I think everyone who has made more than, say, 5 loaves of bread in their lifetime has experienced a rather flat loaf of bread. One of the most frustrating things in the world for new bakers is finally producing a perfect loaf only to turn out a flat disc on their very next bake. We’ve been there. I’ll never forget the fear and brow sweat that would develop when it was time to remove the lid of our dutch oven or peak in on our sandwich loaves to see if it was all worth the effort. And don’t even get me started on holiday baking! Yeah, I don’t miss those days. Let’s get you past this too!
If you’re stuck wondering why your bread is turning out flat, we likely have the answer in one of the problems and solutions listed below.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Expired Yeast
- Whole Wheat Flour Percentage is Too High
- Pan Size is Too Big
- Crust Dried Out During Baking
- Water is Too Hot
- Sourdough Starter Isn’t Ripe
- Oven Temperature Isn’t Hot Enough
- Not Enough Tension From Shaping
- Hydration is Too High
- Too Much Sugar
- Dough Deflated
1. Your Yeast is Old
If you do not bake regularly, but tend to keep a packet or two of instant yeast around your pantry this quite likely is the problem. Commercial yeast has a shelf life. It’s not an exact science as to when yeast will become dormant, but the packaging should have an expiration date on it. It’s a safe starting point to not go beyond that date.
For your best chance of getting a good rise, you’ll want to use fairly new yeast, though. This ensures that all of the yeast in your packaging has the energy to complete the task set before it; namely producing your show-stopping loaf of bread!
Keep in mind, your yeast might actually bloom and do a pretty good job of creating a rise in your dough, but still not quite have enough activity to get the job done during the bake. This happens if some of the yeast is still active while some are not. Again, the newer the better.
But, don’t go crazy here and think you need to be a month away from expiration dates or anything like that.
If you aren’t doing a bloom before mixing your ingredients, adding that step in might save you some trouble. Make sure your yeast foams up fairly quickly (should start pretty much right away, and get quite foamy and bubbly at just a few minutes in).
Blooming your yeast is super simple. Do it by adding your yeast into a portion of your water that has been warmed up with a little sugar. In fact, many instant yeast varieties tell you to do this as a first step. If you’ve been skipping that and your packaging suggests doing it, that could be your problem as well. 🙂
Check out our video where we make a simple sandwich loaf. We bloom our yeast right out of the gates if you are interested in seeing that step.
2. You’re Not Giving Enough Time to Proof
Kitchen temperatures vary greatly, and the temperature of a kitchen can greatly change yeast activity. The colder a room the slower yeast will act, and the warmer the room the faster yeast will act.
Cold temperatures are typically the problem, and you can ensure better proofing by placing your dough in a warmer environment like a microwave. There are a couple of things to remember though. Take caution to not get your yeast too hot. Once you start to reach temperatures of 120°F (~49°C) you’re approaching levels that start to kill off yeast.
Once yeast starts to die off, you can’t bring it back. It will simply not create a good rise. Some yeast might remain to show signs of activity, but there will not be enough to get maximum rise during the final bake.
Also, if your yeast is far too active, this will not give your dough enough time to form gluten. Gluten starts forming as soon as you add water to your flour, even without yeast present. However, yeast can blow through energy long before enough gluten forms if the room is up in the 90°F Range.
You’re actually trying to find a happy medium where your dough doesn’t take a year to rise but also is slow enough to give gluten development enough time as well.
Gluten is what actually causes the “gas” that yeast produces to get trapped in your dough. Without enough gluten development, the gas will not be trapped as efficiently nor will it stay in during baking.
The Problem is One of Two Things
- Your yeast was too cold to work, and it didn’t produce enough gas.
- Your yeast was too warm/active and puffed the dough up too quickly before enough gluten development could happen. The result was a weak dough that easily let gas escape without holding shape.
The right temperature that yeast works well in while allowing gluten to develop strength, is around 75-85°F. For Celsius that is about 24-29°
3. You’re Giving Too Much Time to Proof
If we let yeast go for too long, what we likely are doing is letting it stretch gluten fibers out so much that they break or tear. Think of gluten like rubber bands. We can stretch rubber bands out and release them thousands of times, but once we stretch them too far to where we snap them, there isn’t a way to repair them.
A lump of dough can be considered to have thousands of rubber bands working together to hold gas in. A few tears will not do much harm, but if we allow for too many, the dough as a whole will be compromised. Holding any kind of shape will simply not happen, and during the bake gas will simply escape freely, not pushing the dough higher.
For yeast, it will eventually run out of energy as it consumes all of the nutrients in a lump of dough. Yeast will only keep rising so long as there is enough food supply present.
What is needed for great rise during a bake, is enough gluten to create tension while yeast has plenty of energy to push against that tension via gas. We want a balancing act between the two. Stopping too soon or too late doesn’t allow that balance to happen.
