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- What are Sourdough Ears?
- Why are they called sourdough ears?
- What does an ear on sourdough mean?
- How to Get a Sourdough Ear
- Sourdough Ear Troubleshooting and FAQs
- Why do I get good oven spring but no ear?
- Why does my sourdough ear fuse together?
- Other Sourdough Guides:
One of the most popular sourdough baking topics I’ve been asked to write a guide about is how to get sourdough ears.
From bulk fermentation, shaping, scoring, to baking, many factors come into play to get the perfect sourdough ear. And while not essential for a great loaf of bread, a sourdough ear indicates that many factors went right in your sourdough bread-making process.
However, sourdough ears can be elusive and frustrating to nail down, no matter how long you’ve been baking sourdough.
This comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about sourdough ears, including what they are, how to get them, and how to troubleshoot your bread to get a better sourdough ear!
🙋♂️ Have questions about getting better sourdough ears? Leave a question or comment!
What are Sourdough Ears?
A sourdough ear is the prominent flap of crust that rises in the oven where the dough was scored. And while having one is not critical to taste, an ear is a sign that you baked a great loaf of bread.
Sourdough ears have become especially popular and sought after on social media. Since you likely can’t taste the bread in person, visible characteristics like a sourdough ear or an open crumb indicate you know what you’re doing. Hence, in recent years, avid sourdough bakers and followers have come to appreciate and desire sourdough ears.
However, ears are not just about aesthetics. They do mark that various steps of the bread-making process went correctly. These stages include bulk fermentation, shaping, scoring, and baking. I will detail these stages and why they are important to developing sourdough ears below.
Why are they called sourdough ears?
When sliced in half, a sourdough bread ear will appear like a rabbit viewed from the side with a prominent ear. Hence, ears are sometimes called “bread bunnies” or “sourdough bunnies.”
Sourdough ears are crunchy, caramelized, and typically darker than the rest of the crust due to the Maillard reaction. It’s one of my favorite bites of bread!
What does an ear on sourdough mean?
When you bake sourdough bread in a hot oven, the yeast in the dough expands quickly and needs a release to escape.
Bread expands at its weakest point, which can be controlled by scoring the bread with a bread lame or blade.
Without scoring, the bread expands in unexpected and uncontrolled ways. Sometimes loaves without scores will even burst in multiple spots around the dough.
A sourdough ear means the dough was scored properly, and the bread obtained proper oven spring.
Learn how to get a sourdough ear with my detailed checklist and guide below.
How to Get a Sourdough Ear
This detailed list reviews what you need to get sourdough ears every time you bake.
Please note that these are all suggestions and guidelines to help you get a better ear, but do not guarantee that you’ll get one.
There are many variables to getting an ear (and baking sourdough generally). All of these recommendations work in tandem with each other.
Finally, as I always say with any sourdough recipe- every environment, sourdough starter, and bread is different.
Sometimes sourdough is mysterious! But this list should at least put you on the right track.
1. A Healthy Sourdough Starter
To develop a sourdough ear, you must have proper fermentation. And where does fermentation begin in sourdough? With your sourdough starter.
You must have a strong and healthy sourdough starter to ferment your dough.
A healthy starter should be regularly fed and at least double in size on a consistent feeding schedule. If your breads are coming out dense or taking too long to ferment, ensure your starter is active and vigorous.
Learn how to make a healthier starter with my sourdough starter tips guide.
And note that you do not want to use sourdough discard for bread as the starter is past its prime.
2. Proper Bulk Fermentation
Secondly, the sourdough must sufficiently bulk ferment. The bulk fermentation stage is crucial to getting a sourdough ear because it is the main stage when the dough forms gases and develops its gluten structure, all of which determine the final results of your bread.
Essentially, the dough must ferment long enough that sufficient gases build up in the bread. But not so much so that the bread over proofs and deflates in the oven.
