The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Inconsistent results

smiledi's picture

Inconsistent results

Hello all,

I'm a new member here and have come out of desperation! :)

I've been baking 100% whole wheat bread for a little over a year now, and have recently been getting very flat, dense doorstops instead of nice light loaves of bread. If I remember correctly, all winter my loaves were fine and delicious. Then summer came and none of them rise very much for the final rise, they are dense, and dry out very fast.

I tried reducing the amount of water since humidity levels were higher, and that helped a little bit. I tried kneading more to develop more gluten. That didn't seem to do anything. (I had been using store brand soft white wheat because of budget considerations.)

Then we were able to purchase a grain mill and a bag of soft white wheat berries. I tried making a loaf with this, and it was even more dense and heavy than any of my previous loaves! I called my mother-in-law who grinds her own wheat and she suggested adding gluten since the bran in the fresh-ground wheat will slice up the gluten created by kneading. I tried that just yesterday and the result is a little better, but still not very appealing for sandwich bread.

As far as my recipe goes, I actually got it from a forum on this site a year ago, but I don't want to go back and find it--it was buried deep in a topic somewhere :) It makes three loaves at a time, so I thirded it to get just one loaf for my husband and me. Here is what I do:


1 tsp yeast

1 c water

I put the spoon in my bowl and go around it 3 times with the honey bottle (I got sick of washing honey out of a measuring cup! It's about 1/6 cup)

Stir until honey is dissolved.

Stir in 1 cup of flour.

Let sit in warm oven for 1 hour.

Rest of dough:

Add almost 1 cup of flour, 1/6 c oil, and 3/4 tsp salt. Stir hard. (I also add 1 T gluten here.)

Add almost 1 cup of flour again, until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and looks like I could knead it without losing half of it sticking to my hands.

Knead about 5 minutes; return to bowl and let rise in warm oven 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled.

Shape into loaf, put in loaf pan, let rise 45 more minutes. Bake at 375 for 35 minutes.


Now, I know this is a far cry from overnight soakers and bigas and sourdoughs and all the other artisan bread techniques that I've read about here. But I'm not looking for an artisan bread--just a nice, basic, healthier-than-white-bread type of sandwich bread so I can control the ingredients that go into it.

Does anyone have any suggestions for how I can tweak this recipe to achieve my nice loaves of last winter? Or is there another recipe that's more fail-safe? I really appreciate any help you can give!!!!! :)


mrfrost's picture

Soft wheat is preferable for cakes, muffins, biscuits, etc. In most cases, soft wheat used for yeast breads will have results like yours.

Hard wheat is best for making yeast raised breads. Depending on just how soft your wheat is, and how strong your vwg is, it may take upwards of a tablespoon of vwg per cup of flour, to get a nicely raised loaf.

Also, you may look to review/revise your technique for warmer weather baking. Proofing times, amount of yeast used, etc. Things can happen much faster in warmer conditions.

smiledi's picture

I didn't realize that the hardness or softness of the wheat could affect the bread...thanks for that tip! I have some harder wheat on order, so when it comes in I'll try it and see if it helps. I guess the soft wheat doesn't develop as much gluten?

Chuck's picture

I fear the meaning didn't get across as originally intended. Harder and softer wheats may not meaningfully exist, and harder/softer is not something that should much affect your choice of flours.

The words "hard" and "soft" are tossed around all the time because they're part of the name of most common kinds (subspecies?) of wheat. Those words are sometimes used as a stand-in for gluten/protein content, which is what breadbakers really care about.

According to Wikipedia, the kinds of wheat found in the U.S. include:

  • Durum - Very hard, translucent, light colored grain used to make semolina flour for pasta.
  • Hard Red Spring - Hard, brownish, high protein wheat used for bread and hard baked goods. Bread Flour and high gluten flours are commonly made from hard red spring wheat. It is primarily traded at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.
  • Hard Red Winter - Hard, brownish, mellow high protein wheat used for bread, hard baked goods and as an adjunct in other flours to increase protein in pastry flour for pie crusts. Some brands of unbleached all-purpose flours are commonly made from hard red winter wheat alone. It is primarily traded by the Kansas City Board of Trade. One variety is known as "turkey red wheat", and was brought to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants from Russia.[28]
  • Soft Red Winter - Soft, low protein wheat used for cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, and muffins. Cake flour, pastry flour, and some self-rising flours with baking powder and salt added for example, are made from soft red winter wheat. It is primarily traded by the Chicago Board of Trade.
  • Hard White - Hard, light colored, opaque, chalky, medium protein wheat planted in dry, temperate areas. Used for bread and brewing.
  • Soft White - Soft, light colored, very low protein wheat grown in temperate moist areas. Used for pie crusts and pastry. Pastry flour, for example, is sometimes made from soft white winter wheat.

Simply put, all of the wheat subspecies with "hard" in their name can make good bread, and none of the wheat species with "soft" in their name by themselves make good bread very often (although there are uses for them).

The kinds of wheat with "soft" in their name nay be used in "Cake" flour, but so seldom exclusively comprise "All Purpose" flour that you needn't even keep it in mind. (And when "soft" varieties are used in All Purpose flour, it's typically to mix a "hard" variety with a "soft" variety to get the desired gluten content  ...again something you needn't concern yourself with.)

