize until the bread hits 150F. Now the bread starts to form it’s shape. The escaping steam during the baking process causes the starch in the dough to re-crystallize again. This is what gives the bread it’s texture and structure. The starch drying up and developing new shape is what is known as starch retrogradation.
Stage 3 – When the bread is cooling
The starch retrogradation continues as the bread is cooling down because moisture is still escaping. As the moisture escapes, the structure of the bread continues to develop.
QUICK TIP: The end of the cooling phase is the best time to slice open your bread.
Stage 4 – After the bread has cooled
Once the bread has cooled, starch retrogradation continues. Now the bread has reached optimum flavor and texture, and is beginning to slowly lose moisture. This stage of starch retrodagradation is when the bread starts staling and becoming drier.
Starch retrogradation takes LONGER in Sourdough bread, which is why it has a LONGER SHELF LIFE than other breads, and also why it will need LONGER TO COOL DOWN.
What is the Best Way to Cut Sourdough Bread to Get Even Slices
Cooling period aside, technique is also an important part of making sure those slices are even and beautiful looking. Here are some tips to slicing sourdough bread the best way:
Tip #1 – Use the Correct type of Knife; and Make sure it’s Sharp
A bread slicing knife uses a ‘sawing’ action to cut through the crust. This action reduces the pressure put on the bread, saving it from getting squashed during slicing. It has a long serrated slicing edge to help you slice with correct technique.
It goes without saying of course; the sharper the better. A durable good quality bread knife like this one goes a long way to making bread slicing neat and tidy. Check out my Baking Tools Section for the bread slicing knife that I love and recommend, or my “Guide to Choosing a Knife for Sourdough Bread”.
Tip #2 – Let the Knife do the Work!
It’s important to let the knife do the work and not your brute strength. Most people try to slice bread by pushing the knife downwards, but this puts pressure on the bread and squashes it, giving you messy slices.
Hold the bread firmly in place with one hand, and slice through the bread with the other, using a forward backward ‘sawing’ action MORE THAN a downward action. Take your time, the bread will slice a lot neater when given the chance. Be sure to hold the knife parallel to the chopping board, NOT angled down at one end.
Tip #3 – Hold the bread on it’s side
Yes, you read that correctly. Put the bread on it’s side to get the best slice! Often with homemade bread, the side of the bread has the hardest crust and the shortest edge. So cutting through the bread side first will mean the greatest pressure is put on the bread at the beginning, when the bread has the most amount of structure. And you also have less to cut through as it’s the shorter edge.
Tip #4 – Cheat!
If you bake a lot of bread and just can’t manage to get those even slices, there are tools that can help you. One cheap alternative is a simple bread slicing guide that helps to keep your knife in position as you slice. There are many available on the market; some are collapsible for better storage, with a crumb holder underneath to neatly catch all the crumbs like this one.
If you’re really serious about getting perfect slices with minimal effort and at super speed, buy yourself an electric bread slicer like this one (link to Amazon.com). You can adjust the thickness and you will definitely get pretty perfect slices with this machine.
If you’re looking to purchase decent baking equipment, including good quality bread cutting knives, check out my Baking Tools section for handy tips on what to look for when deciding what items to get.
What is the best way to store the bread to keep it fresh for longer?
Sourdough bread will stay fresh for longest in a cotton bag. This will give it enough protection from completely drying out, and also give it enough breathability to prevent it from becoming too moist and gluey.
Is it better to slice sourdough bread all at once, or as you need it?
It is definitely better to slice sourdough bread as you go rather than all at once. This will prevent premature staling. The other option is to slice the whole loaf and then freeze the slices. For more information on why this is the best way to keep it fresh, read my article “Best Way to Freeze Sourdough Bread to Lock in Taste & Texture”.