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I made bread for the first time...and it did not go well. LONG

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When do I make my first attempt at yeast bread making? When we're suffering through a heat wave of course! I was in the cooking mood and didn't have much in the house and didn't want to venture out. I had bread, yeast, flour and water so bread it was!

I made two different recipes for baguettes this weekend and they did not turn out well. I made Nick Malgieri's Baguette from How to Bake and Mark Bittman's Easiest and Best French Bread from How to Cook Everything. The recipes were similar regarding ingredients but the prep time varied.

I started with Malgieri's which requires at least one overnight rise (in the refrigerator) and then another depending on when you start. I wanted my baguette NOW so I turned to Bittman's and figured I could compare the two. I also varied how I mixed the dough - Malgieri's went in the stand-up mixer with a dough hook and Bittman's in the food processor. Regardless they both turned out the same. Very hard crust and an almost damp, chewy, not airy and not very tasty inside.

I'm thinking my main problem was they didn't rise enough. It was hard to tell if it had doubled in size during the rises and I was impatient. Malgieri's recipe had an extremely long rise time (at least to me) so I figured I was pretty safe in cooking it when I did - but it did it's rising in the refrigerator – maybe it would have done better on the counter?

I'd like to try again but I'm wondering if anyone can give me any "foolproof" tips or methods. I don't want to be discouraged because I'd love to be able to make my own bread. I wonder if I was aiming to high with baguettes - maybe that takes practice and I should have tried a basic white bread first? Did this kind of thing happen with anyone else's first loaf of homemade bread?

Thanks in advance!

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  1. I always use the trick my grandmother have shown to me years ago. To see if the yeast dough has risen to its fullest extent, poke it with your finger gently, leaving a small dent, and if the imprint does not disappear after 2-3-5 minutes at most, then it has finished rising and you should proceed to the next step. The only problem is - you have to poke often enough, so as not to miss the right moment.

    1 Reply
    1. re: summertime

      i just learned this technique while reading the new laurel's cookbook! a friend recommended it to me for its superb explanations, and the directions for breadmaking are great. she offers up the tip mentioned above (poking the dough to see if it's done rising) as well as the "window paning" technique i've seen elsewhere. if you can, read that book's description of breadmaking. it's easy to understand and informative.

    2. I think that a common mistake made by fledgling bread bakers is adding the exact amount of flour that the recipe calls for. It may take a few practice tries before you get an idea of how the dough should feel, but different flours absorb different amounts of water, and if you add too much flour the bread will turn out dry and hard. I add the first two or three cups of flour one cup at a time, but after that I add smaller and smaller amounts until the dough is clinging together and starts to look shiny. It is generally better to add too little flour than too much (although once you know what you're doing, you can add a bit more liquid to compensate). After kneading in the standing mixer (my preferred method), I scrape the dough out into an oiled bowl for rising. After the rising is when I scrape the dough onto a board with just a little flour and knead by hand. The dough should be soft and pliable but not too sticky (although you really can't avoid getting some of it stuck to your hands).

      I was just telling Hungry Celeste that I baked my first loaf of bread following the directions and pictures in Fanny Farmer, and it came out perfect. It's not a bad idea to start out with a very simple white loaf, to familiarize yourself with the look, feel and smell of the dough. Once you start learning its nature, you can start branching out to more complex variations.

      1. Baguettes are tough- definitely not the place to start.

        The best breads I've made have been hand kneaded. I'm bummed about that because I envisioned piles of easy homemade bread when I got my stand mixer, and it hasn't turned out an excellent loaf yet.

        If your house isn't air-conditioned, I'd also bet that the humidity had an impact on it.

        Try a simple white bread recipe. I do my rising either in the microwave (not turned on, just using the small enclosed space) or in the oven, after I've warmed it up just a bit. I can't imagine you'd get a good rise out of the refrigerator- the yeast has to be warm to do its business.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Chris VR

          There is a whole category of the cold-rise yeast dough - supposedly the slow rise at low temperatures allows for more developed flavor.

          It is a fairly popular technique.

          1. re: summertime

            Shows what I know. I think if someone's just starting out with bread baking, it's best to try it the traditional way first.

            1. re: Chris VR

              I agree - start simple. Baguette does not strike me as my choice for the first bread to make either.

        2. Baguettes are really tough. I've been doing sandwich/toast loaves for several years now on a weekly basis, and I don't think I could do a baguette the right way... (but, on a different day, who knows, maybe you would have aced it the first time!).

