Common problems with bread dough: and how to fix them

When it comes to bread, firstly, cast off any sentimental ideas you may have on the subject; passion, creativity, nostalgia will not contribute or deliver knowledge when struggling with dough or wanting to understand why something is happening.

READ MORE: What equipment do I need to make bread?

Two pieces of equipment which will make you a better baker are digital scales and a digital thermometer. Why? Here’s my unfiltered answer: because we’ve moved on from the Domesday times! And this arty-farty hark back to some era where everything was supposedly better, and we were all eating artisan by candlelight is false, fake and misleading.

We have science now. We know what temperature the yeast like or lactic acid bacteria – we can manipulate dough accordingly.  We can take and see the temperature of our dough and make sure there’s activity.  As well as control the water temperature.

We can take the temperature of a loaf coming out of the oven and learn not to under-bake a loaf – ever again!

It’s not good enough anymore to say; ‘add warm water’, ‘lukewarm or ‘tepid’.  What is the temperature of the water? How much water do you hold back? 30-50g can make a significant difference in a 500g flour recipe. How do you know for next time to add more or less?

Why waste time and ingredients? Use the science!


Why didn’t my bread work?

My dough did not rise

Putting the most obvious question aside, “did you add yeast?” (yes! that has happened) – here are most common reasons: 

  • Have you allowed enough time? If the water was cold and the outside temperature is below 16°C - the yeast may be lethargic. Yeast love warmth to multiply. 
  • Did you kill most of the yeast by adding water too hot? You’re aiming for an internal dough temperature of 22°C - 26°C.
  • Added too much of: fats, oils or sugar without pre-fermenting dough first?  There’s a certain percentage of these you can add to straight doughs. (Straight dough means when all ingredients are added at the same time.)
  • Have you added cold animal milk without heating it first? Warm the milk and cool it.
  • Was your yeast dead before you added it? It is possible.
  • Added spices too soon and killed the yeast? Many spices have antibacterial and antifungal properties.

My dough was sticky

  • If the dough is sticky after the initial mix, it’s because of the amount of water. If it’s a high hydrated dough, not a problem - it will produce an open crumb loaf.  
  • To make it less sticky, add a handful of flour and mix well until there’s no visible flour.
  • Next time use the same flour, and hold back water by 50-70g.  Make notes of changes. 
  • Some white flours will have extra amylase added (amylase is an enzyme that naturally exists in flour) and these flours are not suitable for long fermented doughs or sourdoughs.  

My bread rose but collapsed in the oven

  • The dough was left too long to prove for the flour you are using.  Next time cut back on the proving time.

The crust is too thick

Common problems with bread dough

There are many photos posted of loaves with great looking open crumb, but the crusts are way too thick. To the point they’re unpleasant to eat. When the crust is thick and fresh out of the oven it acts as a jaw-breaker; with the strength to crack one’s tooth. With a day-old thick crust you’ll be gnawing on it something akin to leather or cartilage. The perfect crust of a white loaf is thin, very crisp - and listen to it singing tunes of ‘crackle’ and ‘snap’ as it cools out of the oven.  

  • The most common reason for thick crust is over-baking.
  • If the loaf has to be in the oven for a long time in order to bake the crumb properly, (therefore over-baking the crust) your dough is over-hydrated for that flour.
  • Your oven temperature is not high enough. A lower temperature means baking for longer - turning more of the crumb into part of the thick crust: as the heat has time to dry deeper into the layers.
  • For country style loaves or ones baked in cast iron pots, the oven has to be super-hot. A good oven should be at the temperature of 225°C. Preheated for at least 25mins. After 10-15mins of being in the oven, the temperature can be turned down to 200°C.
  • You need to create steam in the oven if not using a baking cloche or a cast iron pot.

The crust is soggy

  • A soft or soggy crust is a result of under-baked loaf.  
  • Sometimes a loaf may feel as if baked through; the crust will feel crisp as it comes out of the oven. However, on cooling the surplus moisture inside will carry on rising upwards through the crust. In doing so, it will soften the crust.
  • The best way to avoid soggy crust is to have a digital thermometer to take the internal temperature of the middle.  Make a note.  If that loaf is soggy – bake longer next time.  The internal temperature will form a guideline going forwards.

Why is my bread too dense?

A loaf can be dense and not gummy. If it is dense and gummy together, it means it has a wet crumb. 

First-time bakers with dense and gummy bread:

  • Dough has not been allowed to prove long enough for the yeast to create gas, and lift the flour starch around the bubbles they create. The starch should be surrounded by bubbles. Imagine a honeycomb design. When eating crumb, you’re eating more air than starch – that’s what makes bread feel light in the mouth. For this we need to allow the yeast to create enough gas bubbles.
  • The other reason for dense and gummy bread is the opposite; you proved the dough for too long.
  • When dough has been proved for too long the yeast will run out of food. (They feed off the flour starch). This will result in that lovely airy structure created - to now collapse.

For experienced bakers with dense gummy bread:

  • The flour for the bread recipe you’re using has extra amylase added (amylase exists in flour). Long fermented doughs with amylase added to flour can create too much breakdown of starch, causing gumminess. 
  • Are you adding too many rich ingredients such as: butter, oils, sugar, unheated milk? Without doing a pre-ferment.
  • Rye flour causes a gummy crumb because it’s naturally high in pentosan gums. They have the ability to absorb large amounts of water but some of the pentosan release water back if the dough is either proved or kneaded like a wheat dough. Cut back on both.

Why are my loaves poorly shaped?

Common problems with bread dough

 

Simple steps to shape a loaf:

  • Don’t be afraid of pulling the dough from the side, in an up-and-over movement, and place it towards the middle of the dough. Pressing down.  
  • Keep doing this movement around the dough, two or three times. This can be done while the dough is in a large bowl or on a surface.
  • What you’re doing is stretching the dough and helping it to form a ball shape.  
  • This shaping of a ball is also forming an outside skin underneath.
  • Once the dough is taking a nice formed tight shape, turn it over.  If it is in a bowl, take it out.
  • Cupping the dough with your hands, keep shaping the dough. If it sticks - flour your hands well.
  • Now leave it for its last prove, supporting it in some way – read What Do You Need To Make Bread article to find out how.

Bread has coarse grain texture and is crumbly

  • Bread that has coarse grain texture could simply be the mix of flour you’re using.  
  • If you’re using a white flour and the bread has a crumbly texture, it’s because you have not developed the gluten at all.
  • Think of soda bread and how it has a crumbly texture. That’s because we simply mix, shape and bake. The gluten proteins haven’t been developed.
  • The gluten proteins in wheat flour need to be broken and allowed to reform, in order to develop strength and elasticity. 
  • To develop gluten, dough does not have to be kneaded. Dan Lepard was showing us the folding-method back in 2004.
  • Gluten development can be done well by folding, and resting in-between the folding.  Fold 3 times.  Rest times from 10mins to 20mins is enough.  Rest longer in cold months.

How to bake with spices

  • Many spices have antibacterial and antifungal properties - therefore they naturally attack the yeast.  
  • This is why when adding for example cinnamon, it is added after dough development has been initiated. 
  • A small amount of spices can be added early if they are kept intact, and dough developed can take place.

Feeling inspired? Browse all baking ingredients here, or read Azelia’s ultimate guide to bread flour.


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