Breadmaking 101: How to Troubleshoot Bad Bread

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Hello bakers, and thanks for tuning in to our latest installment of Breadmaking 101, where we talk all about bread, and how to make it. Throughout this series, we've been working on a recipe we call the workhorse loaf: a straightforward, commercially yeasted, white hearth bread. We began by talking about how to mix the loaf, including the science of gluten, and how our four ingredients—flour, water, salt, and yeast—come together to form dough. After that, we got into what yeast really does during rising and fermentation. And for a climax, we shopped some of the science and technique behind baking, talking about how fire, time, and some knife-fighting turn dough into bread.

As we've made our way through the basics of home baking, many of you have reached out to share success stories and seek advice. One of the things that seems to intimidate people most about baking at home is how inconsistent the processes and outcomes can seem, and how hard it can be to find explanations for it all.

Bread can be a fickle animal. Even though it's one of the simplest, oldest foods on earth, it also takes a lot of finesse and practice before you can make it confidently and well. Today we're going to go through troubleshooting the loaves we've already baked to learn how to make them better and more consistent in the future. Along the way, we're also going to develop a toolkit of skills that we can use to nudge our loaves in the right direction in real-time. So bring to this post your deflated, your dense, your huddled and over-proofed masses of dough. This here is for the funny-looking ones (cheers!) that are essential parts of learning.

All of the loaves you'll find in this troubleshooting manual were made with the same basic workhorse loaf recipe and all baked from the same batch of dough. However, in each case—with the exception of our "just right" loaf—I've intentionally strayed from our prescribed method in order to exaggerate and highlight some of the things that commonly go awry when baking bread. Today we're going to learn about what happens when our loaves are under-proofed, un-scored, over-proofed, or misshapen, and how to tell what went wrong using visual and other physical cues.

Lastly, this post is going to draw very heavily on the vocabulary and processes explained in earlier posts. If at any point this starts to sound like gibberish, don't hesitate to look back at our previous installments.

So, let's turn our attention to our loaves and talk about what went right and wrong, how to recognize it, and how we can use our mistakes to better inform ourselves for future bakes.

What Makes Good Bread Go Bad?

A successful loaf of bread depends largely on the balance between the gluten network built by mixing and folding your dough and the yeast-based processes that give bread its flavor and help it rise during baking. The former is what gives your bread structure—it's what allows the bread to keep its shape as it inflates, and it's what forms the walls of the large bubbles you'll find in a good loaf. The latter is what produces the gases that inflate and create those bubbles in the first place.

Under ideal circumstances, loaves are baked at the moment when all of these forces have reached an optimal balance. Our loaves will be fully inflated but still have a coherent structure, flavorful but not too funky, our yeast well-fed but not comatose. Under less-than-ideal circumstances, you can end up with any number of problems. Learning to identify them is the key to future success.

Keeping that information in mind, I want to examine this just-right loaf, and talk about why and how it became the darling that it is.

Mr. Right: The Properly Proofed and Shaped Loaf

Let's start by looking at a healthy specimen so we know what we're dealing with before we try to diagnose our sick patients.

The Autopsy

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What's New On Serious Eats

The Crust: The ideal loaf of bread should have a dark, nicely domed, oval crust with a gentle curve towards the bottom—nothing too angular or balloon-like. The crust should burst wide at the scored areas and its surface should have plenty of blisters that help keep it crunchy even hours after baking.

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The Crumb: The crumb (that's baker-speak for everything inside the crust) in a good loaf should be open and airy, with no unincorporated flour. Most importantly, the crumb should look evenly airy from end to end, which tells us that the dough was appropriately aerated throughout its mass when it went into the oven. The flavor should be nutty, but not yeasty or sour.

Now that we know what good bread should look like, let's move on to examining the bad loaves.

