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Getting Higher Rising Sourdough Breads

Several questions from readers over the past week, asking for tips on getting higher rises from their starter-based breads. Seems there are a lot of low, dense sourdough loaves out there, and that’s a common problem when a starter is a bread’s sole raising agent. It’s part of the reason that a lot of natural bakers, back in the 80’s, started “spiking” their doughs with a bit of commercial yeast in the final mixing step. It added a little more oomph to the rise. The purist breadheads went bananas. But that’s another story.

One of the main reasons starter-based doughs don’t rise as high as they could is because many aspiring sourdough bakers don’t manage their starters as well as they could. That is, they let them sit and ripen too long. In the same way a loaf of bread can over-proof, or be left to rise too long before baking (giving the unbaked dough the slack, lifeless feel of a dead fish) starters can be left to work for too long, causing them to use up all their mojo. The yeast in the starter consume too much of the available starch. Even the protein (gluten) in the flour starts to break down. When that happens the loaf is denied the building material it needs to stay aloft, making it impossible for the bread to attain (and then retain) much height.

So what do you do about it? The answer: stay alert to the condition of your starter. Most starters take between three and four hours, on a 70-degree day, to reach reach their peak (shorter in hot weather). After that, just like a loaf of bread, they start to lose steam. “Hey, it’s only an ingredient” you might say, “What does it matter if one component in my bread dough is a little past its prime?”

It matters because starters can comprise up to a third of the volume of a dough. If a full third of your dough is little more than dead weight on the remaining two-thirds of your rising loaf, you’re going to have a pretty flat bread in the end. So you need to take care that your starter is either at — or even below — peak when you make your final mix. Here it helps to have a little experience under your belt, but really there’s not much magic in judging a good starter. It looks like this:

Notice all the bubbles of different sizes, and how the whole thing bulges up around the edges. This is a starter at its peak. This is the stage at which I’d mix it into a dough if I were making a bread that was maybe 15% or 20% starter. If I were making a bread that was truly starter-heavy, up to the aforementioned 33% or so, I wouldn’t let the starter get even this ripe. I’d let it increase in size by maybe 50% or so, and when it just began to dome and show a few surface bubbles, I’d mix it into my dough. That way I’d be sure I hadn’t wasted any of the starter’s rising power.

Sometimes, when I’m building up a large quantity of starter that I won’t use until the next next day, I’ll start with an ounce or so of mother starter and double it, and double it, and double it over the course of the day. When it comes time for the final feeding, I’ll just mix in my flour-water slurry, then refrigerate it without giving it time to rise. By morning the whole thing is a wild yeast powder keg waiting to go off. Slowly.

So there you go, sourdough lovers, my top tip for higher rising sourdoughs. It goes without saying that for the highest rises you want to avoid whole grain flours, as bran and fat (from the germ) undermine rise. But then you’ve been reading Joe pastry for a while, and you knew that already, no?

6 thoughts on “Getting Higher Rising Sourdough Breads”

  1. How you handle the dough can also make a big difference – my sourdough loaves got a lot taller and fluffier after I remembered the stretch and fold technique: go in every half hour or hour while the finished dough is rising, grab an edge, stretch it out and fold it back into the centre. Turn it 90 degrees and repeat all the way around. (I knew about this, then completely forgot about it until I found a sourdough English muffin recipe that uses it.)

    1. Another great suggestion, Jane! We tend to forget that yeast doesn’t move around by itself. It has no cilia or pseudopods. It buds, and that’s about it. If it’s going to get distributed through a mass of dough, it has to be transported manually. Stretching and folding is the way to do it!

      Many thanks, Jane!

      – Joe

  2. I still have issues with my sourdough. I haven’t baked sourdough regularly in quite a while (I eat much less bread these days), but I still have starter in the freezer. It freezes very well, by the way. About 6 weeks ago I defrosted some and built it up, it still has nice oomph. But I never feel like I have full control over a sourdough loaf. Sometimes the results are great, sometimes not. Often the problem is the one you mention above. I think I underestimate the power of the starter and I assume the mixed dough/shaped loaf needs a longer rising time than it actually does need. If this happens, is punching it down and letting it rise again a viable option? I am usually too impatient to do this, since at that point the oven is already piping hot so I just put it in the oven and bake, with the inevitable results. (I think impatience accounts for at least 50% of my baking failures.)

    1. Hey Chana!

      I hear you sister! The nice thing about sourdough is that you can time your rising according to how long it takes your starter to rise. If you’re doubling your starter to get ready for a mix, and it takes 3 1/2 hours to come to strength, then you know that after about 3 1/2 hours you should start poking your dough to see if it’s light enough to bake. That’s assuming there’s no added yeast or anything like that. This is why I like to start small with a starter, with an ounce or so, then double it, double it, double it until I have what I need. It really gets you acquainted with your critter.

      Stretching and folding the dough (a better alternative to punching down, since yeast have to be moved around manually for maximum effect) is one way to extend the rising time and increase volume a bit. You can do it late in the game as a last ditch, but it’s better to do it earlier if you can.

      Does that answer your question more or less?

      – Joe

  3. I leave the dough overnight to proof and it turn out quite sour. Does that mean it’s not advisable to proof overnight?

    1. Hello Bee Hong!

      Overnight seems like a long time to proof your bread. I don’t know what recipe you’re using, but normally a loaf of bread won’t take that long, usually somewhere between 3-5 hours. A shorter proof will give you a milder flavor and a higher rise since the starter won’t have as much time to work.

      Let me know how it goes!


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