Know Your Dough – Understanding Sourdough Bread Variables

Have you ever had a question about your bread and you asked someone knowledgeable what was going wrong, and they told you “I’m not sure.  There are just too many variables”?

Oh, my goodness! ME TOO!

So, I made it my personal mission to figure out all the variables and how exactly each of them affect your bread – so you can figure out which variables you need/want to tweak.

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Top 6 Sourdough bread variables – and what to do about them

#1 – Starter (strains, flours, activity levels)

A VERY active starter is critical to make reliable bread – flour types will affect flavor and timing but not effectiveness.

This means your starter needs to be freshly fed, doubled in volume, frothy and bubbly (essentially the same as a Levain and can be used interchangeably).

Whole grain starters (like rye or wheat) will rise a little slower and not quite as high as a white, unbleached starter. They also tend to produce more “sour” breads.

The quantity of starter does not matter too much. Less starter will make your bread rise more slowly. More Starter will go more quickly.  Huge deviations obviously will affect the hydration of your bread so don’t go too crazy. Somewhere between 50 and 75 grams of starter is standard for typical loaf (375-500 grams of flour).

*Note* This advice is for starters made with equal parts flour and water (called “100% hydration”). For stiffer starters, you will need a more practiced eye and a better feel for your process – not recommended for beginners. Besides, most recipes and processes call for 100% hydration starter.

You can read more about Understanding and Caring for your Starter for all your Starter FAQs here.

#2 – Hydration (including weather/humidity)

Sourdough is a very high hydration bread. The moisture is critical for fermentation and steam during the baking process. It is also responsible for the delicious texture of the sourdough “crumb” (the inside of your loaf) and the size of your holes.

As far as humidity goes, sourdough and water go perfectly together so it shouldn’t hurt your bread. The only thing it might cause issues with is after your bread comes out of the oven, the crust might absorb lots of water in the air and not be quite as crispy over time…. but hey, that’s what toasters are for!

I have seen recipes for sourdough from 70% hydration to 85%.

All of them work.

All of them are delicious.

All of them can be “perfect”.

You just have to figure out which one is perfect for YOU.

  • Lower hydration breads (70%-75%)

will produce denser, dryer loaves (such as recipes from Foodbod Sourdough, The Clever Carrot, and The Kitchn) – good for sandwiches or spreads or if you live in an area with very high humidity.

On one hand, they are easier to work with for beginners because the dough is a little stiffer, easier to form and don’t overproof as quickly.

On the other hand, they can have a tendency to burn more easily and have a “heavy” quality that can make beginners wonder what they are doing “wrong”.

  • Higher Hydration breads (76%-82%)

Will produce lighter, more airy loaves with the coveted “shiny crumb” and larger holes – as long as you got good gluten formation – see “technique” (next).

BUT, they are a little harder to work with because the dough is so loose. A beginner may have difficulty nailing down their technique. (#somanystories of “slap and fold” methods ending up all over people’s walls!)

Bowl and bread scraper, people. Bowls and bread scrapers are beautiful things.

Read also: How to contain the Sourdough Mess

#3 – Technique and Gluten formation (also practice)

Guys, guys, guys…. STOP over analyzing your processes or comparing what methods work best. THEY ALL WORK! You just have to find which one works perfect for YOU!

Ok, so I take that back –

Traditional kneading does NOT work so well with Sourdough Bread.

Remember, Sourdough is all about hydration, while kneading encourages the addition of flour. If you add flour, your dough will be dense and, well, that is counter productive. Get yourself a clean, damp countertop and a dough scraper instead and pick one of the following methods.

  • Slap and Fold

This is the sourdough replacement for kneading that uses the stickyness of wild yeast dough to an advantage in order to get really good stretch (gluten formation). All it means is that you are slapping your dough (to stick) on your clean surface, stretching the dough and folding the top part over, then spinning the dough to complete again from the other side.

This ONLY works for higher hydration doughs – AFTER Some initial gluten formation has already taken place (Hello, bowls and breadscrapers)!

This method is often an attempt to complete all of the hands on work that sourdough entails in just a couple sittings with a bit less rest. But, gluten formation is also naturally accomplished by time.

Allowing the dough to rest does not require any technique, or mess, so I, personally, tend to go with these later methods.

  • In most bakeries… (Coil folds)

They do a form of Stretch and Fold (described next), only upside down, called coil folding.  In this process they pick up the dough in the center and allow gravity to pull the two sides of the dough down as far as they will go and then they lay the dough on top (allowing the stretched parts to naturally fold under the dough) and then they pick it up again (the opposite way), and do the same thing.  They keep doing this every so often through the entire proofing process, until the dough starts to hold its shape when they pick it up and you start to see little tiny bubbles trapped in the beautiful surface tension. 😉 It is at that point where they divide the dough and begin to form the loaves.

This technique works best with large quantities of dough (commonly 4+ loaves).