The Jumper: Under-Proofed and Un-Scored

The Autopsy

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The Crust: Looking at this loaf in profile, two things stand out. First, the loaf has burst its crust, forming a shabby-looking crown around the top—a very different appearance from an appropriately scored loaf. Second, the loaf is almost semi-spherical in shape, like half a soccer ball.

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The Crumb: The outer rim of the loaf, which is closest to where the crust burst on top, is very open, albeit in a sort of haggard and random manner. Meanwhile, the center of the loaf is very dense, and even after a long bake (close to an hour for this one) feels gummy and heavy.

The Diagnosis

When we bake too soon after shaping (i.e. under-proof our loaf), our gluten network has not had sufficient time to relax. As a result, rather than stretch as its internal gases expand, the gluten simply tears. Under these conditions, gases don't escape in a controlled manner like they should; they burst out at random weak points in the crust, resulting in bread that is over-expanded around the edges, but dense and gummy in the center. Improper scoring (or forgetting to score entirely) can lead to similar end results as the dough desperately tries to find avenues of expansion.

The Cure

For an extreme case like this, there a few straightforward steps that we can take to avoid this outcome:

  • Follow the baking schedule: If a formula recommends a 90-minute final proof, give it the full 90 minutes. Rushing dough has consequences, and under-proofed, dense bread is the big one.
  • Use the poke and feel tests: Even if you've followed the formula and schedule correctly, there are factors that can affect the way dough rises. If your loaf looks as though it hasn't risen at all in its proofing container, move it to a warmer place or allow it to proof longer. Give your loaf a little poke and feel. If your finger leaves no impression and the dough feels firm, then the gluten is still very taut from shaping, and your dough needs more time to aerate. If your finger leaves an imprint indefinitely or the loaf feels extremely soft, bake immediately.
  • Scoring matters: Always remember that in addition to looking pretty, scoring provides a valuable service to loaves during baking. Had we scored this loaf, regardless of the under-proofing, we would have seen much more openness in the crumb.

The Slob: Over-Proofed and Wearing Yesterday's Gluten

The Autopsy

The Crust: The first thing we should notice about this loaf is how flat it is. The loaf is also very wide, and its edges conform almost perfectly to the shape of the pan, showing that it spread too far outwards as it baked.

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Looking at the scores, we can see that they hardly burst at all, they just spread open, and the lines marking where the surface was cut are jagged rather than clean. Moreover, the crust is buckling a bit, and went soft shortly after baking.

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The Crumb: Looking at photo below, we can see that the crumb of this loaf is markedly more uniform than our just-right loaf, with a middle just slightly denser than its surroundings. If we look towards the very edge, we can see small patches of larger holes bordering the crust. The patterns of openness in the crust, meanwhile, in no way correspond to the scoring on top.

The Diagnosis

This loaf is over-proofed. When a loaf proofs for too long, or is proofed at too high a temperature, the dough over-aerates and the gluten over-relaxes, allowing the gas pressure inside the loaf to overwhelm the dough's internal structure. Moreover, enzyme activities begin to further weaken the gluten networks, and the yeast begins to deplete its food supply. For these reasons, over-proofed loaves often collapse and flatten in the oven, exhibiting almost no oven-spring.

The Cure

  • Score less: When loaves are over-proofing, it means that they're already struggling to contain the gas pressure inside of them, even before baking. The loaf surface is already full of weak spots. Since the purpose of scoring is to create weak spots to relieve pressure—and keeping in mind that creating an excess of internal gas pressure is an essential part of generating oven-spring—making fewer, shallower scores can help your loaf to bake properly. For a loaf that is really, really over-proofed, leaving a loaf entirely un-scored is an option as well.
  • Proof less and/or colder: If you find that your loaves seem to over-proof often, then it's time to rethink your schedules and temperatures. Try a one-hour proof in the same place you've been performing your final proof. Alternatively, you can move your loaves into an even colder part of your refrigerator, generally near the back.
  • Mix your dough colder: This is related to being mindful of the environment your dough is proofing in, but if your dough over-proofs during one bake, and you have a need to preserve the schedule and proofing set up you've been working with, try mixing your dough with colder water to keep your schedule on track.

