Here's the situation. All day you’ve followed a recipe, made a mess, cleaned, made more mess, cleaned again and finally placed your loaf in the oven. After waiting 30 minutes or so, you eagerly put your mitts on and remove the bread to cool. It's at this point you realise that something's not right.
After it's cool you cut into it to discover a crumb that's dense. It's nothing like the photo and is clearly failing in the light and fluffy department you expected.
The loaf is more reminiscent of a brick than something to eat! It feels the day has been a complete waste of time. The bread is too dense and heavy!
An epic bread fail.
When I've baked bread like this at home, I stop to ponder whether to show it to the family or bung it straight in the bin! Shhh!! It never happened!!
If I decide to keep the loaf I'll slather it in butter to mask its gummy texture - it makes it more edible!
To learn how to make lighter bread, first, let’s look at the issues that make bread dense.
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.
Gas raises the bread by opening up the gluten network. As gas forms, the tiny cells expand and the dough rises. If this process works as it should the bread will be light and airy.
The other instance that makes bread dense is when there is excessive moisture in the dough.
To summarise, the reason for bread not being light and fluffy can fall under three points:
- The fermentation from the yeast is not powerful enough to create enough gas
- The gas retention properties in the dough are not bountiful
- The crust is poor which prevents moisture from escaping as the bread cools.
When a loaf has a dense crumb it’s likely to be a mix of all three of these. But don't worry, after reading this article you’ll know how to solve these issues and make some lovely bread.
Before I introduce the 16 ways to fix dense bread, here's how these three elements can control the quality of the bread. They are subject to the dough fermentation process.
When bread rises, the yeast feeds on the sugars in the flour to generate carbon dioxide. The gas is retained in the dough's gluten structure and as more gas is produced, it forces the dough to expand. This process is anaerobic fermentation.
Yeast is added to the dough through an active levain such as a sourdough starter or by using bakers yeast.
How good gas production prevents making bricks
For a soft crumb, we need the yeast to raise the bread until it is big enough to go into the oven. We'll have a further rise in the oven which called Oven Spring. The reasons why this might not happen are explained later on.
As well as producing carbon dioxide anaerobic fermentation also generates ethanol. The fermentation process of the yeast also creates lactic acid and various other organic acids.
These acids, combined with ethanol, mature the dough. This improves its gas retaining properties. The maturation of the dough has other benefits which include its handling capabilities, extensibility and flavour but we won't go into any more detail in this article.
The extent of maturation is dependent on time, temperature and its ingredients. we'll cover these features in a moment.
How gluten has a role 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:
A less extensible gluten structure:
For lighter bread, mature dough and extensible gluten are desirable so the gas can be contained effectively.
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.
When moisture exits the core it attaches to the starch particles on the outer perimeter. As the moisture builds the crust becomes heavier. If the crust area is thick less moisture can escape causing the crumb to be dense and stodgy.
A nice thin crust allows moisture to escape leaving the bread crumb luscious and light. To achieve this the gluten must reach the windowpane stage before shaping.
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.
There are plenty of fixes (well 16 in total!) that can be the prevent dense bread. If I am troubleshooting I will select one or two of these to focus on at a time and eliminate them.
Let’s look at each one in detail…
16 Ways to fix a dense loaf
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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 another one! Weighing the ingredients with a metric scale (including liquids) is the only way to get accurate quantities.
Using cups and spoons is incredibly inaccurate. They are fine for measuring volume for cooking, but as flour density depends on several factors for baking the recipe would not be accurate. Sure, cups and spoons give you a small amount of consistency, but only when the same ingredients, humidity and a constant recipe are used. For best results, use grams to weigh 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 plugged in or use batteries to move it around. It has these chunky buttons that are great when rushing around when scaling dough.
2. Use quality bread-making flour
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 or plain flour.
When hydrated, the protein in the flour breaks down into gluten. With more gluten available, the dough will be able to hold more gas. Low protein flour offers less gas retention and causes the bread to be less aerated.
Can all-purpose flour be used to make bread?
It is possible to use good quality all-purpose flour when making bread with a long first rise. The broken protein particles will repair causing the gluten to strengthen. It's a great way to save some money as bread flour is more expensive though will only work when the first rise is above 6 hours - sometimes longer.
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 adding a little gluten powder to the flour is a dealbreaker. Extra gluten turns all-purpose flour into bread flour and while it's not quite the same grade, it will make some pretty good bread!
The difference in the quality of the flour
If you are using bread flour and struggling, it might be worth switching brands. Low-quality bread flour can still contain many broken protein particles. Depending on the falling number results of the flour it is possible that your flour is not capable of the fermentation process you are using it for. If you feel this is your issue you can either change your baking process or change your flour.
Using super high protein flour
Flours that contain protein levels of 14g per 100g and upwards should be used by experienced bakers. These bread flours are for quickly made bread 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 plain or all-purpose flour to lower the protein level.
Why is wholemeal bread so dense?
It is hard to understand why wholemeal bread is denser as it contains more protein than white flour. The reason wholemeal bread is often dense is the starches are 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.