          Anyway, if you really want to make bread, start with a simple white loaf. I used the white bread recipe from the Joy of Cooking. Another poster mentioned how you have to vary the amount of flour so that you get a proper dough consistency - this is very important. You want to add just enough flour so that the dough isn't sticky in your hands, but not so much that it doesn't hang together really easily.

          And whatever you do, stop rising it in the refrigerator! That is the key to a very, very slow rise, maybe several days worth. I do that when I've mixed dough and am going away for the the night so that it doesn't blow up.... People say it adds flavor, but if you're in a hurry, its not the way to go at all. In this weather (90s plus in NYC) your dough should rise very quickly.

          Bread baking is not that hard. I've got two little kids, and I make it on a weekly basis. They complain when I don't have it ready for breakfast every morning. A Kitchenaid helps dramatically. Julie Child says you can mix the dough in a Cuisinart using the plastic blade, so I'm sure you can, but I use the Kitchinaid and it really saves a lot of work. I kneed it by hand twice, once after mixing and once after rising, and I get tons of great bread.

          Watch out for those non stick bread pans. Mine started to come off on my bread.....

          3 Replies
          1. re: bigskulls

            I agree with your approach and I usually make bread for sandwiches. I am used to the total hand made approach but have been intrigued by Bittman's praise of the food processor and using the Kitchen-aid. Also, Bittmans preference for sticky dough rather than the classical " smoothe not sticky" I also agree with. If you knead by hand, what do you use the Kitchen-aid for? The initial mixing is the easy part. I am not critical just a little confused.

            1. re: Karl

              I use the kitchenaid to mix the flour, water, etc (I use eggs and soaked bulgur wheat as well). Mixing all that into dough is just more than I really want to do (I'm too lazy to wash dishes by hand also. It's the dishwasher or nothing.) After I mix it, I let the dough rest for 10-15 minutes, then kneed by hand. I don't doubt mixing by hand would be better, I guess I'm just too lazy. I really started making bread alot when I got my kitchenaid because it takes so much less time and effort.

              1. re: bigskulls

                I doubt that you will ever get a good baguette or approach the correct crust and texture if you add eggs.

          2. After all the good advice you've received so far, I'll throw my 2 cents in. I have baked bread, but I'm no expert.

            First, I always proof the yeast altho some recipes suggesting the use of rapid-rise yeast indicate that the yeast should be mixed with the dry ingredients. Being the skeptic that I am, I want to see the foamy yeast. I've used yeast that was 4 years past the expiration date with good bread baking results.

            Second, I prepare a sponge (biga) the night before baking and allow it to work at room temperature. The final dough is mixed the next morning. I have never tried the refrigerator rise. It doesn't make sense to me since one needs to use warm water for the yeast to work. I have seen books that advise the cold rise, but that's not for me. Contact a commercial bakery and ask if the bread that is produced is baked from dough that went thru a cold rise.

            Third, the only mixing tools that I use for preparing the dough are a large mixing bowl, a fork and my hands.
            Add the flour to the biga a little at a time and mix the flour in. Once I am unable to mix with the fork, I use my left hand to mix and my right hand to turn the bowl.

            Fourth, the amount of water is important. I like to bake ciabatta loaves and/or rolls. It's a messy dough, but produces light and airy loaves.

            I use a mixture of bread and all-purpose flours. Do as the other respondents advise...start with a simpler dough recipe. Learn what the correct feel of the dough is by producing good loaves.

            "Distinguere pane dai sassi" (To know the difference between bread and rocks) from Carol Field's book, The Italian Baker.

            Buona fortuna!

            1. cold rise is a wonderful technique for superior flavor & texture. it is also a pain in the a$$. not to say i don't use it, but i'm usually too impatient.

              the easiest way i've found to gauge the rise is to purchase a large, gradated container (bucket shape, broad bottom & fairly straight sides, works best). this way, if your dough ball comes to the 4C mark, you know when it's at 8C that it has doubled. the one i'm currently using is actually a paint bucket (unused for that purpose) from a home improvement center - it doesn't matter if the markings are in traditional cooking measurements, you're only using them for reference.

              points regarding flour in other posts are very valid.

              i make bread using the manual, food processor & mixer methods. i've found the processor to be the most likely to overprocess. i generally use the mixer, then finish with a few minutes of hand kneading. this gives me the hands-on feel i love, allows me to gauge the dough better than solely by sight, and seems to produce better gluten alignment than the mixer alone.

              i would also add oven temp. i preheat my ovens well in advance to ensure they are at a stable temp. also, invest in (if you don't have one) an oven thermometer. they're cheap, & you'd be amazed at the difference even 25 degrees can make.

              i politely disagree with the other posters regarding starting elsewhere. most breads are easy to make (my first attempt ever was brioche, and it was decent, although better in subsequent batches), & the first few attempts at any type will follow a learning curve. start where you want & with what makes you happy, learn a few lessons, & apply them to your expanding horizons.

