What to do when your bread doesn’t turn out the way you expected.
My brother left me a message about some bread that he was making. I guess it didn’t turn out as well as he had hoped. It wasn’t rising as well as he’d hoped. So I wanted to take the time to go over some of the problems that may happen when you’re making bread and possibly how to fix them.
Bread has a rich history in Newfoundland. It’s one of the first things many young people learned to do in the kitchen and it’s a staple at almost every meal. The quintessential bread of choice is white bread made into a loaf with three sections. Nowadays people are choosing healthier ingredients and using whole wheat flour, but for most of the last century most Newfoundlanders grew up on white bread, myself included.
Alan Doyle, in his book Where I Belong, remembers his mother making loaves of bread two or three times a week. It was common for women to make their own bread instead of buying it from the store. And cheaper too. When you have to pinch pennies, sometimes bread might be the only thing to eat. “Fill up on bread” was heard in many Newfoundland kitchens.
Like Doyle’s mother, making bread didn’t really follow a recipe. You would throw together the flour, salt, shortening, water and yeast and go by feel. I’m sure there originally was a recipe, but most seasoned cooks now just know if there’s too much flour, or water, in the dough. But for the few of us who follow a recipe here are some things that may go wrong with your bread and how to fix it:
- Dough didn’t rise enough.
This is the most common problem and there’s a myriad of answers. First recheck your recipe to see if you followed everything correctly. Note: a packet of yeast is 2 & 1/4 tsp, so make sure you used enough if you’re measuring from loose.
Yeast is a finicky thing. Too hot, it will die. Too cold, there won’t be enough gases produced. Too much salt, it will die. Too much sugar, it will slow down fermentation. If you have more than 1/2 cup of sugar to 4 cups of flour you’ll have to add another packet of yeast to your dough.
To activate the yeast your water should be about 110F. Rule of thumb is if you can comfortably leave your finger in the water for 5 seconds it’s hot enough for the yeast. Leave it in longer, the water is not hot enough. Ideally you should measure the water with a thermometer.
Temperature for proofing, or rising, your dough also makes a difference. Bread likes a warm, moist environment to proof. Commercial proofers are basically large walk-in closets where the humidity and temperature is kept constant. The humidity keeps the dough pliable so it can expand as the yeast release carbon dioxide. Sweet yeast dough products need to be given full proof with a temperature range of 35C to 37C and with a humidity range of 80% to 85%.
2 Dough is sticky.
Not enough flour was used. Again, reread the recipe to see if you have the amounts correct.
The flour was too old. Gluten is the protein found in wheat flour and the protein bonds formed in bread is what gives it a lovely spongy texture. If you were rustling through your pantry and found a bag of flour leftover from the Smallwood* era those gluten proteins will have broken down and cannot do their proper job. Check your dates on the flour if unsure. There’s usually a date stamped on the bag.
Another reason is the dough was overworked. Imagine you were making your dough and suddenly your child is halfway across the room ready to stick a knife in the wall socket. Then the phone rings and you’re stumbling over toys and the dog is now relieving himself on the ficus in the living room. In the back of your mind you can hear a whirring sound. The dough has been mixing for fifteen minutes and now looks like something that came out of your five-year-old’s nose last Christmas: sticky and messy.
That dough is overworked. The gluten strands just couldn’t hold on any longer and they broke. Sorry, that bread dough is toast. |Ha! Bread pun.| You’ll have to start over and have less distractions.
3. Crust is too thick.
You take your lovely loaf out of the oven, let it cool, and slice into to it only to find the crust is twice as large as you expected. This can be explained by a few things:
The oven was too low. If the temperature of your oven is too low the outside of your dough will form quickly, preventing the bread to rise and will form a thicker crust. Check the recipe for the correct temperature or you may have to re-calibrate your oven.
Too much flour was used. Again, recheck the recipe to see if you’ve put in too much flour. Sensing a pattern anyone? Making sure you know your recipe inside and out, double checking amounts and ingredients is crucial, especially for the beginner baker.
Lastly, the dough was too dry. You know what I’m going to say. Recheck your recipe.
4. Bread has large holes in the loaf.
Some types of bread have characteristic large holes. Really wet doughs like ciabatta will have holes in them, and that’s expected. We’re talking about the plain, unassuming white loaf here. When bread is kneaded correctly there will be little air pockets formed during the baking. These air pockets are the result of the yeast releasing gas when they’re breaking down the sugar in the dough. While it’s really, really hard to under knead bread by hand, it is easy to over-knead if you do it by machine. Machine mixed dough should be for at least two minutes on low and 4-5 minutes on medium speed. Careful though, if you leave it too long you will break the gluten strands as noted above.
Large holes can also be the result of over proofing the dough. While your bread is proofing, the yeast is breaking down the sugars and releasing gas. This will make your final loaf light and fluffy. If you let your dough proof for too long there are going to be large pockets of gas bubbles hanging around. As easy method to see if it’s proofed enough is to press your finger in the dough. If the dough springs back slowly, the dough is ready. If it stays indented for a longer period you dough may be over-proofed. If you leave your finger in the dough too long, you have issues I can’t help you with.
Well, those are just a few examples of how things can go wrong. If you like I can make another post about some other common bread problems, but these are my top picks. I’ve been making bread for over ten years and I still make the simplest mistakes. Don’t get discouraged. It’s always a learning experience and most of the time, even the bad loaves are still usable. Make croutons or save the loaf for stuffing. Keep trying and you’ll be amazed how fast it will pick up. Happy baking.
* Joey Smallwood was the premier of Newfoundland from 1949 to 1972.