Sourdough is more susceptible to tearing when the dough has been under mixed or when it is too dry. The brittle dough tears easily when it is stretched during folding and shaping.
If you find that your baked loaf cracks in the oven, I have written an extensive article which discusses how inadequate scoring, inadequate steaming and excessive skin tension causes ugly cracks in your baked loaf. Check it out here at 5 Reasons Why Your Sourdough Bread Have Ugly Cracks.
1. Insufficient gluten development from under mixing
Under mixing your dough is the most common reason why your sourdough tears easily during bulk fermentation, shaping and baking.
The purpose of mixing or kneading your dough is to align and develop gluten strands which increases the dough’s strength and pliability (ability to stretch). The longer we mix, the more gluten is developed, and the stronger and more pliable the dough becomes.
If the dough is under mixed, there isn’t enough gluten strands to hold the dough together, which causes it to be brittle and tears easily when stretched.
Different types of mixer calls for different mixing time as the shape and movement of the mixing arm of different mixers develops the dough at different rates. We should aim to mix the dough so that it has moderate elasticity and extensibility; the dough should be stretchable without tearing, while at the same time has some pull and resistance to stretching.
The table below is courtesy of Jeffrey Hammelman that wrote the book ‘Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes’. It gives us a rough guide on the appropriate mixing times when using different mixers to achieve moderate gluten development, reducing the risk of under-mixing.
|Mixer||First Mixing (Minutes)||Second Mixing (Minutes)||Total Mixing Time (minutes)|
|Stand Mixer (KitchenAid Type All Purpose Mixer)||2.5||4.5||7|
2. Excessively dry dough and wet dough resists gluten development
Dough that does not have sufficient gluten development, is brittle and tears easily.
Excessively dry doughs (less than 60% hydration ) and excessively wet doughs (more than 75%) develops gluten more slowly, hence when we are working with drier and wetter doughs we need to add an additional few minutes during mixing for the dough’s gluten to develop sufficiently.
Gluten requires water to be developed, and with excessively dry doughs, there is barely enough moisture to properly hydrate the flour, which restricts gluten development.
With excessively wet dough, gluten also develops at a slower pace. It takes a few more minutes to mix a wetter dough to the same gluten development and dough strength as a drier dough.
There is a French mixing technique known as the bassinage technique, which makes gluten development easier for excessively wet doughs. A portion of the total water called for in the sourdough formulation is initially held back during the first mixing phase. The drier dough is mixed until it has achieved the desired dough strength, then the initially held back portion of water is added to the dough, and mixing continues only until the water is fully incorporated.
The bassinage technique allows gluten to develop more readily as mixing is done on a drier dough, then once the gluten has been developed, the additional water can be easily incorporated into the dough.
3. Rough handling of the dough
The dough can tear whenever we are handling it, particularly when we are moving the dough from one place to another i.e. when we are folding the dough, and when we are shaping it.
When the dough is handled roughly, we unintentionally create small rips on the surface of the dough that is not visible to the eye, which will expand into a full tear in the later stages of the bake.
Always handle the dough with slow, gentle movements, to be careful not to impart unnecessary stresses to the dough; handle the dough like you would a baby!
4. Wet and sticky dough
Another common cause of tearing happens when the dough sticks to your hands and working surface, and tears when it is pulled apart.
We are often told to dust the dough and working surfaces with flour to prevent sticking. However, this is not the best method, as the excess flour quickly adds up and can change the overall formulation of your sourdough significantly, resulting in a drier and denser crumb.
The best way to prevent sticking is to wet your hands and to minimize dusting of your work surfaces and dough as much as possible. Your wet hands has a layer of moisture on it which prevents wet doughs from sticking. Although you can’t avoid dusting your work surfaces, we can be mindful to not over do it.
Too much dusting can not only dry up your dough, but it can also make shaping your dough a lot harder. You need a small amount of dusting to prevent the dough from sticking to your work surface, but not too much that there is zero friction between the dough and the work surface.
A small amount of friction between the dough and the work surface is important, so that you are able to use that friction to pull the dough’s skin taut during shaping.
5. Dried out dough surface makes the dough brittle
The dried out dough’s surface is brittle and tears easily when it is handled or stretched. A dough’s surface can get dried out if we let it to rest for a long period without covering it.
Covering the dough prevents excessive airflow around the dough that can remove too much moisture from the dough’s surface while it is fermenting, bench resting and proofing. Whenever the dough is resting, remember to cover it.
6. Insufficient Bench Rest
After pre-shaping, the dough’s surface is in high tension and can easily snap when stretched further. Therefore, the dough must be allowed to bench rest for a period of 20-30 minutes before shaping which gives the dough enough time to relax.
Without any bench rest, the dough’s skin will be too tight and will be prone to tearing during shaping.