              1. I've been making bread for years. I use recipes from "Amy's Bread" by Amy scherber (of Manhattan fame). They are usually 3 day deals. Sponge/Biga first day, slow rise overnight and bake on the 3rd. My suggestion is don't look for easy, just jump right in. Even not great bread is pretty good. Just keep trying, it's fun to see what you can produce.

                1. Hi, I've been trying to make a great loaf of bread for a very long time. I've used all kinds of methods and this is what works best for me--do use a sponge of some sort to make sure your yeast is active,use the right temp. of water/liquid to make sure you don't kill the yeast(I use an instant read therm.for this). I mix all ingred. in the kitchenaid, hold back 1 cup of flour and then use the dough hook to knead 3/4 of the way and then knead in the last cup of flour or so by hand. This way you have the pleasure of kneading and getting your hands in there and also knowing what good dough should feel like. Also, kneading dough for 10 min. or so by hand can be very hard work. The dough should feel silky and smooth and soft. I think the problem I"ve always had is I to use too much flour--use less than you think, the dough should feel as soft as a baby's bottom!!! Give it plenty of time to raise, measuring double is a great idea! You've gotten so many great tips from this board and I bet the next loaf you make will be a great success. Don't stop trying, it's a great learning and creative experience. Enjoy and please report back.

                  1. h
                    Hungry Celeste

                    I feel your pain. I tried for years with little success, but I'm over the hump now. My lessons-learned can be summed up like this: use bread flour, don't follow the recipe proportions religiously but pay more attention to texture, raise the bread in a truly warm spot (closed oven w/light bulb on or outdoors under the patio umbrella), and bake on a stone or unglazed tile. Baguettes are pretty easy--it's just a flour-yeast-salt-water dough. You need to mist the inside of the oven heavily with water just before popping the bread in the oven to ensure a nice crisp crust.

                    1. d
                      Doktor Faustus

                      There are many ways that bread can go bad. Maybe your bread didn't rise enough, but this doesn't sound like the main trouble you experienced. It sounds like your outside cooked before the inside cooked, one of the many problems that can assail the amateur bread maker.

                      I had this problem in the past and dealt with it in this way. I found that to get my bread baked inside the crust became too hard. I changed my baking by starting in a hot oven and reducing the oven heat significantly after 15 or 20 minutes of baking. This worked. The bread was still crusty, but not so hard it needed to be riven with a sledgehammer!

                      While there may be many excellent french bread baking methods, here is mine which works for me.

                      About 2 cups of flour, about a teaspoon of salt, a packet of dry yeast, and about 1/2 cup of warm water. I don't work from a recipe. These quantities may not be right. Consult a book if you want the exact quantities. In practice, variation isn't bad unless the bread is either without salt or horribly over salted, and after a modicum of experience you are reliably in the middle. Since you can add extra flour to get the right consistency of bread dough, a little too much water is correctable. You can use less yeast.

                      Knead the bread with your hands. Your hands will have been dusted with flour to avoid dough sticking to your hands. If your dough is too sticky, add flour. If the dough is too dry, add water. Knead the dough either by pressing between your hands and folding over onto itself or by pressing with the heels of both hands on a floured counter. When the dough is springey and supple, it has been kneaded enough. Fold the edges of the dough over to form a tight ball. Place in amply sized bowl and cover with a lightly oiled piece of plastic wrap (I put about 1/4 teaspoon of vegetable oil -- not olive oil -- on my palm and roll over the top of the ball of bread dough, plop the dough oiled side up into the bowl, and place the plastic wrap onto the dough -- the minimal amount of oil is desired, as oil is NOT an ingredient of french bread). Cover the bowl with a towel and place in a safe moderately warm place -- on top of a hutch in the winter away from any drafts. Let the doug rise about 3.5 hours. Punch the dough down, fold it over to form a ball shape, place in bowl, cover with plastic wrap, let rise another 3.5 hours.

