Why Is My Bread So Dense? How To Lighten A Dense Loaf

Published on
25 March 2020
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

Why is my bread so dense? All day, I’ve followed a recipe, made a mess, cleaned, made more mess, cleaned again to finally put my loaf in the oven and waited for it to bake. Eagerly, after putting my mitts on and removing it from the oven, when I slice into it, my bread is dense and heavy like a brick! It looks nothing like the photo in the recipe and is clearly failing in the light and fluffy department!

If this sounds similar to your last bake, don’t worry! It’s all part of the learning process of making bread. Your day wasn’t a complete waste of time. We can use a loaf that’s too dense and heavy to eat to troubleshoot, and in this article, we’ll break down where you went wrong. So what can we do to prevent our bread from turning out dense? Well, let’s look first at the possible causes of dense bread.

Why is my bread so dense?

Bread is too dense when the gluten structure hasn’t retained enough gas in its system. It will be due to; 1) Not enough gas being produced, or 2) Not enough gas being captured.

There are other circumstances, but we’ll come on to those later in this article. For now, let’s concentrate on the two most common faults.

1- The dough was not kneaded enough

If you’ve let your bread rise for ages, but it just doesn’t seem to rise much, it’s probably down to one of two issues:

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  1. The proofing temperature is too cool
  2. The dough wasn’t kneaded enough

The tendency here is to bake the bread without raising it enough, and the bread turns out dense. Get the kneading stage wrong, and you will create a brick!! The gluten needs to be developed to capture the gas. Dense bread is a direct result of not kneading your dough long enough.

The role of gluten in making a delicious loaf

Gluten underdoes a natural development process during kneading and the first rise. It’s where the interwinding gluten strands bond to form lots of tiny air pockets in a gluten network. As gas (produced by the yeast) increases, the small cells expand, and the dough rises.

“80% of the quality of the bread is down to the quality of the dough.”

Gluten should be well-bonded and able to stretch to make good bread. When gluten in the flour is correctly hydrated and given time or mechanical force (kneading), the gluten will unwind into strong, extensible (stretchy) strands. Extensible gluten forms a robust network that can expand to retain gas.

Here’s an example that shows how more gas is retained in a good gluten structure compared to an immature network.

An extensible gluten structure:

Extensible gluten structure

A less extensible gluten structure:

a less extensible gluten structure

As you can see, more extensible gluten can stretch further to capture more gas. Combined with plenty of organic maturity created through fermentation, we can make lighter bread that you won’t consider throwing in the bin! This bread will be light and airy.

How to knead bread properly

Kneading should last for at least 10 minutes by hand, but 20 is prefered! I split hand kneading into 3 stages; the incorporation of ingredients, slow mixing to hydrate the gluten, and the final stage is intensive kneading. Check the how to knead dough guide to find out more.

When using a dough mixer, use a slow mix for 3-8 minutes, followed by a faster speed for 5-8 minutes. Use a countdown timer to keep track of how long you have kneaded. To learn more, see how long to knead bread dough.

How to knead bread for a long fermentation

If you are not a fan of kneading, a mature dough structure can be achieved with little work. Here, the ingredients are mixed gently to form a mass and left considerably longer during its bulk fermentation stage. A typical time will be 6-8 hours at cool temperatures. Placing the dough in the fridge for a few hours will enhance the gluten structure whilst the yeast is less active. Using less yeast will also extend the length of the rise.

When is dough ready for shaping?

Shaping should take place once the dough has been sufficiently developed. For a well-kneaded dough, this should occur right after kneading. The dough should be shaped after a bulk fermentation period where medium to little gluten development occurs after kneading.

A thin crust allows moisture to escape, leaving the bread crumb luscious and light with a crispy crust. For a crispy crust, gluten must be developed thoroughly before shaping to pass the windowpane test.

Using the windowpane test

Tear a piece of dough and stretch it out. It should be firm, soft, elastic and smooth. It should not rip at the first instance of stretching. To pass the windowpane test, it should stretch thinly enough that you can see light through it. If it is not ready, knead again for another 3 minutes if kneading, or leave for another hour to bulk ferment and retry.

Windowpane test

The quality and thickness of the crust of the bread affect the characteristics of its crumb. During baking (and cooling), moisture escapes from the core of the loaf. As moisture exits, water attaches itself to the starch present in the outer crust area. If the crust area is damp, it makes the crust heavier and less porous, so less moisture escapes. The resulting crust is moist with a dense and stodgy crumb texture.

