Everyone makes mistakes. It’s just a fact of life. It’s also a fact of making your own sourdough.
Albert Einstein once said that: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” The same is true for baking sourdough. Regardless of whether you’ve just discovered your passion for sourdough, or have been baking it for years, mistakes are just part and parcel when it comes to making your own sourdough.
However, what if I were to tell you that some of the most common mistakes could be avoided? It’s true, they can. With a little know-how you can avoid the most common mistakes that befall even the most experienced bakers and ensure that (almost) every sourdough bread loaf is worthy of a place on your mantelpiece.
- Sourdough Starter Recipe
- Step-by-Step Sourdough Bread Recipe
- How to Make a Sourdough Starter from Scratch
1: You killed your sourdough starter
Although sourdough starters are pretty resilient and can withstand being neglected for a little while, they can also die if you leave them for too long between feedings.
What I mean by “dead” starter is that it becomes inactive, which means that it stops responding to regular feedings after being unfed for too long. Or, your starter might start to develop mould or discoloration. If you notice your starter is giving you the silent treatment or looks a bit off, then it’s time to throw it away and start again.
If you want to avoid accidentally killing your starter, then make sure you keep a close eye out for “death threats” from your starter – especially in the first six to 10 days of its creation. Make sure you maintain your regular feeding schedule and store your starter at a comfortable room temperature, as yeast dies at 60°C.
2. You bake your sourdough too soon
Whether you’ve just adopted a sourdough starter of your own, or have made a sourdough starter from scratch, you’ll need to wait a few days to a week until your starter is ready to bake.
Yes, your starter might look bubbly, but that doesn't make it strong enough to use. It takes a lot of wild yeasties to make a heavy dough rise, so be patient with your new starter before you put it to work making your sourdough. If you bake your starter before it is ready it won’t have the muscles to leaven your sourdough, so you’ll end up with a sad pancake-looking loaf and broken sourdough dreams.
If you’re not sure if your sourdough is ready, then you can always check using the float test, where you drop a teaspoon of starter into a glass of water. If it floats, then it’s probably ready to bake with.
3. You don't autolyse your dough
Autolysing is an important step in the bread-making process, as it helps to make your dough easier to work with and shape, and a loaf with better texture, rise and flavour. During the autolyse process, you combine flour, water, and starter together until the flour is fully moistened. Then, you cover the bowl and let it rest for 30 minutes.
Although it’s tempting for all of you impatient bakers out there to skip this step, I always recommend doing it. Without it your sourdough will be a bit “meh” and will not rise as well.
4. You don't let the bread proof long enough
Baking bread is a science. This means that everything needs to be precisely and timed, including the proofing stage.
As a rule of thumb, you should leave your sourdough to proof for at least four hours. Failing to proof your bread for this long will result in huge uneven tunnels in your finished bread, or a leaden damp texture. You can test if your bread is ready by doing the poke test – give it a poke and if the hole pokes back up quickly, then it’s not fully proofed.
So, keep an eye on your dough to ensure it’s been proofed long enough. Some of the signs it is ready include a ‘bouncy’ feel, an elastic texture and a smooth, domed shape.
5. You use unfiltered tap water
It may seem a bit bourgeois to use filtered water for your sourdough starter, but the truth is that tap water is full of chlorine and other chemicals that can kill the starter’s yeast/
If you have a filter, use filtered water when feeding your starter. However, if you don’t have one, then you can leave a pitcher of water uncovered on your countertop for 24 hours to allow it to off-gas before using it in your starter.
6. You throw out your sourdough discard
The magic goop that is your sourdough discard is the gift that keeps on giving, so don't let it go to waste. When you’re done with your sourdough starter, you can simply use your excess starter in a range of delicious recipes – from pancakes to banana bread to fried chicken and even gozleme.
You can store your sourdough discard in a tub in the fridge, which means you have it on-hand whenever the urge for baking calls. The best part is that it requires no feeding, stays good for ages, and offers a great bonus for baking in-between sourdough loaves.
7. Failing to score the bread properly
Scoring your sourdough before baking allows dough to split slightly when it has its last push of energy in the oven. You score your bread on top so that the bread will push up towards that natural fault line.
If you don't score, or don't score deeply enough, your bread could burst out the side, making your finished loaf look misshapen and dense. For consistent results every time, make sure you score the top of your loaf with a bread lame, or failing that, a razor blade or sharp serrated knife. When doing this aim to breach the outer surface into the dough underneath about half an inch.
8. You don’t get rid of the ‘hooch’
If you forget about your starter for a few days, you might start to notice a layer of liquid forming on the top. To some sourdough aficionados, that's called “hooch”, and it's a sign that you've gone too long without feeding.
Unless it's got a funny colour to it, it doesn't mean your starter is ruined, but you don't necessarily want to keep it in your mix. If it's a thin layer that's just starting to form, stir it up and feed it. But, if it's more than what you'd consider "a little bit," then pour it off. Otherwise, you're going to end up with some seriously funky-tasting bread.
Now you know eight common sourdough mistakes made by everyone and how to fix them, you’ll never make a mistake again in your baking life. I jest! But, hopefully you can avoid some of the easy mistakes we all make, like baking your starter too soon, or forgetting to autolyse, and save yourself a facepalm moment.
Ready to try your hand at making your own sourdough? Check out our Complete Sourdough Starter Kit for yourself to start baking up a storm today. Don’t forget to tag us on Instagram @youkneadsourdough and hashtag it #youkneadsourdough so we can see your sourdough creations.