                      Take the dough, punch it flat. Shape it into appropriate shapes -- long narrow shapes for baguettes, super long strings for ficelles, fatter shapes for Parisienne, etc. Let the bread rise for perhaps 40 minutes in this shape. I use long trays with rounded bottoms to make the bread, but this is perhaps not essential.

                      Preheat the oven to 550 degrees (just crank it to the highest temperature 15 minutes before baking). When ready, use a single edged razor blade held substantially hozizonal and slash lightly into the surface of the bread to make diagonal slashes from one side of the loaf to the other, making the slash pretty long. You've seen them on french bread loaves you buy in the store.

                      Pop the loaf/loaves into the hot oven. Immediately throw about 1.5 ounces of water (a shot glass full, a demi-tasse cup full) into the oven and close the door. In 5 minutes, toss in another 1.5 ounces of water. In 10 minutes toss in another 1.5 ounces of water. This water creates a humid environment in the oven. It promotes the expansion of the loaves, leading to the splitting and swellign around those slashes made with the razor blade. It does this by stopping the early formation of a crust that would constrain expansion. You may want to put a tray in the oven to catch the water and keepit from splashing into the bottom of the ovens. The french actually have steam or mist injectors in their ovens. My oven, regrettably, does not have this feature hence the innovation I have described. It works for me.

                      Perhaps after 20 minutes in the oven I reduce the temperature to 400 degrees. I may open and close the door of the oven several times to quickly reduce the heat from 550 degrees to 400 degrees, but then again I may not. After about 40 minutes to 50 minutes the bread is done. When the bread begins to turn a medium brown color I remove the bread and stick a toothpick into it. If it comes out clean, the bread is done.

                      I know there are some loose procedures and quantities defined here, but to learn to make good french bread you are going to have to make many loaves. After you have made many loaves, exact quantities of salt and water and yeast aren't going to matter to you. Slight variations just aren't going to be significant. Too much water? Add more flour. Not enough water? Add more water. Too salty -- somewhat more difficult to accommodate, but if you didn't err wildly, some extra flour and extra water can fix it.

                      I hope this helps. I rarely bake my own french bread because I can buy pretty good french bread which is so much more convenient. My french bread is not difficult, but it ties up a big chunk of the day. I'm sure others can provide more exacting procedures and recipes -- what flour is optimal, what yeast is the best, etc. -- but your problems are not in knowing the perfect flour or perfect yeast to use. Refine and elaborate your recipe after you are producing a delicious french bread.

                      I made some bread for my son's Freshman French class this last year, according to the general procedures above, and he reported that it was promptly devoured by his classmates. I am satisfied with that level of success, while acknowledging that others may have higher standards and more drive to achieve perfection.

                      As a final note, this was the first food item that I learned to cook. It was taught to me by a dear friend, my high school English and German teacher, who died this past month. He learned it from an Alsatian baker in Saint Louis (in Alsace, not Missouri), going to the bakery about 2 AM or 3 AM. I feel that it is one of the best things for a cook to start by learning. Care and attention to your work pays benefits, at the same time, once you get the hang of it you can almost do it in your sleep and wonder how the success eluded you for the first several attempts.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Doktor Faustus

                        Thanks for your procedure - I'm going to try again and hearing your comments and everyone else's I'm going to hand knead the bread. I think I should get the feel for it before I use my mixer.

                        I'm sorry to hear about your friend - it's wonderful that you still have a connection to him through your bread baking.

                      2. I think the problem may have been that your dough was too cold when you put it in the oven to bake. It takes hours for fridge-cold dough to come back to room temp. For easy bread baking, I wouldn't fiddle around with fridge rising. I know some swear by it, but it's always given me tough, unworkable dough. I would also start with a standard white loaf from the Joy of Cooking or Fanny Farmer--the kind with some milk and butter in the dough--to begin with. Easier than a baguette! Good luck!

                        1. Thanks to all for your tips and comments - I used most of them today when I tried the "Fast White Bread" recipe from The Joy of Cooking.

                          The recipe called for more yeast than the baguette so I figured I'd see more of a rise this time but it was impressive nonetheless! I also let it rise on my windowsill and my building's hallway (which has no air-conditioning). The difference was remarkable – the double rise was clear to me finally! It came out well – looks and tastes pretty good. I’d like it a little more airy inside but other than that I was enormously pleased with myself. I’m looking forward to toast in the morning with my homemade white bread!

                          I’m going to try baguettes again and various others that you guys have suggested. Summer seems a strange time for bread baking but I’m inspired now!

                          Thanks again for everyone’s help!