My bread's too dense - here's how to lighten it!
WHY IS MY BREAD SO DENSE!!!??
Herels the situation. All day you’ve followed a recipe, made a mess, cleaned, made more mess, cleaned again, and finally your bread is ready to place into the oven. After waiting 30 minutes or so, you eagerly put your mitts on to remove the bread from the oven but realise something is not right.
You have an epic bread fail.
The bread is too dense and heavy!
It's more reminiscent of a brick than something you would choose to eat, it feels like the day has been a complete waste of time.
You take 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 gummy texture and makes it more edible. You are trying to take some good out of it, but deep down, you know it’s terrible...
"Is baking bread at home worth doing?"
Undeniably yes! Of course, I am slightly biased, but even after years of baking I still have the occasional dense bread fail. It's part of the learning process.
Let’s look at the issues that create dense bread:
Overly dense bread occurs when the bread's gluten structure does not contain enough gas. Either not enough gas was created, or the gas that was created wasn't retained well enough. Gas raises the bread by opening up the crumb, making the bread light and airy. Another reason for dense bread is when there is an excessive amount of moisture in the bread.
Why does bread become dense?
The reason for a lack of gas can be based around 3 points:
- Yeast fermentation was not active enough to provide the gas
- The gas retention properties in the dough were not sufficient
- The crust was of poor quality which prevented moisture from escaping when cooling.
When the bread is overly dense it’s often a mix of all three of these, but do not worry, after reading this article you’ll know how to solve the issue.
Before we go over how to can prevent dense bread, let's cover what happens during fermentation of the dough. Fermentation encompasses all the stages of bread making until the bread is baked.
It's important to cover as the action of fermentation is what allows our bread to rise.
How good gas production prevents making bricks
To prevent our bread from becoming dense we need the yeast to proof the bread until it is raised sufficiently for baking. We will get a further rise in the oven which is called Oven Spring. The reasons why this might not happen are detailed later on in the text.
How poor gas retention causes dense bread
Anaerobic fermentation is created by the yeast feasting on the starches found in the flour. This form of fermentation creates ethanol, as well as carbon dioxide. Alongside ethanol and gas, another form of fermentation derived from the yeast creates lactic acid and various organic acids in the dough.
These acids, combined with the ethanol, mature the dough which improves its gas retaining properties. The maturation of the dough also has other benefits including dough handling capabilities and flavour, you can find out more on the dough fermentation page.
The extent of the doughs maturation is dependent on time, temperature and the ingredients, we'll cover these features individually in a moment. What is crucial to know is that doughs that are able to retain gas well are able to rise higher, creating less dense bread.
How gluten has a role in making delicious bread
Flour should be hydrated correctly and allowed time to develop its proteins into gluten. If this happens, the gluten unwinds into strong bonds with are more extensible (stretchy). The bread benefits from extensible gluten as the strong network it creates can expand easily to retain more gas.
An extensible gluten structure:
A less extensible gluten structure:
Is the crust important to the quality of the bread?
You may not think it, but the crust has a massive effect on the quality of the crumb. During baking and cooling, moisture escapes from the core of the loaf. If the outer perimeter of the bread is thick, when moisture leaves the breads core it attaches to the starch particles on the crust. As the moisture builds the crust gets stronger and heavier, and as a result, less moisture can escape.
This causes the crumb to be dense and stodgy.
A nice thin crust allows moisture to escape leaving the bread crumb luscious and light.
What is the most likely reason why my bread is dense like a brick?
The most common reason for dense bread is not kneading the dough enough. This is because it directly affects gas production, retention and the quality of the crust
We'll cover the causes of poor gas production, gas retention and crust quality as we go through this article. There are plenty of reasons, well 16 in total that could be the reason that your bread fails. If troubleshooting I would select one or two of these to focus on at a time.
Let’s look at each one in detail…
16 Ways to fix a dense loaf
1. Measure the ingredients accurately
There are a lot of variables in baking bread so I'm sure you'll agree with me that it is in our own interest to not introduce another one! Weighing ingredients with a metric scale (including liquid) is the best way to measure the ingredients used in bread making.
Using cups and spoons is incredibly inaccurate as they measure volume and not the weight of the item. Cups and spoons may give you a small amount of consistency, but only when the same ingredients and a constant recipe is used. For best results, use grams to weigh out your ingredients.
For this you need some scales. I’ve scoured the internet to find you the best scales around for a reasonable amount of money. If you don’t have a decent set of scales you may wish to take a look at the link below
The scales that I recommend are from the KD range by My Weigh. They have a simple design, can be charged and moved and has these chunky buttons that are great when you are rushing around scaling dough.
(These are affiliate links so I will receive a small commission if you decide to purchase - which helps to run this site)
2. Bake with the right flour for bread making
For a light and airy crumb structure it is best to use bread flour as the protein content found in these flours is higher than all purpose or plain flour.
When hydrated, the protein in the flour breaks down into gluten and the carbohydrates turn into starches. With more gluten available, the dough will be able to retain higher amounts of gas in its network. Lower protein flour offers less support for the gas and causes the bread to be less aerated.
If you are already using bread flour it might be worth switching brands. Low quality bread flour often contains high amounts of broken protein particles.
Flours that contain protein levels of 14g per 100g and upwards should be used by experienced bakers creating high hydration breads. These bread flours contain too much protein and will create dense, gummy, horrible loaves if changes to the recipe are not made. If your flours protein content is too high you can cut it with plain or all purpose flour to lower the levels.
Why is wholemeal bread often dense?
It is hard to achieve a nice open crumb when baking with wholemeal flour. The reason wholemeal bread comes out dense is due to the starches being more complex and slower to break down. The slow process reduces the amount of food to supply the yeast and therefore fermentation is reduced.
But it's not only starch that makes wholemeal stodgy and unpleasant. Wholemeal flour absorbs loads more water than white flour. The amount of moisture the bread can release during baking and cooling is not high enough to leave the crumb dry and can lead to making wholemeal bread at home pretty unfulfilling.
Wholemeal flour benefits greatly when using the autolyse or soaker techniques to hydrate the flour and allow the starches to be broken down. To make a nice bread with wholemeal flour, it's a good idea to start with a 50-50 split of wholemeal and white flour. You can increase the percentage of wholemeal flour in future bakes as you wish.
How to improve dense rye or spelt bread
Rye and spelt flour contain low amounts of protein so the dough finds it really hard to retain enough carbon dioxide to form an aerated crumb structure.
Adding white flour to recipes with low or no gluten flour will create a much lighter bread. Recipes for bread with 100% low gluten flour will be dense, there is not a lot you can do unless moving towards non-artisan practises. When mixing aim for a high final dough temperature and use a warm bread proofing temperature to increase yeast activity.
Using all purpose flour to make bread
Sometimes some brands of all purpose or plain flour do work well in bread. It can be recipe dependant but many home bakers can have success without using bread flour. If all you can get in your area is all purpose flour (AF) then its still worth making bread with it. You will find that the water in the recipe should be reduced slightly to compensate for the lack of protein.
Many find that adding a little gluten powder to the flour is a dealbreaker. The additional gluten turns all purpose flour into bread flour and while it's not quite at the same grade, it will make some pretty good bread!
3. Use the right water ratio for the flour
In order for the proteins to transform into gluten, we need to hydrate them. If the dough does not contain enough water we won't get the smooth dough we are looking for and the gluten will not be as extensible.
Too much water will make the gluten swim! You need to use high protein flour to support an overly wet gluten network.
As a general rule, if the protein content of the flour increases by 1%, the water should increase by 5% so low protein flour is best hydrated with less water.
4. Knead the dough for enough time
To increase the rate that fermentation occurs the dough is usually kneaded. Without kneading, a mature dough and structure can still be achieved but the process will take considerably longer. Kneading develops gluten to forms a strong gluten network whilst also accelerating the rate of yeast fermentation.
Gluten structure has a massive part to play in the formation of the breads crust. Dough that passes the windowpane test can create a loaf with a thin and crispy crust.
How well and how long dough is kneaded are the main drivers when resolving dense bread. There is a well versed "saying" in the baking community that:
“80 percent of the quality of the bread comes from the quality of the dough.”
(Or something like that).
Basically, get the kneading stage wrong and you will create a brick!!
Kneading the dough is the most important stage in bread making.
A well made dough has nicely hydrated gluten that is well worked and contains a healthy amount of oxygen.
Bread should be kneaded for at least 10 minutes by hand, but preferably 20. You can take a rest in between if your hands tire. I have a really efficient hand kneading technique that I share in another post if you wish to check it out.
