Lesson 5: Troubleshooting for Sourdough Wheat and Rye Bread

I have made this exact loaf of bread more than one thousand times, which is another way of saying that I have probably made every mistake there is to make. I have also taught countless people how to bake bread, answering their questions along the way. With this as background, here are answers to questions that I have wondered about–that others have wondered about–and that you might, too.

  • Can I use white or whole-wheat bread flour to feed sourdough starter?

Yes, this will work. But keep in mind that bread flour has a higher gluten content than all-purpose flour does, which means that a starter fed with bread flour will also have a higher gluten content. This won’t matter if you use your starter only for artisanal breads like this one. But if you want to add starter to everyday baked goods like pancakes, quick breads, and cakes, feeding it with bread flour will cause the starter to impart chewiness where you would prefer tenderness. To maintain an all-purpose starter you need to feed it with all-purpose flour.

  • My refrigerated starter has a layer of gray liquid on top; did I ruin it?

No, the layer of gray liquid is perfectly normal. Either stir the liquid in or pour it off before feeding the starter. I do it both ways and have observed no discernible difference in the the way the starter performs.

  • What happens if I forget to refrigerate my starter and leave it out overnight?

This is one mistake I haven’t made because I’m somewhat obsessive about my starter. My hunch, though, is that it depends on the temperature in your kitchen. If it’s warm, the starter and, hence, your bread may become overly sour. If it’s cool, the starter may be fine, though it will reach its full height and fall and might need to be fed again before baking. Remember, the goal is to bake with starter that is full of gas and at its maximum height. Regardless, your starter will not be ruined. If you doubt its liveliness, toss out all but ½ cup and begin the feeding process again. Your starter will be fine.

  • What happens if I forget to refrigerate rising dough and leave it out overnight?

When I made this mistake, it was the one and only time I completely ruined a loaf. It looked fine, but it was far too sour to eat. It was even too sour to turn into bread crumbs. If your experience echoes mine, you may need to toss the loaf or feed it to any critters you may have.

  • How do I keep a crust from forming on the “skin” of the loaf while the dough is rising?

Unlike yeasted doughs, which can be covered with a damp towel while rising, sourdough bread seems to need an airtight cover. A plate over the bowl that holds the dough works well as a covering, as does plastic wrap. Keep in mind that when a crust forms on the surface of rising dough, it hinders the rise in a noticeable way.

  • I use two sheets of parchment paper under my loaf for baking and still the bottom gets too dark. Should I shorten the baking time?

It may be that your oven is too hot. I can suggest buying an inexpensive oven thermometer and checking to be sure you’re not overheating the bread. You can also use an instant-read digital thermometer to check the temperature of your bread when it comes out of the oven. If it is higher than 207 degrees, shorten the cooking time, lower the oven temperature, or have your oven temperature recalibrated.

  • What’s the most efficient way to feed starter if I want to bake every day?

In this case, my preference—rather than feed the starter daily—is to feed it 2-3 times during the week using the feeding instructions (in leasson 2) I’ve described, which call for enough flour and water to produce 3-1/2 cups of starter per feeding. This will give you ample starter to bake three loaves of bread over three days, with ½ cup left over to begin feeding again.

  • When I get into a rhythm of baking and feeding starter often, I find that the glass jar is awkward to use. Is there any reason why I can’t use a bowl covered in plastic wrap for feeding and storing starter?

No reason at all. Any covered container that works for you, works.

  • Does the shape of my loaf matter? Is there any reason not to use a standard loaf pan if I want a more familiar shaped loaf for making sandwiches?

I have not made this bread in a loaf pan for three reasons. First, loaf pans are more typically used for soft batters or doughs that spread when they bake. Second, I especially enjoy bread crust and there would be less of it in a standard-shaped loaf. Third, without a Dutch oven to contain steam, the crust that would form would not be as memorable. That said, if you want to bake this bread in a loaf pan, grease the sides and bottom of the pan and line the bottom with a layer of parchment paper to prevent sticking. Transfer the dough to the loaf pan before the refrigerated rest—you may need two pans to hold all the dough—and bake the loaf until the internal temperature is about 207 degrees.

  • What is the best way to store sourdough bread?

Conventional wisdom suggests storing this bread in a paper bag—cut side down on a wooden board or on the bag itself—but this is not my preference. Although a paper bag preserves the crust longer than other storage methods do, it causes the cut edge of the crumb to stale. I wrap my bread in waxed paper and overwrap it in foil, which works well for me.

Next Up: Cheat Sheet for Making Sourdough Wheat & Rye Bread

Copyright 2014, Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul