Bread Too Dense? Here is How To Lighten Your Bread

/ / / Bread Too Dense? Here is How To Lighten Your Bread

Why is my bread so dense? So all day you’ve followed a recipe, made a mess, cleaned, made more mess, cleaned again to finally put your loaf of bread in the oven and wait for 30 minutes (or so). Eagerly, you put your mitts on and remove your loaf to find the bread is dense and rock hard!

Even after waiting a couple of hours to cool, it’s dense and heavy like a brick! Nothing like the recipe photo and is clearly failing in the light and fluffy department! The day has been a complete waste of time. My bread is too dense and heavy to eat!

When I’ve baked bread like this at home, I stop to ponder whether to show my family, or just bung it straight in the bin! Shhh!! It never happened!! If I keep it, it’ll be slathered with plenty of butter to mask its gummy texture!

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So what can we do to prevent bread turning out dense? Well, let’s look first at the possible causes of dense bread, and then we’ll uncover several techniques to make light and fluffy bread every time!

Why is my bread so dense?

Bread is too dense when there isn’t enough gas in the gluten structure. This could be due to not enough gas produced, or if the gas that is produces isn’t retained in the gluten structure well. In other instances, bread becomes dense when there is too much moisture in it which is common when baking with whole grain flours.

Dough is exposed to kneading and a natural dough development process – which occurs during the first and second rise. This is where the interwinding gluten strands form lots of tiny air pockets in a gluten network. As gas (produced by the yeast) increases, the tiny cells expand and the dough rises.

But there’s more to crafting the perfectly risen loaf than this. The other (often unmentioned) factor is the production of natural dough improvers.

The impact of dough maturation

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

  • Handling capabilities
  • Flavour
  • Shelf life

– And a few other things that I won’t go into in this article. See the dough fermentation post for more information

The improvement in gas retention and gluten extensibility are very beneficial when we want to prevent bread from turning out dense.

The role of gluten in making a delicious loaf

Flour should be correctly hydrated and given time or mechanical force (kneading) for the gluten to develop. If this happens, the gluten can unwind into strong, extensible (stretchy) bonds. The extensible gluten forms a strong network that can expand to retain gas.

An extensible gluten structure:

This diagram shows how extensible gluten is able to rise higher

A less extensible gluten structure:

A diagram that shows weak gluten which will not rise as high as less gas is retained

As you can see, gluten that is more extensible can stretch further so it will capture more gas. Combined with plenty of organic maturity we can make lighter bread – that you won’t consider throwing it in the bin!

That bread will be more light and airy.

So, the question you must have now is “how do I fix dense bread?” So here are 17 ways for how to make bread less dense. Read each possible fix and either eliminate it as a cause, or focus on improving it. Let’s look at each one in detail…

1. Measure the ingredients accurately

There are a lot of variables in baking bread so it’s for our own interest we do not introduce any more! If you choose to use cups, or worse (guess), is is likely that you will add too much flour, or too much or too little of 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 it about, and chunky buttons that are great when rushing around. You’ll never add too much flour (unwittingly) again!

A good set of measuring scales can make bread that is fluffier

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2. Use quality bread-making flour

how to improve the rise of wholemeal bread

For a light and airy crumb structure, it is best to use bread flour. The protein content found in bread flour is higher than all purpose flour. When hydrated, protein transforms into gluten so with more gluten available, the dough will naturally hold more gas.

Different flour brands will have varying gluten qualities. One brand may contain lots of damaged protein (which still weighs the same) and another might have more glutenin proteins to gliadin (or vise versa). This is why switching to a reliable brand of bread flour that others have success with, can be a gamechanger for fixing homemade bread problems.

Low protein flour produces a weaker gluten structure so less gas is captured. This is why breads such as rye, spelt and other whole grains tend to be less aerated. There’s some tips for these breads at the bottom of the page.

“80 percent of the quality comes from the quality of the dough.”

3. Knead the dough for enough time

Get the kneading stage badly wrong and you will create a brick!! The density of a bread is a direct result of how long and thoroughly dough has been kneaded. To increase the rate of gluten development we knead the dough longer and harder.

A mature dough structure can still be achieved without kneading. The dough will just need considerably longer during its bulk fermentation stage.

Gareth kneading long enough when making bread

Kneading should last for at least 10 minutes by hand, but 20 is usually prefered! Check the how to knead dough guide to find out more. 

Perfect the crust for a lighter bread

The quality and thickness of the breads crust affect the properties of its crumb. During baking and cooling, moisture escapes from the core of the loaf. As moisture exits, it attaches itself to starch present on the outer crust area. If the crust area is damp it makes the crust heavier and less porous so less moisture can escape. The result is the crumb is also dense and stodgy.

