Troubleshooting Free-formed Sourdough Loaves
Breads are not always baked in a loaf pan. They can either be shaped in a basket and then baked directly on a baking stone, or shaped on baking sheets. These are some of the most common problems for these free-formed loaves.
Loaves bulge and split at the bottom edges or sides of loaves.
The loaves did not rise long enough. Let the loaves nearly double in size before baking. Also, be sure to make a few slashes on the top of the loaves, so gases created during baking have a controlled place to escape.
Loaves puff up initially in oven, but fall by the time the bread is baked.
Most likely the loaves rose too long, especially if the texture of the bread is coarse. When dough over-rises, it becomes fragile and loses its ability to maintain a strong internal structure. If you suspect dough has risen too long, simply reshape the loaves and let them rise again. This rise will be much faster than the first rise.
Loaves do not puff up well during baking. Loaves are somewhat flat.
There are several possibilities here.
Texture of bread is dry.
Not enough hydration. Try using less flour next time. Also, do not over-bake. Use a thermometer to make sure bread is between 190° and 205°F. Bread will lose too much liquid through evaporation if baked too long.
Crust seems fine when removed from the oven, but gets soft when it cools.
Not baked long enough. Bread emits steam as it bakes and even after it comes out of the oven. If the bread is under-baked, excessive steam will be released from the moisture remaining in the dough, creating a softer crust. Next time, bake the bread a little longer. And, be sure to use a thermometer to check the temperature of the bread to determine whether it is done.
Loaves spread out too much while rising; don’t hold their shape.
Free-formed loaves need to be made from fairly sturdy dough to hold their shape. If your dough is on the soft side, let it rise in a basket (there are some inexpensive baskets available at restaurant supply stores) or use the ring from a spring-form pan to hold the dough's shape while rising. If you place the dough on parchment paper first, you can transfer the loaf, parchment and all, directly to your hot baking stone.
Be sure dough is sufficiently kneaded to develop the gluten. Under-kneaded dough can be too slack to hold its shape well.
Crust is not crisp enough.
Bread may be under-baked or baked at too low a temperature.
Add some steam to the oven while bread is baking. Spray the walls of the oven (be careful not to spray the light bulb) with a fine mist of water immediately before placing the loaf in, and spray again several times during the first 15 minutes of baking. A crispy crust is the result of high humidity. Commercial bakeries often have steam emitters in their ovens.
Bread is doughy in the center.
Bread is under-baked. Insert a thermometer all the way into the center of the loaf to check for doneness. Bake for a longer time and/or at a higher temperature.
It’s also possible that there was too much liquid in the dough. Try adding more flour next time.
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