Learning how to bake bread can be an exciting, empowering experience. No longer are you dependent on the grocery store for your baguettes or loaves! But it also has its share of frustrations for beginners. Since not all of us can consult a seasoned baker for advice, here’s a list of the top mistakes new bread bakers make, and how you can avoid them.
1. Not reading the recipe carefully before starting
OK, I am majorly guilty of this one. I can’t count how many times I’ve started a baking project, only to realize that I needed butter to be room-temperature and mine is still rock-hard in the fridge, or that I’m completely missing an ingredient, or that there’s some tricky step in the middle that I needed to study before diving in.
Obviously, reading the recipe more carefully is the answer. The problem is, most of us already feel like we’re doing that. The solution? If the recipe you’re using is online, print it out. It might seem like a silly extra step – a little wasteful, even. But we have noticed a big improvement in the success of our baking since we started doing this. It’s just much easier to tick off ingredients, note each individual step, and map out a baking timeline when looking on a piece of paper than it is when scrolling down a screen. If you’re worried about waste, keep the recipes you’ve printed in a binder or notebook. And if you’re working from a cookbook, do the same thing – tick off ingredients, read through each step, and map out the baking timeline before breaking out the flour and yeast.
Here are a few of the things we look for when going through this process: take note of what needs to be cold, what needs to be room temp, and what needs to be warm or melted. Think about the timeline presented on the recipe. Do we have time to let the butter come to room temperature? Will we be free to deal with the dough when a poolish is finished fermenting? If the answer is no, can we find another recipe that fits our schedule better? Or if we’re missing an ingredient, can we go to the store? Substitute? Find a different recipe? It’s much less stressful to answer these questions in advance than after you’ve already invested time and ingredients into a recipe.
2. Not having everything out and ready to go before starting
I think one of the reasons why baking seemed so stressful for so long was that I wouldn’t get everything out and ready to go before I started. So when the recipe called for eggs, I’d go to the fridge and get out the eggs. Then when it called for yeast, I’d go to the cupboard and get out the yeast. Sure, at the end of it I had all the ingredients mixed in correctly, but I felt frazzled and stressed from running back and forth and rummaging in every corner of the kitchen.
Now, whenever I start a baking project, I try to get every ingredient and utensil I’ll need out and ready to go before starting. That way I have everything I need at my fingertips. It makes the baking process feel much smoother and easier. So while this isn’t exactly a “mistake” in the way that some of these others are, I still feel like it makes a difference. It’s a relatively small, easy change to make. And the payoff is feeling like a more confident, in-control baker.
. 3. Not measuring correctly
This is a tough one. Most American recipes call for measurements by volume – cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. But when it comes to measuring out cups of flour, it turns out there’s a right way and a wrong way. Most expert bakers tell us not to just scoop the flour out. That packs it in the measuring cup, which can result in too much flour being added into the recipe. Instead, the best way to measure out cups of flour (or any dry ingredient) is to carefully spoon it into the measuring cup, and then level off the top.
To me, this is a hassle. I always end up spilling flour everywhere. Plus it’s one (or two, or three) more things to wash at the end.
The solution? Come on over to Team Weight! OK, that sounds weird. What I mean is, buy a kitchen scale and use recipes that measure ingredients by weight instead of volume. You can plop your mixing bowl on the scale, zero it out, an pour in the flour until you have enough. Simple. No fancy technique to master, no measuring cups to wash. And you always know you have exactly the right amount called for in the recipe.
4. Using water that’s too hot or too cold
Erm, OK. I know this is when bread making just starts to sound too finicky. Like, don’t use water that’s too hot or too cold? Jeez. But stay with me for just a second. The thing is, there’s a big range of water temperature that will work just fine for baking bread. The problem is, most recipes call for “warm” water, and that’s a pretty vague term.
What happens if your water is too cold? If it’s way too cold, it will get the yeast too cold, and it won’t do it’s thing. If it’s just kind of cool, the yeast will work. It just might take a few hours longer for the dough to rise than the recipe states.
What happens if the water is too hot? It could kill the yeast. If that happens, the dough won’t rise at all.
A solution is to use water that’s somewhere between “skin temperature” and “too hot to touch comfortably”. This should get you in a range that’s warm enough to activate the yeast without being hot enough to kill it off.