A thin crust allows moisture to escape, leaving the bread crumb luscious and light, with a crust that’s crispy. To achieve this, the dough should be developed thoroughly so that it passes the windowpane test, and shaped well to create tension in its outer perimeter.

4. 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 doesn’t contain enough water we won’t get a smooth dough and its gluten will be less extensible. Too much water makes the gluten swim so that it is unable to support the loaf structure. You need to use high protein flour to support a wet gluten network.

Tip: As a general rule, if the protein content of the flour increases by 1%, the water should increase by 5%. Low protein flour is best hydrated with less water.

5. Use yeast that is active

Instant, active dried and fresh yeast can all go out of date! Yes, especially if it is open and unsealed!! It is possible to use a different type than the one in a recipe, yet it’s important to use a yeast conversion chart to use the correct amount. 

If you are not sure if your yeast is still active, hydrate a small amount in warm water. If after 10 minutes there are bubbles, you’re all set!

6. Use an active sourdough starter

How to prevent dense sourdough bread

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 in size 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.

7. Prevent over kneading the dough

Just as under kneading bread dough has its issues, as does over kneading. Over kneading the dough will cause the gluten to tear and lose its strength. This is bad news if trying to avoid dense bread as it will not retain gas well and the crust quality will diminish too.

By hand, it is pretty much impossible to over-knead bread dough, but when using a mixer it can happen easily. To avoid over mixing, use a countdown timer to remind you to check your dough.

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 Windowpane Test.

8. Change the length of the first rise

You may be under or over developing the dough during the first rise. During the dough’s “bulk fermentation” the dough develops maturity. If a dough doesn’t develop for long enough the bread can have a weak structure for gas retention.

Increasing the length or the temperature of the first rise can resolve a dense homemade loaf of bread.

Sourdough bread too dense?

That said we can go too far the other way! When combining intense kneading with an extended bulk ferment period, we can create issues. This can lead to the flour becoming over oxygenated or over fermented. Due to lactic acid and the protease enzyme increasing to weaken the gluten, the dough loses extensibility and collapses. This is common when sourdough bread is too dense due to a weak starter.

You could also use a proofing box to create the ideal bread proofing temperature for your loaf of bread. This will help you to control your doughs development and remove any inconsistencies between bakes. For more dough maturity I aim for a proofing temperature of 25C (77F), but for speed I’ll opt for 38C (100F).

9. Add bread improvers to the dough

If you make quick breads, adding some ascorbic acid or activated malt flour can help you out. Ascorbic acid will incorporate more oxygen to strengthen the gluten network. Less kneading time is required and it removes the need for a first 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 to use when you want a better colour and flavour in fast breads. But adding malt flour to long-fermented doughs like sourdough can lead to a gummy crumb.

10. Good shaping makes lighter bread

Before final proofing, the dough gets moulded into its desired shape. This involves knocking the gas out of the dough and creating tension in its outer perimeter (crust area). The tension created from shaping supports the shape of the dough as it rises. Tension also forms a strong, thin crust in the oven.

If the final shaping is not firm enough, the dough will spread outwards and not rise properly, creating a badly risen loaf.

If you are looking for large erratic bubbles through the crumb you should increase the length of bulk fermentation so that the dough is already gassy before shaping. The shaping should then be done with a lighter touch to retain more of the gas, whilst still creating tension. This requires a bit of practice!

11. Control 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. Cooling the environment increases the strength of the gluten and aids the degradation of the starch. This will give your dough strength whilst providing plenty of food for the yeast when things warm up.

To control temperature use a formula to calculate the post-mix desired dough temperature. Making temperature readings you can adjust the water temperature for the ideal conditions. Here is the dough thermometer I recommend:

A dough thermometer is a great tool for home bakers

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12. Proof the dough to its potential

As I mentioned earlier, dense bread is often down to not enough gas being produced. So the most obvious fix is to allow plenty of time for the bread to rise. You could just need to proof your loaf of bread for longer.

To test if bread is ready for the oven, the poke test can be used. To do this test:

Poke the dough with a wet finger, if it springs back straight away give it longer to rise. The dough is ready when the poke leaves an imprint that stays for 3 seconds before it bounces back.

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

Is my dough over proofed?

If the dough is over-proofed, expect to see translucent patches of the surface of the loaf. This can be due to the protease enzyme in the dough eating away at the air pockets, or the yeast running out of food! If you notice it early, quickly get it baked and you might be ok! If it’s too late, the bread will collapse in the oven.