For a quick overview of these principals check out our video on why dough rises twice or check out our blog post here: https://kneadrisebake.com/why-does-dough-need-to-rise-twice/
4. You Are Using High Percentages of Whole Wheat
Whole wheat adds plenty of flavor to bread while adding essential nutrients and extra fiber. There is a lot of good that whole wheat does for bread. However, it is not our friend when looking for great oven spring. At least, not without extra care and attention.
For a basic bag of whole wheat flour, it can change gluten development in such a way that it becomes less extensible (stretchy), which results in a loaf of bread that wants to stick together and bind up. Ultimately, it fights against rising.
There are a few things that can be done to help in this regard, like adding an autolyse to your recipe. That’s a five-dollar baking word for soaking your flour and water together for a short period of time (20 min to 1 hour) before adding any other ingredients. This helps hydration absorption and alters the development of gluten in ways that are favorable for oven rise. In short it makes dough more extensible. It’s actually a good practice even when not using whole wheat.
Additionally, you can adjust your water levels slightly to account for the “thirstier” wheat flour. Careful on this however, the wetter the dough the harder it becomes to shape. Getting a good shape (we will touch this later) is key to improving oven rise.
We also suggest starting out with very little amounts of whole wheat if you are new to bread baking. Go with a loaf that has 450 grams white flour, and 50 grams whole wheat to start. Or simply omit the whole wheat replacing it with white and compare notes. You might find this is the problem and seek ways to improve whole wheat bread before your next attempt. 🙂
5. You Used The Wrong Size Pan
This is a simple fix that took us a minute to figure out. Many sweet-bread recipes and sandwich bread recipes are written for different loaf pan sizes.
When looking for recipes, make sure you find one that includes the same size pan that you have and you should be good to go.
But in general sandwich loaf pans are narrower than sweet bread pans, which help to produce the typical size slices most deli meats are cut to fit.
You might be thinking, what does this have to do with rise? Well, the wider the pan the flatter your bread will be. You might end up with the same amount of volume in your loaf, but with a sandwich pan you’ll get a taller loaf that “appears” to have more rise.
But do check ingredient lists, there is a chance that your sweet bread pan might be too large to produce a good height for sandwiches with the amount of ingredients used.
You can see our suggested sandwich pans on our suggested baking essentials page here: https://kneadrisebake.com/our-baking-essentials/
6. Your Crust Dried Out in Your Oven
During a bake, it’s key that you are able to trap moisture in your dough long enough for the dough to go through the rising phase. That phase is usually 10 to 15 minutes in length. Depending on hydration levels and size it could be longer. If you’re not able to keep enough moisture in your dough, the crust will become hard long before your rising period is done.
A crust that hardens too soon, will not budge or expand. You’ll end up with a very flat bread. It likely will also be very dense and under baked if you do not give it extended time in the oven.
This Can be Resolved by Doing One of a Few Things
- If you have a dutch oven with a lid, use it. The dutch oven will trap the moisture released from the dough in as steam, keeping the crust soft through the rise phase. Take care to ensure your handle is oven safe, or remove it before baking. You can see the dutch oven we use here: https://kneadrisebake.com/our-baking-essentials/
- Put a sheet pan with water or a pot of water in the oven while baking your bread. This will allow for steam to be created as the bread bakes.
- Choose a bread recipe that adds oil to the dough or as a coating on the top before baking. This will allow the crust to stay moist longer without the need for added moisture from steam.
7. Your Water Is Too Hot
If you’re not measuring the temperature with a thermometer and you’re adding “warm” water. It quite likely could be above the 120°F mark.
That temperature mark will produce less than desirable results as yeast start dying off at that temp, and worse if you go above 140°F, yeast dies completely. That means, if your water was at that level you would get no rise at all.
Simply measure the temp and keep it under 120, or be careful to use temperatures that do not burn your skin to the touch. We find 90°F water is about the last level that is comfortable to the touch, and we aim for something just above that.
But, to be honest, we measure our water more often than not with our digital thermometer. If you are on the hunt for a simple affordable digital thermometer, you can find the one we use here: https://kneadrisebake.com/our-baking-essentials/
8. Your Starter (For Sourdough) Wasn’t Ripe Enough
If you’ve jumped in on sourdough, we solute you! We love making sourdough! But, it does come with a whole host of things to learn before consistently producing fully risen loaves of bread. In fact, most of our flat loaves of bread have come from our early days of making sourdough.
We found that our shaping and proofing were playing a part in our flat results, but getting our starter right was an absolute must. Once our starter was right we were able to alter the other pieces and have yet since to see negative results.
We made an entire post about improving your sourdough oven spring by altering those 3 things mentioned above. You can see that here: https://kneadrisebake.com/3-ways-to-improve-your-sourdough-oven-spring/
But, for the starter alone, if it isn’t ripe and ready to be used before mixing, there isn’t much anyone can do to salvage the final bake. In order to ensure it is full of energy, you want to make sure it has been fed recently and with enough nutrition.
By recently we mean every day if stored at room temp, or within a week if stored in the fridge. If it has gone longer than a day or a week respectively, then you’ll need to feed it twice before using in your recipe.