Don't rely on a mixer that doesn’t work effectively
Dough can be kneaded with a mixer quicker than by hand. The standard mix time is 5 minutes at a slow speed, followed by 5 minutes at a faster rate.
This is true for professional equipment, but at home using a stand mixer can sometimes not be successful as they give users a false sense of security. Many stand mixers are simply not as good at kneading dough as the manufacturers make you believe.
If a mixer is not great at kneading dough then no matter how long it mixes for, the gluten will not form correctly. Even if you give it half an hour of kneading, the bread can still collapse in the oven.
(Actually, this can happen in the professional world when buying cheap spiral mixers, but that's a story which includes a £20K loss that I'll save for another day.)
If you are struggling with dense bread, consider hand kneading next time you bake and see if that improves things.
How to make bread with no or little kneading that isn’t dense
It can be done, I share some tips in step 8 - increase the amount of fermentation in the dough to do this.
5. Use yeast that is active
Yeast can go out of date! Yes, especially if it is opened and not sealed in the fridge. If you are not sure if your yeast is active, stir a teaspoons worth in a glass of tepid water. After ten minutes, you will see bubbles. If not, replace the yeast.
There is a difference in the way instant, active dried and fresh yeast are manufactured which is why it is important to always hydrate active yeast in warm water for 10 minutes before you use it.
Instant and fresh yeast are added straight to the dough.
6. Use an active sourdough starter
Sourdough starters need to contain enough active yeast to be able to mature and raise the bread. The starter should rise to at least double if not triple in 6 hours.
If this is not the case, keep feeding for a couple of days or view my how to boost a sourdough starter page.
7. Prevent over kneading the dough
Just as under kneading bread dough has its issues, so does over kneading. By hand, it is pretty much impossible to over-knead bread dough, but when using a mixer it can happen easily.
Over kneading the 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.
To avoid over mixing use a timer to remind you to check your dough and learn how to tell when the dough is ready.
When is the dough 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: Knowing when dough is kneaded enough
8. Increase the amount of fermentation in the dough
What are the benefits of bulk fermentation?
Flour, water, salt and yeast left to develop without interference will naturally undergo dough fermentation. Hydrated gluten strands unwind into a cohesive structure while the yeast and enzymes in the dough produce acids, carbon dioxide and ethanol. It's during the bulk fermentation stage that the dough gains its ability to retain gas and develop flavour.
Kneading accelerates this process however, allowing a period of time for the dough to naturally regulate itself will make a higher quality dough. It is always recommended that there is a period of natural fermentation given to every dough - except when using ascorbic acid (see below).
How to manage bulk fermentation to create great bread
We have to be careful when combining intense or a long amount of kneading with an extended bulk ferment period. Using this method can lead to the flour becoming over oxygenated and/or over fermented. This results in the dough losing extensibility and collapsing, as lactic acid overpowers and weakens the gluten. This is often the cause of dense bread in sourdough bakers.
Little or No Knead bread baking
Little to "no knead" breads gains the benefits of long bulk fermentation. The recipe contains low amounts of the levain and often cool temperatures to slow down the 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 8-18 hours.
Stretch and folds are usually added to the dough which strengthens the gluten structure and control the temperature of the dough. After the bulk fermentation, the dough is shaped and left to final proof.
Either the final proof, or the bulk fermentation are undergone in the fridge, it doesn't really matter which way round. Increasing the length of bulk fermentation creates a better structure in the dough which prevents dense bread being created.
Using prefermented flour to improve bread
Using some prefermented dough in the form of a sourdough, biga, poolish or pâte fermentée will add mature and hydrated flour to the dough. This increases the quality of the dough and is a fantastic way to improve the dough quality.
Try using 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 helps to loosen and unwind the gluten, preparing it to absorb gas. The extra extensibility caused by autoylsing gives the bread a slightly larger rise in the oven.
Further reading: The autolyse process for bread bakers
Use ascorbic acid and malt extract
Adding some ascorbic acid to the dough will add oxygen to strengthen the gluten network quickly. This means the dough will require less time kneading and completely removes the bulk fermentation stage. If you tried to bulk ferment a dough made with ascorbic acid you will over oxygenate the dough.