Chuck's picture

A common problem when bread "used to work" but doesn't work any more is your yeast is starting to lose its oomph. Put a bit of yeast in warm water and add a tiny bit of sugar and flour; does it get really frothy (like it did before)? If you keep your yeast in an airtight container in your refrigerator it should last a long time - even so, check it once in a while after a year or two have gone by.

The other common problem is a change in the flour (this includes the store having changed something and all you did was buy a new bag of what you thought was the same old stuff). It's fairly common for flour to vary from one year to the next as the harvests vary; if you bought a new bag in late spring/early summer your market might have supplied it from the "new" harvest of hard winter wheat. Also be very wary of flour sold out of bulk bins.

If you calculate the cost of flour per loaf, you may find it isn't all that much, and decide the few pennies per loaf you save by "shopping around" for the cheapest flour just aren't worth the aggravation of having to tweak all your recipes and practices.

"Whole wheat" flour is especially tricky. The fineness of the grind can vary a great deal. And storage practices that were developed for and are perfectly adequate for white flour can subtly fail with whole wheat. When you find something that works you may wish to stick with it.

And you probably don't want to hear this, but if you were baking satisfactory 100% whole wheat loaves, you were rather lucky. Often 50% whole wheat (the other 50% being white) is what people start with, eventually working up to 100% whole wheat with some trepidation.

Milling your own flour is an interesting challenge that can be mastered. It is not however a standard of comparison; you are introducing even more variables (there are a gazillion). If you suspect something wrong with your flour, milling your own will neither tell you why nor solve your problem. If anything, obtain a little bit of flour from your mother-in-law and try to bake with that.

The effect of summer depends on how isolated, open, and drafty your kitchen (especially your rising place) is; some effectively vary from 55F in the winter to 85F in the summer, while others are 68F all the time. If the temperature varies a lot, rising times will vary a whole lot too - especially watch out for "going away" for a fixed amount of time and coming back and deciding nothing has happened, when in fact the dough has risen nicely then collapsed again before you got back to it. Differences in humidity can sometimes just be ignored, although adjusting your recipe hydration levels slightly is probably best. Even drastic humidity differences shouldn't cause a dramatic failure to rise hardly at all though. Before blaming problems on summer weather, think back if you bought a new sack of flour at the beginning of summer too.

smiledi's picture

Wow, thanks for all this info. I will test the yeast and see what happens. I don't think I've had it for much over 6 months, but I am right at the end of my jar so that could be an issue now, I guess.

I suppose the store could have changed the flour, but since I buy it in 5-lb bags I buy a new one every 2 or 3 weeks depending on how much I bake.

I think the winter loaves were satisfactory! :) My husband agreed that they used to be different, although they weren't as light and fluffy as storebought bread. If I can't think of anything else to vary and they're still heavy, I'll definitely go the 50-50 route and see if I can work back up to 100% WW eventually. Thank you for that tip.

Would you suggest heating the oven to around 100 degrees and always letting it rise in there to protect from drafts and keep a consistent temperature? Or is there a better way to let it rise? And would you suggest a longer rise before or after shaping into the loaf?

Thanks again for your help!

Chuck's picture

...heating the oven to around 100 degrees and always letting it rise in there to protect from drafts and keep a consistent temperature...

Avoiding drafts over rising dough? Yes - You can do this any number of ways: relatively draft-free kitchen, cover dough with tea towel, Saran Wrap, Tupperware, put rising dough in one of those big zippered plastic bags that quilts and comforters come in... Putting it in the oven will keep the drafts off, but may be inconvenient (something you do once: pre-heat the oven only to find the rising dough was still in it)

Adjust your water temperature so the dough winds up being about 80F. (A typical rule is to measure the temperature of a] the room and b] the flour, then subtract these two numbers from 240 - what's left is a reasonably good estimate of the water temperature you need. Remember though this does not apply to any bits of water you use to dissolve the yeast or thin the starter.)

Around 100F? NO, too hot. (Tricks for extremely fast rising were once the fashion, and recipe books of a certain age may still suggest them  ...but don't.) A typical rule is rising time will halve/double for every 7F change in temperature. So if your dough is at 100F instead of 80F, rising will be almost eight times as fast ...likely too fast to control.

...Or is there a better way to let it rise...

You may find it convenient to get a straight-sided container with measuring lines on it that's about the size of your typical dough. It will allow you to judge quickly and accurately things like "doubled" or "tripled".

...would you suggest a longer rise before or after shaping into the loaf?...

I'm not too sure about this one. Longer rises are typically applied to either the pre-ferment or the "bulk" rise. But I've tried a couple times shaping loaves then putting them in the refrigerator overnight and baking them the next morning, and so far I seem to have gotten good results that way too.

In any case, long slow (i.e. cool) rises give better flavor, and work just as well or even better (except for possible inconvenience to your schedule). In fact, you can use this to your advantage: for instance, if you suddenly find you must make an unplanned trip to the market and the dough is rising, just put it in your refrigerator. And the enhanced flavors of a long slow rise is a big part of what pre-ferments (sponge, poolish, biga) are all about.