13. Score the dough correctly – and quickly!!

Cutting prevents dense bread

Before baking, most loaves are cut with a blade called a lame. This controls the explosion of gas that occurs when the yeast increases activity during oven spring. If bread is not scored the escaping gas can force through the crust at its weakest point. This will help exaggerate a well cut bread (known as ripping), yet if not scored correctly the crust will rupture.

Scoring deep or making too many cuts will allow more gas to escape. This can cause a dense and heavy bread that can be confused with one that’s under proofed.

14. Get more oven spring to open up the crumb

Oven spring occurs when the bread goes into the oven. It is more prolific when the oven is a humid environment. We need oven spring to further raise the bread and form a thin, crispy crust to allow moisture to escape from the crumb.

As bread is dropped in the oven, steam is added to moisten the environment to help the bread spring up during the first ten minutes. If the oven has no humidity there will be less oven spring. To create steam, you need to add water to the oven.

A baking stone is used to improve heat distribution. If you don’t already have one of these, you should really invest. A baking stone improves the oven spring so much, I wouldn’t bake bread without one! 

Here’s the baking stone that I recommend. It’s durable, thick and has excellent heat distribution!

A baking stone improves the oven spring to make a crispy crust

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15. Selecting a reliable recipe for you

Some recipes just aren’t very good. There are many recipes that make me shake my head in despair at the number of basic principles 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 ingredients you use change things.

It’s worth using tried and tested bread recipes written in similar climates to you.

16. 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 them near the end of mixing. Fats lubricate the gluten strands and protect them from the action of kneading and oxygenation.

If large amounts of fat 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, once the gluten structure has formed. The issue with delaying the fat is that they often provide a large quantity of the liquid in the recipe. So to hydrate the flour properly sometimes there is no other solution than adding them at the start of mixing.

17. Cool the bread properly to stop dense bread

Cooling is often an overlooked stage of bread making. It has the power to determine the texture of the crust and the crumb. Bread should be cooled with space around it. This allows the moisture to escape and prevents the bread from turning stodgy.

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

How to make homemade bread less dense

To work out which one of these issues are causing your dense homemade bread, work in an order to troubleshoot:

  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 using better quality flour.
  4. After this, it’s down to perfecting the final proof and oven spring.
  5. Failing this, try a few different recipes and see if you still get the same results.

The issue could be in the equipment or the ingredients. The fewer variables used, the better. 

Any more bread baking issues I’ve not covered? Feel free to drop a comment below!

Frequently Asked Questions about dense bread

Why is wholemeal bread so dense?

Wholemeal bread is dense even though the flour contains more protein than white flour. The reason wholemeal bread is often disappointing is due to the starches being more complex and slower to break down. The slower process reduces the amount of food that supplies the yeast and reduces the rate of fermentation. Extending the fermentation process often leads to over-oxygenation.

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 wholemeal bread releases during baking and cooling is not high enough. This means the crumb is moist and can lead to making wholemeal bread at home pretty unfulfilling.

How to make wholemeal bread lighter at home?

To make a fantastic bread with whole wheat flour, it’s a good idea to start with a 20-80 split of wholemeal and white flour. Then increase the percentage of whole wheat flour as you grow in confidence.

Wholemeal flour benefits greatly when using an autolyse or soaker method. These hydrate the flour and allow the starches to break down before mixing. You can also add sugar or activated malt powder to provide food for the yeast.

How to improve dense loaf of rye or spelt bread?

Rye and spelt flour have less protein content. These doughs find it really hard to retain enough carbon dioxide gas and form an aerated crumb structure. Adding white flour to recipes with low or no gluten flour is a natural solution for lighter bread.

Recipes for bread with 100% low gluten flour will be dense. There is not a lot you can do unless moving towards dough improvers such as lecithin or even, xanthan gum. When mixing, aim for a high desired dough temperature and use a warm bread proofing temperature to increase the activity of the yeast.

Can all-purpose flour be used to make bread?

Yes, you can use all-purpose flour to make bread. Depending on your climate, all-purpose or plain flour may have plenty of protein already. If the flour has less than 11%, it may only be suitable for making bread with a long first rise. The broken protein particles will repair during this time and the gluten will strengthen.

You can also add vital wheat gluten powder to the flour. The extra gluten effectively turns weaker flour into bread flour and while it’s not quite the same grade, it will still make pretty good fluffy bread!

If all you can get in your area is all purpose flour, then it’s 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.

Should I use super high protein flour to make bread?

Flours that have a protein content of 14g per 100g and upwards, are used by experienced bakers for quickly made or high hydration loaves. They will create dense, gummy, horrible loaves if changes to the recipe are not made.

If your flours protein content is high, you can cut it with cornflour to lower the protein level.

