Imagine this: you’ve got a beautiful bubbly starter, you’re ready to make the dough, and everything is all set for an overnight rise on the kitchen counter.
Easy, right? You’ve followed the recipe to a T! Nothing could go wrong. Except, when you wake up the following morning the dough has barely risen at all. Maybe only a few inches. The dough is cold, dense, and sort of lifeless (just like your mood).
First, what you’re experiencing is totally normal. We’ve all been there no matter how easy the recipe might be. Just ask any baker. In my experience however, temperature is usually the main culprit and luckily there are ways to control it.
But first, you’ll need to consider (and rule out) additional culprits that like to throw a wrench in your rise time game. Sourdough is like a web; each step is connected to the next and when troubleshooting, it’s never just ‘one thing’ that causes your bread to flop. You have to consider how each strand works together and what happens to the bigger picture when something goes wrong.
Trouble Shooting Steps
1.) Test Your Starter
First, let’s talk about your sourdough starter. If it lacks power and vibrancy, your bread won’t rise. So, how can you test to be sure it’s okay?
After giving it a good feed, it’s ready to use when it shows all of the following signs:
- doubled in bulk size (use a rubber band to track its growth as it begins to rise and fall).
- bubbles on the surface and throughout the culture.
- spongy texture similar to roasted marshmallows.
You can find more info regarding sourdough starters, ongoing care, FAQ in my book (p 16-23).
Once your starter shows all of the signs, make sure it passes the float test. To do the test, drop 1 tsp. of the starter into a glass of water; if it floats to the top it’s strong and ready to use.
The more you get to know your starter the more it will ‘speak’ to you, and eventually you’ll bypass this test altogether.
2.) Check The Temperature (room temperature + environmental)
Assuming your starter is ready to use, the next step is to address the temperature.
As mentioned above, temperature is usually the culprit when your dough is taking forever to rise. Why? Because temperature controls time.
Simply put: if the weather is cold, your dough will take longer to rise. It the weather is warm, your dough will rise faster. This applies to ALL bread recipes, so get used to it and be flexible! As a guideline however, bakers will often provide a specific temperature with an approximate rise time to help you out. Let me give you an example.
For the purpose of this post, let’s use my Everyday Sourdough from Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. The approximate rise time is 8-10 + hours at room temperature, defined at 70 F.
So, what does this rise time and temperature mean exactly?
Let’s say it’s winter in New York, and the temperature is about -20 F outside. Your thermostat is set to 70 F inside. You’ve made the dough, let it rise overnight on the kitchen counter at 70 F, and in the morning it has barely risen. You followed the recipe to a T! What happened?
Here’s the deal: regardless of what your thermostat says, if it’s – 20 F outside, I can guarantee the temperature inside is not 70 F. It’s most likely colder than you think! I learned this the hard way. Drafts, poor insulation, doors opening and closing etc. will not only change your current room temperature, but it changes the temperature of the dough too. My kitchen is the coldest room in the house, so I know this all too well. Plus, if your body is cold and you’re wrapped up in 100 cable-knit sweaters, think about how the dough feels!
In this example, you’ll need to deviate from the recipe to suit your personal environment.
In other words, your dough needs more time to rise beyond the 8-10+ hour timeframe- it’s just too cold. And this is okay. Remember, the dough is ready when it has doubled in size. This is your visual marker. Don’t even bother baking it if it still looks dense after 10 hours. Watch the dough and not the clock.
Conversely, if you live on an island and it’s 90 F, the dough might be ready in only 4-5 hours.
While colder temperatures and extended rise times might initially frustrate you, the experience will always hand you a gift.
It develops your intuition and leads you away from second guessing yourself. Intuition is a baker’s secret weapon. With practice and repetition, you’ll learn how to marry the variables (time, temperature, specific instructions etc.) with intuition (adjusting rise times, rising locations, and just doing your own thing ) without thinking twice.
Trust the process, okay?
A few more things…
3.) Use Warm Water
If the weather is cold and your dough won’t budge, please use warm water during the initial mixing phase. It will help to jumpstart the rising process.
I actually use warm water 90% of the time when making dough (I tend to use cooler water in the summer). The exact water temperature doesn’t really matter in my opinion. Between 80-90 F is good. It just shouldn’t be too hot. Use your judgement.
Also: do you store your flour in the fridge? Some people do this to prevent bugs from nesting in the bag. If you fall into this camp, remember, cold ingredients = cold dough.
4.) Use a Proofing Box
The only way to really keep your dough at a constant temperature free of drafts and fluctuations is to use a proofing box.
If you’re unfamiliar, proofing boxes are basically like mini green houses for your dough. You can set the box to your desired temperature and go about your day (or night) worry free. Except, they’re really not so mini come to think of it.
These boxes are about the size of a microwave, they take up prime counter space, and worst of all- they are not cheap! I have a proofing box that collapses flat for easy storage, which I love but it cost over $150. You can see the exact one I use here.
So, if a proofing box is not an option for you, there’s an easy a way to create a bootleg version at home.
To do so, adjust your oven to the lowest setting (mine is 200 F). Once it’s ready, shut it off. Stick an oven thermometer inside and wait for the temperature to drop to about 75-80F. Then place your dough inside (the bowl must be oven-proof, and a damp cloth should rest over the top to prevent a skin from forming on the dough). Allow to the dough rise in this warm, somewhat controlled environment until it has doubled in size. You can also use this tip for the dough’s second rise too.
Note: Please make sure your oven does not go above 8o F. If the temperature is too hot, many things can happen that might wreck your dough. For example, extreme heat + cold dough creates excessive condensation, which leads to a wet and sticky texture. Wet and sticky dough is difficult to work with and shape. In fact, you might have to shape the dough more than once if it’s spreading too much.
Extreme temperature can also lead to over-proofed dough, if the bowl is left inside of the oven for too long. And finally, too much heat might kill your starter power, resulting in flat and dense loaves.
I’ve experienced all of the above factors and it’s really frustrating. My best advice? Please monitor your dough when it’s inside of the oven so you have an idea of what’s going on- all ovens are different, all doughs are different. Eventually, you’ll get a sense of how long the dough will take to rise and you’ll be able to make better adjustments as you continue to observe.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
So, let’s re-imagine this scenario once more: you’ve got a beautiful bubbly starter, you’re ready to make the dough, and everything is all set for an overnight rise on the kitchen counter.
This time, you know it’s freezing cold outside and you have a hunch the dough might not be ready in the morning. Low and behold, you are correct.
Quick to think, the following morning you create a proofing box using the oven trick mentioned above. In just a few hours the dough is soft, supple, and double in size.
Once the dough is baked, you slice a piece of warm, crusty bread at just the right moment and inhale the aroma that has come from your creation.
Go ahead, slather on some salted butter and revel in your newfound accomplishment!