Sourdough bread that is crumbly, feels dry in the mouth, breaks apart easily into small pieces and gives us a sense of ‘eating the beach’. Sourdough bread gets crumbly due to insufficient gluten development and excessive loss of moisture throughout the baking process.
1. Avoid using flour of less than 10% protein
Low protein flour corresponds to a low gluten content which causes your sourdough bread to have poor rise and a crumbly textured crumb.
Gluten development is important as it provides a chewy skeleton structure that holds all the ingredients in the bread together. Without sufficient gluten development, the resulting crumb is made up of many individual grains of ingredients rather than forming a single cohesive component.
Avoid using low protein flour such as cake flour to bake sourdough bread as it is almost impossible to develop sufficient gluten development for a cohesive crumb texture.
2. Increase mixing time to adequately develop gluten network
The act of kneading and mixing the dough aligns glutenin and gliadin proteins in the flour to form long gluten strand which is important to avoid a crumbly texture.
The more we mix, the more gluten is developed and the more cohesive the baked loaf becomes. If the dough is under mixed, there is not enough gluten strand to form a cohesive crumb structure which results in crumbly texture that doesn’t stick together and breaks apart easily.
Different types of mixers uses different types of mixing arm which develops the dough at different rates. The average total mixing time when using a spiral mixer is around 6 minutes of total mixing (includes first speed mixing time and second speed mixing time).
The table below is extracted from Jeffrey Hammelman’s Bread Book that shows the relative mixing time between different mixers and hand mixing to develop the same dough to the same strength.
We can use the mixing time below as a sanity check to determine if we have indeed under mixed our dough; if you fall way short from the range in the table, then it is likely your dough is under mixed. In that case, increase the mixing time.
|Mixer||First Mixing (Minutes)||Second Mixing (Minutes)||Total Mixing Time (minutes)|
|Stand Mixer (KitchenAid Type All Purpose Mixer)||2.5||4.5||7|
3. Always weigh your flour and avoid measuring its volume
Professional bakers always weigh their ingredients rather than measuring its volume because the ingredients that we use in sourdough bread making can differ in terms of their density; a cup of whole grain flour has a different weight than a cup of white flour.
Whole grain flour has a lower density than white flour as whole grain flour is coarser than white flour, and hence contains many spaces in between the grains resulting in a lower weight per given volume.
If we measure our flour according to its volume, we may inevitably use more flour than what was intended in the original sourdough formulation, effectively lowering its hydration level to a point where the dough becomes too dry and crumbly.
A good sourdough bread recipe always lists its ingredients as weight rather than volume; professional baker’s use the baker’s percentages which lists down the weight of all ingredients in the bread in relation to the weight of the flour.
4. Add water when baking in an excessively cold and low humidity environment
Seasonal changes makes a big difference in the level of moisture that is in the air. As the temperature gets colder, there is less moisture in the air, hence your flour tends to dry out as well.
If you do not increase the water content in your sourdough bread during colder months, the dough will turn out drier than usual as the drier flour absorbs more water, and the resulting baked loaf will turn out crumbly.
Start off by increasing water content by 2% of the total weight of the flour and feel for its consistency. If it feels drier than usual, don’t be afraid to increase the water content.
5. Adjust water in dough according to your flour’s requirements
There are many factors in the milling process that can affect your flour’s moisture content such as the region that it is milled, the time of year it is milled and how long the grain has been stored before it was milled.
Different flour go through different milling process and can result in a significant variation in moisture level; some flour will be drier than others, absorbing more water and requires a higher hydration level to avoid a crumbly textured crumb.
Start off by increasing water content by 2% of the total weight of the flour and feel for its consistency. If it feels dry, add more water.
6. Always soak your seeds, nuts and grains
Whole grain or multi grain sourdough bread recipes calls for seeds, nuts and grains to be added into the mix. These seeds, nuts and grains absorb a significant amount of water from the dough if it is not soaked. Soaking your seeds, nuts and grains is a common practice to saturate them with water prior to mixing, reducing the likelihood for it to rob water from your dough.
Soaked seeds, nuts and grains are known as ‘soakers’; we prepare them by soaking our seeds, nuts and grains in equal weight of boiling water for at least a few hour before adding them into our dough.
Another advantage of soakers is that they soften the seeds, nuts and grains, reducing its tendency to cut and tear the gluten network which is important to hold the other ingredients in the bread together, to avoid a crumbly texture.
7. Be mindful of the factors that can increase moisture loss in the oven
The rate at which moisture is lost in the oven plays a big role in the dryness of the baked loaf. The more moisture is loss during baking, the drier the crumb becomes which contributes to a crumbly texture.
Here are some of the factors that affects moisture loss during baking:
- Overall loaf weight
- Smaller dough pieces tend to lose a higher proportion of their initial moisture weight due to a higher surface area to volume ratio. A larger dough has more surface area than a smaller dough, but a larger dough also has a much greater internal volume. Therefore larger shaped dough losses less moisture to evaporation.
- When baking with smaller dough pieces, decrease baking time to prevent excessive moisture loss.
- Dough shape
- Long skinny loaves such as baguettes have higher surface area which loses a higher amount of moisture than the same dough weight shaped into a round loaf. The higher surface area of long skinny loaves results in a greater loss of moisture to evaporation.
- When baking with long skinny loaves, decrease baking time to prevent excessive moisture loss.
- Length and temperature of bake
- The longer you bake, overall loss of moisture becomes greater; the higher the temperature of the bake, the quicker the moisture is loss to evaporation. If you are baking at a low temperature, over a long duration, the crust remains unburnt but the inside of your dough losses a great amount of moisture leading to a dry and crumbly crumb.
- Typical baking duration ranges from 25 – 45 minutes at 232 Celcius; a lower hydration dough requires a shorter bake time and a lighter loaf also calls for a shorter bake time.
8. Allow your sourdough bread to cool sufficiently after baking
Cooling your sourdough bread is important after baking as it allows the baked bread to retain its moisture when it is sliced open.
A hot sourdough bread that came out fresh from the oven, has a significant amount of its moisture content in a gaseous state. Cooling your sourdough bread allows these gaseous moisture to condensate back into their liquid state and is reabsorbed back into the crumb of the loaf, resulting in a moist crumb.
If we do not allow the loaf to cool down sufficiently before cutting, the moisture in the bread will dissipate as it is in a gaseous state, resulting in a loaf that is initially moist, but quickly becomes dry and crumbly.
Give your sourdough at least 4 hours of cooling to ensure that it retains as much moisture as possible, preventing it from becoming dry and crumbly too quickly.
The appropriate cooling times differs depending on the size of the loaf, shape of the loaf, the room temperature and the type of flour used. I have written a comprehensive guide on cooling sourdough bread which explains how all these factors affect cooling times.
If you would like to learn more, read Proper Cooling to get the Cleanest Cuts on Sourdough Bread.