Sourdough that is overly loose and difficult to hold its shape, is flat throughout the baking process without having any significant rise, which is primarily due to a weak gluten structure that is unable to trap carbon dioxide gasses and hold its own weight.
If your sourdough has good rise, but collapses and flattens some time along the baking process then we are talking about a different problem; read Understanding Why Sourdough Bread Collapses and Flattens.
1. Insufficient dough strength from under mixing
The primary reason why your sourdough is slack, loose and is unable to hold its shape is due to undermixing.
Mixing combines and aligns the gliadin and glutenin proteins found in flour to form gluten network that traps carbon dioxide gasses and provides our dough with structural strength; gluten enables the dough to support its own weight and keep its shape.
The longer we mix, the more elastic, stiff and strong the dough becomes as more gluten strands are aligned and developed. If the dough is under mixed, there is insufficient gluten that is develop to provide the strength required for the dough to support its own weight.
We want to mix the dough until it is reasonably taut and offers some resistance when we stretch it, at the same time the dough should also be quite supple.
Althought mixing is important to develop adequate dough strength, we should be careful not to over mix the dough as it will result in reduced flavor from the over oxidation of the carotenoid pigments, and an overly strong dough which stunts the rise of the loaf.
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 (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|
2. Excessive over mixing breaks the gluten network
Although mixing to sufficient dough strength is important, we should be careful not to get carried away and over mix our dough.
Over mixing the dough can bring the dough to a point where the gluten bonds start breaking down and the trapped water is released. The dough becomes wet, shiny and sticky as it unknits and losses a lot of its structural integrity; the dough will not hold its shape.
Prevent over mixing by using the table above as a guideline to judge whether you have gone way past the normal total mixing time.
3. Dough of excessive hydration
When dealing with high hydration dough such as when baking the ciabata or pan de cristal sourdough breads, it can feel exceptionally slack, sticky and does not hold its shape after mixing. This is totally normal as additional strength of the dough is developed from the acidity of fermentation and the stretching action during folding.
However, the high hydration dough still has to be developed to a reasonable level of strength during mixing and it can be quite difficult to mix high hydration dough to the same gluten strength as compared to a low hydration dough.
One technique to effectively mix high hydration dough is to hold back a portion of water during the initial mixing and mix the drier dough until it develops sufficiently in strength (drier dough develops gluten network easier than wetter doughs). Then, add the remaining water that was held back initially and mix only until the water incorporated; this is known as the bassinage technique.
Always weigh your flour so that you can know for certain the amount of water that is in your dough. The density of flour varies if you use whole grain flour versus white flour; weighing ensures that the same quantity of flour is used irregardless of the type of flour and maintains an accurate hydration level of your dough.
Very wet dough is more difficult to mix and develop gluten, hence keep hydration levels below 75% baker’s percentage to prevent dough that is too loose and difficult to handle.
4. Whole grain, seeds and nuts severes gluten network
A longer mixing time is required when whole grain, seeds, and nuts are used in the sourdough formulation as the relatively sharp bran pieces cuts and severes the gluten network.
If you do not increase the mixing time when baking with seeds, nuts and whole grains, there would be insufficient dough strength to support the weight of the dough; remember to add a few more minutes to the mixing time.
Seeds and nuts should also be soaked in equal weight of boiling water`for a few hours prior to adding them into the final dough mix as it softens the seeds and nuts and reduces the cutting and tearing of the gluten network, which results in a stronger dough for the same mixing time.
Remember we are always trying to minimize mixing time as the longer we mix, the more flavor we lose from the oxidation of the carotenoid pigments.
5. Excessive bench rest
The purpose of bench resting is to allow the dough to relax after pre-shaping to reduce the tendency for the dough to tear during the final shaping process.
However when the dough is if left to bench rest for too long, the dough can slacken excessively, flatten and does not hold its shape well.
Bench rest shouldn’t be longer than 20 minutes, which is usually enough time for the dough to relax to reduce the risk of tearing, but still be sufficiently taut for holding its shape during final shaping.
6. Insufficient skin tension during shaping
Shaping in the baking process brings the dough to its final shape prior to entering the hot oven. The hand motion of shaping stretches the outer surface of the dough to create tension on the surface of the dough that helps to keep the dough in shape throughout the final fermentation and baking process.
Insufficient skin tension results in a dough that does not hold its shape during the final stages of the baking process.
7. Insufficent salt
One of salt’s function is to tighten the gluten structure; without salt, dough becomes sticky and slack in texture, making it difficult to work with as it does not hold its shape well.
Always weigh your ingredients and that includes your salt to accurately follow the baker’s percentage that is called for in the formulation; keep salt in the range of 1.8-2.0% of total weight of flour. Salt varies in terms of its density as it comes in many different grain sizes, the weight of 1 cup of coarse salt is not the same as the weight of 1 cup of fine salt.
8. Excessively soft water
The hardness of water is an indicator to the amount of calcium and magnesium that is in the water.
|Type of Water||Mineral Content (ppm)|
|Soft||Less than 50|
|Medium (best for bread baking)||50-150|
|Hard||More than 150|
When water is excessively soft, the lack of minerals results in sticky and slack dough that doesn’t hold its shape well. Test your water to determine its hardness, or alternatively use bottled water with a known hardness for your bake.
9. The use of spring wheat flour over an extended fermentation period
Spring wheat makes high gluten flour with protein levels at about 13-15%, while winter wheat makes flour of about 11-12% protein.
Although the protein content of spring wheat flour is higher than winter wheat flour, the quality of the protein in spring wheat flour is inferior to the quality of protein in winter wheat flour.
If you use spring wheat with a combination of a long and slow fermentation period, the dough tends to lose structure and stability during the fermentation and the dough slackens and tends to not hold its shape well.
Winter wheat is more resistant to this weakening effect and is superior to spring wheat when baking over an extended fermentation period.
10. High percentage of damaged starch
The grain kernel goes through a harsh milling process that inevitably leaves some starch molecules to split open. These broken starch molecules are known as damaged starch. All flour has damaged starch but when damaged starch in flour is greater than 10%, it will have negative effect on dough property.
Problems with damaged starch comes from the over absorption of water. Damaged starch absorbs water during mixing as opposed to undamaged starch where the water merely coats the outer surface. The water is then gradually released after mixing and the dough structure weakens, which causes loaves to become slack at the end of mixing and flatten out during shaping.
If you have tried everything else on this list and your sourdough is still excessively loose and does not hold its shape, your flour may be the issue.
If you are using American made flour, try switching to European flour. American flour has about 8-9% starch damage, while European flour has about 7% starch damage.
To sum it up there are many reasons why your sourdough feels loose and does not hold its shape, but the most common reason is due to an under developed gluten network which is caused from inadequate mixing. Keep mixing times close to the 5-7 minutes when using a spiral mixer and about 8-10 minutes if hand mixing.
Remember to increase mixing time if you are baking with a higher hydration formula and also when using whole grain, seeds and nuts in your mix.