I'm a novice bread baker with few aspirations---an occasional nice loaf is all I seek. I've been very successful with the Test Kitchen 'Almost No-Knead' bread, sometimes plain, sometimes with olives.
My last couple of loaves have been substandard. Too dense, less rise. I always replenish my all purpose flour container with whatever's available and convenient. Sometimes Heckers, sometimes Pillsbury and most recently a supermarket branded bleached flour (on sale dirt cheap).
Is this the problem? Is cheap flour inferior enough to perform notably poorly?
If the answer is 'well, duh, that's why the good stuff costs twice as much' then I guess I feel kind of stupid. But that's why I'm asking.
No question is stupid. As a chef I look at baking as chemistry and cooking as more of an art. With that said there will be performance differences in all your ingredients. The most important thing is to be consistant. Always use the same ingredients and vary the amounts until you achieve your desired end. Take into considerationthe altitude, humidity, bakeware and oven capacity as well. When you have exhausted all the your possibilities, and you are still not happy with your bread then change one item and start over.
Thanks for the response. All other things are equal---it's all right here in my kitchen with a pretty consistent recipe. However there are the issues of NYC apartment winter vs. summer humidity, both environmental and in the flour product. I'm not baking often enough to really do incremental experiments. However if it makes sense to choose one flour and stick with it, that I can do.
I have had excellent results with "cheap" flours as far as density and rise (taste is another story) so I don't think that is your problem.
You might try sifting the flour first, cheaper flour can be compact.
Also, the problem might be your yeast (not the flour at all) so try another brand if you haven't already done so. Proof it to make sure it is working properly. Get it nice and foamy.
Make sure you knead it enough to develop gluten. If I have a recipe that is turning out consistently denser loaves than I think it should- I let it rise a third time. More rise means finer texture -and that can be "diagnostic" to your problem.
I also doubt that your cheap flour is the problem here although cheap flour especially bleached flour has less protein and gluten that higher quality.
The good stuff cost twice as much because it is twice as good. Made with better quality wheat, prepared,cleaned and milled with more care.
Good info from all responses. Thank you. On general principle I will go the extra couple of $$ for better flour.
And I'll check my yeast. It's SAF Red Instant Yeast from King Arthur and I've been working from this jar for months. I'd divided it and stashed a bunch in the freezer. Might be time to pull that out.