There are two types of sourdough that will be difficult to shape: a sourdough that is too dry and stiff and a sourdough that is too wet and loose.
When a sourdough is too stiff, it resists the pulling motion during shaping and springs back into a ball very quickly, and you are not able to stretch the dough out into the form that you desire.
When a sourdough is too loose, it has too little strength and does not hold its shape well, it will remain elongated and flat when you try to shape the dough.
This article details out what makes sourdough too stiff and too loose, which makes shaping difficult. We will also talk about some key ideas in developing sufficient skin tension during shaping.
What causes sourdough to be too stiff to shape
1. Over mixing makes the dough stiff
Sourdough gets its strength from the gluten network that develops as the dough is kneaded and mixed.
The longer you mix, more gluten is developed in the dough, and the dough becomes stronger and stiffer. The danger of over mixing is that the dough can get so stiff that it is difficult to stretch it out to the shape that we want; the dough springs back into its original form when you try to stretch it out.
Different types of mixers uses different 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 (including 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 over mixed our dough; if you fall way over the range in the table, then it is likely your dough is over mixed. In that case, increase the mixing time.
Having said that, there are various other factors that can affect the rate at which gluten develops during mixing, ultimately you would want to aim the mix the dough until it has moderate elasticity (tightness and resistance to stretch), while still remaining extensible (relaxed and stretchable without tearing).
|First Mixing (Minutes)
|Second Mixing (Minutes)
|Total Mixing Time (minutes)
|Stand Mixer (KitchenAid Type All Purpose Mixer)
2. Low hydration dough has a tendency to be over mixed
Sourdough that has a lower hydration level develops gluten more easily than sourdough with a higher hydration level. Therefore, for the same mixing time, the dough with a lower hydration level will become much stronger than the dough of a higher hydration level.
When mixing dough of a lower hydration level, remember to observe the development of the dough closely, as it is prone to being over mixed.
We can also unintentionally add more flour into our dough, reducing the hydration level from what was intended if we measure the volume of our ingredients instead of weighing them.
To accurately achieve a desired hydration level for your dough, always weigh your ingredients. The error in the measurement is due to the different densities between different types of flour; different flours have different weights at the same volume.
3. Too many folds can cause the dough to stiffen excessively
The dough develops a substantial amount of strength during the folding phase. A dough that seems excessively sticky, wet, weak and lacking in strength prior to folding will quickly become dry, cohesive and strong after just 1 or 2 folds.
We can often easily incorporate too many folds into our sourdough that increases its strength and stiffness to a point where the dough springs back or tears easily whenever we stretch it out, making shaping almost impossible.
Folding is done during bulk fermentation, aim to incorporate one fold for every 1 hour of bulk fermentation. One fold consists of the folding of all four sides of the dough into its centre. Most sourdough recipes only requires 1-2 fold over a typical bulk fermentation period of 2-3 hours; check if your number of folds is within this range.
4. Too much acidity can cause the dough to stiffen excessively
Acidity helps to tighten the gluten network and contributes to the strength of the dough. A substantial quantity of acidity in sourdough is contributed by the pre-ferment(sourdough starter) that we incorporate into the dough.
When too much pre-ferment is used, it can introduce too much acidity that excessively strengthens the dough, making it difficult to shape.
Typically sourdough recipes calls for pre-ferment in the range of 15-25% of the total weight of flour.
For example, if a recipe calls for 500g of total flour with 20% pre-ferment of 100% hydration, that means for that particular dough, the 100% hydration pre-ferment/sourdough starter would consists of a total weight of 200g (100g flour + 100g water). Since the sourdough starter already contains 100g of flour which is 20% of the total desired weight of flour in the formulation, only 400g of additional flour should be added into the final mix.
If the quantity of your pre-ferment has gone way past 25%, reducing it will help in loosening up your stiff dough.