Sir Lumps-a-lot: Shaping Issues and Unincorporated Flour

The Autopsy

The Crust: When we look at the crust of this loaf, it shows all of the signs of a good bake—burnished, blistered crust, decent volume, and bursting scores. However, if we examine its shape more broadly, we see large bumps and knobs around the edges, and the circumference looks more like a guitar pick than an oval. When we look at the bottom (pictured above), rather than seeing a smooth surface, we see all kinds of twists, ridges, and knots.

The Crumb: Around the upper right of the loaf, we see a nice open crumb, the sort that shows it was fully aerated before baking. But then running vertically along the center left hand side, we see a taut, dense patch that is right underneath our score, and should in theory be amongst the most open portions of the loaf's crumb. Down along the bottom of the loaf, there are some gaping holes all by themselves.

If you look at this close up, you can see a ribbon of unincorporated flour just above that oddly cavernous hole...

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The Diagnosis

The external and internal inconsistencies in this loaf are all typical of misshaping. The bursting to just one side was likely caused by tearing the gluten along that section, likely by pulling too hard and inconsistently when trying to generate tension. The random patches of openness and density in the crumb are likely caused by pushing too hard on the dough during shaping, causing portions of it to deflate. The unsealed seam on the bottom, and the unincorporated flour in the crumb are both caused by using an excess of bench flour during shaping, so much that the dough was unable to integrate it.

The Cure

  • Be gentle: However sticky a dough is, it's still your friend, and trying to muscle it towards anything is likely to deflate portions of it and tear gluten. Both of these things lead to internally mismatched loaves, where each slice is unique, but probably not in a good way. Work to develop tension in a dough but not a perfect sphere—it'll just tear itself apart in the oven.
  • Go easy on the flour: Bench flour is a tool to be used with discretion. Lightly flour your hands, bench, and bench knife. Do not flour the loaf as it's being shaped or it will end up causing chewy streaks in the finished loaf. But what if a dough is really sticky? Glad you asked.
  • Trust your bench knife and move fast: Dough sticks to things. To keep your dough from sticking to you, it's important to shape your dough as quickly as possible. As my professor at cooking school used to say, the slower you move, the more time the dough will have to cling to you. If your dough is sticking to the point where it's becoming difficult to shape, flour your hands. If it continues to stick to you, use your bench knife to unlatch it from your workbench. Again, again, again, move quickly.
  • Practice, practice, practice!: The only way to become a truly confident shaper is to do it a lot. The ability to shape dough well is all about muscle memory, which means repetition. Be patient with yourself and your dough, and you'll get it. I promise.

Practice!

This isn't about making baking scary! It's all part of the learning process.

Making bread is amazing because it's both very simple and very hard to do. As old as bread is, the making and eating of bread has morphed from an act of survival into a craft of choice and exploration, and has gone through periods of both common knowledge and arcane alchemy. In the culinary world, bread-making is something of a sphinx, a riddle that many people ignore and others become obsessed with.

What I mean to say here is that learning new things takes time and practice, particularly when those new things are actually very old things that we're trying to reclaim. Mistakes are just part of it. And when we bake lemons, we should make lemonade breadcrumbs, and troubleshoot for our next go.

In our next post, we're going to start deconstructing the workhorse loaf, and talk about what it means to pre-ferment flour, which starts us on our path toward wild yeast, sourdough, and other weird stuff. Along the way, I'll be sure to talk a little more about the practice of salvaging goof ups, 'cause when it comes down to it, it can all still make dinner.

If you're having trouble with your loaves, don't hesitate to email me! It might take me a minute, but I do my best to get back to everyone. If you're able, try to send pictures along with your questions. Happy baking, everyone!