Bread Too Dense? - Here's How To Lighten It
WHY IS MY BREAD SO DENSE!!!! You’ve followed a recipe all day, made a mess, cleaned, made more mess and finally it’s ready to place into the oven. Eagerly putting your mitts on and removing the bread from the oven you realise that something is not right.
You have a epic bread fail.
The bread is too dense!
Actually, it is more reminiscent of a brick than something you would choose to eat.
It feels like a complete waste of time. You take a moment to ponder whether to show it to your family. Secondly, you could just throw it in the bin and make it look like it never happened. It could be the best thing to do.
Deciding to give it a taste, lathering it in butter masks the gammy texture to make it more edible.You are just looking for some sort of reward for the time it's taken you to make. You know deep down it’s a terrible loaf of bread...
Is it worth doing this again?
The answer is undeniably yes! Of course being a bread maker I am slightly biased! After many years of baking professionally I still have the occasional fail. It is all part of the learning process.
Let’s look at some of the issues that create dense bread.
Why does bread become dense?
The most common reason for dense bread is not kneading the dough for long enough. Other reasons involve oven spring, flour quality, proofing time, cool temperatures, levain activity, fat overuse and hydration ratios.
Let’s look at each one in detail…
Not kneading the bread enough
How well and how long a dough is kneaded forms the quality of bread. There is a well renowned saying in the bread community “80 percent of the quality comes from getting the mix right.” (Or something like that). Basically what it means is, getting a good dough is the most important stage in bread making. A good dough is well developed into a good strong gluten structure and nicely hydrated.
Get the dough kneading part wrong and you'll likely end up with a brick.
Bread should be kneaded for at least 10 minutes by hand, preferably 20. If using a dough mixer some will only need 5 minutes of kneading, but a usual mix time will be 5 minutes at slow speed and 5 minutes fast.
Some mixers still make bread too dense.
That said owning a dough mixer can give you a false sense of security as some are not as good at kneading dough as the manufacturers make you believe.
When I owned a Kenwood mixer it would refuse to create a dough that was strong enough to support its shape and would collapse in the oven. If a mixer is not great at kneading dough then no matter how long it is mixes for, the gluten will not form correctly. If you are struggling from bread too dense then try hand kneading next time you bake.
Hand kneading bread dough
A good kneading technique is important. Using a bad one means the dough won’t be worked as much as it could be. This has the same effect as not kneading for long enough.
No Knead bread recipes
If kneading is not your thing then you can follow a no knead recipe. Here you use low amounts of yeast or sourdough to allow a longer fermentation. First give a light mix to incorporate all the ingredients, then allow the dough to rest and develop naturally for a long time, typically overnight.
A no knead recipe is restricted to an open crumb style bread like sourdough boules, but not a lot else.
Further reading: How to hand knead bread dough
Stop over kneading bread dough
Just as under kneading bread dough has it’s issues, so does over kneading. By hand it is pretty much impossible to over knead bread dough, but using a mixer this can happen easily.
Over kneading dough will cause the gluten to tear and lose the desired structure of the bread crumb. This is bad news if we are trying to avoid dense bread as over kneaded bread does not retain gas well either. It’s sometimes a hard balancing act to get the right amount of kneading!
Testing the bread dough if it has been kneaded enough
To test if bread dough has been kneaded enough, tear a piece off and stretch it out. It should be strong, soft, elastic and smooth. It should not rip apart at the first instance of stretching. If it is not ready, knead again for another 3 minutes and try again.
There is also the window pane test.
Further reading: Hand kneading including the window pane test (near the bottom)
Shaping the dough for lighter bread
Before final proofing, the dough should be shaped into its desired shape. This involves knocking the gas out of the dough, and creating tension in the outer perimeter (crust area). If the final shaping is not firm enough the dough will spread outwards and not rise properly. This creates a dense loaf.
If you are looking for large erratic air bubbles a lighter hand is used when shaping. Care to not remove too much gas from the dough whilst still creating enough tension is needed.
Further reading: A full guide on bread shaping (Links to youtube)
Use the right flour for lighter bread
Many bakers use all purpose flour with some success. For a light and airy crumb structure it is best to use bread flour. The protein content is higher in bread flour, this creates the gluten structure which retains the gas as it rises.
If the flour isn’t bread flour there is less structure to support the gas causing the bread to be more dense and less aerated. Using low quality bread flour has the same effect.
Some flour contains too much protein for normal bread making. These contain 14g per 100g upwards and should be used by experienced bakers to create high hydration breads. They create dense, horrible loaves if not.
Wholemeal loaves tend to struggle to rise without making dense bread. To counteract this, start with a 50-50 split of wholemeal and white flour. WIth some of the popular ancient grains like spelt use a 30 -70 split with white flour being the majority. You can increase the percentages as you build up confidence on future bakes if you wish.
Adding flour which contains gluten (like white flour) to recipes with low or no gluten flour will create lighter bread. Recipes for breads with 100% low gluten flour will be dense and appealing. The best way to avoid this is to include some gluten.
It is possible to buy gluten powder to add to cake flour. This turns it to flour you can bake bread with.
Following a bad recipe can make bread too dense
Some recipes just aren’t very good! Especially online posts that are not tried and tested. It could be that the temperature in their environment is not described so the yeast works at a faster rate to yours. It could involve non common flour or yeast brands which do not work the same as common ones that you can get.
