First Line of Inquiry
Most bread baking failures or problems are caused either by the baker or the recipe the baker is using. Ingredients and equipment are so good these days that they rarely fail. With this in mind, let’s look at the problems and see if we can figure out what happened to your loaf.
Two Tests to Master
There are two tests you should use in your baking. Both are very easy to learn and can go a long way to preventing failure.
The Windowpane Test. This is used when you think you’ve given the dough enough kneading. Take a small piece of the dough and stretch it so it resembles a pane of window glass. If the dough is properly kneaded, the dough should stretch very thin without breaking. This is because the gluten is developed properly. If the dough tears, then you need to knead the dough a bit more. This test doesn’t work quite as well in whole wheat doughs, due to the shards of bran husk in the dough, or in enriched doughs, because the fats coat the flour. Still, you can use them in whole wheat and enriched doughs and the test will give you a good indication of whether the dough is developed or not.
The Punch-In Test. When you’ve given the dough what you think is the proper amount of time in final rise or proofing, poke the dough very gently with your finger, going in about 1/4 to 3/8 inch / 6 to 10 mm and then withdraw your finger. If the dough pushes back out very slowly, you probably have a properly risen dough. Just for a frame of reference, perform the test when you first put the dough down for rising and watch the dough spring back fairly quickly. If the dough is fully risen, it will barely spring back at all.
Obviously, these tests are subjective, but as you work with them and learn to use them, you’ll find that you’ll make fewer mistakes.
My Loaf Didn’t Rise Very Much.
You put the risen loaf in the oven and baked it but it didn’t do very much. This is usually caused by not enough leavening power in the dough, dough that is too old or too young or too high an oven temperature.
Not enough yeast. Make sure you added the proper amount of yeast to the recipe and that the water temperature wasn’t so high that it killed the yeast. A rare occurrence is the yeast itself is old or weak, which is most likely if you are using fresh (cake) yeast and it is old or hasn’t been stored properly.
Too much salt in the recipe. Salt controls the activity of the yeast, but too much can really slow down the yest or kill it all off. Make sure you added the proper amount of salt to the dough.
Too much sugar in the dough. Sugar ties up water, so if there is too much sugar in the dough, it can tie up a lot of the water, leaving too little for the yeast to use. this is rare, but make sure you didn’t use Tablespoons instead of teaspoons, or 3/4 of a cup instead of 1/4 cup when you measured out the sugar.
Under proofing or too short a final rise. This can cause a loaf to fail because the yeast hasn’t produced enough gas to fill the tiny pockets that the dough has developed. How did the punch-in test work? Did you use it?
Over proofing or too long a final rise time. If you leave the dough for too long, the yeast will run out of steam and the gluten will lose its ability to support the loaf. The result is a loaf that goes nowhere, it just puffs up a little bit and that’s it. Make sure you don’t let the dough rise too long. Do the punch-in test. Don’t let the dough rise to more than twice the volume it had when you set it out. N.B. Some breads require a triple on final rise.
If you do let the dough rise too long, there is still hope. Knead the dough all over again, for a minute or two. this will give the yeast a chance to find some new sources of nutrition and get rid of the gases that have built up in the dough. Then set the dough to rise again, but for a shorter time. This is an emergency procedure and works about two thirds of the time; it’s worth a try, but don’t get your hopes up.
You may have a serious instance of this problem if you are making a very wet dough that requires a long first fermentation time. For example, there are several 73-75% hydration breads where the recipe says to let the dough triple in fermentation. When you ferment the dough, you may let the dough run to exhaustion and not know it. If the recipe says to triple, be sure to mark the container where a triple will be and don’t let the dough get above that line. In fact, you won’t hurt the final bread one bit if you take it out slightly before it gets to the mark, just to be on the safe side.
The temperature where you set the dough to rise was too low. Dough needs a reasonably warm temperature during final rise. Professional proofing boxes have both high humidity and high temperature, 60% humidity and 80 degrees are not uncommon. If your dough has to rise in a cooler place, make sure to do the punch-in test. Most doughs will rise in cooler surroundings, they’ll just take longer to rise properly.
The loaves were put in pans that were too large for them. Make sure the dough fills the pans to the proper level. Recipes may require the dough to be half or two-thirds of the way up the sides. Be sure you follow the instructions.
Oven temperature too high. The yeast undergoes a burst of activity during the first few minutes of baking, increasing its production of gases, which are then trapped by the gluten network, producing the oven spring. If the oven temperature is too high, this period can be shortened, which can reduce the time that the yeast is active, reducing the amount of gas it produces. This is a long way of saying that the yeast dies before it can produce enough gas to produce the desired oven spring.