By enough energy we mean it has been give enough flour and water to completely satisfy and refresh most of the cultures in your starter. We keep it in a range around 2:1:1, 1:1:1, and 1:2:2. The chart below gives an example of what a typical feeding might look like for each of those ratios.
|100 Grams Starter|
50 Grams Water
50 Grams Flour
|100 Grams Starter|
100 Grams Water
100 Grams Flour
|50 Grams Starter|
100 Grams Water
100 Grams Flour
If you’ve determined it has been fed recently with sufficient nutrition, here is what you’re looking for.
- Wait for at least a doubling of volume, preferably close to a tripling.
- Look for an actively bubbling surface. It’s a slow bubbling, don’t expect anything like a boiling pot of water.
- A small portion should be able to float in a cup of water.
When you see all three of those, and you have fed your starter recently, then it is highly likely that your starter is active enough to mix in your dough.
9. Your Oven Wasn’t Hot Enough
Good rise during baking takes a lot of heat! Especially if you’re not using a pan. Using a pan provides structure and support for the dough to rise upwards. But if you’re making rustic loaves, then you’ll likely need an extreme amount of heat to really puff your dough up before gravity pulls it down.
To create enough heat, ensure you’re turning your oven up to 475 to 500°F or 260°C. Let the oven sit at that temp for 15 to 20 minutes, preferably with a dutch oven inside, or with the sheet pan you’ll be baking on.
You’re looking for instant transfer of heat to the bottom of your bread dough, so that steam and gas instantly expand. It’s a bit of a race against gravity. As an added tip, cooling your dough before putting it in the oven also helps fight the forces of gravity.
If you do cool your dough, just ensure it has had enough time to fully proof and at the same time, the cooling time didn’t actually cause the dough to over proof.
10. You Need More Tension During Shaping
Shaping is scary to many a new baker. It was for us, as we had no idea what we were looking for, or expecting. I think if I could offer a bit of advice here, it’s not to treat your dough like a biscuit or pie crust.
By that I mean, don’t worry so much about overworking your dough during shaping. Do take care not to completely pulverize the dough, but take as much time as needed to really form a nice tight ball, or a nice tight loaf. If after you shape your dough, it starts to fall flat almost instantly, you’ve not built enough tension.
We have two videos, one of a sandwich loaf which we linked above, and one of a basic round no-knead bread that will help with shaping. Check out those videos to see how we simply build tension for the final shape.
Without tension, dough will not hold its shape during the final rise. As stated in the oven temp tip, we are working against gravity. Creating tension during shaping helps us use physics to beat gravity.
11. You’re Making Very High Hydration Bread (Usually For Sourdough)
This one is a tough one to overcome. High hydration sourdough is challenging, because it is hard to work with. It’s floppy and sticky which can make creating tension during shaping very hard to do.
Additionally, much of the structure evaporates during baking, since much of the structure is holding water in. The results are worth it as it creates a velvety crumb, that keeps from going stale longer, but it sure is challenging.
Once again, we solute you if this is the venture you are on. And, we certainly can give a few tips to help you on your way.
- Get a bench scraper. It completely changed the game for us.
- Watch our video on how simply and efficiently you can build tension without excess flour by using a bench scraper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCxlj5Q7R4s
- Include a pre-shape and rest right before your final shape. This really helps add structure to your dough. See our video on that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRMWyzthQX8
- Absolutely do a cold long final proof. This will give your dough plenty of time to build gluten, and create a cold dough that fights gravity for you.
12. You Used Too Much Sugar (Especially Liquid Forms Like Honey)
Too much sugar can do two things primarily that hinder good rise.
- Too much sugar can potentially make yeast a little bit sluggish. This is somewhat debatable, but we’ve seen negative impacts personally so we include it here.
- Liquid sugar like honey is quite binding. It pulls things together and resists the rise produced caused by yeast. It can create quite a dense loaf of bread if not used sparingly.
To help with using sugar, just keep the amounts limited. Maybe even try a recipe that doesn’t include sugar and compare your rise. You might be able to rule this one out of your problems, or it just might be the culprit.
13. Your Dough Stuck To Your Proofing Bowl or Tea Towel and Deflated
This is by far the most aggravating part of the problem for me. It is what caused the frisbee you see in the thumbnail. You could have done everything right, and yet your dough sticks to your bowl or towel right at the end. Everything hinges on this last step.
This is a problem for rise because it often causes the dough to stretch so much that gluten fibers lose their tension, and the gas trapped inside is squeezed out. Nothing we can do will save us if this happens at this stage in the game.
But we do have some tips to keep it from happening to begin with.
- Buy and use Rice Flour to coat your towel or proofing basket. Rice flour is night and day when it comes to moisture wicking compared to wheat flour. I cannot praise it enough. We like Bob’s Red Mill because it is easy to find and has quality ingredients.
- Use excessive amounts of regular wheat flour to coat your towel or proofing basket. You can dust it off right before baking if needed.
- Do not cover your bowl or basket for the final rise, especially if putting it in the fridge to proof. Covering it will trap moisture in.
- Avoid using glass bowls, they produce the most moisture content for us.