2- The first rise was too short

If your long-fermented dough doesn’t rise well during proofing or in the oven, it could be down to insufficient maturity during bulk fermentation.

As well as producing carbon dioxide, the anaerobic fermentation of yeast generates ethanol and facilities the development of organic acids. The acids consist of lactic acids (primarily), acetic acids, and other organic compounds. Combined with the presence of ethanol, the acids mature the dough by improving its gas retention and gluten extensibility properties. Other benefits include:

  • Handling capabilities
  • Flavour
  • Shelf life
  • Plus other things that I won’t go into in this article. See the dough fermentation post for more information

Improvement in gas retention and gluten extensibility is beneficial to prevent the bread from turning out dense. Again, use the windowpane test to check that the gluten has been well-developed before shaping. This should be compared to the amount the dough has risen during bulk fermentation. For most bread types, the dough should increase by 30-50%. At the same point, the gluten should reach peal maturity. If the dough rises quicker than gluten develops, place it in a warmer area. Add extra stretch and folds if the dough has increased 30-50% without the gluten passing the windowpane test. You can also pop the dough in the refrigerator for an hour or two to naturally strengthen the gluten. If your bread is not rising at all, see my why did my bread not rise article.

Replacing the first rise with dough improvers

If you make quick bread, adding some ascorbic acid or activated malt flour can help you. Ascorbic acid will incorporate more oxygen and strengthen the gluten network. Less kneading time is required and removes the need for a first rise. You can also utilise vegetable oil, eggs and soy flour as they contain lecithin emulsifier. This improves the bonding in the gluten, which will improve the rise.

Tip: If you bulk ferment a dough that contains ascorbic acid, you will over oxygenate the dough.

Adding active malt flour to the mix generates more flora activity in the dough. This speeds up the rate that sugars get provided to the yeast. It’s handy when you want a better colour and flavour in quick-bread. But adding malt flour to long-fermented doughs like sourdough can lead to a gummy crumb.

Bulk fermentation in sourdough

The factors considered to improve long-fermented yeast bread can be used to prevent sourdough bread from being dense. If you would like to see a dedicated article, see how to fix dense sourdough bread.

3- Bulk fermentation was too long for the flour

Similar to over-proofing, if your dough collapses during bulk fermentation, too much gluten development during kneading and bulk fermentation can be the cause.

We can create issues when combining intense kneading with an extended bulk ferment period. The W-factor measures how well flour can withstand fermentation before it tears. You won’t know these figures as they are not printed on the packaging. But you will notice that some flours collapse during bulk fermentation because they have a poor W-factor. To prevent this, shorten the bulk fermentation time in future, or try another flour brand.

4- The dough was over-kneaded

Just as under-kneading bread dough has its issues, as does over-kneading or over-fermentation. If your dough was firm and then collapsed or got noticeably weaker, the chances are it was over-kneaded, over-fermented or a combination of the two.

By hand, it is pretty much impossible to over-knead bread dough, but when using a mixer, it can happen. Over kneading causes the gluten to tear and lose strength. This is bad news when trying to avoid dense bread is it will not retain gas well, and the crust quality will diminish too. To avoid over mixing, use a countdown timer to remind you to check your dough.

5- The flour wasn’t strong enough

how to improve the rise of wholemeal bread

Another reason for bread dough not retaining enough gas or collapsing is using the wrong flour. It is best to use high-protein bread flour. The higher protein content leads to a more durable and elastic structure. When protein is hydrated, it transforms into gluten. So with more gluten available, the dough will naturally hold more gas.

There is a caveat to this: not all flour protein is suitable gluten (glutenin vs gliadin), and not all gluten is in good condition (some of it is damaged)… But we’re ending down a rabbit hole of things the average home baker cannot test for. Instead, just use flour from a reputable source. Supermarket premium choices usually produce much better results than the own-brand varieties. Using a brand of flour other bakers use can be a gamechanger for fixing homemade bread problems. I have had great success in the UK with Shipton Mill and Wessex Mill (in my hometown!).

Can all-purpose flour make lighter bread?

Lower protein flour produces means a weaker gluten structure. This is why bread made from spelt and whole grains tends to be less aerated. In a long-fermented dough, any damaged protein has time to repair. This means flour with less protein can be used for long-fermented bread without a problem. 

All-purpose flour grown in North America tends to be high in protein regardless. It can make light bread but should be used cautiously for quick-doughs as the gluten proteins may not be so suitable for making bread. It’s best to look for recommendations or experiments to see if switching flour brands makes a difference.