But a better solution is to use a probe thermometer to measure the precise temperature of your water. Many recipes will tell you exactly how warm the water should be. And if they don’t, 110° is usually a safe bet. It’s warm enough to get the yeast activated without being hot enough to kill it.
5. Misunderstanding Proofing Temperature
“Proof in a warm place” is another example of the kind of vague instructions that can stump a new baker. What temperature is “warm” really?
Generally speaking, “warm” in many recipes means between 75 and 90 degrees.
So what do you do if it’s cold in your kitchen? Something that’s really helped me is learning that the answer to this is really similar to the water-temperature problem. Bread dough can rise in fairly cold temperatures, like the refrigerator. It’ll just take much longer. But if the temperature is too hot, it could kill off the yeast.
Some bakers suggest setting your oven to 200° for a few minutes, turning it off, and then putting your dough in the warmed oven to proof. This is definitely something to try. For me, I’m always nervous that the oven will be too hot and I’ll kill the yeast.
If you’re a nervous nancy like me, the safest bet is to leave your dough on your kitchen counter. If it’s a cold day, it might take a little longer for the dough to rise. But it’ll get there eventually, and you don’t have to worry about killing off the yeast.
6. Using old or expired yeast (or other ingredients)
We’ve all been there. You follow the directions, put the dough in a nice warm place to rise…and nothing happens. What went wrong? Probably one of the biggest culprits is expired yeast.
I’ve also had this problem with expired baking soda or baking powder in quick breads. Everything seems to be fine…until I pull a banana-flavored brick out of the oven.
So what can we do? Of course, checking the expiration date before buying an ingredient is a good idea. So is checking the date on ingredients that have been sitting around in the cupboard.
For yeast specifically, if you really want to play it safe, there are a couple additional steps you can take. One is to use instant instead of active dry yeast. According to Emily Buehler in her book Bread Science: The Chemistry and Craft of Making Bread, the process of making active dry yeast kills many of the yeast cells. Instant yeast, on the other hand, is made using a less harsh process, which results in more live yeast cells.
Another thing you can do is to check how alive your yeast is before using it. To do that, mix a little bit of yeast in some warm water and either a pinch of sugar or flour. If in a few minutes you see bubbles, that means the yeast is alive and well.
7. Under-kneading dough
If you knead your dough by hand, like we do, this is probably the biggest mistake you can make. Under-kneaded dough will still turn out to be bread, but it will lack a lot of the flavor, texture, and rise that you’re going for. That’s because the gluten hasn’t been developed enough, so the protein strands are weaker than they should be.
So what’s the solution? Keep kneading. It’s really hard to over-knead most types of bread by hand. If possible, knead until the dough is smooth, elastic, and passes the windowpane test. If you need to stop and rest a few times along the way, go for it. And if you’re just done, that’s OK too. Endurance will come with practice.
8. Swapping out ingredients
Sometimes this is so hard not to do. As a new baker, I don’t have every kind of flour or yeast there is. So when I want to try a recipe, I’m really tempted to just use what I have.
Unfortunately, I think this has led to a lot of frustration in the past. Usually recipes have been written and tested with the specific ingredients called for. So for a new baker, it’s best to stick with what’s written.
This is especially true in regards to yeast. Always use the exact type of yeast specified in a recipe. Trying to switch things up could lead to disaster.
The second-most-important aspect of this is flour type. Different types of flour, such as whole wheat, white, or rye, react differently to water and yeast. Swapping out different kinds of flour will throw off the ratio with other ingredients, which could really sabotage a recipe.
There is one exception to this; if the recipe calls for bread flour, you can substitute white AP flour instead, using exactly the same amount as the recipe calls for.
This might be bread heresy – most “what not to do” lists for new bakers say, “don’t use regular AP flour!” But we’ve found that there’s not a huge difference in the bread we’ve made using bread flour versus all purpose. So while I highly recommend using the same type of yeast, and not switching in rye or whole wheat where white flour is called for, go ahead and be a rebel when it comes to bread flour/AP question.
9. Adding too much flour
This is another pitfall that is especially dangerous for hand-kneaders. When you Youtube “how to knead bread dough”, the dough in the videos often doesn’t look that sticky. But when you go to work your own dough, it’s super sticky. So what do we all do? Add more flour!
Unfortunately, adding too much flour can throw off the ratio with the rest of the ingredients. This can result in a dry or tough loaf of bread.
