The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Bread baking skills going downhill?

raingirl31's picture

Bread baking skills going downhill?

Hello everyone!!

New here! Just browsing around and you guys seem to be an awesome bunch!

I guess what prompted me to be here is, for some reason my bread baking skills seem to be getting worse??

Ever since I was a kid I've been baking bread. I've been baking it with my mom, on my own, never having problems.

Recently (say - last two to three years), it's almost like I lost my skill. I thought it was the oven at the apartment I was renting, but I moved to a new place with a almost brand new stove and I still can't get it right. It never rises or bakes properly anymore! I've tried old faithful recipes, new recipes, from scratch, mixed in my bread maker, mixed in my stand mixer, baked in the oven, baked in the bread maker (two bread makers even - went from a Black and Decker basic model to Cuisineart Convection).

Anyone ever had this happen? I really don't know what is wrong or why? I used to be a bread queen! I could make anything and it was awesome! Now - I'm lucky if the bread even rises! I literally made a recipe the other night (made several times before) for whole wheat beer bread in the bread maker. I put it in around 1 AM, checked it at 3 AM and it was doubled in size and everything looked fine (I work night shifts). I went to bed and left a note for my husband that fresh bread would be ready for him at 6 AM when he woke up. For some reason, the bread didn't rise the second round at ALL and was a dry small loaf after it baked?? I have NO idea what happened!

Maybe I need to go back to basics? Start over from scratch?

rolls's picture

lol, I have no idea to be honest, usually its practice, but it sounds like you're getting plenty of that. will wait and see what everyone else thinks :) I also felt I'd lost my touch and maybe I have, but if so it would be due to lack of practice, I went from baking bread practically everyday to once in a while (very hard to find the time to be honest with you). so, mostly, no knead, but finding jim lahey's breads really special have you ever tried this? :)

Nickisafoodie's picture

1) Use filtered tap water or better yet, bottled water.

2) get a good themomenter and make sure your oven is calibrated properly.  It can easily be off by 50 degrees or more!

One or both may be culprits.  Keep at it!

And try SAF yeast, the best out there: put SAF in the search box and you will see many testimonies on how superior this yeast is.

Chuck's picture

I too would be quite suspicious of your water if it came out of the tap and wasn't filtered. Is your new house connected to the same water system as your old apartment?

Depending on things you might not know -consent decrees, internal response to a water quality report, personnel turnover, different source, etc.- the water your town puts in the pipes may be subtly different than it used to be. It could be something that you don't notice but that yeasties do notice.

Chuck's picture

The first thing I'd check is your yeast. Do you by chance have a big jar of it in your refrigerator? Have you had it for several years? Yeast doesn't last forever no matter how well you store it (and can deteriorate in just a month or two if poorly stored), and old/weak yeast often leads to slowly deteriorating bread skills. (Also, is it possible you changed to a different market and they don't store all that well the yeast they sell, so that for example your home shelf life is now only two months rather than six even though you haven't changed anything?)

Second thought: have you got a thermometer? Use it to check your tap hot water temperature. Moving brings this topic to the fore. Hot water heaters are usually set for 120F  ...but not always. They may be cranked up to 140F or so, especially if somebody in the household kept running out of hot water in the shower and there were no kids to worry about (and maybe somebody talked around a plumber).


LindyD's picture

It's unhealthy to use water from your hot water tap for drinking or cooking purposes, per the CDC and this NY Times article.

If you ever saw the sediment and sludge buildup inside a water tank that's a couple years old, you wouldn't even want to use the water for anything other than washing stuff.

Stay on the safe side and pull your water from the cold tap, then heat it to whatever temp you may need for your bread.

carefreebaker's picture

How should I store my instant yeast?

I've been having problems also with my bread baking lately. I am going to try using bottled water and see if that helps.


Yerffej's picture

You answered your own question with going back to basics and starting over from scratch.  Baking good bread is more about technique than anything else and over time it is easy to get a bit careless with procedures that have become all too familiar.

Sit down, take a deep breath or two or three and relax.  Get out a recipe that you know well and read it over carefully from begining to end.  Make that recipe being very aware and careful to not take any mindless short cuts or changes in techniques or procedures.  You will be back on track in no time.


yogajan's picture

My bread baking skills were only marginal and inconsistent until I took a baguette course at San Francisco Baking Institute last year.  Now, with just a few of the techniques that I learned, my results are consistently great.  I am even more confident in trying new recipes and going new directions in baking bread.

Some of the important things I learned were:

1.  weight your ingredients.

2.  use your thermometer to make sure your dough is at the right temp and to assure your bread is done.