Can I make bread with no or little kneading that isn’t dense?

Yes! You don’t need to knead! You will need to let the dough develop for at least 4 hours before it’s ready to shape. This means you should use less yeast so it doesn’t eat up all the sugar too quickly! Adding stretch and folds to the dough as it rests will enhance the gluten structure and speed up the process.

Can I use a stand mixer to knead bread?

Dough can be kneaded with a good mixer much faster than by hand. The standard mix time is 5 minutes at a slow speed, followed by 5 minutes at a faster rate. But at home, a stand mixer can give users a false sense of security. Many stand mixers are not as good at kneading dough as the manufacturers make you believe! Stick to kneading by hand to start with!

What are the benefits of bulk fermentation?

Flour, water, salt and yeast left to develop without interference will naturally develop. Hydrated gluten strands will unwind into a cohesive structure. Whilst the yeast and enzymes produce acids, carbon dioxide and ethanol.

Why is my bread so dense?

Bread is usually dense as there isn’t enough gas in the gluten structure. Either not enough gas is produced or there is plenty but doesn’t get retained.

How 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.

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. Working the gluten affects gas retention and the quality of the crust.

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.

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7 Comments

  1. This was really helpful. Sometimes it is overwhelming to read all these principles in a massive book and try to figure out what part of the process went wrong. This summarized it all nicely. Thank you!

  2. Incredibly, I learned about No.15 (adding fat near the end of the mixing process) from a Chinese cooking You Tube channel (Souped Up Recipes) for making a steamed bao dough!!! I did exactly as the recipe instructed and the bao were perfect. The dough for steamed bao really has no crust at all, just a smooth, elastic, and dry “skin” that is easily torn. Unlike a baked bread, the “crust” will not be brown at all, but be a slightly darker white than the bread itself. The key is to NEVER EVER lift the steamer lid DURING the steaming and the 15 minute “setting” period AFTER steaming. Otherwise the bao will collapse.
    Thx for this article, very helpful! I kneaded my oatmeal bread dough to what the King Arthur back of the bag recipe said (5-7 minutes) and baked to the correct internal temperature (190 degrees F), cooled completely, which took a couple hours, and it was still a brick (heavy, as might be expected for oatmeal bread?) but not nearly as dense and gummy as previous tries.
    I do have a question — I noticed that bread baked in a loaf pan seems to be denser at the bottom than the middle and top. Is this because the bottom is “contained” by the pan and can only push up, and that the bottom is the last part to rise as fully as the middle and top?? (This is true also of supermarket bread, say, any brand name such as Pepperidge Farm or Arnold.) Whereas bread that is baked “free-form” like a boule, Jewish rye or Italian bread (IOW no pan but a baking sheet) does not have that density at the bottom?

  3. That’s interesting to know about bao buns. Thank you for sharing!
    Yes you are correct. It comes from the oven spring and is especially noticeable in bread that’s baked straight out of the fridge. A well-heated baking stone will most likely fix the problem. You might also find that proofing the loaf a little more before baking makes a big difference.

  4. Amazing article! Thanks for sharing all the great information. I have a bread machine that every loaf comes out super dense and gummy. Any help or insights you can offer would be greatly appreciated

  5. Thank you! A lot of people have messaged me recently about their struggles with bread makers. It could be due to ineffective kneading (see poor gluten development) which might be helped by using a higher protein flour or adding a bit of vital gluten powder. But do watch the dough. If it rises well initially but then collapses it could be fixed by reducing the yeast for a more gradual, but fuller rise.

  6. Can you define the term crumb? I assume you are not talking about the flakes left behind after making a sandwich or a piece of toast. Also, My white bread and black Russian seem to come out well to my and other’s taste and liking but I’ve only been baking bread for six months and I know I have room for improvement. My sourdough never fully cooks in the center. I measure the temperature but it is too dense in the very center. There must be something I’m doing wrong with sourdough. I can’t figure it out.

  7. Sure! The crumb is the core of the bread where the gluten matrix can be seen. Basically the part of the bread that isn’t the crust.
    With the white bread, you want to push the oven spring as much as possible to open up the crumb whilst baking for longer for the heat to penetrate. Extend the bulk fermentation so it passes the windowpane test and has a nice bit of gas. This will help the oven spring also. When baking use a high heat initially (240C), and turn the heat down after 5-10 minutes of baking to 200-210C. Keep baking until you hit the right core temperature. Bread should not be dense in the centre. If it is, it will likely be down to the starter.
    For the black Russian, these are often dense. Follow the same baking routine as above, make sure it has plenty of time to cool down. These breads are often best eaten the day after baking.

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