This is the million-dollar question, and one every single bread baker had to ask themselves at some point. The reason it is the million-dollar question is that so many roads lead to dense bread. Or rather, there is an endless array of possible causes for dense bread.
Don’t get us wrong, making bread at home is simple. You do not need gadgets or expensive and rare ingredients. But, some types of bread and certain techniques lend themselves to being more prone to ending up dense.
This is why we always suggest starting out with what we consider to be pretty forgiving bread for beginning bakers, which we’ll suggest in just a minute. But, for now, let’s tackle this million-dollar question.
Regardless of all the reasons for dense bread, there is just one root explanation. Dense bread is a direct result of not trapping or keeping enough gas and moisture in the dough to create the space needed to produce a light and fluffy texture once it has been baked.
Now that we’ve said that, let’s explore some very common reasons why there isn’t enough gas in our dough from time to time.
Yeast is what produces gas in dough by feeding on the nutrients present in flour and water. Weak yeast will produce little to no gas which will lead to little rise. Three common reasons why your yeast might be too weak are:
- Your instant/commercial yeast is old or expired. As far as we know, yeast doesn’t go bad so much as it just turns dormant. Depending on the age of your yeast some or all of it might be dormant. It’s easier to diagnose if all has died out, but if only a portion has died out you’ll likely see some rise but not enough to fully expand and keep from turning out dense bread.
- You used water that was too hot. Once yeast reaches 120°F it begins to die off. If it gets to 140°F it will be completely dead. So, once your water rises above 120° you’re going to see limited results.
- Your sourdough starter is hungry. Depending on how often you bake, you might need to give your starter a refreshing. As a general rule if you keep your starter out on the counter you’ll want to feed it daily to keep it strong. If you keep it in the fridge you’ll need to feed it about once a week. If you have gone longer in both of those situations, you likely need to feed your starter twice before using it in your baking. Also, the hungrier your starter the more “food” it will likely need. Consider using just 30 grams of your starter and mixing in 100 grams of flour and 100 grams water to really ramp up the activity.
Not Enough Time
There is no specific amount of time that yeast needs to work, which can be a bit confusing. But there are some general guidelines that can straighten things out.
- The colder the environment the longer it will take. Yeast becomes pretty sleepy as it cools down. If your working environment is less than 70°F you can expect things to progress very slowly. Maybe even hours longer than the recipe suggests if it called for a room or warm temp proofing. Room temp is considered to be somewhere around 78°F.
- The warmer the environment the faster it will take. Keep in mind here that temps above 120°F will start to kill off and slow things down. So getting too warm is not good. Additionally, working too fast causes problems with gluten development. The added piece to the yeast/gas equation is gluten. Gluten is formed in dough as soon as water and flour are mixed together. But yeast, kneading, and time all help to build gluten strength. We’re looking for good gluten strength as it is what actually acts like elastic bands and traps gas inside dough. If we blow through all of yeast’s activity before enough gluten develops, then too much gas will escape.
The goal is to keep dough between 75°F and 85°F for optimal gluten and gas development.
Too Much Time
On the other side of the spectrum, too much time is problematic as well. Not just because we’re hungry and we want bread in our bellies yesterday. 🙂
It’s problematic because gluten can take on too much stress from yeast’s gas activity. If it is stretched too far it will tear. It is really helpful to think of gluten as thousands of elastic bands that do an amazing job when they’re new. But once they are worn out (like those sweatpants you’ve been holding on to long after the elastic waist was toast) they simply have no strength left to trap gas in.
This is why dough is commonly knocked down and shaped before giving it a second rise (often called the final rise or proof). We want to give gluten more time to develop, but if we let it stretch too far everyone loses. So a series of two rises gives enough time for the development of gluten, without damaging it, all before yeast runs out of energy (the importance for active yeast).
So we take care not to let it over-proof (stretch too far) during the first rise and the second. Once they tear, they’re done for. Gas will freely escape. And we take care to not let yeast burn up all of its energy before everything progresses to the bake.
Dough is Too Dry
This is a very simple fix and it involves one of two things:
- Add more water to your recipe. I would consider anything less than 60 percent hydration to be too dry for fluffy bread. If you’re wondering what I mean by that, check out our post on baker’s percentage, it will explain everything you need to know about hydration percentages. I’d suggest 65 to 70 percent for beginner loaves.
- Keep your water the same but add less flour during shaping. Adding flour will begin to dry out dough, and using a lot will certainly be a prime cause for dense bread.
The goal is to have enough hydration in the dough to produce steam as it bakes. This helps the dough stay soft during the early stages of baking, which allows for the initial over spring (rise during first 10-15 of baking).
Whole Wheat Takes Extra Care
Whole wheat is a very thirsty and binding flour. Many premium wholewheat flour blends add protein and other nutrients like malt to help combat the dense nature of this wheat flour. Protein being the major player, as gluten comes from the protein found in flour. But malt places a role in making a softer stretchier dough as well. If you’re like us and tend to use what you can find on the shelf, you’ll need extra special care.
We found that one of the biggest factors in our early days for dense bread was the addition of whole wheat to our recipes. When working with whole wheat, expect to add a lot of water to combat this thirsty dough’s nature to cake up and bind. By that, we mean dough somewhere in the 90 percent hydration level is a must.