My Loaf Expanded Too Much.
At first glance, most people wouldn’t consider this a fault, they would cheer and say “Wow! Good show!” or “Groovy, Dude!” However, if the dough has too much oven spring, it can touch a neighboring loaf, overflow a pan or alter the texture of the crumb.
Dough baked before it had finished proofing properly. The yeast should have been allowed to finish most of its work before the dough is baked. If it is still very active when the loaf is baked, the resulting superactivity will cause a massive oven spring. Do the punch-in test.
Not enough salt in the dough. Most recipes call for salt to be around 2% of the weight of the flour. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it is so widely used that you should note when the proportions are different. Since salt controls yeast activity, if there isn’t enough salt the yeast can become over-active and the loaf will expand more than it should. Taste your dough — you may find that once in a while, you forget the salt. Nothing quite like having a batch of bread in the oven and spotting the bowl with the salt sitting on the counter.
Loaves too large for the pans. Make sure the loaves fill the pans properly. At the extreme, this fault will result in a loaf that cascades down the side of the pan and onto the baking surface — you’ll have baked toast.
My Loaf Spread Out Too Much and Didn’t Go Up.
This is a tricky one. You can usually see these mistakes either during or at the end of final rise and take action then.
Under kneading or under developing the dough. The dough doesn’t develop the lattice work that it needs to support the gas-trapping cells. Since the framework isn’t there, the cells can’t do their job and the dough just spreads out. You can take this dough, knead it a bit and set it to rise again, giving it a shortened final rise time. This works in most cases.
Over proofing,leaving the dough too long in final rise. The dough structure begins to break down so the dough just spreads out. With over proofed dough, you can try to reclaim by kneading very briefly and then setting the dough out for a short rise period.
A wet dough is very prone to this flaw, since the gluten structure is fairly delicate and easily deflated. Here the fault may be a combination of underdevelopment and over-proofing.
You may find that no matter what you do, some wet doughs just don’t work for you as free-standing loaves. In that case, get a bread pan, large pie pan, loaf pan or whatever and use that. No harm done; you’ll just have good bread in another shape.
My Crust is Too Dark.
The most common cause of an overly dark crust is baking too long, which will also result in a thick crust. Some breads require a dark crust and some bakers like a darker crust, so make sure that what you have is a fault and not the desired crust color.
Make sure you didn’t broil the loaf instead of bake it. James Beard has a famous recipe for his broiled bread, which was a mistake that, it could only happen to James Beard, turned out well.
Baking too long. Make sure you bake for the proper time.
Oven temperature too high. Check the temperature before you start to bake. If you consistently have a dark crust, check the calibration of the oven.
Too much sugar in the recipe. This is applicable mainly to enriched breads. Make sure you don’t confuse teaspoons with tablespoons.
If the crust is too dark on the top only, you have probably set the oven rack too close to the top of the oven. Lower it next time.
If the crust is too dark on the bottom only, you probably have the rack too close to the bottom of the oven. Raise it next time.
If you check the loaf when it is half-way baked and the top is already turning dark, you can slow the coloring by putting a sheet of aluminum foil over the loaf.
If you check the loaf when it is half-way baked and the bottom crust is getting very dark, you can slide a cold cooking sheet under the loaf and transfer the loaf to a higher rack in the oven.
My Crust is Too Pale.
Instead of a dark crust, you wind up with a loaf the color of straw.
Oven temperature too low. As in the oven temperature too high above, this is prevented by checking the oven temperature before you bake.
Dough too old. If the dough is too old, the Maillard Reaction won’t run its course and the necessary browning won’t take place on the crust. Make sure you ferment and rise the proper amount of time and do the windowpane and punch-in tests. You can get dough that acts as if it’s too old by letting the dough rise in a very warm place, which will accelerate the dough activity enough to make it seem as if it is very old.
The dough crust dried out during rising. In effect, there isn’t enough moisture in the crust for activate the Maillard Reaction, so the crust stays pale. I frequently cover the rising loaves with a tea towel and spritz the towel with water from time to time. This keeps the dough damp, much like what happens in a proofing chamber, where the humidity is 60% or more and the temperature is around 80F.
Lack of water vapor in the oven during the first few minutes of baking. Water vapor, steam, keeps the exterior of the loaf damp, which allows good expansion, but it also helps the browning reaction, the Maillard Reaction, to proceed properly.
