Artisan Breads 1..2..3..
Techniques and Tips for your Easy Artisan Loaves
Dough is too stiff (dry) or too slack (wet)
With the exception of very wet doughs (ciabatta or batter type dough), after 30
seconds or so of vigorous stirring, your dough should try to stick together in one
shaggy ball. If not, first check the recipe to make sure you measured the
ingredients out correctly. If the dough sits in multiple dry clumps and some
unincorporated flour is left in the bowl, your dough is too dry. Add 2 Tbsp of
water and stir for 15 more seconds. If the dough now wants to stick together in
a shaggy ball, proceed with the first rise. If the dough still seems dry, repeat the
2 Tbsp water and stirring as needed until you get one shaggy mass.
A dough that is too wet (slack) just sits in the bottom of the bowl with stirring
and doesn’t ball up but just sinks back down to the bottom of the bowl with
stirring. This dough needs more flour. Add ¼ cup flour (all-purpose or bread
flour, whatever the recipe is calling for) and stir 15 seconds. If the dough now
wants to stick together in a shaggy ball, proceed with the first rise. If the dough
still seems too wet, repeat the ¼ cup flour and stirring once or twice more. If
you’ve added up to ¾ cup flour and the dough still won’t come together in a
shaggy ball, it’s time to either go to plan B or toss the dough and start over with
less liquid. Plan B would consist of placing the dough in a loaf pan or some
other type of pan to prevent excessive spread of the dough while baking.
Lack of sufficient rise
Inactive yeast: Is your yeast outdated?; was it improperly stored? Don't store
yeast in a warm area (like right by your stove) and refrigerate it once it is
opened. To test your yeast, heat ½ cup of water to 105-115 degres in a glass 1
cup measure. Stir in 1 tsp of sugar, then 2 tsp of yeast. Allow the mixture to
stand for 10 minutes. In 10 minutes, the yeast should be actively foaming up to
around the 1 cup mark. If the yeast doesn’t foam up significantly, discard it. I’
ve occasionally had jars of yeast go bad despite being stored in the door of the
refrigerator. (I wonder if the little heater that comes on to eliminate condensation
around the door also heated up the yeast too much).
Was the warm water added too hot? Yeast is killed at temperatures over 130-
Yeast does not tolerate microwaves. Don’t thaw or heat your dough up in the
Is the rising temperature of your yeast adequate? To solve rising problems
in a really cool kitchen, heat a few cups of water to near boiling on the stove or
in the microwave. Place the hot water in the oven or microwave then place the
covered dough in the microwave or oven beside the hot water. The hot water
will give the yeast the boost it needs to perform its first rise adequately.
Inadequate moisture in the dough: In a dough that is too dry, yeast will be
starved of moisture and will produce an inadequate rise. Take a look at the
amount of water in your recipe. Is it adequate according to hydration charts? Is
the water tied up by an excessive amount of sugar, dry seeds or fruit? Also, the
wetter the dough, the less resistance to the gas produced by the yeast, and the
After the first few days in the refrigerator, dough gradually loses its ability to rise
further and more organic acids and alcohol accumulate. A dough that’s baked
after sitting in the refrigerator for 7 days just won’t rise as much once its formed
into a loaf and correspondingly the crumb will be more dense and more sour.
Some folks don’t mind this, but you might feel differently.
An Approach to Inadequate Rise
Ingredients that inhibit yeast growth: The most common inhibitors of yeast
growth are dairy products and sugar. Because of enzymes that are present in
milk, using large amounts of milk in a recipe will retard yeast growth. Try
cutting back on the amount of milk, or use dry milk or evaporated milk instead.
Old-timers will scald mild to prevent this problem. As you may guess, using
very fresh, raw milk off the farm will inhibit yeast growth much, much more
than pasteurized milk that’s been sitting in a warehouse for a week.
In small amounts, granulated sugar will aid in yeast growth. In very large
amounts however, granulated sugar will compete with the yeast for moisture and
yeast growth will be impaired. This problem can sometimes be overcome by
increasing the amount of yeast in the recipe or by switching to an invert sugar
such as honey or corn syrup.
Excessive levels of salt can inhibit yeast growth. The volume of salt added to a
dough should be close to the volume of yeast added. Also, lots of direct contact
with salt can inactivate yeast. To avoid problems always measure the yeast
before salt and don’t dump the yeast and salt together in a pile. Sprinkle both
over a large area when adding to flours or liquid.
A number of spices will inhibit yeast growth. The degree of growth inhibition
varies with the amount of spice and its freshness. In my experience, freshly
ground cardamom is the worst offender, but other spices that have been
associated with yeast inhibition are cinnamon, cloves, garlic, onion, mustard and
thyme. Don’t let this scare you away from using herbs in your bread, but use
large quantities of fresh herbs with caution.
Inadequate Oven Spring: A loaf of bread should puff up quite a bit, typically
around a third during the first several minutes of baking, as the yeast work into a
final frenzy. To enhance this effect “called oven-spring” the oven temperature
can be increased during the first part of baking. Also, since the oven initially
loses a lot of heat when you open the door to slide the bread in, preheating the
oven to a higher temperature than is used for actual baking will help compensate
for this heat loss. In many of the recipes in this book, bread is baked at 400
degrees but the oven is preheated to 450 to help compensate for the heat lost
when the bread is slid in.
