The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Bread problems, practically A to Z

Allannaa's picture

Bread problems, practically A to Z

As a girl growing up on the farm, we made our bread.  By "we" I mean, me and my three rotten brothers and bratty sister.  When I left home and got married I decided "Never again!" but I'm all grown up now at almost-50 and have decided "No more store bread."

You would think that 15 or so years of baking bread twice weekly back then would have made me able to do this, but I can't seem to get anywhere.

First I tried the "Bread machine", with boxed mixes, which were more expensive than store-bread anyway; then I tried the recipes in the booklet that came with the machine.  The results were horrible so I decided to go back to "real" bread.  Unfortunately, the results are still horrible.

Here's the recipe I use, from the goo-spattered card of my youth:

5 to 6 cups of flour, with not more than 1/3 of flour being "whole" or "cracked" wheat

2 cups warm water and milk; if milk is fresh allow to cool from pastuerising

1 Tablespoon of fat, either butter or shortening (my card lists a brand-name shortening that we've all heard of)

1 Tablespoon of sweetening, either honey or white sugar

1 & 1/2 Teaspoons of yeast

1 Teaspoon of salt

Instructions: Put half the flour and the salt in a bowl and mix.  Mix milk and water, check to be sure it's no higher than 110F on a candy stick (thermometer).  Add in fat, and stir gently to start melting or softening. When temp is 110, add sweetening and mix.  When sweetening is well stirred, add yeast.  Stir gently.  Set aside till the top bubbles like a glass of soda pop.  If it doesn't make bubbles, throw it out and make biscuits because no bubbles means dead yeast bugs.

Once yeast mixture is bubbly, pour into bowl of flour.  Mix, adding flour, until dough is stretchy and smooth.  Wash the bowl and dry it, butter it lightly, put the dough into the bowl and turn a little to coat.  Lay a clean towel over the bowl and go away for 45 minutes to an hour.  After 45 minutes to 1 hour, punch dough down.  Leave it alone for 10 minutes while buttering enough pans.  Divide dough in 2 and put in pans, tucking sides under.  Set aside for 30 minutes to 45 minutes with the towel on top.  Make up the oven.  After 30 minutes check oven; temperature should be 375F but not higher than 400F.  Bake loaves in middle of of oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour till tapping sounds hollow.


That is word for word, except the explanation about the shortening, and the translation of "candy stick", the recipe I used as a girl, twice a week, every week, winter or summer, and it WORKED.  Now, all I get is a disgusting mess that's pale regardless of oven temp or type of pan, is heavy on the inside, even tho tapping gives the "hollow" sound.  Additionally, although the first rise is perfect, the second one doesn't seem to be, because the marks from my fingers for shaping the bread into the pans, remain in the finished loaves, and they don't appear to rise much in that last 45 minutes, nor do they rise at all in the oven; the loaves are no bigger finished than the dough was going in.  I can't even really describe the texture of the bread -- it's as if you took the heaviest bread you can imagine, and misted it with the plant sprayer.  The bread TASTES fine -- it's just unusable for anything but chicken food.

I am wondering if the problem is lack of practise, bad memory, and -- don't laugh -- modern conveniences.  After I gave up on the bread machine, I used the above recipe, except:

1) I warm the water to add to the milk, in the microwave

2) I put the flour-salt mix in the Kitchenaid

3) Once the yeast liquid looks like "soda pop", I turn on the Kitchenaid and as it stirs with the dough hook, I gently poor in the yeast liquid

4) As the KA mixes the liquid into the flour, I turn it off from time to time and add more flour till I get a dough ball

5) Once I have the dough ball, I knead that as usual, on a floured board, pushing and folding until it's smooth and pretty on the outside

6) I cover the bowl with a paper towel or plastic wrap now instead of a "tea towel"

7) I let it rise on the counter, regardless of season, because while I have a gas oven, it's the kind with no pilot light.  Temperature isn't a problem; it's rarely cooler than 70 degrees anywhere in my house, thanks to modern heating and cooling, and the kitchen is NEVER cold (tho sometimes I sure wish it was)

8) I use, as mentioned above, a gas oven with a very precise digital display so I set it for exactly 380F, no more guesswork with a woodstove.