Making wholemeal bread with success
Wholemeal flour benefits greatly when using an autolyse or soaker method. These hydrate the flour and allow the starches to break down before mixing. To make a nice bread with wholemeal flour, it's a good idea to start with a 20-80 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 less protein. These doughs find 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 creates a 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 practices of use dough improvers. When mixing, aim for a high desired dough temperature and use a warm bread proofing temperature to increase the activity of the yeast.
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 doesn't contain enough water we won't get the smooth dough we are looking for and the gluten will less 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%. Low protein flour is best hydrated with less water.
4. Knead the dough for enough time
To increase the rate of gluten development we often knead the dough. Without kneading, a mature dough and structure can still be achieved but the process will take considerably longer.
Gluten structure has a massive part to play in the formation of the breads crust. Dough that passes the windowpane test creates 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 comes from the quality of the dough.”
Basically, get the kneading stage wrong and you may create a brick!!
Kneading not only develops the gluten, it also increases the temperature to accelerate the rate of yeast fermentation. A well-made dough contains nicely hydrated and extensible gluten and a healthy amount of oxygen.
Kneading should last for at least 10 minutes by hand, but up to 20 can work better. You can take a rest and then continue if your hands tire! I have an efficient technique for kneading, check the how to knead dough post if you wish.
Using a stand mixer to knead bread
Don't always rely on a mixer. Dough can be kneaded with a 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.
This is true for professional equipment, but at home a stand mixer can sometimes give users a false sense of security. Many stand mixers are 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 with strength. The bread can still collapse in the oven.
Actually, this can happen in the professional world too! But that's a story which includes a £100K loss that I'll save for another day.
If you are struggling with dense bread, consider hand kneading and see if things improve. View the why is my dough not reaching the windowpane test post if you want more help.
Can I make bread with no or little kneading that isn’t dense?It can be done, I share some tips in step 8. Increase the tension when shaping to help.
5. Use yeast that is active
Yeast can go out of date! Yes, especially if it is open and unsealed!! I is why it is important to hydrate dried 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. It should also smell fragrant!
If this is not the case, keep feeding for a few more days. View the sourdough starter is not rising post for more info.
7. Prevent over kneading the dough
Just as under kneading bread dough has its issues, as 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 windowpane test.
8. Change the length of the first rise
Where dough is well kneaded the bulk fermentation stage will be over in an hour or two. If we increase the length of the first rise to over 6 hours the amount of kneading can be reduced. This also allows the dough to mature and encompass more benefits of fermentation.
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.
It's during bulk fermentation that dough improves its ability to retain gas and develop flavour.
Kneading accelerates this process yet, allowing time for the dough to naturally regulate will form a better dough. It is always recommended that dough undergoes a period of natural fermentation- 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. It's due to lactic acid and the protease enzyme increasing which weakens the gluten. Over fermenting often causes dense sourdough bread.
It is best to keep the first rise short when kneading heavily.
Use ascorbic acid and malt extract
Adding ascorbic acid to the dough will incorporate oxygen when mixing. Oxygen strengthens the gluten network quickly. Less kneading time is required and there should be no first rise. If you bulk ferment a dough that contains ascorbic acid you will over oxygenate the dough.
Adding some active malt flour to the mix will generate more flora activity in the dough. This 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 often leads to a gummy crumb.
9. 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 dense loaf.
If you are looking for large erratic bubbles through the crumb you'll need a lighter hand for shaping. Shaping the dough to not remove all of the gas whilst creating tension requires a bit of practice.
Further reading: How to preshape and shape dough
10. 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:
Temperature control is vital for bread that is light and flavoursome. Bad controls can result in bread that is inconsistent and often, dense.
A proofing box or oven with a proof function operate at 35C (95F) which is the ideal temperature to proof fast bread. For more dough maturity I aim for 25C (77F).
11. Proof the dough to its potential
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'll see patches of the surface become translucent. It can be due to the protease enzyme in the dough increasing, or simply 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, leaving a dense crumb.
12. Score the dough correctly - and quickly!!
Before baking, most loaves are cut with a blade. This helps to prevent an explosion of gas caused by an increased rate of yeast activity that happens in the oven. If we were not to score the bread the rapid production of gas would force through the crust at its weakest point and rupture the crust.
Scoring too deeply or with too many cuts lowers the amount of gas retained during the oven spring. This can be a cause of a dense crumb.
After scoring, the dough should be transferred to the oven straight away.
13. Get more oven spring to open up the crumb
Oven spring occurs when the bread goes into the oven, providing the oven is humid. As 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 heat distribution for good oven spring.
We need oven spring to further raise the bread and to form a thin, thick crust to let moisture escape the bread. If you don't think you are getting enough you could try using (or upgrading) a baking stone to one like this:
14. 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 made in similar climates to you. There are many in the bread recipes page or use 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 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 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 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 to prevent the crumb being stodgy.
Some bakers cover their bread with a tea towel as it cools to keep moisture in the crumb to make it softer and denser.
How to put it all together to fix dense bread
When deciding where the issue of my dense bread 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 try more kneading or a better quality flour. After this, it's down to the proofing and the oven spring. Try a few different recipes and see if you still get the same results.
The issue could be in the equipment or the ingredients. I personally think the fewer variables the better. Getting a great oven set up and purchasing flour from a reputable mill will help remove some of the issues outlined.
Any more bread baking issue I've not covered? Feel free to drop a comment below!