Adding some active malt flour to the mix will create a bit more flora activity in the dough which speeds up the rate that the sugars are provided to the yeast. It's handy to use when you want a better colour and flavour in fast bread. But, do not add malt flour in long fermented doughs, as it leads to a gummy crumb.
9. How shaping contributes to 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 and forms a strong crust in the oven.
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 throughout your crumb, a lighter hand is needed when shaping. Care when shaping the dough to not remove all of the gas, whilst creating tension is a skill that requires a bit of practice.
Further reading: A full guide on bread shaping (Links to Youtube)
10. Control the temperature to improve the bread
Yeast prefers warm temperatures, around 34C (93F) to conduct fermentation. We usually bulk ferment and final proof at lower temperatures. A cooler environment slows alcoholic fermentation whilst the acids that create flavour and mature the dough still develop. Cooling the environment will increase the amount of time that the dough needs to create enough gas.
To control the temperature of fermentation we use a formula to calculate the desired final dough temperature after mixing. Using temperature readings you adjust the water temperature to create the ideal conditions.
Here is the dough thermometer I recommend:
Temperature control is vital to creating a bread that is consistently light and flavoursome. Bad controls can result in bread that is substandard and often dense.
A proofing box or an oven with a proof function often operates at 35C (95F) which is the ideal temperature to proof fast bread.
11. Proof the dough correctly
Use the poke test to see if the bread is ready for the oven. To do this poke the dough with your finger, if it springs back straight away then give it longer to rise. The dough is ready when the poke leaves an imprint that stays in the dough for 3 seconds before bouncing back.
The poke test does not work when the dough is proofing in the fridge.
If the dough is over-proofed you will see patches of its surface start to become translucent. If you notice it early and quickly get it baked, you might be ok. If it's too late, the bread will collapse when baked, leaving a dense crumb.
12. Cut the dough correctly - and quickly!!
Before baking, many loaves are cut to control the likelihood that an explosion of gas caused by increased rates of yeast activity that happen in the oven will rupture the crust. Cutting too deeply or adding too many cuts can lower the amount of gas that is retained during the oven spring which makes the crumb more close-knit.
After cutting the dough should be transferred to the oven straight away.
If the bread collapses as it's cut but rises back up in the oven it is a sign that the dough could benefit from better bulk fermentation or longer kneading.
13. Get more oven spring to open up the crumb
Oven spring occurs when the bread goes into the oven, providing the oven has some humidity. As the bread is dropped in the oven steam is added to moisten the environment and during the first ten minutes the bread springs up. If the oven has no humidity there will be little oven spring. A baking stone or dutch oven is used to get the best oven spring.
We need to have some oven spring to raise the bread and also to form a thin, thick crust that we need to let moisture escape as it cools.
Further reading: How oven spring works
14. Selecting a reliable recipe for you
Some recipes just aren’t very good. There are many online posts that make me shake my head in despair with the amount of basic principles of bread making that are ignored. That said there are good recipes that work well in one environment, but might not do so well in yours. It could be that the temperature or the yeast works at a faster rate to yours. It could use different flour with different hydration amounts and protein qualities.
It’s worth using tried and tested recipes made in similar climates to you, like the ones available in the recipes section or ones like these:
15. Add less fat to the recipe (or delay its addition)
When baking with fats such as butter, eggs and oils 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 these issues when using fat, add it near the end of the mixing period once the gluten structure has formed. This is providing there is sufficient liquid to hydrate the flour.
16. Cool the bread properly to stop dense bread
Cooling a massively overlooked stage of bread making. It has the power to determine the texture of the crust and the crumb. The bread should be allowed to cool in space. This allows the moisture to escape from the bread fluidly which prevents the crumb being stodgy and improve your bread.
Some bakers cover their bread with a tea towel as it cools to retains the moisture in the crumb and make it softer and denser.
How to put it all together to resolve dense bread
A dense crumb is a common issue with home bakers, but knowing that it is all about gas retention, gas production and the quality of the crust will help to troubleshoot the problem.
When deciding where the issue is coming from I look at the gluten formation, is the dough kneaded well enough? Are there enough organic acids produced?
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. It probably needs more kneading or a better quality flour. After this, it's down to the proofing and the oven spring.
The three issues of gas retention (gluten structure), gas production (levain activity) and the quality of the crust 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.
How to make the best oven spring?
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.