I did not have these issues with the bread as a girl.  It's only since my grand expedition into bread making as an adult, that this occurs.  While Missouri can be quite humid, particularly in the lake region, I am not living that far from where I grew up, so I don't think weather and temperature can be the explanation behind the horrible mess I get.  The trouble seems to come in sometime between "punch it down" and "baking", as I said above, it doesn't seem to rise right for the second period, and the marks of my fingers are CLEARLY visible on the loaves.

I've wondered if I'm under-kneading, or by the same token, OVER-kneading, since my hands and arms may not remember "how long" anymore, and maybe I don't judge texture or smoothness of dough very well anymore.

I've made sure to use new, active yeast -- NOT bread-machine yeast -- and I've always kept my jar of yeast in the door of the frige, although I am aware yeast can be frozen.  I use what I sure hope is fresh flour from the local market, and I have even gone to the local Wal-Mart and bought a bag of flour, assuming that since it's higher turnover, I'd be sure to get "fresher" flour.  Milk comes from my own cow, just as it always did when I was a girl, and I generally use butter, again, just as I did when growing up, as the "fat" in the recipe.  I use ordinary iodized sea-salt, again... Just as I did when I was little.

So if ANYONE can figure out what in the sam-hill is going wrong, I would surely appreciate it.  I ain't proud, as granny used to say, and I'll take advice from ANYONE at this point!




Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

Can you, as a resident of the Show Me State, accept a few suggestions from a Jayhawk fan and resident of Kansas?

First of all, take a look at the article "Your First Loaf" on the Home page of this site. It's been there for five years because it works well for everybody that tries it. Second, get yourself a scale and learn how to use baker's percentages. I know that you stated you learned without a scale and percentages but that isn't working for you right now so give it a try.

Investigate the use of pre-ferments such as bigas, poolishes, and sponges for your bread. They add flavor and keeping qualities to your loaves. Instead of 'punching down" your dough, utilize the stretch and fold technique to keep more of those desirable pockets in your dough.  YouTube and this site have video clips on shaping loaves, whether you want a pan loaf, boule, batard, or baguette. Surface tension on a loaf makes a difference in baking.

Do you scald your milk before using it in your baking? I'm not an expert on bread nor do I pretend to be one on the internet but raw milk has some properties that can affect your bread.

Nothing I mentioned is very new or startling but all of it will make a difference. If you want to make your own bread better, you have to get on the learning curve as most of us have. No one has been born with all the skills needed yet. When your brain gets frazzled, take some time and get to a lake to fish or relax. That helps as well.

Dillbert's picture

you may have heard . . .

cooking is an art, baking is a science.
it's pretty close to true - you need to have the proper proportions of things to make it work.  when you were making bread continuous my bet is you recognized the 'feel' of the dough and made adjustments on the fly.  good bakers don't have much trouble with that.

toss the bread machine.

and loose the Crisco - it's no transfat formulation is widely report problematic in baking.  go with butter.

I'll second the suggestion to get a scale - also a notebook.  there are kazillions of recipes here and elsewhere for you to try - starting with a nice basic white bread.  for openers go with recipes that are given in weight - there's a long debate about how much a cup of flour weighs . . . 

keep in mind you may need to tweak even things given by weight because x ounces of flour type/brand X does not alwayswork exactly like x ounces of flour Y or Z.  that's the need for the notebook.  stick with the same non-store brand of flour - what ever is regularly available in your store - until you have an experience base.

also - the yeast.  instant aka bread machine yeasts do not need to be proofed.  (actually, even the active dry doesn't - the idea behind proofing was to make sure the yeast wasn't dead.)


380'F is a bit low for bread - I'd bump that up to 425'F and see if 450'F would work.

leucadian's picture

You asked why your old recipe doesn't work anymore. I think it's because you have a different yeast product now, and you have forgotten what the soda-pop bubbles looked like.

