My bread's too dense - here's how to lighten it
WHY IS MY BREAD SO DENSE!!!?? All day you’ve followed a recipe, made a mess, cleaned, made more mess, cleaned again, and finally it’s ready to place into the oven. After waiting 30-45 minutes whilst eagerly putting your mitts on to remove the bread from the oven, you realise that something is not right.
You have a epic bread fail.
The bread is too dense!
More reminiscent of a brick than something you would choose to eat. It feels like the day was a complete waste of time.
Taking a moment to ponder whether to show it to the family or bung it in the bin and pretend it never happened.
Deciding to give it a taste, you discover that lathering it with butter masks the gammy texture, making it more edible.You are just looking to make some good out of your loaf, deep down you know it’s a terrible...
Is it worth doing this again?
Undeniably yes! Of course I am slightly biased, even after years of baking I still have the occasional fail. It's part of the learning process.
Let’s look at some of the issues that create dense bread.
Why does bread become dense?
If the crumb is dense there is either not enough gas created, the gas retention properties were not sufficient or the quality of the crust stopped moisture from escaping.
Gas is created in the form of carbon dioxide by an active levain. Time, temperature and the quantity of natural sugars available in the flour are important to change the rate gas is produced.
Organic acids and lactic acid develop during dough fermentation. These acids combined with ethanol produced by the yeast are responsible for the doughs gas retention properties. Similar to gas production, time, temperature, flour quality and the amount fermentation is increased by kneading changes the gas retaining properties of a dough.
The crust has a massive effect on the quality of the crumb. Moisture escapes from the core of the loaf during baking and cooling. If the outer perimeter of the bread is thick less moisture escapes causing the core of the bread to feel dense and stodgy. A thin crust always moisture to escape making the bread crumb luscious and light.
We'll cover the causes of poor gas production, gas retention and crust quality as we go through this article.
The most common reason for dense bread is not kneading the dough 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 for long enough
How well and how long a dough is kneaded is the main driver of quality bread. There is a renowned saying in the community that “80 percent of the quality comes from getting the dough right.”
(Or something like that).
Basically, kneading the dough is the most important stage in bread making. A good dough has a strong gluten structure without being over oxygenated though is nicely hydrated.
Get the kneading part wrong usually creates a brick.
Bread should be kneaded for at least 10 minutes by hand, preferably 20. If using a dough mixer a usual mix time will be 5 minutes at slow speed followed by 5 minutes at fast.
Some mixers do not work the dough effectively
Owning a dough mixer can give you a false sense of security. Some stand mixers 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 regularly collapsed in the oven. If a mixer is not great at kneading dough then no matter how long it mixes for, the gluten will not form correctly.
If you are struggling with dense bread consider hand kneading next time you bake.
Further reading: Best way to knead bread
A good kneading technique is important. Using a bad one means the dough won’t be worked as well as it could.
No Knead bread recipes
In a no knead recipe low amounts of yeast or sourdough are used for a longer fermentation. A light mix is given at the start to incorporate the ingredients, then the dough is left to rest and develop naturally for a long time, typically overnight.
Stretch and folds are usually added to the dough which strengthen the gluten structure and control the temperature of the dough.
After the bulk fermentation, the dough is shaped and left to final proof as normal.
A no knead recipe has an irregular crumb, though with sufficient proofing and the use of prefermented flour it can be light tasting.
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 strength in the bread crumb. This is bad news if we are trying to avoid dense bread as over kneaded bread does not retain gas well. Crust quality will diminish if the dough is kneaded too much.
Knowing when the dough is 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 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 moulded into its desired shape. This involves knocking the gas out of the dough and creating tension in the outer perimeter (crust area). The tension created when shaping supports the shape of the dough when rising.
If the final shaping is not firm enough the dough will spread outwards and not rise properly, creating a dense loaf.
If you are looking for large erratic bubbles or air throughout your bread crumb a lighter hand is needed when shaping. Care when shaping the dough to not remove too much gas, whilst still creating enough tension is a skill that usually requires practice.
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 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 an even gluten structure which retains 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 can have the same effect due to broken protein particles.
