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My Home-baked bread is too dense

I'm just getting into home bread baking. I've been using the basic recipies from Bittman's "How to Cook Everything". I've made many white and whole wheat boules and added olive oil, rosemary, etc, here and there...So far, the breads have been very tasty and I'm pretty happy with my novice results.

However, every loaf I've made so far has been VERY dense, even the ones where I followed the recipe exactly. I would like a crustier, lighter bread. Any advice on how to achieve this? Do I need to let it rise longer? Do a second rise and not deflate before baking? Do I need to up the yeast? Any advice would be appreciated.

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  1. im thinking without your method it would be hard to diagnose. Howver rt away id say yes second rise after shaping without defalte would be place to start. Are you sure your yeast is working - and not being killed by too hot a liquid .... Bread flour helps a lot. I also reccomend getting really comfortable with dough before adding ading oil and stuff that may be out of ratio.

    1. Are you kneading enough? A well-kneaded dough should be extremely elastic and can be stretched to form a thin film without breaking, which can take up to an hour if kneaded by hand.

      1. IMHO if your goal is very light fluffy bread, you should start with an all white flour bread with buttermilk. there's a good recipe for "american sandwich bread" in cooks illustrated.

        knead the dough until it windowpanes. do you know what that looks like?
        and let it rise for longer. one way you will know if you did not let it rise enough is, when you slice the loaf, you will see that the dough appears to be compressed, especially around the edges. knowing when the loaf is ready to make is not about following the recipe, it is about paying attention to your dough. try rising it in a warmer spot if you are feeling determined about the timing. definitely don't deflate the dough before you bake it. IMHO, a second rise makes a more flavorful loaf, but if all you are going after is fluffiness, it is not required.

        more yeast will not help, it will only make a bread that tastes like yeast.

        1. Here's my two cents worth. If you're expecting light Wonder Bread from homemade...ain't never gonna happen. So just let go of that now.

          But to get lighter bread, adding some gluten can help, especially with more whole-grain types. I also find that proofing the yeast with warm water (105-110 degree water, not hotter!) and a pinch of sugar or honey, really helps the yeast get working. Wait a few minutes to see foam appear and you know your yeast is cooking. Also, keeping dough, mixing bowl warm, etc., helps "get your rise on". Over kneading will break down your gluten too much, but smooth and elastic is great. Also, a bit less flour gets a better rise. Dough that is too dry won't rise as much. Sticky dough is sometimes harder to work with, but can rise a bit better. Yeast, I use SAF yeast, I like it. Lastly, proof dough before baking in a nice warm, draft free place.

          Hope some of this helps.

          1. Are you using bread flour? You can substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour, but the bread will not be as light or tender.

            1. My guess is that the problem is that, as you say, you're following the recipe exactly. Bread that's too dense is made with too much flour, and the amount of flour that a given dough needs is dependent as much on humidity, the particulars and age of the flour, things like that. New bread bakers almost always make their dough too stiff; finding it hard to work with the sticky lump that's really the ideal. Add only enough flour to make a workable dough; it should be very sticky, and just practice until you can handle it without adding more flour. Little yeast, long rise, sticky dough are the keys to a good, light loaf.

              1. 1. My guess is that you didn't knead long enough. The dough should have a pronounced elasticity.
                2. The other guess is that you did not punch down the first rise, and then allow
                the dough 15 minutes to rest. This allows the gluten to re-group and re-energize. Without resting, the gluten never "bounces back." Are you saying you punch down after the second rise?? Your loaves should be formed for the second rise.
                3. Your proportion of flour to water may be off, so the dough is dry and cracks rather than stretches. Remember, you cannot sub whole wheat flour for white flour exactly -- the amount of water you must use is different for each flour.
                4. Are you forming a tight skin when you shape your loaves for the final rise? Do you know what I am referring to? This shows good gluten development, and seems to keep the air inside the loaf, rather than it leaking it, so the loaf rises.
                5. Heavier flours, like whole wheat or rye, will never form light and airy loaves. Use a recipe that uses both heavier flour and white flour. Subbing one for the other doesn't work well. High-protein bread flour forms gluten more easily than heavier flour.
                6. Olive oil or butter, when a lot of is added, can "shorten" the gluten strands, meaning, the gluten strands never get long enough to create structure in the bread. Only a tiny bit of olive oil should be used.
                7. Is your yeast fresh? Are you sure?
                8. How much salt are you using? Salt inhibits the action of yeast.
                9. When are you adding your salt? The best bakers I know add it during kneading to let the yeast get a good gallop first.
                10. Do you get good "oven spring"? Is your oven hot hot hot when you put the bread in? The bread needs that shock of heat to "bloom."