What causes sourdough to be too loose and does not hold its shape
1. Under-mixing and excessive over-mixing
Sourdough can turn out too loose and will be difficult to hold its shape, when it is under-mixed or if it has gone through excessive over-mixing.
When the sourdough is under mixed, insufficient gluten has been developed, causing the dough to be weak, wet, sticky and does not hold its shape. Although mixing is important for gluten development, remember that we are always trying to minimize mixing time as the longer we mix the dough, the more flavor we lose due to the oxidation of carotenoid pigments in the flour.
Aim to mix the dough until it reaches slightly below the desired dough strength, as the later phases of the baking process helps to contribute strength to the dough without the need for mixing; bulk fermentation produces acids that tightens the gluten network while folding stretches, aligns and strengthens the gluten network.
When the sourdough is over mixed, it becomes excessively stiff and strong, however if you develop the dough any further, the dough will start to unknit as its gluten network breaks apart, causing the dough to weaken and revert back into a wet and sticky mess that will not hold its shape.
Under mixing and excessive over mixing can be avoided by staying close to the mixing times listed in the table above.
2. High hydration dough has a tendency to be under mixed
It is a lot harder to develop gluten in a very wet dough, hence it is quite common for the home baker to under mix doughs of very high hydration.
Hydration levels can be push past 100%, while still achieving a dough that is dry and strong enough to be shaped. When the dough’s gluten is well developed it will not be sticky as it will have a strong ability to retain water. Insufficiently developed dough, does not have enough gluten to retain water, and the water leaks out of the dough, causing the dough to be wet and sticky.
Ultimately, you want to mix the dough until it develops enough gluten to be strong, dry but still supple enough to be stretched without tearing.
The bassinage technique is a method the French use that improves the ability of very wet dough to develop gluten during mixing. The bassinage technique helps to minimize mixing time for very wet doughs as gluten develops more readily in a drier environment.
Hold back a portion of the total water that is called for in the sourdough formulation during the initial mixing. Mix the drier dough until it has developed sufficiently in strength, then add the remaining water that you have initially held back into the dough and mix only until the water is incorporated.
3. Improper folding technique insufficiently develops dough strength
Since the usual number of folds for most sourdough bread ranges from 1-2 folds, it is unlikely that you are under folding your dough, it is more likely that your folding technique is incorrect.
Your sourdough may not have developed the strength that it needs through folding due to bad technique. When we are folding the dough, we want to ensure that it gets stretched so that the gluten can align which gives the dough its strength.
Pick up one side of the dough, lift it up with your thumbs facing upwards and wiggle slightly such that the dough stretches long enough to be folded into its own centre. Repeat the same step for all four sides of the dough. One fold count should consists of the folding of all four sides of the dough, repeated 1-2 times for most sourdough recipes.
4. Excessive bulk fermentation time weakens the dough
During bulk fermentation, the acidity that is released into the dough helps to strengthen the gluten structure giving the dough a substantial amount of strength. However, when the dough has been left to ferment for too long, the gluten will start to breakdown and the dough unknits releasing its moisture causing it to be wet, sticky, weak and not able to hold its shape well.
The bulk fermentation time for most sourdough breads are in the range of 2-3 hours. If you are fermenting your sourdough much longer than 2-3 hours, it might be why the dough feels excessively loose during shaping.
Difficulty developing skin tension during shaping
One of the objectives during shaping is to form the dough in such a way that the top side of the dough gets stretched out, acquiring a tight skin once shaping is done. The skin tension on the dough helps to keep the dough in shape until it is loaded into the hot oven.
During shaping, only dust the work surface lightly such that there is still some friction between your work surface and dough; the dough should stick lightly on the work surface. This friction and stickiness helps to keep one side of the dough in place, while you pull on the other end, so that the surface of the dough stretches, and sufficient skin tension can be developed.
If you dust the work surface excessively, there will be no friction between the dough and the work surface, and the dough would just slide across the surface when you try to shape it, hence it can be quite difficult to develop the skin tension that the dough needs.