Adding folds strengthens the dough, which contains these gases in a complex gluten web. That way, when the bread bakes, it rises quickly and holds its shape.
However, determining when bulk fermentation is complete can be a challenge. It only comes with hands-on experience with your bread.
My bulk fermentation guide covers the stage in detail, and I encourage you to read it to understand this crucial stage better.
3. Surface Tension in Shaping
The main goal of good sourdough shaping should be to build surface tension so the dough will retain its shape as it proofs and bakes. Shaping a taut loaf will make scoring easier and increase the likelihood of a sourdough ear.
This is because the surface tension creates a skin on the dough that protects it during final proofing and safely holds the package together.
The tension breaks when scored, but the bread maintains its overall shape and gets better oven spring because the dough was shaped properly with surface tension.
Additionally, shaping into a batard (oval) tends to produce a more prominent ear than boules (rounds).
Below are some sourdough shaping tips to up your shaping game.
Sourdough Shaping Tips
Shaping a high-hydration sourdough bread can be difficult. If you’re not used to it, it can stick to your hands, bench scraper, and counter and be an overly frustrating step.
You can watch a million videos on how to shape sourdough, but nothing can prepare you for actually experiencing wet dough in your hands. And that’s why I highly recommend holding off on some of the water if you’re a beginner sourdough baker.
I say this because despite what you may have read, a high-hydration dough does not guarantee you’ll get a sourdough ear. In fact, you’ll more likely get a sloppy mess that will be too difficult to shape!
Lower the hydration percentage to less than 75%, maybe even 65-70%, and slowly work your way.
Another shaping misconception is to over-flour your counter to increase surface tension and reduce stickiness.
However, using too much flour can cause your dough to slide on the counter. It can also negatively affect your bread’s final crumb and structure.
Only use enough flour to prevent sticking. And a counterintuitive pro tip is that you can even mist your hands, bench scraper, and the counter with a bit of water to make shaping easier!
Lastly, you can increase surface tension by adding a preshape step or by stitching the dough.
Preshaping the dough will prepare it for its final shaping and give the gluten some muscle memory. Meanwhile, stitching the dough is a step that can be performed on a dough that wasn’t preshaped or still seems too extensible.
There are many different types of sourdough scoring techniques, from simple to complex decorative designs.
Decorative scoring is mainly for aesthetic purposes, with a pleasing image or pattern carved onto the exterior of the sourdough loaf. These designs may or may not produce a sourdough ear.
However unadorned, a simple single slash is the best scoring method to produce a prominent sourdough ear. A simple slash encourages the bread to bloom and increases the likelihood of an ear.
First and foremost, you must use a sharp blade or bread lame to score your dough. You can use a sharp knife, but they tend to drag when scoring. Investing in a good bread lame is worth it if you bake sourdough bread regularly.
I use these Wire Monkey bread lames and change the razer blade every few bakes to keep it sharp. This is a straight lame that gives me great results and excellent control.
Curved bread lames can be beneficial for producing a sourdough ear, but I personally do not notice much of a difference in the results. I have a list of my favorite bread lames on my sourdough tools and equipment guide.
You want to score about ½-inch or 1cm deep when you score the bread. Scoring deeper may cause the ear to be too big and scoring at a very shallow angle may not create a flap for the ear to rise.
Score at a 30-45º angle to encourage the dough to flap open in the oven. I find this easier to visualize with a straight lame versus a curved lame. For a curved lame, the blade should only be at a slight angle.
Have confidence when you score and visualize precisely how you will score the bread before cutting. Move quickly in a single slash from the top to the bottom of the dough. I tend to score with a slight crescent or c-shape, but you can also score with a straight line.
As I mentioned before, a batard (oval) favors ear development, but you can achieve similar results with a boule (round) following the same techniques above.
Lastly, cold dough makes scoring easier. Proof your dough overnight and up to 48 hours in the refrigerator to chill it.