But if you’re new to baking, maybe just add a sprinkle of whole wheat to your baking. We like to keep it to 50 grams whole wheat flour for every 500 grams we use. If you stay there, you don’t need to tweak too many things in your recipe.
Additionally, you’ll want to really work on your shaping techniques. We have a couple of shaping videos on our youtube channel that might be helpful here. Whole wheat will be heavy, and without good tension from shaping, gravity will pull your dough down before yeast and/or your oven can cause it to rise.
No Moisture During Bake
This might very well be the primary issue if you’re not making sandwich loaf that has been enriched with dairy and/or oil. If you’ve not enriched your dough with any moisturizing ingredients other than water you’ll need to steam in the oven to keep your crust from drying out too quickly.
One of the primary problems to overcome when baking bread is that the crust can dry out and become very hard long before the rise is finished in the oven. Once the crust dries out, it becomes so stiff that the crumb cannot expand. If bread does not expand in the oven, it doesn’t matter what you did up until that point. That loaf is coming out dense.
But, there a couple of things you can do, to ensure moisture:
- Use a dutch oven with lid. If you have a dutch oven, bake your bread in it with the lid on. The moisture releasing from the dough will get trapped in by the lid and allow for the crust to stay soft long enough for a good rise to take place.
- Place a pan of boiling water in the oven when you put your bread in. If you don’t have a dutch oven, this is the next best thing. The steam from the boiling water will allow for the crust to form slow enough. We find this isn’t as effective as the dutch oven, but it still works well!
Shaping Needs Work
One of the biggest causes we see in dense bread has to do with shaping. It’s not that the shaping method was wrong, as we find the shaping method generally doesn’t matter. The biggest factor in dense bread has to do with little tension. Tension is a physics hack for beating gravity.
Bakers are chemists, biologists, and physicists all at the same time. 🙂
If we do not create surface tension across the top of our dough during shaping, gravity will pull our dough out and down until it is a flat disc. By creating tension on the top of our dough, it helps resist spreading out (thanks to gluten) and therefore gravity doesn’t pull it down.
Fibers will flatten out a bit and the dough will move out as the dough relaxes during its final rise, but the shape should hold form fairly well. If it is dropping half of its height during the proof period, that’s too much. Also, if your dough is flattening out as soon as you finish shaping, it needs more tension.
Additionally, if you aren’t using a bowl or proofing basket for the final proof, consider looking into it. If you’re able to get quality tension, and use a proofing basket you’ll actually add height to your final proof and even better oven spring!!
Dough Degassed After Final Proofing
A common problem after proofing is degassing. This happens for a few reasons:
- It over-proofed and released gas when you transferred it. If this is happening, try letting it proof for 15 minutes less next time around. And/or really work on being light-handed at this stage. You can also try cold proofing recipes. Dough gets stiff when it proofs at cold temps and limits the possibility of degassing at this stage.
- It stuck to your bowl or towel, causing dough to stretch. The worst thing that can happen at this stage is dough getting stretched. It will squeeze the majority of gas out. If you have a sticky dough, treat it like pulling a band-aid. The faster it goes the less painful it will be. You want to absolutely minimize how much the dough stretches out. Try giving the bowl a nice firm tap on the counter to jar it loose. If it doesn’t work, flip it back over to keep it from stretching. Give it a minute, and try it again. Repeat until it comes free. If it’s sticking to your tea-towel, grit your teeth and yank the band-aid. I will say prevention is best here. If you regularly get sticking at this point, try proofing on parchment or using rice flour to coat your bowl next time. Rice flour is pretty magical for this purpose.
Flour Didn’t Have Enough Protein
Protein is the building block for gluten development. In general, all-purpose flour tends to have enough protein to develop good enough gluten for bread. However, some brands are a little low on the protein side of things. Ensure you flour has more than 10 percent protein content and you’ll be fine. Some all-purpose flours sit around just 7 percent. In our opinion, that will greatly increase your chances of flat, crumbly or dense bread.
If you want to play it safe, pick up a pack of bread flour (or in some regions it’s called strong flour or high gluten flour) to ensure it has enough protein to make good quality bread.
You don’t need bread flour though, and we often use all purpose ourselves. But it has to be said that the all purpose we use is typically King Arthur. Their all purpose is on the highest end of protein content for all purpose varieties at 11.7 percent protein.
Beginner Friendly and Forgiving Bread
As promised, here are some of the most forgiving types of bread, in our humble opinion:
- Focaccia: Very easy to make without much concerns with it ending up dense.
- Enriched Rolls: Rolls typically have added ingredients that help them stay moist and aid in trapping gas in. Additionally, they are portioned smaller which means they have less mass for gravity to pull down during proofing.
- No-Knead Rustic Loaves: We think our recipe is especially forgiving. No-knead recipes take a long time to develop, with slow yeast activity which really helps produce a light and fluffy loaf of bread.
- Enriched Sandwich Loaves: The only thing to pay attention to here is the size of the baking pan. Find a recipe that is written for the size you have. If you don’t have one, you can find our two favorites on our essential tools page.