Making Light and Fluffy Sourdough Bread

Q. When I’ve made sourdough bread in the past, I always seem to end up with small dense loaves.  How do I make sourdough bread that is light and fluffy?

A. There are generally three factors that influence the rise of the bread and the final texture:

1. Be sure your yeast is fully active before baking.  If your sourdough starter has been stored in the fridge, it has been living in a dormant state.  Plan to feed the culture at least three times 8-12 hours apart prior to baking.

2. Knead your dough well to activate the gluten.  It is very important to allow the gluten to fully develop so thoroughly kneading the dough is a critical step.  If you are kneading by hand, plan for a minimum of 20 minutes (you can take breaks–such as kneading for 5-10 minutes at a time).  If you are using a mixer to knead, check the dough often to ensure it’s not overheating (which can damage the yeast) and stop the process once the gluten is well developed.  While there isn’t any danger of over-kneading when kneading by hand, mixers can abuse the dough if not watched.  To determine if the gluten is adequately developed, perform the “window pane test”.  Take a piece of dough and stretch it between your fingers.  If the gluten is sufficiently developed, the dough should stretch thin–so you can see light through it–without the dough breaking.  If it breaks before it can be stretched thin, keep kneading.

3. Plan for a long proofing (rise) period.  As a natural yeast, sourdough tends to take significantly longer to rise than bread made with commercial yeast.  Timing is dependent on the specific starter and conditions in your home so until you have determined the best rise period for your particular starter, plan for a 4-12 hour rise period (if you desire more sour bread, plan for 12-24 hours).

For more information on making a light, fluffy and delicious loaf of traditional sourdough bread, click here to view our step-by-step video on making sourdough bread.

Julie Feickert

Julie Feickert

Julie Feickert started Cultures for Health in late 2008. She is the mother to three young children and enjoys cooking and reading. Her favorite cultured foods include water kefir and kombucha. Julie lives with her family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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  1. kara says

    is there a specific temperature recommended for the long proof period as our house can be quite cool? thanks

    • Julie FeickertJulie says

      Generally a warm room will work better–in the 70-80F degree range. But, sourdough has been known to rise in cooler temperatures (down to 65F) it can just take a very long time to do so.

      • sarina says

        I have a cool house my sour dough takes 12-15 hours to raise. Be patient…it can still happen in a cooler room

  2. Doug Mathis says

    I have a recipe for sourdough bread that I have worked with and thought I had “perfected” it. I finally made 3-4 batches of sourdough bread and every loaf came out perfectly. After the “perfect” loaves I have tried the same recipe, stpes, and procedures only to find that during the rising time the tops of the bread began to tear just in the tops. I kneaded the dough till I thought it was completely elastic. Kneading for 1o minute iuntervals with 10 minute resting time in between kneadings. I usually knead all together anywhere from 22 minutes to 30 minutes. Can you help me or give me some tips?



    • Julie FeickertJulie says

      It’s hard to say exactly what is causing the tearing but Is is possible something changed between the previous batches and this one? Maybe humidity was a factor? Maybe the dough was a little less wet than normal (this could be caused by either a lower humidity level or a more dry sourdough starter, maybe the ratios used to feed the starter were a little different than previously)? I tend to have less tearing with a more moist dough.

  3. Valerie says

    I have been trying my hand at sourdough and have a couple of problems.
    1. my dough is very sticky and doesn’t seem to get easier to knead unless I use wet hands or constantly add flour.
    2. I constantly fail the window-pane test. I am new to this but it seems like my dough breaks every time. I eventually give up.
    3. The first loaf I made in a pan was pretty, but the second two had longer ferment/rise times and failed to rise any more in the oven. They seem very dense. If I tried to freeform the loaf french bread style it spread instead of rising and the dough got hard before I baked it because it dried out.
    I’m a little frustrated/worried about what I am doing wrong. Any help is welcome.


    • Julie FeickertJulie says

      Sticky dough is good but ultimately must be balanced with being able to work with it. While wet hands can be helpful, if you need to add flour, go ahead. The goal is to keep the dough as moist as you can while still being able to work with it.

      How long are you kneading for? Are you using any particular technique? I find it helpful to knead, fold back on itself, rotate the dough 90 degrees, and then knead again. Generally you’ll need a solid 20 minutes of quality kneading to get a good level of gluten development. If you’re still developing your technique it may take longer but you can knead in 5 or 10 minute bouts with short rest periods. Alternatively you can use a mixer (like a Kitchen Aid or Bosch) for most of the kneading (just watch it to be sure the dough isn’t overheating) but I find I still need to do the last 5 or 10 minutes by hand to get the good stretch to the dough.

      One way to handle spreading dough while rising is to use some sort of form like a bread basket or pan. If using a basket or something where you’ll need to get the dough out later, be sure to line it with a piece of linen dusted with something like brown rice flour. Also be very gentle when removing the dough from the basket. It’s easy to have it collapse.

    • Oskar says

      Sticky? That’s great. You don’t need flour, no water, no oil, just learn French kneading. Here’s a good primer:

  4. Annette Cobb says

    I have been making sourdough without adding yeast for a few months. Just when I think I got it–a flat loaf. I think from reading I may not let it rise long enough. Do I use a double rise? Or just one longer rise?

    • Julie FeickertJulie says

      Some people like to do a double rise but it isn’t necessary. A long single rise works just as well and is simpler. Have you seen our Sourdough Bread video? It has three critical steps to getting a light and fluffy loaf.

  5. Mikki says

    Is there a way to avoid the (very) hard crust from forming on the top of the sourdough loaf while baking? The top crust is so hard that it is difficult to slice, while the remainder of the loaf is perfect.

    • Julie FeickertJulie says

      A hard top crust is frustrating! The most reliable way to get a soft top on the loaf is to baste the top with butter immediately upon removing it from the oven.

  6. says

    I followed this recipe exactly. My yeast was good and foamy when I proofed it and I got a good first rise from it. In the end though, the dough was really stretchy and didn’t feel stiff enough and the bagels did not rise again once I had shaped them. They turned out tasting delicious but never got big and poofy like the one pictured. They were kind of flat and not very dense. Ideas on what could have happened??

  7. Mike. H. says

    I watched your video and tried to duplicate your techniques; however, it failed. I used a rye starter I made myself. It was very “spongy” and ready to use. I used only rye flour but during the kneading it was so sticky, no matter how much flour I used. Well it didn’t rise well and turned into a cobble stone. Any advice?

  8. Rudy Vaverka says

    It just don’t get no better than this! Thank you Julie! Mother has been alive for 3 months. Your bread just does not last around here. Not only did the gas bubbles have symmetry, but they went from to bottom of the loaf.

  9. George says

    I’m fairly new to sourdough. After a couple of mediocre loaves, I started making cookies and bars (with great success). However, after reading this article, I think I’m going to try bread again this weekend. My starter is mostly whole wheat, and seems very healthy. I generally feed it once a day, but this time I’ll follow your instructions and feed it a couple of extra times before Sunday. I was worried about over-kneading on my last loaves, but after reading this, I’ll just knead the heck out of it!

  10. Christy says

    My loaves are not rising as much as I am used to with commercial yeast…how do I know if I’ve let them rise long enough?

    • says

      Christy – It is often more useful to follow the cues of a recipe rather than the amount of rise time. So, if it says “doubled in bulk” then wait for it to double. If it says “small holes on the surface” follow that rather than a set number of hours.

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