This is the problem that some bakers dream of having, a dough that is just so
darn actively rising that you have to slow it down. To avoid over-rising in a
dough that looks like it is rising very quickly, either lower the rising temperature
and/or shorten the rising time.
If you have a dough that appears over-risen after the first rise, sprinkle a few
tablespoons of flour on top of the dough, punch it down and fold it a few times.
Form a loaf then cut the time of the second rise in half.
To keep a dough from over-rising once it has been formed into a loaf, lower the
oven temperature by 50 degrees and increase the baking time by 15-20%.
Loaf Sinks in the Middle or Collapses
The dough structure is too weak to support itself, which may have three causes.
First, the loaf may be very underbaked. This should be easy to verify by slicing
through the loaf. Second, the dough may have been too wet. Third, the dough
may have over-risen. To solve this problem decrease the amount of rising time
or fold the dough more aggressively when forming a loaf.
Crumb is Gummy
The most common cause of gumminess is impatience. If you don’t like a
gummy crumb, wait until the bread is fully cooled before slicing. Rye breads
benefit from cooling for several hours before slicing.
When using white flours, gumminess of the crumb indicates under baking and/or
an inadequate second rise time. Verify your oven’s baking temperature with a
thermometer and try extending the second rise and baking times by ten percent.
Decreasing the moisture content of the dough a bit may be helpful also.
In rye breads, a gummy crumb is usually caused by an excessive amount of
amylase activity in the rye flour. Rye flour contains amylases in much greater
quantity than other flours and if nothing is done to retard their activity, amylases
convert too much of the dough into starch, resulting in a gummy loaf. To
decrease amylase activity, an acid environment is often developed, either through
the use of sourdough as a leavening agent or by adding acids present in vinegar
or cultured dairy products. Also, using a modified Lahey method with a long
slow rise, and a small amount of yeast seems to help prevent gumminess in all-
Crumb is Dry and/or too crumbly
Either the dough was too dry in the first place or the bread was overbaked.
Review the amount of moisture in the dough and use a thermometer to verify
your oven’s baking temperature. Verify that you used the right type and right
amount of flour.
Crumb is Streaky or Layered
Either the flour was not stirred together with the wet ingredient(s) adequately or
too much additional flour was added at the end of stirring.
Crust is too hard and crunchy
Although a crunchy crust is what makes some breads so special, it can make
other breads seem overly tough. To make for a softer crust, bake the loaf
without a steam bath and brush some butter or oil on the crust a few minutes
after baking. Also, making sure there is some fat in the dough itself will help.
Crust is too soft
Even a few tablespoons or butter or oil in a loaf of bread will cause the crust to
soften. Eliminate the oil and give the loaf a steam bath early on in the baking.
Crust is hard and crunchy just after baking but softens too much
Don’t store the loaf until completely cooled and then store it in paper, not
plastic. Also, underbaking can cause this problem, so try increasing the baking
time by ten percent.
Crust is not Browned Adequately
Some doughs brown better than others, but there are steps you can take to
increase browning. First, bake the loaf uncovered for a longer period if you
started with a covered container such as a Dutch oven.
Brushing your dough with an egg beaten with 1 Tbsp water, will cause greatly
increased browning and this is particularly useful for smaller pastries and rolls
that don’t require a lengthy period of baking. Browning tends to increase as
sugar levels in the dough increase, so adding a bit more sugar to the dough may
be an option also. If you’re using a light colored metal pan, switching to a
darker pan may help the loaf brown better.
Crust is Over Browned
Obviously, an overbaked loaf will brown excessively. If the crumb seems too
dry this may be the problem. Use a thermometer to check on the temperature of
your loaf toward the end of baking. As mentioned above, sugars, dairy products
and eggs can increase browning, so consider decreasing the amount of one or
more of these ingredients. Particularly sweet and rich dough can benefit from a
longer bake at a lower temperature also. If you’re having problems with
enriched breads over-browning, consider decreasing the oven temperature to 375
degrees and increasing the baking time by 5-10 minutes.
Covering the loaf with aluminum foil during the last half of baking will also help
prevent overbrowning. Once a loaf is overbrowned, little can be done to reverse
the color change, but the crust can be made softer (and thus more palatable) by
brushing it with butter or oil within a few minutes of removal from the oven.
The Loaf is Misshapen
Did you remember to score your hearth loaf? An unscored loaf will expand
Little problems with asymmetry in an unbaked loaf turn into big problems once a
loaf expands in the oven. If you have problems with loaves not keeping their
shape well, concentrate more on pulling the outer gluteny strands of dough over
the loaf to form a smooth, slightly tense cloak over the main mass of the dough.
Also, take care to correct the most slight asymmetry in your loaf prior to the
second rise. A loaf that spreads out and doesn’t hold its shape needs less
moisture, more gluten, a shorter second rise or some combination of the three.
If a bread seems very bland and lacking in flavor, chances are, the salt was left
out or mis-measured. If the bread tastes overly sour or yeasty, the dough either
over-rose (decrease rising time or temperature) or too much yeast was added.
|Years ago, when I was first engaged to be married,
a coworker congratulated me. He also said this: “If
there’s anything you want to know about marriage
just ask me; I’ve been married four times and I
know everything there is to know about marriage.”
For obvious reasons I never asked him for marriage
advice, but my baking seems to have brought about
a similar situation. I have made every conceivable
mistake baking and thus feel entitled to give advice
about fixing your baking problems.