Some bread flour contains too much protein. Flours that contain 14g per 100g and upwards should be used by experienced bakers creating high hydration breads. They create dense, gummy, horrible loaves if not.
If you do fear your protein content is too high you can cut it with plain or all purpose flour to lighten it.
Wholemeal loaves to struggle to not be dense. To counteract this, start with a 50-50 split of wholemeal and white flour. With some ancient grains like spelt a 30 -70 split is recommended at the start, with white flour in the majority. You can increase the percentages as you build up confidence on future bakes if you wish.
Adding flour containing 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. To lighten it up it's best to hydrate the flour using a soaker technique and proof the dough quickly. When mixing aim for a high final dough temperature and use a warm bread proofing temperature to increase yeast activity.
The best way to avoid dense bread made with low gluten flour is to add some gluten either with bread flour or gluten powder. It is possible to buy gluten powder to add to cake flour, the additional gluten turns the flour into bread flour.
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.
It’s worth using tried and tested recipes like the ones available on this site or others like these:
Measure the ingredients accurately
As you can see there are a lot of variables in baking bread that can make bread 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 some 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:
Professional scales that I recommend are the KD7000 by My Weigh. Nice a simple design, can be charged and then moved and has big buttons which are great when you are rushing around trying to scale dough.
Click the picture to be taken to the amazon page.
(These are affiliate links so I will receive a small commision if you decide to purchase - which helps to run this site)
Scales used for making bread should be reliable, they will get a wet and banged around a bit 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, especially if it is opened and not sealed in the fridge. Bread that does not rise creates dense, brick like bread. If you are not sure if your yeast is active, stir a teaspoons worth in 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 that your sourdough starter is not active enough, it could need a few more days of refreshments to build it up. Do some more refreshments and try again.
Yeast prefers warm temperatures, usually 34C (93F) to proof bread. We usually proof at a lower temperature than this to slow the rate of alcoholic fermentation and increases the amount of flavour and the conditioning of the dough. If you are proofing in a cool environment the proofing time will increase. Use a formula to calculate the final dough temperature after mixing. A thermometer is required to manage dough temperature by taking temperature readings.
Using temperature readings you adjust the dough or the proofing environments temperature.
Temperature control is vital to creating a bread that is light and flavoursome. Bad controls result in bread that is substandard and often dense.
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.
Further reading: Why bread proofing temperature is important
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, the 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 not only to raise the bread but to form a thin crust to let moisture 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 to 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 also helps the base of the bread to bake evenly.
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 oxygenation.
If a large amount of fat is added at the start of kneading, the dough will not be developed properly which creates issues similar to not kneading enough.
To avoid issues with using fat when kneading, add the fat near the end of the mixing period once the gluten structure has formed.
Get the right water ratio to make quality bread
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. Though there is a point where there is not enough water in the dough.
Dough with a hydration level that is too low also has adverse effects. All flour types require different water ratios to correctly hydrate the flour. Knowing how a dough should feel during mixing is pretty handy skill to have.
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 levain 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. When trying a new recipe or flour for the first time I am sometimes forced to add a touch of water or flour midway to save 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.
Other solutions to avoid dense bread
Using some prefermented dough in the form of a sourdough, biga, poolish, Pâte fermentée will increase the maturity and gas handling properties of the dough.
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. Autolyse 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 should only 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.
Do not add malt extract when you plan to use a long fermentation period, this is likely to lead to a gummy crumb.
How to put it all together to resolve dense bread
A dense crumb is a common issue with home bakers, it's all about gas retention, gas production and the quality of the crust. When deciding where the dense bread issue is coming from, I first look at the gluten formation, is the dough kneaded well enough? Are there enough organic acids produced?
If the kneading stage look correct, I next look at the crust. If the crust is thin and strong it will allow moisture to escape when cooling. If the crust is thick the crumb remains sticky and feels dense. In this instance I'll look at the proof amount, the oven spring the amount of steam added to the oven.
The three issues of gas retention (gluten structure), gas production (levain activity) and the quality of the crust can lead to dense bread.
It's best to look through your bread recipe and see if you can work out where you need to make a tweak using the tips shown above.