  • Stretch and Fold (S&F)

Resting the dough (all ingredients added – see “Recipe” variable below) is the easiest way to form gluten but you do have to help it a LITTLE (for best results – final shape, oven spring, and good crumb).

This is the method I would recommend for beginners. It is close to the bakery method for best results (most impressive oven spring and better crumb) but, least messy and easiest for home bakers to “read the dough“.

It consists of 2-6 rounds of stretching the dough and folding it back over itself (the more times you stretch it per round, the less rounds you have to do) and letting it rest between each set of folds.

Be sure to read the post on getting to know your dough for more detailed information on this process.

Can I use a stand mixer to mix the dough?

Yes, but be careful. You don’t want to RIP the dough. I had lots of problems using a stand mixer for my dough when I first started trying it…. but I admit that was a while ago so I may have had additional issues as well.

Once I started making large quantities of bread at a time and gaining more confidence, I started using a stand mixer for the initial mix – but only til all the flour is just incorporated and the dough is still “shaggy”. Then I transfer to a regular bowl and complete the remaining S&Fs by hand.

I find it much easier to read the dough when I am able to touch it (clean hands, duh).

#4 – The Recipe

You can mix water, starter, flour, and salt all together at the same time.

I have tried all the different, fancy methods, and the results seemed pretty much the same. The only thing that seemed different was that it felt like more work and there was the danger of accidentally missing a step – like forgetting to put in salt or starter – yep, I’ve done both of those.

I am currently working on putting together a printable pack of my Master Recipe + my favorite spinoffs. Be sure to join the mailing list (see sidebar, popup, or footer form) to get notified as soon as that comes out!

#5 -Size of your loaf

Different recipes give you different size loaves. Smaller loaves tend to proof faster and can have a tendency to overproof, if you don’t watch them carefully. Bigger loaves are more stable.

Different sized loaves also need different baking times and considerations. There is no one size fits all here, but with my easy to follow flow charts (in my Perfect Bake article) you should be able to easily figure out which method works for you!

#6 -Baking methods

How do you know if you should bake hot or bake cold? You’ve been told both, but you baked hot and burnt your loaf and baked cold and ended up with a frizbee… or you just aren’t impressed when you open your pot for WHATEVER reason.

This is because not all recipes can be baked at the same temperature.

  • High hydration doughs

need to be baked HOT (Preheated to 500F or 260c) otherwise they will just spread and flatten as they “rise” (Hello, frizbee). You can get away with not quite as much heat to start if you have excellent surface tension, but that will come with practice.

  • Low hydration doughs

can hold their shape much better and can easily be baked cold (Starting with cold loaf, cold pans, cold oven). It also helps them not to burn quite so bad. You can even do your final proof in the pan (like The Clever Carrot).

This is really nice if you are concerned about energy costs, or too much heat in your kitchen.

The most impressive oven spring comes from:

refrigerated, higher hydration loaves, with good surface tension, slashed, and baked hot.

oven spring
Oven spring, 76% hydration dough

Steam is also a MAJOR factor

Sourdough cannot rise well without steam.

If you are not baking in a dutch oven (or other covered oven pot), see my “Perfect Bake” article.

For more information on troubleshooting your actual baking process read this article.


Also, check out my favorite sourdough supplies page for all your sourdough baking needs!


What sourdough bread variables do you need to tweak to get your perfect loaf?

#keeponkeepingon #seekingtheperfectloaf #perfectsourdoughbread

3 responses to “Know Your Dough – Understanding Sourdough Bread Variables”

  1. Your articles are very helpful, but I am after some advice. I tend to find that my dough is usually very sticky when I am doing the stretch and folds. I have tried using wet hands, which makes it easier, but it remains sticky. If I use flour on my hands, it gradually gets less sticky, but that means I am gradually adding more flour! Please advise me. I have tried various recipes with different flours and different hydration levels. The bread is always yummy in the end!
    Thank you in anticipation.

    • Hello Anthea!
      Thanks for the feedback!
      The dough is supposed to be a little sticky at first for sure (seeing as it is so wet). The dough is the most sticky after the initial mix period. Allowing the dough to rest (I go about an hour but you can do anywhere from 30-90 min) will be very helpful with this. Also, try wetting your dough scraper and using that for the first few S&Fs. It is ok if a little bit sticks to your fingers. As the gluten forms and gets stronger it will help get some of the dough off your fingers as well.
      Also, I like this question so much that I think I will add it to the FAQs post I am working on today so I can put some pictures up! Stay tuned!

    • I’m afraid I might have to see some pictures to know if your “stickyness” is normal and you just didn’t expect it, or if it’s genuinely, abnormally sticky. I have found that when I overwork the dough it can be too sticky. Sometimes, if I am using my stand mixer this can happen. But as a general rule, once the gluten forms (as long as you don’t tear it), the dough becomes more smooth and shiny. Any bits of dough stuck to your fingers should come off by trying to stick them to the shiny dough surface. I hope that makes sense. Tag me in some pics on INstagram and I can answer your questions there with better visuals!

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