                Good luck to you. Report back after your next round.

                10 Replies
                1. re: maria lorraine

                  Hi Maria, I have a question about kneading....it always says "'til smooth and elastic", but I'm not confident that I know exactly what that means or looks like. One instructor taught that when the dough was kneaded enough, when poked with a finger, the dough should bounce right back (or quickly), so that is the method I've been using. My breads come out well, but didn't know if the texture could be improved by a different "sign" that the kneading is done.

                  And, I've never kneaded bread anywhere close to an hour (as "lydia" said she did) in my life! I'm guessing 5 - 10 minutes (by hand) is all I'm usually doing.

                  Also, I've never let it rest after punching down the first time. That makes sense. I do everything else on your list though.

                  Thanks for any help!

                  1. re: Scirocco

                    The "poking with finger" test doesn't seem precise.

                    Nope, never an hour's kneading (my God, we have lives to lead!) but more than 5- 10 minutes is needed. At some point during kneading, you'll notice the dough feels differently, as though it has some presence and resistance to your touch. You'll notice it's stretchy, really stretchy. When you can take the top layer of dough and can stretch that all around the ball of dough, pinch it on the underside, and form a tight skin, then it's close to being ready. There's a way of describing how you keep developing this skin -- but words elude me. The dough ball sits on the wooden board/table and you cup your hands on both sides, using the bottom side (pinkie side) of your hand to keeping stretching the skin down and anchoring it on the bottom of the dough ball. Yikes, if only I had a video!

                      1. re: Scirocco

                        The 5-minute bread book calls that step that maria is describing making a "gluten cloak." It involves kind of cupping the dough to pull the top layer tight and around the ball of dough.

                        The gluten cloak is supposed to promote rising of the bread since the gluten cloak holds the gases in. As I understand it.

                        1. re: karykat

                          Yes, that's it -- maybe there's a YouTube video that demonstrates this. Thanks, K.

                    1. re: Scirocco

                      Please see the attached pic for what it should look like. Kneading using a mixure should take about 15-20 minutes to reach this stage. This will yield to fluffy "wonderbread" texture. Adding vital wheat gluten will also help you reach this stage faster and the end result will be fluffier too.

                      I proof my bread in the oven for about an hour for the first time with a pot of hot water in (oven is turned OFF). Then take out the dough, punch the dough to let the air out, divide, and form them into little balls. Cover them with plastic wrap so they don't dry out. Let rest for 10-15 minutes, then shape them. Second proof again in the oven at a higher temperature and humidity (I put two pots of hot water in the oven this time) for 40-50 minutes. Do not punch down the dough before baking.

                      1. re: lydiainflorida

                        Thank you so much for that picture, that helps a lot too! I also proof mine in a similar manner to yours, so that's good to know that I'm on the right track. Will let it rest next time though.

                        Maria, meant to say (from your previous post) that your description of the creating the skin was perfect! (I have a good imagination) :)

                        1. re: lydiainflorida

                          will this happen to dough made from wheat flour? i've been kneading and rising and punching it down forever and it won't do this!

                        2. re: Scirocco

                          I was told by a master bread baker that the equivalent touch for smooth and elastic is........... the feel of a woman's breast.

                          1. re: lupaglupa

                            Well, since I own two of those, I guess I should be able to figure that out! Ha!