Flour typeProtein %Use
Super high protein<14%Quick bread or where elasticity is required in long-fermented doughs such as pizza or high-hydration doughs like ciabatta
Bread flour12-14%Quick bread such as tin bread and rolls
Strong all-purpose flour11-13%Medium fermentation loaves such as focaccia, baguettes
Weak all-purpose flour10-12%Long fermented bread such as sourdough
Cake flour (UK plain flour)8-10%Cakes and pastry

Vital wheat gluten can be used to boost the gluten in weaker flours:

vital wheat gluten

6- The dough was not proofed to potential

Dough fully proofed

If your bread has a compact crumb, it was likely under-proofed. Under proofing leaves a dense and occasionally gummy crumb texture. When the bread rises, it gathers gas in its gluten structure. If the proofing stage is rushed, less gas is retained, the gluten network doesn’t expand, and the crumb remains compact and dense.

The most obvious fix is to allow longer for the bread to rise. In most cases, this is the cause of your dense bread. Use the poke test to determine when your bread is ready for the oven. To do this: Poke the dough with a wet finger. If it springs back straight away, it needs longer to rise. Once the poke leaves an imprint for 3 seconds before it bounces back, the bread is ready to bake.

Tip: The poke test does not work when the dough is proofing in the fridge.

7- The dough was left too long and over-proofed

If your dough rose but collapsed in the oven (or just before), it was proofed too long. Translucent bubbles on the surface of the dough during proofing are a sure sign that it’s beginning to over-proof. These bubbles form when excessive amounts of gas have expanded in a weak area of the gluten structure. If you notice them early, quickly get it baked, and you might be ok! If it’s too late, the bread will probably collapse.

Bread collapses due to over proofing when the gluten structure is weakened due to:

  • Too much carbon dioxide produced
  • The protease enzyme in the dough eats away at the gluten pockets
  • Lactic acid bacteria break down the gluten strands
  • The yeast runs out of sugars and consumes the gluten proteins instead

The result is: The yeast continues to produce gas, but the weak structure can’t cope. Overproofing leads to irregular holes in the crumb, less oven spring, dough collapsing and the bread turning out dense.

8- The temperature of the dough was too warm

Yeast prefers warm temperatures to produce gas through its aerobic or anaerobic routes. When dough temperature increases, so does the activity of the yeast. The yeast becomes too hot and inactive when temperatures surpass 64C (148F) like in the oven. It could be tempting to consider proofing just below this temperature, but this isn’t the case. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The gluten structure cannot mature rapidly enough to be able to retain the gas produced
  2. Enzymes that break starches into sugars are less active in this temperature range. Therefore the yeast would run out of sugars to consume

Therefore, 38C (100F) is the maximum proofing temperature most bakers will consider. Depending on where you are, reaching 38C might be a dream summer, but still, the temperature has a massive bearing on a recipe. As dough temperature rises by 8C (15F), the rising rate doubles.

Take a temperature check of your dough

If you are following a recipe but the temperature of your kitchen is warmer than the recipe authors, your proofing and bulk fermentation times will need to be reduced. The solution here is to place your dough in a slightly cooler spot and become confident using the Poke test (shown above) instead of relying on recipe timings.

Cooling the environment slows yeast activity, giving the gluten structure time to strengthen naturally. Without a strong gluten structure, the gas produced won’t be retained, creating a dense loaf of bread. It is handy to learn what dough should look like when it is ready to shape during bulk fermentation and ready to bake when you are proofing. You can learn these skills in my bulk fermentation guide.

9- The temperature of the dough was too cold

If the proofing dough is cool, it will rise more slowly. The best bulk fermentation and bread proofing temperatures fall within 25-38C (77-100F). If it’s cooler than this, yeast and the enzymes produced by yeast or the flour are slow to produce gas or break down starch into sugars. This makes the proofing time much longer than expected.

To control temperature during the first and second rises, you can use a purpose-built proofing box, like this one from Brod & Taylor, or you can have similar success with a DIY proofing box. Setting your proofing temperature accurately removes the issues of slow-rising bread and worrying if your starter was active enough. Honestly, get one, or build one. Life will be so much easier!

Folding Proofer & Slow Cooker

Many bakers will use the fridge during bulk fermentation or final proofing. Your dough will need to spend some time at a warm proofing temperature during these stages for the yeast to mature the dough and produce gas. This is a great way to enhance the gluten structure of your dough (perfect for no-knead recipes).