I often post scoring and baking videos on my Instagram for more scoring visualizations.
5. Oven Spring & Steam
Finally, the bake is the last time we can impact sourdough ear formation.
Oven spring is the initial rise when the bread takes shape and expands to its potential. Sometimes oven spring is called the “bloom” or “blooming.”
Many factors affect oven spring, including temperature, the vessel the bread is baked in, scoring, steam, and fermentation.
Despite being overlooked sometimes, you will not get a sourdough ear without good oven spring.
Since we’ve already covered scoring and fermentation, I will review how steam and temperature affect oven spring.
Steam & Oven Spring Tips
You may have seen some sourdough home bakers use lava rocks and water rags in the bottom of their ovens to produce maximum steam. While helpful, it’s mostly unnecessary if you have a Dutch oven.
Baking in a Dutch oven emulates professional steam-injected ovens that bakeries use. A preheated Dutch oven traps the steam produced by the bread and encourages it to rise taller.
Steam is essential in bread-making for many reasons, including oven spring, crust caramelization, and crispiness. Steam makes the crust rise and remain pliable without tearing as the bread expands quickly in the oven.
This process is most important in the bake’s initial stages before the bread’s interior is set. That’s why almost all sourdough recipes call for using the lid at the beginning of the bake. Once the bread structure is set, you can remove the lid for the crust to darken.
I use the Challenger Bread Pan and preheat it at 500ºF (260ºC) for an hour before baking. The maker designed the pan specifically for sourdough bread baking, and the heavy-duty cast iron traps steam efficiently.
Other Dutch ovens work well, but I get the best ears with the Challenger pan. I list my other Dutch oven recommendations with the pros and cons of each in my sourdough tools guide.
Finally, you can add extra steam to your Dutch oven but adding a couple of ice cubes or misting your loaf before covering it with the lid.
Sourdough Ear Troubleshooting and FAQs
Learn how to get a better sourdough ear with these troubleshooting tips.
My sourdough ear is too big. What can I do?
The dough may be under proofed, the score too deep, or a combination of the two.
While significant under proofing may lead to a dense loaf with minimal oven spring, slight under proofing still has enough gas built up in the dough to cause the loaf to bloom.
With a deep score, though, the under proofed crust can rip open and cause a large ear to form. The dough may have so much oven spring that it forms a hump on the crust.
I’ve noticed this issue occurs more regularly with whole wheat loaves or breads made with many whole grains.
Why do I get good oven spring but no ear?
If your dough is blooming nicely with adequate oven spring, but you’re still not achieving an ear, it could be a few issues.
One could be a scoring issue (see scoring tips above).
Another could be that your pan isn’t trapping enough steam for the flap to rise and separate from the crust. Try adding some ice cubes to your pan or misting the loaf beforehand.
Overall, I get the best sourdough ears with my Challenger Pan as it traps more steam than typical Dutch ovens.
Why does my sourdough ear fuse together?
If the score fuses, it’s possible that the dough was over proofed.
Over proofing occurs when the dough has fermented too long. Then, when the dough bakes, the sourdough yeasts run out of fuel. Hence, the bread will lack oven spring, and a sourdough ear will not form.
Another possibility is that you didn’t score the bread deep enough or at a shallow angle.
If your goal is to get a sourdough ear and you’re not getting one, it can be a frustrating experience as so many different factors can affect the outcome of your bread.
It took many, many bakes before I started getting consistent sourdough ears. And even now, sometimes a loaf doesn’t turn out how I want it to!
From every bake, however, I learn something new. And this journey as a home baker is what keeps me motivated to discover more and get better.
Keep this in mind as you bake your bread, and I promise you’ll enjoy the process more.
And remember to switch your methods up! Perhaps that ear is waiting for you behind some new manner of mixing your dough, or extending your bulk to the point that it seems over-proofed.
All of our environments, starters, and intuitions are different, and you have to discover what works best for you and your bread.