Is it possible that your first stage is taking a lot longer than when you were a girl? Back then it was standard procedure to test (proof) the yeast by putting it in warm water and wait for it to foam. I think the foaming you see now is the yeast actually fermenting, producing bubbles, as in a 'poolish' or liquid levain (you have all the milk and water, but only half the flour), and it might take up to an hour. Then you mix the rest of the flour in, and let it rise for a second fermentation, and finally you punch it down and expect it to rise a third time. But by now the yeasts have eaten everything in sight and are spent. No sugar left to make CO2 with, no sugar to give a brown crust. Nice pale overproofed brick.  

Your yeast has done its job, but too early to meet your schedule. You can reduce the time in the first stage to just minutes (classic direct method), or reduce the flour and water in the first stage to something like 10% of the recipe (poolish method), or bake after the second stage (sort of a poolish with a large preferment). I think the first option is going to give you bread like you remember, but the second will develop more complex flavors.

Good luck. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

letting the "yeast liquid looks like "soda pop" step.  Once it is dissolved in the warm liquid, add it to the flour, your bugs are wasting gas when waiting so long.  Get that gas into the first rise so there's gas for the second one.  You also might be working in too much flour.  Hard to say using cups, they could be heavy or light cups depending on how you scoop and level the flour. 

I'm guessing that 5 and a half cups is about right.  So try putting in all 5.5 cups into the bowl with the salt and after mixing the liguid yeast brew into the flour, let it sit half an hour as a shaggy mass.  Then flop it out of the bowl and do a little kneading to get the dough smooth, trying not to add flour.  You will find the 30 minute wait helps a lot.  Avoid the cleaning out and buttering the bowl step by buttering the bowl before you even get started.  Then when the 30 minutes is up it will just fall out.  If you find the dough too stiff, then reduce to 5 and 1/4 cups.  But mix everything all together to a shaggy mass first and let the liquids work for you, covered with a large lid or another bowl or a wet dishtowel.   Gluten will develop while you do something else.

After that initial 30 minute wait and you've played with it until you got a smooth dough ball, return it to the bowl and cover to rise until just doubled.  That is until that mound of dough looks like you made a double batch.   You can punch down if you like or you can just flop it upside down (keep track of the top of the dough -  keep it always as top)  and spread it out and cut it in half.  Roll it up and fold it up tightening the skin away from the top of the loaf and place top side up in greased forms to rise.   If the dough isn't rising put it into a warmer place.  Go by when the dough is ready, not the clock.  Relax. 

You'll do fine.



amolitor's picture

How long are you letting things sit each time? (at each stage of the process, e.g. how long does it take to get "bubbles like soda pop"?)


Allannaa's picture

LOL @ Postal Grunt -- sure, even Jayhawks have good advice!  My internet connection isn't good enough to allow for vids, but yes actually I did look at the first-loaf post.  As to scalding milk, as often as not, yes -- pastuerising means heating the milk to 180F, but frankly no one is perfick, and I almost always miss and boil the milk just slightly (Boiling temp is 205-210F for those who weren't sure).  However, using a scale might not hurt, that's a good point.

@Dillbert -- Toss the bread machine? Oh you BET, that went to a local thriftstore.  I hated that darned thing.  I never actually used the crisco, even as a girl.  Reason?  I have a cow, so obviously I have cream, so obviously I had butter without having to buy anything.  I've never actually tried it with shortening, for the reason you mentioned -- fats all have their own characteristics, and butter is what I'm used to.  I will also do as you suggest and up the oven temp tomorrow, along with trying the scale as PG mentioned.

@Leucadian, MiniOven, and Amoliter -- For the time it takes to get the "soda pop" foam on the yeast liquid, by the time I've measured out the rest of the flour into a bowl and gotten the paper towel or the plastic wrap ready, the yeast liquid looks like that.  I would guess -- three minutes? Certainly not much longer.  However, I *have* read that one can put the first half of the flour, yeast, softened butter, sugar, and water + milk mix all in at once, WITHOUT mixing the liquid, sweet, fat, and yeast first, then add the salt and the rest of the flour, and count that 2nd addition of flour as the start of "kneading.

But you know, I have a feeling Dillbert may have hit the actual solution -- For 15 years I did this twice a week, every week, no matter what, so my fingers, hands, and arms, as well as my eyes and nose, just "knew".  So it may be entirely possible that Im just out of practise, and a few more tries will get me back on track.


