Turning out your sourdough to see it collapse on the worktop is extremely frustrating especially when you spent all those hours preparing it. Collapsed loaves never regain their height, but still do taste delicious. For next time, let’s see what we can do differently to stop it from happening again.
How to stop sourdough collapsing when turning out?
- Build more strength in bulk fermentation
- Pre-shape the dough
- Build more tension in shaping
- Don’t over proof the dough
I’ll give some instructions on how to do these steps in the sections below. It is mostly based on sourdough but applies to all dough too.
If your bread has failed, you can always check out my post 12 things to do with failed bread.
How To Build Strength In Dough
A dough that collapses typically signals it is weak in structure. Strength is built in the bulk fermentation phase which spans a number of hours for naturally leavened sourdough – so it’s an important step to get right.
Sourdough is often a wet and slack dough so traditional kneading can be difficult. Usually we use a method like the “stretch and fold” method to build strength in the gluten structure. This basically stretches out the gluten and folds it over, a bit like if you keep folding a piece of paper over. It builds up strength with the gluten strands layering up.
Instructions for stretch and fold
Typically bulk fermentation lasts 4-5 hours depending on the temperature. You would normally do a round of folds every 30 minutes for the first 2 hours. It’s good to do the folds early rather than later because it builds strength to hold on to gases which might be lost otherwise. If you are collapsing, then try an extra round of folds. For more stretch and fold tips, see my article kneading vs stretch and fold.
To complete a fold, wet your hand slightly and reach under one side of the dough to grab a side. Stretch it upwards until you meet some resistance and fold it over the dough like a flap. Do a quarter turn of the bowl and repeat so you do 4 turns in total. This is one round of folding and needs to be done 4 times, every half an hour while the dough ferments.
You can physically see and feel the don’t get stronger with each round of folding. The dough that started fairly liquid-like now holds a ball shape better once you’ve finished the set of folds.
Pre-Shape Your Dough
Pre shaping prepares your dough to be a shape that is a platform to do the final shaping.
If you’re making multiple loaves, pieces of dough cut off the bulk fermented dough will all be different shapes. Ideally we want a nice even piece of dough to shape as this means it’s can be worked into a bread shape easily. That’s the basic reason of pre-shaping.
It also gives us an opportunity to apply more tension and strength if it seems a bit weak. You can tell a dough is lacking structure if you turn it out on to the worktop and it starts spreading out too much.
How to pre-shape dough
Pre-shaping is really simple. We just need to divide the bulk piece of dough into how many loaves we are making. Then shape it loosely to something that resembles your final loaf – e.g. a ball for a boule or a sausage for a baguette – and then a little rest.
For pre-shaping a boule, just fold the edges into the center of the dough and turn upside down so the seams are on the worktop. If the dough seems loose, then build some tension by rolling the ball on the surface. Now a short rest before the final shaping needs to happen because the dough is a bit tight to shape now. Around 20 minutes for a medium tight ball.
If the dough still seems weak and spreading out then this is an opportunity to add a few extra folds and tightening on the worktop. Basically like giving the dough an extra fold in the bulk fermentation phase
Shaping doesn’t need to be elaborate to make a well risen dough, but you do need to follow some simple principles.
I will refer to the boule as that is a simple round shape that most bakers have made. We just take edges of the dough, stretch out slightly and fold into the middle, repeating the folding as you rotate around the dough. This creates a taut surface on the opposite side to the folded seams. Keep folding until the dough has tightened up so much that it is hard to pull an edge out. This takes 1 or 2 passes around the dough ball.
Remember to pinch the seams shut and place the ball seam side down to keep the tension in the dough.
Build Surface Tension
Building surface tension to a shaped dough gives extra protection from collapsing. The dough has had strength built up in fermentation so that its interior is robust. But now we can go one step further and make the outer layer taught which will hold the dough together as it rises and is turned out. This taut outer layer also helps with scoring and will keep the dough together when it is cut and make it easier to score cleanly.
Different methods for building tension are required for different shapes of loaf. To build tension you want the dough on a worktop that does not have too much flour. Roll the dough with your hands or cup the back of the dough with your fingers and pull the dough towards you which tightens the skin as it drags. Give the dough a quarter turn and do it again until you’ve made it round once or twice.
Don’t Over Proof Your Dough
If you over proof your dough then it will become weak and more liable to collapse. When the dough is over proofed, the gluten has been broken down and relaxed so much that it can no longer hold the dough together. The gluten tightness is created when we do our final shaping and so you have a finite amount of time between that shaping and baking before it relaxes too much.
The time depends on temperature as warmer temperatures will speed up the fermenting process and speed up the weakening of gluten. In warm temperatures, a sourdough can be proofed in 3-4 hours, while a fridge will take 8-12 hours. A bit more on this on my post leaving dough to rise all day.
You can tell that the dough is over proved by pressing a finger into the dough surface. If it doesn’t spring back at all then the dough has lost a lot of its elasticity. A bit like a rubber band that has been stretched too far, it can no longer return to its shape. You should bake the dough when the finger dent springs back slowly and partially – an indicator it is proofed.
If collapsing dough is a real problem for you then try placing it in the fridge for the final proof. I find that refrigerated dough tends to hold its shape better because the gluten is tighter in cold temperatures. It is also harder to over prove your dough in colder environments because the window of over proving is longer as fermentation is slower. You can turn it out and get a really nice score to produce ears on the crust.
Scoring Without Collapsing
Scoring can be a tricky skill to master and will often cause problems to the final dough especially if you don’t have the right equipment. If you use a knife to do scoring it can be easy to apply too much pressure to the dough which can make the top sink and collapse as you cut it. Better is to use a razor blade. Using a razor blade cuts easily through the dough and you don’t need to apply much pressure at all. You end up with clean cuts and no no dent in the dough.
You can buy packs of double edged razor blades from Amazon and use a wooden skewer pushed through the holes in the middle to create an easy and cheap tool for bread baking. Take care with these blades as they are really sharp and you can cut yourself very easily.
When you score you don’t have to press too hard into the dough, instead you can make shallow cuts at a 45 to 30 degrees angle. This allows the score to open up nicely and get pronounced ears on the edges which have a nice aesthetic.
With these tips, you can stop your sourdough from collapsing when it is turned out and scored. Everyone wants a nice tall loaf with lots of volume and the main key is building strength and tension so that the dough can rise up rather than outwards.
Learning to know when your dough has enough gluten development is a skill that will build up over time baking good loaves. My best advice is to ensure it has enough folds and that you aren’t rushing any of the steps. With a solid shaping routine, you can ensure your dough will hold on to that shape in the final rise.