Sometimes they can forget to include bits in the recipe too! It’s worth using tried and tested recipes like the ones available on this site or others like these:
Ingredients measured accurately
As you can see there are a lot of variables in baking bread that can create a bread too dense if not controlled. For this reason it is pretty important that the recipe is as accurately carried out as possible.
Weighing the ingredients, including the liquids is the best and only way to prepare bread. For this you need a set of scales. I’ve scoured the internet to find you the best scales around for a reasonable amount of money. So if you don’t have a decent set of scales yet you may wish to take a look at the link here.
The scales that I use and love:
Professional scales that I recommend:
(These are affiliate links)
A decent scale for bread baking should first of all be reliable. They will get a little bit wet and banged around so durability is a must. They should have a wide flat scale so you can weigh your divided dough directly on it. Be easy to clean and ideally weigh to 0.1 of a gram accurately.
The yeast didn’t work
Yeast can go out of date! Yes it can, especially if it is opened and dries out. Bread that does not rise creates dense, brick like bread. If you are not sure if your yeast is still active, stir some in to a glass of tepid water. After ten minutes you should see bubbles. If not, chuck it out.
The sourdough levain is not active
Sourdough starters need to be strong enough to levain the bread and assist in the crumb structure. If there is little rise from your sourdough you get dense bread. If you suspect this, it could need a few more days of refreshments to build it up. Do this for a few more days and try again.
Yeast prefers warm temperature 28-32C (82-90F) to proof bread. If you are baking in a cooler room the proofing time will increase. Taking measurements to create a good final dough temperature after the dough has finished mixing is important. Using these readings you can attempt to adjust the room and dough temperature.
Temperature control is vital to creating a bread that is light and flavoursome. Bad controls can result in a bread too dense (unless you are lucky).
You may choose to use a proofing box or an oven with a proof function to create the ideal temperature for your bread to proof.
Here is the dough thermometer I recommend for you guys:
Get more oven spring
Oven spring occurs when the bread goes into the oven. Providing the oven is humid during the first ten minutes of baking, bread springs up. The dough quickly uses up the remaining yeast as it warms creating more gas inside the bread. If the oven has no humidity or is without a baking stone or dutch oven, oven spring is reduced.
We need to have some oven spring to help form a thin crust which allows the moisture to escape when cooling. A bread that is excessively moist is dense and like a brick!
For the best oven spring, preheat the oven with a baking stone and a baking sheet underneath it for at least one hour at 250C (480F). Place the bread directly on the stone and pour a cup (you don’t need scales here) of boiling water onto the tray and quickly shut the door.
Then, turn the heat down to the desired baking temperature, usually 230C (445F). This creates a humid environment and the heat conducted from the baking stone will flow through the bread, forcing it to rise. The baking stone will also help the base of the bread to bake.
Further reading: How oven spring works
Adding too much fat
When baking using butter, eggs and oils in large quantities it is best to include these near the end of mixing. Fats lubricate the gluten strands and protect them from the action of kneading and oxidisation.
If too much fat is added at the start of kneading the dough will not be worked properly creating issues similar to not kneading for long enough. To avoid this add as much fat as possible near the end of the mixing period, once the gluten structure is formed.
Too much water
For soft bread we want a close knit crumb structure. Adding too much water gets in the way of the structure making the finished bread more dense and spongy. That said not enough water will also have adverse effects on the dough. All flour types require slightly different hydration amounts so knowing how a dough should feel during mixing is pretty handy.
When dough is being mixed it will at first feel sticky in places and dry in others until it is incorporated. Once you have mixed for 2-3 minutes it should then start to feel sticky, but far from a free flowing liquid. As you continue kneading the dough should remain soft and start to lighten up as the leavin starts to activate and create gas. It should not feel dry but be light, bright white in colour and a little sticky. The stickiness goes away with more kneading and the dough will start to hold together.
It is not technically great to add flour or water midway through kneading a bread recipe, but I understand when trying a new recipe out sometimes we do it to save our bread from disaster.
Adding flour to the table when kneading is not recommended as this just gets incorporated into the recipe. This can make us need to add more water to compensate. Adding flour to a wet mix should be done right at the start of mixing to allow the extra flour to become properly developed by the kneading action.
Adding more water should be done as soon as possible during mixing. This is to avoid damaging the starch and protein particles from being kneaded whilst not fully hydrated.
A few other solutions to avoid dense bread
Try a soaker or autolyse
Soaking the flour with water and salt allows the flour to hydrate and soften. By excluding the yeast it will start its fermentation without any yeast fermentation occurring. This gives the bread a slightly larger rise once it comes out of the oven.
Further reading: The autolyse process for bread bakers
Use ascorbic acid and malt extract
Adding some ascorbic acid to the dough will strengthen the gluten network so that it requires less time kneading. Using ascorbic acid removes the need for a bulk fermentation so you only need to proof it once.
Adding some malt extract to the mix will create a bit more fungal activity in the dough to improve it’s flavour in fast proofed bread. It is possible to add other bread improvers which aid the dough to be more elastic.
To find out more on bread baking at home check out some of the linked articles in this post, they’ve recently been revamped and are now jam packed with info, covering the topics in much more detail.
Written by Gareth
"I'm sharing my love of artisan bread baking with others"