Why Won’t My Sourdough Rise? {and what you can do to fix it}

Why won't my sourdough rise? {and what you can do to fix it} | theclevercarrot.com

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).

What gives?

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.

Sourdough Starter | theclevercarrot.com

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.

Get it?

Why won't my sourdough rise? {and what you can do to fix it} | theclevercarrot.comWhy won't my sourdough rise? {and what you can do to fix it} | theclevercarrot.com

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.

Sourdough Ingredients | theclevercarrot.com

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.

Artisan Sourdough made Simple | theclevercarrot.com

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  

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.

Success!

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!

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Comments

  1. Annie says

    Can i successfully add yeast to my sourdough? I use a potato starter. Putting it in a glass if water to test it doesnt work because it is mostly liquid. Thanks for the help.

    • Emilie says

      Hi Annie,
      Unfortunately, I’ve never worked with a potato starter and/or added yeast to my culture. If I were you, I would experiment. Perhaps you can pour out some of your starter in a separate jar, add the yeast, and see what happens? Good luck!

  2. sylvia says

    I live in Southern Ca. and I love my Brod & Taylor home proofer. When things get slow or need an even controlled temperature I use my B&T . It folds up and slides into a kitchen draw when I’m done.
    I can’t say enough about it…other than check it out. If you live where it get’s cold. I couldn’t imagine not having one these proofer’s. I’m not a rep. for this little home proofer but, I do love baking sourdough breads, pizza’s and pastries.
    Warm Wishes,
    Sylvia

    • Emilie says

      Hi Sylvia! Thanks so much for your comment. You know it’s funny, I have the exact same B&T proofer ;) I bought one when I was writing my book because I couldn’t wait around all day for my dough to rise! I love that it folds up (very convenient), although I have to admit: I bake so much I never end up breaking it down, lol. I also share the box with my mom, and when it’s not with me I have to come up with other ways to get that dough to rise (hence the reason for this post). But like you’ve mentioned, it’s very helpful and I couldn’t imagine baking without it when it’s cold. Thanks again! xo

  3. Mim says

    I solved the temperature problem by putting my covered bowl of dough in a black cardboard box that I set in the sun. I cut vents in the box so that the heat wouldn’t build up. Solar proofing box for about, oh, $1.59 tops. Worked like a charm.

  4. Melanie C. says

    Hi Emilie.

    I commented on your last post (the one about the fabulous cinnamon buns) that I’ve been using the heating belt I usually surround my kombucha crock with to surround my starter jar and keep it happy and bubbly. It works very well. However, I have been having trouble with getting my bread dough to rise. I’ve tried the trick of heating my oven to 300F for one minute, then shutting it off. I also have a very cold kitchen and this did not work because the oven quickly became cold again during the night. Also, the damp towel placed over the bowl gets very cold which seems to hold
    the cold temperature in the dough.

    I have the old-fashioned steam heat radiators with wooden covers. My thermostat is set to 65 at night. I switched to covering the bowl with plastic wrap, placed the bowl on the radiator in my dining room at 10 PM, then covered the whole thing with a small blanket. When I got up at 5 AM, the dough had risen perfectly.

    I once opened a bag of flour, only to find stringy stuff in there from whatever bugs had invaded.
    And that was a brand new bag! Since then, I store everything in the largest Mason Jars. Keeps the
    mice away too.

    Thanks for all your information Emilie. And Happy New Year.

  5. says

    Such great tips, Emilie! Thank you for sharing. Even though I’ve now baked at least 20 loaves from your book, I struggle a bit with knowing when the dough is ready after bulk fermentation. Like you said, it’s not about the time, rather, but when the dough is ready. Reading your book and tips here helps remind me of all the little things a sourdough baker needs to be aware of and I know with practice and patience, I’ll improve. BTW – I love the float test – wish there were one that specific for showing when the dough is ready after bulk! Thank you for your encouragement, Emilie! xo

  6. Elizabeth says

    I find that leaving my dough in the oven with just the oven light on maintains the perfect temperature and is draft free.

    • Shirley ward says

      Sounds great. I have a microwave that is above my range and I can leave the range light on which heats the microwave to a perfect temperature to raise the dough. Happy baking, Shirley

    • Sis Adger says

      I tried the oven light twice, but both times, my dough overproofed and just did not work out. This tip might be great for some ovens but for mine, the light is much too warm.

  7. Meg says

    I use a silicone daisy cover and it seems to keep a constant temperature. I also find that if it’s not doubling, I put it in the proofing basket and wrap that…. I think when it’s taking too long to rise, it needs moving on to the next step. It means it’s longer in the proofing basket than usual. I make spelt loaves with a spelt starter and the starter never gets to that really bubbly stage but I know when she’s ready….. I also think in the colder weather, I adding more wet works…. I’ve been making a zucchini loaf like this…. And lighten then flour mix a bit…. And I always mix the starter with the warm water and make sure I always leave the dough after a first very gentle mix, no salt, before leaving to bulk rise…

    Love the book…. If anyone hasn’t got it yet…. A must!

  8. Susan Morrison says

    As you are experiencing, it’s been VERY cold where I live in northern Vermont (normal) and on the southeastern coast of Maine (abnormal) for the past several weeks. I’ve been baking all of our bread for over 40 years and since we’ve never lived in new or finished houses and almost always heated our houses and cooked on old wood stoves, I’m very familiar with (shall we call it) ‘fluctuating’ heat in the kitchen. In Montana the house was so cold I had to put my dough in my (airtight) VW Beetle on a south-facing driveway in order to get it to rise. In most places I just don’t let it sit over night – I start it early in the morning and let it rise throughout the day. In times when I have had access to a gas or electric oven, like Elizabeth, I found that simply using the light in the oven was enough to do the job. I’ve also experimented with DIY tricks like Mim’s great solar box, heating soapstones/pizza stones, warm towels, high shelves, etc. all to good effect and I make sure all my ingredients are at least at room temperature. The situation I find more challenging is the difference between high and low pressure or humidity – sometimes, you just have to wait a day to bake. I can’t imagine paying for a ‘proofing box’ – after all, humans have been figuring out ways to bake their bread for several thousand years without manufactured contraptions so our ‘superior’ modern brains and a little creativity ought to work just fine. Besides, a slow rise usually produces great texture! Tonight we’ll be remembering you with not only a loaf of your bread, but a simmering pot of Minestrone as well. Can’t wait! Stay Warm!

  9. Jessie says

    Hi Emilie,

    I recently purchased your book and my sourdough starter will be ready in a few days for my first loaf! I’m so excited to try baking sourdough after spending way too much money purchasing it. I’m having the opposite conditions to many of the people posting – where I live it’s approximately 30 degrees celcius (around 90F). For the bulk fermentation overnight, would you recommend doing this partly on the bench and then in the fridge?

    Thanks!

  10. alan says

    thank you so much for your book and for this website and Instagram. When adapting a bread from a yeast recipe to natural levain, how do you know much to substitute? i.e., is a tsp of yeast (assuming Dry Active or some other common yeast) the same as a quarter cup of 100 g of starter at 100 hydration?

  11. Maddy O'Shea says

    Hi Emilie, I purchased your beautiful book Artisan Sourdough after reading Celia’s awesome blog!
    Her last blog was so good and she also suggested you were selling Dillon starter via email…
    Is it possible to for me to purchase I live in Sydney Australia?
    Kind Regards
    Maddy

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