The solution? Unless your recipe tells you differently, after a light dusting of flour on your hands and work surface, don’t add any more. If the dough is too sticky to work with, here are some things that might help:
- Get your hands wet a couple of times throughout the kneading process. The film of water on your hands will prevent the dough from sticking quite as much
- Oil you hands, and/or your work surface. Like water, oil will form a protective barrier that keeps the dough from sticking quite as much.
- The more you knead and work the dough, the less sticky it will be. However, it’s taken us a while to learn that there is also some technique involved here. Just smushing the dough around any old way won’t necessarily equal less stickiness. This video, as well as thi this one, are some that we’ve found super helpful for learning how to deal with sticky dough.
10. Under-proofing or over-proofing
So far, knowing when dough is perfectly proofed is the most challenging aspect of bread baking. And although every recipe I’ve used gives me time estimates, the problem is that’s all they are; estimates. There are so many factors that affect proofing time: the temperature of the dough, the temperature of the room, what how much yeast is in the dough, what kind of yeast is in the dough, and if there are other ingredients such as butter, sugar, or eggs.
So all that to say, while the recipe may say that it will take about 1 hour for your dough to proof, yours might be done in 30 minutes. Or in two hours. And unfortunately, this is a pretty important step to get right. Bread that has been under-proofed will be flatter, denser, and less flavorful. It also might rip in weird ways as it’s baking. Over-proofed dough will result in bread that has large air pockets, or possibly deflates in the oven.
The solution? While the time frame in recipes is a helpful guide, pay more attention to your dough than to the clock. The best way to tell if dough is ready to bake is the finger poke test. See our article on how to tell if bread is proofed for more details. And if you’re still nervous, most people advise that it’s better to bake bread that’s under proofed than over. So steer on the side of under, and as you gain more confidence and familiarity you can experiment with longer and longer proofing times.
11.Trusting your oven temperature
Most of us don’t have very reliable ovens. And while this isn’t a big deal for things like roasting meat or veggies, it can make a big difference in bread baking. An oven that runs colder than you think can result in an under-baked loaf of bread, while an oven that’s too hot can equal burned or dried out bread.
The solution? Buy an oven thermometer. Most aren’t very expensive, and it’s the most reliable way to know exactly what’s going on in your oven. Not sure which kind to get? Cook’s Illustrated has our backs again, with a review of oven thermometers.
12. Trusting the recipe bake time
So now that we’ve spent all this time on our bread dough, and it’s time to bake, we face our biggest fear: burning the bread. So what do we do? Pull our bread out of the oven the second it has a little bit of color. The problem is, it’s hard to tell whether a loaf is fully cooked just by looking at it. And like most things, the outside cooks faster than the inside. And unlike other baked goods, like cookies or brownies, you don’t want to take bread out before it’s fully, totally baked in the center.
On the other hand, over-baking is a sad reality, too. This has actually been our downfall more than under-baking has. We’ve had many a near-disaster when, trying to follow a recipe bake time to a T, we smell burning bread.
To save yourself from the sadness of raw bread, use a probe thermometer to check your loaf. It should have an internal temperature of 190° – 200° when fully baked. Another way to check is to tap the underside of the loaf. Bread that is done will sound hollow inside, while bread that’s still raw won’t.
And to prevent burned bread, keep an eye and a nose out for tell-tale signs. If you peek in at the loaf at the half-way point and it already looks golden brown, chances are there isn’t much longer to go. And if you start smelling burning, take it out. Your bread is done.
13. Giving up
Maybe you’ve tried baking a few loaves, and aren’t having much success. I’ve been there! Don’t give up! Here are some things to try:
- Try another recipe. I’ve had a lot more success as a new baker with artisan-style breads than with sandwich loaves.
- Try to learn as much as you can about the science of bread baking. Knowing the why and how behind everything can really help understand what’s going on.
- If you can, get ahold of a book that breaks down the bread making process. Two that have been hugely helpful for us are Flour Water Yeast Salt by Ken Forkish, and Bread Science: The Chemistry and Craft of Making Bread by Emily Buehler.
- There are tons of blogs, YouTube channels, and forums dedicated solely to teaching people how to bake bread. Start Googling, and get lost in all the amazing information out there.
- Keep practicing! Even less-than-perfect loaves of bread are usually edible, if not downright tasty. And the more experience you have, the better your bread will get.