An enriched bread may have too little sugar. Sugar helps support the browning reaction. If the recipe called for 2 tablespoons of sugar and you used 2 teaspoons of sugar, you may not get the crust you are expecting.
In essence, proper size and color depend on proper dough handling techniques, the proper amounts of yeast and salt and the proper combination of temperature and humidity in final rising.
I’ve Got a Tunnel Between the Crust and the Crumb.
This is also called a “flying crust.” Some very good professional bakeries turn out breads with this fault and get praised for it. Go figure.
The dough was allowed to rise too long in a very dry environment. This is the primary cause. Here’s what happens.
The dough rises properly during the first part of the rise.
When the rise goes on too long, the interior, what will be the crumb, begins to settle back a bit, since the dough is getting weak.
But since the crust has been allowed to dry out a bit, it can’t fall back with the interior, so it stays high and dry.
When the loaf is finally baked, the crumb doesn’t rise up to meet the crust, and the tunnel stays.
The final rise period was too short. This is a very rare occurrence, but it can happen. Just make sure you rise for the proper time and do the punch-in test.
There is another instance of this problem. Sometimes, a loaf will enter the oven looking fine, but will collapse in the center during baking. This is a tricky problem to solve, but review your procedures. Here are some probable causes, which may occur together.
You used all purpose flour when the recipe called for bread flour. Because of the lower protein content, the yeast ran out of energy and couldn’t give the final burst of activity to sustain the crust.
A wet dough. A wet dough has a crumb that is more like a lattice work than a solid. As the yeast develops, the lattice forms. When the bread is baked, the lattice collapses in the center because the yeast activity can’t support it.
A dough that has risen too long in a moist environment. This is a tunnel crust without the dry crust. In this case, the crust follows the crumb down.
Too much yeast for the protein level of the flour. The yeast runs out of nutrients and the dough has no energy left.
These are some possible causes, either alone or in combination. Because there are so many different causes and they can work together to foil your best efforts, the answer will probably be a combination of a few minor changes to the recipe. When you get it right, remember to note what you did to solve the problem so you don’t have to go through the whole process again.
My Crust is Too Thick.
You will quite often find this fault in the same loaf that you find a tunnel crust or a very pale crust.
The final rise time was too long. Since we know that an over-risen loaf will not brown properly, the temptation is to let the loaf bake a bit longer in hopes that the crust will *finally* brown. Alas, it doesn’t, and we are left with a baguette that could do duty as a baseball bat.
The oven temperature was too high. If the oven temperature is too high, say 475 when it was supposed to be 375, a loaf can literally burn up as the Maillard Reaction runs to completion and the loaf continues to brown. What was a pleasing brown can become almost charcoal.
Too little sugar. This applies mostly to enriched doughs. If your dough is supposed to have sugar and you forgot it, the loaf won’t brown properly. So in your efforts to get a nice brown crust, you bake too long, which can thicken the crust.
I’ve Got White Streaks in my Bread.
This is usually flour that got added during kneading or shaping. The flour gets into the dough but doesn’t get properly mixed or hydrated, so it just sits in the dough as raw flour. The way to avoid this fault is to refrain from adding “sprinkles of flour” during the last stages of kneading.
Holes Too Large in Bread.
Many people wouldn’t consider this a fault, since many people’s mantra is “I want large holes in my bread!” However, as with most things, there is a place for large holes in bread and a place where they are a fault. Personally, I am not a fan of very large holes or spider-web crumb in bread.
The most usual cause is over proofing of a high hydration dough. If you look at a properly made bread, you’ll notice that the texture of the loaf changes a bit from top to bottom. There are larger holes in the crumb toward the top and smaller holes in the crumb toward the bottom. This difference is caused by the weight of the dough squeezing the holes near the bottom while the holes near the top have little pressing down on them. A tunnel crust is an extreme example of this, although it’s caused by a somewhat different condition. When the dough is allowed to rise too long, the difference becomes more pronounced. The preventative is to allow the proper time in final rise. If you suspect you have a problem at the end of final rise, you can invert the loaves either a few minutes before the end of final rise or as you put them in the oven. This will make the large holes appear on the bottom and the smaller holes appear near the top. They will quite often nearly equalize as the loaf bakes, especially if you give the doughs a few minutes to recover before baking them.
Over proofing can also occur if the temperature is too high in the area where the dough is rising. Make sure that the combination of time and temperature is correct.
The above should help you avoid or cure most of the common problems you will have with your bread.