10- After mixing, the dough temperature was too hot or cold

If you use too cold water when making your dough, it will take longer to rise. Likewise, if your water is too warm, it will create gas when kneading, making a wet, sticky dough. A sticky dough can be harder to knead, which often leads to the kneading ending prematurely and the gluten less developed than required. Warm dough will rise faster than maybe you were expecting as well. These extremes can lead to under, or over-risen bread, which we’ve already discussed can lead to dense bread.

To control the temperature of your dough after kneading, you can use a formula to calculate the post-mix dough temperature. This is typically around 25C (77F) for artisan bread. Take temperature readings of the flour and the room, and before adding the water to the dough, use a desired dough temperature formula. The water temperature is then adjusted to achieve the optimum final dough temperature. To keep an eye on temperature (which I thoroughly recommend), a dough thermometer like this one from GT-Dealer. It’s a vital tool in a baker’s toolkit.

11- There was too much, or too little water for the flour

If the dough was dry or overly wet, you’ve got your water quantity wrong. For the proteins to transform into gluten, we need water. The soluble proteins are washed away, leaving the insoluble gluten behind. The moist gluten strands can then unwind and strengthen by rebonding to other strands.

If the dough doesn’t contain enough water, it damages the gluten and prevents it from becoming extensible. Too much water makes the gluten swim. It will be unable to support the weight of the aerated structure.

Different flours absorb water at different rates and quantities. As a general rule, if the flour’s protein content increases by 1%, the water should increase by 5%. But this is not an exact science as hydration capabilities differ between brands and even batches of the same brands. 

12- The ingredients were not measured accurately

There are a lot of variables in baking bread, so it’s in our interest not to introduce any more! If you choose to use cups, or worse… guess, it is likely that you will add too much or too little flour or any ingredient! This can cause many issues, including an overly-compact crumb. Weighing the ingredients with a metric scale is the only way to get accurate measurements. You should also weigh liquids too. It’s much more accurate!

The scales that I recommend are from the KD range by My Weigh. They have a simple design, can be plugged in or use batteries to move them about, and chunky buttons are great when rushing around. You’ll never add too much flour (unwittingly) again!

MyWeigh dough scales

Check latest price on Amazon

13- Good shaping makes lighter bread

Before final proofing, the dough must be moulded into its desired shape, ready for proofing in a baking tin, banneton or free-standing on a tray.

The first stage of shaping is preshaping. This involves pushing the gas out of the dough and shaping it into a ball or batard shape. The dough piece then rests on the work surface for 10-30 minutes, known as a “bench rest”.

Doing these two preliminary stages means that when shaped for the final time, the gluten is soft enough yet has plenty of elasticity to be shaped and retain its final shape as it rises. Final shaping should create tension in the dough’s outer perimeter (crust area). The stress supports the shape as it rises and forms a thinner crust in the oven. This last part is essential for making a soft crumb, as we’ll find out in the oven spring step. If shaping is not firm enough, the dough will spread outwards and not rise properly, creating a badly risen and dense loaf.

If you are looking for large erratic bubbles through the crumb (as in many sourdough loaves), you may choose to push bulk fermentation until the dough has risen over 50%. This makes the dough gassier when shaping. In this case, care must be taken when preshaping and shaping to reduce the amount of gas released. If too much gas is pushed out, the yeast may run out of food and fail to rise to its expected height.

Tip: Shaping a well-fermented gassy dough should then be done with a lighter touch to retain some of the gas. Doing this whilst continuing to create tension is tricky to master but will come with practice!

14- Dough must be scored correctly – and quickly!!

Cutting prevents dense bread

Scoring allows more gas to escape. Making several cuts or cutting too deep can prevent the bread from rising much in the oven. This is a common cause of dense and heavy bread and can often be confused with under proofing.

Before baking, most white loaves are cut with a sharp blade called a lame. Scoring the dough controls the explosion of gas that occurs when the yeast increases activity in the oven. The escaping gas can force through weak points in the crust if bread is not scored. If the depth of the cut is not deep, it can exaggerate the score (ripping), which can be pretty attractive. If not scored deeply enough, the gas may rupture with fault lines through the crust and the crumb.

baker's lame
Tip: Whole wheat bread is not scored as it doesn't produce as much gas in the oven compared to white bread.

15- Not enough oven spring led to a dense crumb

If your bread didn’t rise much in the oven, has a thick-hard crust, and/or a compact crumb, you should pay particular attention to your oven set-up.

After producing the perfect dough, the oven spring process is the next most challenging hurdle. Oven spring occurs when the bread is in the oven. It’s where the yeast works rapidly to produce gas in a warm environment. We need oven spring to further raise the bread where it forms a thin, crispy crust that allows moisture to escape the crumb. 

