Baking sourdough is an art. And as with all art – perfection is in the eye of the beholder. That said, when baking bread, you want to have a quality final product, so being able to identify a good-looking loaf is key. We already know that no two loaves of sourdough will look the same, but there are some signs that usually mean that you’re on the right track, so you can look out for them when baking.
Everyone has a preference of what they want their sourdough loaf to look and taste like. So calling a sourdough loaf “perfect” can be subjective. But most people will agree that an open crumb sourdough is the gold standard. In this article, we’ll show you what to strive for in sourdough, how to make a quality loaf, and the mistakes that might throw it off.
You need to be aware of two main components when making your sourdough bread – the outer crust and the inside of the loaf, which is called the crumb. Both aspects of the loaf will have distinctive qualities that make them sourdough. Another factor we will look at is the shape of the sourdough loaf.
The outer crust of your sourdough bread should be crispy, crackly, and have a glossy, caramelized brown finish.
The key to achieving a healthy crust is getting sufficient steam while baking, as it keeps the outer crust moist while the inside cooks. Without steam, the loaf will cook too quickly and can end up thick and burnt. If the crust becomes too hard and dry, then the bread becomes too difficult to chew through, and nobody wants that.
One of the reasons sourdough loaves are frequently circular is that the longer and slimmer the loaf, the more surface area there is, which causes more moisture loss. Without moisture retention, achieving the perfect light and crispy crust is nearly impossible.
You are probably most familiar with the classic circular sourdough loaf, which is called a Boule style loaf. However, the loaf can be shaped in a number of ways, usually round or oval, as long as the shape allows for even cooking and rising of the dough to ensure the exterior is symmetrical.
Other shapes include:
Again, be aware that the circular, boule-style loaf is the easiest way to achieve a quality sourdough loaf.
The crumb (or interior) of bread can be described as either open or closed crumb.
Closed crumb refers to the inside of the bread having small, tight holes/bubbles that make the interior of the bread wet, gummy, and chewy. While this might not taste bad, it does move you further away from achieving the perfect sourdough bread.
Open crumb, on the other hand, has a light, fluffy interior that is characterized by large, even holes/bubbles. This is preferred over a closed crumb, especially when the holes have a shiny look, which confirms that the gluten is well developed.
The best way to achieve an open crumb sourdough loaf is through accurate and effective fermentation of the dough, which makes the holes bigger and the bread more fluffy. If the bread appears dense, it usually means one or more of these issues:
These indicators suggest that your starter needs more time to grow or that it needs to be strengthened. It could also mean that you did not allow the dough to ferment long enough, and the yeast and bacteria were unable to complete their jobs adequately.
How to fix this?
Proper fermentation is essential to getting your crumb right. If you notice that your loaf has a few large holes, surrounded by a lot of little ones, it’s not going to have the signature sourdough taste. The holes should be big and even, and the only way to achieve that classic sourdough structure is through proper fermentation using an active and mature starter.
The crust of sourdough will always split, but HOW it splits is determined by the baker. That’s why bakers score their sourdough before baking to ensure that it splits precisely where they want it to. However, this might not always go to plan, as some other factors like under-fermentation and uneven shaping can cause the crust to split in unwanted places.
But luckily, there are some steps you can take to ensure your sourdough loaf splits exactly where you want it to.
Use this guide to identify if your sourdough is up to snuff and to pick out the best sourdough loaf when you go to make a purchase at your local bakery. It can take time and practice to perfect your sourdough recipe, but by using these tips and tricks, you’ll start creating professional sourdough loaves in no time.