                      2. find a copy of 'artisan baking' by maggie glaser. I love all the recipes in this book - and the ciabatta is awesome - crisp exterior, light airy interior with great holes.....

                        1. My husband has devoted a lot of time to making the perfect French-style bread. I have to say, he is close to perfection - really crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside!

                          Here is the link to his blog (including photos).


                          1. Dear Gator, Karykat and MariaLorraine have given you good advice.
                            The so-called gluten "cloaking" to which Karykat refers is simply a technique to impart tension to the outer skin of the loaf so it rises instead of spreading. It makes a huge difference.
                            But, as Marialorraine notes, it sounds as if your problem is a combination of insufficient kneading and underproofing. In addition to the good advice you have received, I would like to make a few suggestions.
                            1) Use baker's percentages to determine the ratio of flour to water. The percentages make more sense if you convert them to fractions on first use. So for a medium dough using all purpose flour (62% hydration) use 5 ounces of water for each 8 ounces of flour by weight. (Note it is by weight, and a cup of flour measured by the scoop and scrape method will weigh pretty close to 5 ounces--a little more for whole wheat.) 62% = 5/8. This medium dough works well for French style breads. For Italian breads, the dough is usually a little wetter. Think 2/3, or 2 ounces of water for each 3 ounces of flour. And for a very soft dough like ciabatta, think 3/4 or three ounces of water for each 4 ounces of flour. These figures can be fine tuned, but if you use them as they are to start out with, you won't bake a bad loaf. In humid weather you can hold back a wee bit of water (a tablespoon or two per loaf) since flour absorbs moisture. High protein flour usually absorbs a bit more. Whole wheat flours may take rather a lot more. So that a high protein whole wheat flour may make a medium dough with the 2/3 ratio.
                            2) The ideal is to mix all of the flour and water in the beginning. Make sure all the flour is hydrated--you don't want dry lumps in your dough. Let it rest for between 20 minutes and an hour so the enzymes can kick start sugar production and gluten formation. Then add the salt and the yeast. If you knead by hand, use very little flour on your work surface. Keep the dough moving and scrape off any dough that sticks. For whole wheat you will probably need fifteen to twenty minutes of kneading or 500 to 600 strokes. (Giive it a rest between bouts of five minutes.) For most bread, I find it easier to knead about half the normal amount and then to fold it several times during the bulk fermentation. I generally don't punch the dough down, but simply fold in thirds, turn it 90 degrees and fold in thirds again, to degas it and redistribute temperature and moisture. If you are nervous about kneading, try using a food processor fitted with a steel blade. You may have to divide the lump of dough. But 45 seconds per lump will do it.
                            3) The finger poking test works for some people and less well for others. I find it more useful to do the bulk fermentation in a lightly oiled calibrated cylinder like a juice container. You can tell exactly how much it has risen. Then, after you shape the loaves and leave them to rise, you can use a finger poking test. The indentation should fill in slowly. I find it more useful to press lightly on the loaf with the pads of my finger tips joined together. If the loaf is underproofed, it will resist more. If ready, it will give more easily but still feel lively. If overproofed, it will feel dead and tend to cave in. But these subjective impressions are learned by trial and error.
                            4) It is even possible that your loaves are very dense because you let the surface on the loaf dry out while it is rising so that it formed a skin. As a result, the loaf cannot expand much in the oven spring.
                            5) Peter Reinhart has a great book on whole grain breads. And if you are looking for a really light whole wheat bread, don't miss Laurel Robertson's "Featherpuff Bread" in Laurel's Kitchen Breadbook. It is well named, but it gains its lightness in part from the large amount of dairy products in it.
                            6) Finally, the kind of flour you are using can make a difference. One of my favorites is the Wheat Montana Prairie Gold flour, but some bakers have complained that it makes a loaf with smaller aveoli than they were used to with some other flours. So don't be afraid to experiment. Also, try sifting your whole wheat flour through a fine sieve to remove some of the bran and make "high extraction" flour. It improves the nutritional quality of the bread and makes for a slightly lighter loaf.
                            Good luck.