The instructions for proper scoring technique may seem simple enough – take a razor blade and slash the dough, but there are many other factors that needs to come together to produce a baked loaf that doesn’t flattened out from scoring, and for the cuts to develop into a beautiful ear in the oven.
How to get a tall ear from the scoring of your baked sourdough bread?
1. Ensure dough has sufficient strength and gluten development
A dough does not have adequate gluten development and dough strength will flatten when it is scored, and there is little chance for its scoring to develop into an ear once it is baked. A flattened dough does not have the strength to rise upwards during oven spring which is essential to open up your cuts for a long and tall ear to develop.
When a weak dough is scored deeply, the cut severes too many important gluten strands in the dough that gives the dough its strength, and the dough collapses as it is unable to hold its own weight.
Sufficient dough strength can be developed through multiple means for a sourdough bread. The mechanical motion of mixing aligns and develops gluten strands, acidity from bulk fermentation tightens the gluten structure and contributes to dough strength, and the folding action during bulk fermentation also develops gluten structure.
When working with sourdough of hydrations levels of less than 75%, the typical scoring depths of 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep should not flatten your dough. If it does, you can improve your dough’s strength by increasing mixing time, increasing the quantity of pre-ferment used, and increasing the number of folds.
However, for very wet sourdoughs of hydration levels of more than 75% such as the ciabatta or pan de cristal are never scored, as these very wet sourdough are generally weak by nature and will collapse if scored.
2. Do not overproof your sourdough
Oven spring is important as it allows the dough to expand and rise upwards, opening up your cuts which eventually hardens and develops into a long and tall beautiful ear.
Oven spring is the rapid expansion of your dough during its first 10 minutes of baking time. As the dough gets heated up to 50 Celcius, fermentation reaction ramps up due to the increase in temperature, gas production increases and gasses inside the dough expands due to the heat, increasing the internal pressure inside the dough, which causes it to inflate.
The purpose of the final proofing/fermentation phase is to allow the dough to achieve 90% of its full rise before it is loaded into the hot oven. At 90% rise, the yeast and bacteria still has some food source left to undergo fermentation, and when it is loaded into the oven, fermentation can still be carried out to produce the gasses required for oven spring.
If the dough has been over proofed, it has achieved close to 100% of its rise and the yeast and bacteria has run out of food for fermentation and gas production, which will inevitably cause the dough to flatten out as it is baking.
3. Ensure adequate steaming for sufficient oven spring
Baking your sourdough in a steamed environment lowers the surface temperature of your dough, to enable the dough to fully expand during oven spring before the hard crust structure sets, so that the cuts are able to open up and harden into a long and tall ear.
Without steam, the surface temperature of your dough rises quickly, and the hard crusts sets too early, before oven spring has ended. The hard crust structure inhibits any further expansion of the dough, which results in cuts that do not open up as much.
If too much steam is used, the surface temperature of the dough remains low throughout the bake, causing the loaf to fully expand from oven spring, and subsequently collapsing from the lack of crust formation that helps to keep the loaf in shape.
We typically vent the oven to remove any excess steam once the loaf has taken on an adequate brown coloration, so that the loaf finishes the bake in a dry environment. This ensures that the loaf gets enough steam for it to expand fully, while preventing too much steam from causing the loaf to collapse.
4. Ensure adequate skin tension during shaping
One of the objectives of shaping your sourdough is to develop sufficient skin tension on the top side of your dough. This skin tension exerts a pulling force at the surface of the dough which helps to open up your cuts when the dough is scored.
When there is insufficient skin tension, the cuts do not open up as much.
Friction between the dough and work surface is key to developing sufficient skin tension. Skin tension is developed as the friction and stickiness between the dough and the work surface holds one side of the dough in place while the hands pulls the dough taut from the opposite side.
Avoid excessive flouring of the work surface as it will remove any friction between the dough and the work surface, causing the dough to slip and slide, making it difficult to pull the dough’s surface taut to develop skin tension.
5. Score with a sharp razor blade
Scoring should be done with a razor blade as it provides the thinnest and sharpest edge to cut through the dough effortlessly without any excessive downward force on the dough. If you are scoring with a knife, the thick and wedge shaped blade tends to get stuck as it cuts deeper into the dough, making it difficult to produce a clean and deep cut.
Always use a sharp razor blade when scoring. Test the sharpness of your razor blade by holding a piece of paper in the air and slicing it with the blade in a swift motion. If the blade is sharp it will slice through the paper cleanly with little resistance. If the blade is dull, it will stop in the middle of the cut, and drag the paper as it goes.
Always use a sharp blade when scoring, if the blade drags when slicing through a piece of paper, replace the blade.
6. Soak your blade in water
If you find that your blade tends to stick to the dough when you are scoring, it helps to soak the blade in water before scoring. The layer of moisture on the wet blade prevents the dough from sticking to it, resulting in less resistance when scoring, producing a cleaner cut.
7. Use scissors
Wetter doughs tend to be stickier and your blade will get stuck even if you soak it in water. If your razor blade is still sticking to the dough when you are scoring it, use a pair of scissors instead.
Cut the dough at an angle using the scissors at 1/4 to 1/2 inch in depth. You should perform multiple small cuts on the dough which links together to arrive at the total length of cut that you desire.