Creating steam

Oven spring is more prolific when the oven is in a humid environment. As bread is dropped into the oven, steam is added to moisten the environment. This moisture protects the outer perimeter of the bread so that it doesn’t harden immediately. If there is no humidity, there will be less oven spring.

To create steam, you need to add water to the oven. The most common methods use a water mister or a deep-lipped tray filled with water. After 20 minutes, the steam is released by opening the door (or damper on a professional oven). After this, the crust hardens to make the crust crispy

Baking stones

baking stone

Serious home bakers use a baking stone to improve heat distribution and conduction. It delivers heat through the bread’s base, improving the oven spring volume and preventing a soggy bottom. If you don’t already have one of these, a baking stone improves the oven spring so much that I wouldn’t bake bread without one! The one I recommend is durable, thick and has excellent heat distribution:

16- Bread needs to cool to stop dense bread

Cooling is a commonly overlooked stage of bread making. It has a lot of power to determine the crust and crumb textures. Bread should be cooled with space around it. This allows moisture to escape, otherwise making the bread stodgy and dense.

Tip: Some home bakers cover their bread with a tea towel as it cools. This keeps moisture in the crumb and crust to soften them. The trade-off is that the bread becomes denser.

17- The yeast was not active or converted correctly

Instant, active dried, and fresh yeast can all go out of date! Yes, especially if it is open and unsealed!! If your bread dough didn’t create much gas and you’ve already tried warming it up, it could be that the yeast is expired or not enough was used. If you are unsure if your yeast is still active, hydrate a small amount in warm water. If after 10 minutes there are bubbles, you’re all set! If not, ditch it and try another packet.

You can use a different type of yeast than the one listed in a recipe by using a yeast conversion chart to determine the correct amount.

18- The sourdough starter was not ripe

How to prevent dense sourdough bread

If you are making sourdough bread and it did not rise or did but was very slow, your starter is likely at fault. Sourdough starters need to contain enough active yeast and Lactic Acid Bacteria to mature and raise the bread. Your starter should double, if not triple, within 6 hours. It will also smell fragrant! If this is not the case, feed for a few more days before trying again, or view my sourdough starter is not rising post for more information.

19- Too much fat was used in the recipe

Fats lubricate the gluten strands and protect them from the action of kneading. Baking with fats such as butter and oils weakens the gluten structure, making it less able to retain gas and rise. If large amounts of fat (over 5% of the weight of the flour) are included at the start of mixing, the dough will not develop properly. This creates issues similar to not kneading enough.

To avoid these issues when using fats, add them near the end of the mixing period after the gluten structure has formed. This allows the network to develop whilst still benefiting from fat’s tenderising and flavouring attributes.

The issue with delaying the fat is that they often provide a large quantity of the liquid in the bread recipe. So to hydrate the flour properly, sometimes there is no other solution than adding them at the start of mixing. It’s a challenge, but try to leave out solid fats (such as butter) at the beginning of mixing to support maximum gluten development!

20- Keep working on the same recipe!

Instead of ditching a failed recipe and attempting a new one, choose one from a reliable source and keep repeating it until you master it. Yes, some recipes just aren’t delicious. Many make me shake my head in despair at the number of basic principles ignored! But there are just as many good ones. Look for bread baking experts such as Yeast, Tartine and popular baking blogs such as Willow girl. Or (shameless plug) use my bread recipes!

How to make homemade bread less dense

To recap on the steps demonstrated above, here is a shortened troubleshooting guide for fixing dense homemade bread:

  1. Is the dough kneaded enough?
  2. Are there enough organic acids produced?
  3. Next, inspect 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. Try more kneading or a better quality flour
  4. After this, it’s down to perfecting the final proof
  5. Finally, once you have the perfect dough, work on the oven spring

Why is my bread so dense? – Ending thoughts

We’ve progressed through many stages of making the perfect light and fluffy loaf in this article. I hope you’ve answered the original question of “why is my bread so dense”, and you now have loads of things to work on. I hope that next time you bake at home, you won’t have to decide whether to put it straight in the bin or slather it in butter as a necessity to mask its gummy texture!

One thing to mention before you crack on and instigate these ideas is to not change too much each time. The fewer variables you change each time, the easier it is to rule them out. If you’ve enjoyed this, keep in touch by signing up for my newsletter and drop a comment below if you have any questions!

Frequently asked questions about fixing dense bread

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