3.  Let the dough rest.

4.  Learn how to use steam properly in your home oven.

Regarding the last one, the school has a home oven and we learned to heat a cast iron skillet at a high temp (450) while the oven is preheating.  Put the bread in the oven, put water in the HOT skillet, immediately close the oven door and cover all of the oven vents to keep the steam in.

With a good scale, thermometer and cast iron skillet, you can make great bread.

lynnebiz's picture

Lots of good suggestions here - I want to add one more.

Have you changed your flour source (or could the flour you get have changed their source?)

I had a problem when I moved into my new apt. last year. Was thinking it was the adjustment to a different stove (and going from electric to gas). But then I remembered that I had changed the brand of flour I was buying - man, that was AWFUL flour (a generic brand I'll never touch again). Switching back to another generic that gave me good results solved my problem (I'm now using a humongous bag of bread flour I bought at Costco, also with very good results).

So - I'd check the yeast & the flour. Might be one or both (and the suggestions about the water are spot on, too).


raingirl31's picture

Thank you! 

To answer a few questions - water, I always use brita filtered. As for yeast, I'm in Canada so all we got here (that I've found) is Fleishmans. I bake quite a bit so I go through several bottles of their yeast a year. I always test my yeast first too (when using the breadmaker) so I know it's active. 

My scale broke two years ago, but I never really weighed ingredients before. I make wedding cakes as a hobby, so I only really used the scale for cake decorating. 

Temperature - this one has me baffled? Temperature of the dough? As for the oven, I had that looked into and it was actually fairly accurate. 

Flour - I've tried multiple brands and they all do the same, so I don't think it's that.

A side question on flour though - in pastry school I learned about Canadian all purpose flour being not the same as the US. Yet, most of our recipe books come from the US. I was wondering if that could be it? Growing up most of the bread making I made was with old Canadian cook books of my mothers, but my bread making has gone down hill the more cook books I get and the longer I've been away from home. Maybe I need to try Canadian recipes?

Tonight is my night off so I'm going to check my one and only Canadian cookbook and try a recipe in there that I know works. 

Chuck's picture

I always test my yeast first too (when using the breadmaker) so I know it's active.

Is it really active? "Weak" yeast will start causing problems long before it gets to the "completely dead" stage.

Your original posting caught my attention in this regard: dough in your breadmaker just "doubling" (not "tripling")? Depending on what that recipe was supposed to do, your experience might indicate weak yeast.

I always test my yeast first too (when using the breadmaker) so I know it's active.

Are you using "instant/breadmachine" yeast? It's a newer manufacturing process that's definitely superior to the old "active dry". Perhaps more importantly, the old "active dry" will not work right in bread machines.

While the newer "instant/breadmachine" yeast can be dissolved if you really want to, it often isn't (in fact when used in bread machines you should not dissolve it). I hope you just mean dissolving it as a test then throwing it out, not trying to put your test results into your recipe.

I bake quite a bit so I go through several bottles of their yeast a year.

"Big box" stores are a mixed blessing; without one you may not have easy access to bulk quantities, but you don't have mom-and-pop stores being run out of business either. I've found mail-ordering just a few pounds at a time (keep the extra in your freezer unopened) from King Arthur Flour -even with the postage- to be competitively priced with those bottles. And I'm not at the mercy of my local grocer any more.

My scale broke two years ago, but I never really weighed ingredients before.

This seems like the most likely suspect to me.

Your "feel" for what's right may have drifted over time without your realizing it. I'd suggest as an experiment trying just once to measure everything in the recipe. I especially suspect this because it sounds like you haven't had any successes to "recalibrate" your "feel". Also the length of time since you started having problems and the length of time since your scale broke are somewhat similar.

Temperature - this one has me baffled?

I was thinking water temperature, for example killing the yeast while trying to dissolve it. But as you say you always use a Brita filter (rather than the tap), my original suggestion is completely irrelevant. (Besides, as pointed out, using water out of the hot tap isn't a good idea anyway   ...yet another reason is it wastes energy.)

... Canadian all purpose flour being not the same as the US

Yep, "All Purpose" is a marketing term not a standard, and flours of different brands or in different locations all marketed as "All Purpose" can be a little different (especially their gluten content).

...I was wondering if that could be it?

My guess is it's not, that other factors like outside temperature, humidity, procedure, etc. create enough variability to swamp out whatever difference slight changes in flour make. (However as noted, either big changes in flour or a truly bad brand can sometimes kill your bread altogether.)

In any case rather than guessing I commend your idea of baking an experiment. That way you'll be sure.