I very much appreciate everyone's advice, and will keep checking to see if anyone has more to say.  Thank you!

amolitor's picture

Well, it's weird that the second rise isn't working out.

I think you might be getting a first rise out of the sugar -- if it's Really Fast (like 20-30 minutes) and then the second rise just needs time.

I would *expect* a first rise to be on the order of an hour (maybe 45 minutes, maybe 90, but somewhere around there) and the second rise to be half or three-quarters of the time of the first rise.


clazar123's picture

If you want to learn to make bread for daily use, you will need to develop a recipe that works for you with the tools at hand.It will take some trial and error (which make either good bread crumbs or bird food)

1.Get a notebook-keep track of what you do and how it turned out with each bake. Plan on doing a number of bakes before you feel like you "got it".

Use whatever measuring method you will be consistent with-cups or weight.

CUps will have some variation from loaf to loaf,depending on how you compact the flour as you scoop it up,if you level it off or not and is not great for "scaling up". A recipe becomes more of a guideline than a formula.

Weights is more accurate/consistent from loaf to loaf and easier to either scale up/down or share as a formula.But don't let this stop you from baking NOW.Start out with the tools at hand, learn and later use a scale, if you want to. I do guarantee it is not a requirement to weigh and there have been generations of bakers that never measured anything, except by guess.

With the recipe you have above-I would have no hesitation throwing almost all the ingredients in a bowl at once, mixing,rising double once,loafing/proofing and baking. I would start with a few things in mind:

1. Whole wheat flour needs time to asbsorb moisture over time so if you use whole wheat flour, mix up the dough with a little more than usual water so the dough is a little tackier/moist than usual. It should ALMOST transfer dough to your finger/hand if you try and knead it or transfer just a little.SO ball it up, let it rise to double or refrig in a covered container overnight. It will be a good consistency to shape for loaves,proof and bake.

2.With the amounts of flour/water or milk you have in the original recipe,it may be too dry, esp if you use mosltly milk.Milk is less "wet" than water as it has some solids in it-keep that in mind. Also,milk no longer has to be scalled before using unless it is fresh from the cow or you have questions about the effectiveness of modern pasteurization in your area.I would just warm the milk up to body temp before using so the yeasts like it.If you use whole wheat flour in your recipe you may need a little more water/liquid,too, or you may end up with a crumbly loaf.

3. I would start with 3-4 cups flour and then start adding flour to the right consistency (keeping the above statements in mind about whole wheat,extra tackiness and milk). I would add all the whole wheat at first with all the liquid. Then add a large portion of the all purpose flour and finally, add the remainder of all purpose flour as a finisher to get the right consistency.

 If you use instant yeast, just throw it in with the flour-don't try and proof it first.It will work well as long as it is not outdated and it has been kept properly (cool environment).


clazar123's picture

Another thought is that your loaves are very overproved in the loaf pan before baking. Your finger indents should not be so noticeable in the baked loaf. There is no oven rise to fill them in, indicating the yeast has lost the final oomph.It is spent. The loaves will tend to fall or deflate when put into the hot oven as the gas bubbles burst and there is no additional yeast activity to keep them inflated.

Rise to almost double one time in a container, shape and loaf, rise in pan for a lot shorter time ( not over an hour unless it is refrigerated dough-pos as little as 30 min). Finger indent of 1 centimeter bounces back at least halfway to fill in. It rises more in the oven and the subtle fingerpoke should be filled in.


lazybaker's picture

You might need another teaspoon of yeast. From experience, whenever I add milk, butter, or oil, the dough doesn't rise so much except when you add a little more yeast.

Shaping the dough to produce a tight surface tension is important, too. The tight surface tension provides for the loaf to rise vertically instead of horizontally. You roll or fold the dough to tighten the surface and press down on the dough to produce a seam. Place dough in pan seam-side down.

I don't think there's such a thing as over-kneading by hand. But it sounds like under-kneading though from the texture you described. When you knead, fold the dough and knead, so you incorporate air into the dough.