The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Advice - small loaves, dense crumb

douggiefox's picture

Advice - small loaves, dense crumb


I've home baking for a little while now and I've got to a point where everything seems to be coming out've the oven the same :-)

I tried this recipe over the weekend and it's pretty typical of results I'm getting:


What I end up with is a loaf that has a hard crust and a very dense crumb, the bread seems small, using 400g dough yields a very small loaf, I get no blisters and no carmelisation.  The flavour seems nice, it's chewy but melts in your mouth.

My starter's nice and lively and easily doubles in size.

Here're what I think could be the main culprits:

1. I'm not kneading enough.  After the autolyse bit of the recipe, I try to knead this with my kitchenaid but the amount of dough means it tries to climb up the dough hook.  I think I may try kneading by hand next time.

2. I'm wondering if my oven could be too hot?  So the crust is forming too soon?  I have a neff oven which has a bread baking mode and I'm putting in a marble slab as well.  I'm wondering if that's just all too much and I should take the slab out and let the oven do it's work alone?

3. I have no steam.  I've spritzed with a spray but that just disappears very quickly.

4. I prove in floured bannetons, I'm wondering if residual flour on the outside of the bread once sprayed with water isn't helping too much and is preventing blisters and caramalisation happening?

Any hep is welcome.


Best wishes



BellesAZ's picture

Are you achieving a window pane upon kneading your bread?  This is the only way I know that I've kneaded enough.  If not, you need to achieve window pane. A dense crumb is indicative of either not kneading enough or you are measuring your ingredients.. if you are, invest in a scale.  It will be the best investment you've ever made.  I assume you are since your link shows grams as a measure/weight.

Also, are you using the flour that they recommend for this loaf?  That could make a difference as well.

The only way you know if your oven is too hot is to use a thermometer and take the temp.  Are you noticing other things baking too hot? 

You're using a marble slab?? I've never heard of this, but that wouldn't be a surprise.  I have a baking stone in my oven.  It helps to keep my crusts crisp and I couldn't live without it!  A marble slab is a new one to me.. I can't see where marble would be able to allow moisture to flow through the pores.. which is what helps your crusts.

As for steaming.. I leave an old cake pan on the bottom of my stove.. I toss in a cup of ice cubes or cold water and let the oven steam for a few minutes before putting my bread in.  Spritzing has never worked well for me and I don't believe you can really achieve good results with a spray bottle.

Do you have convection baking?  If so, you may try that.  I get seriously nice breads using the convection bake (not roast, but bake) of my oven.

susanfnp's picture

BellesAZ gave you a lot of good advice. I agree that the dough may not be mixed enough. Here are a few additional thoughts:

Do your loaves bulge out at the cuts, or do you see tearing either at the ends of the cuts or in completey uncut places? This would indicate underproofing and/or insufficient steam. I agree that it is really not sufficient to spray the loaves; you need an additional source of steam. If the crust has a chalky appearance, this in another indication of insufficient steam.

I've never used a marble stone but it would probably work. Make sure it is good and hot, so you get a good kick right at the beginning. In order to bring the stone to temperature you will need to preheat the oven for longer than it takes to just get the cavity to the desired temperature.

Blistering of the crust is usually only achieved if the loaves have been retarded. By no caramelization, do you mean your loaves are pale? You can bake them for longer to get the color you want. But if the time is much longer than 35 minutes (for the Norwich sourdough in link above), I'd suspect your oven temp.

Keep at it, and good luck!


Wild Yeast

Dragonbones's picture

douggiefox, I wonder about your hydration. Are you sure you're not mixing too much flour in?  Are you measuring or weighing?  If measuring, are you spooning flour into the cup then leveling it with a knife, or jamming the cup into the flour to fill it? The latter overpacks the flour, so you get too dry of a dough, which inhibits rising and results in dense loaves. Aim for a slightly sticky dough or at least tacky, not dry like Playdoh and you may find your loaves improve (of course it will depend on the desired bread type).  If possible, switch to weighing.

On steam, get yourself a big cast-iron pan like a Lodge grill-griddle and put that on the floor of the oven. Preheat on max temp for an hour. Right after you load the bread, toss half a cup of boiling water on the iron pan and close the door immediately, then adjust the temp to your desired baking temp. You'll get more steam volume that way than with spritzing.

douggiefox's picture

Hi thank you all for the kind advice.

I am measuring everything precisely.

I was under the impression that using a marble slab was a common approach.  It's blumming heavy so ditching it would be a result! 

From what you have all said I think I'm convinced I'm not kneading enough.  The dough is very sticky, would you oil your hands or add flour?

I'm also convinced that steam would help a lot.  I'm going to try the lava rocks in a tray idea.

Beyond that I think my issues rest with my oven which is trial and error.  I'm taking notes on each loaf I make.  I think I'll take some pictures next time too.

Baking day's Friday so it'll have to wait until then.  I'll report back.


Best DF

BellesAZ's picture

But... are you weighing or measuring?  I'm still not sure from your response.  Forgive me if you have answered already.

Slabs are useful for pastries and tempering chocolates, candy, etc.  You could leave it resting on your counter and find all kinds of good uses for it.

I don't think you need to be too fancy - lava rocks in a tray are probably unnecessary.  Just some water in a pan that you preheat with your whole oven is all that is needed.  Sometimes, we tend to over think things or use "gadgets" to help us achieve perfection and really.. the best way to achieve great results is through time, patience and practice.  If you start out badly, nothing can fix it.. so if you're not kneading enough, nothing you buy or try will improve things.

What you need is a baking stone for more consistent and tested results.  However, there are those that apparently use marble in baking and a discussion has occurred here on the subject.  Not to say that it wouldn't work, but the very nature of a baking stone is different than a slab.  A baking stone is porous, whereas a slab really isn't as much.  A stone allows for even transfer of heat and tends to retain heat/moisture, evenly.  It also helps regulate oven temperatures and that's why you should let your oven preheat with your stone for AT LEAST 30 minutes before you plan on baking.  Some people even use roofing tiles as baking stones for their ovens, but I wouldn't.  They are often coated with chemicals.  Just buy a baking stone that is the thickest you can find, will cover the entire rack of your oven or sits on the bottom of your oven nicely.  Here is a website about the use of baking stones which you might find of interest. 

I have a regular baking stone that I bought from King Arthur Flour a few years ago.  It's thick and I love it.  Mine is never removed from the oven.. I bake everything on it.. from a roast to casseroles.  It's too heavy to keep transferring in and out, so it has a permanent home.  I do switch racks around if I'm baking delicate things like cookies, etc.. I don't bake those directly on the stone.  I have heard good things about another type of stone called FibreMent.. not sure what the difference is, but bakers love them.  You can get them for a fairly affordable price from eBay.

I suspect that a baking stone is only part of the issue for you.  If you suspect you're not kneading enough, then you probably aren't.  Here is a video that shows kneading to the window pane stage.  I'm almost hesitant to share it with you because this guy is using cups for his flour.. so ignore his recipe, just pay attention to his method of kneading.  Click here for the Window pane video  I think once you achieve this, you will know what your dough should feel like.  If you notice too, he adds his flour in slowly.. not all at once.  This certainly helps achieve the right balance of your dough.

Learning when your dough feels right and when it's ready only comes with experience, so keep trying.  Buy a thermometer for your oven.. every decent baker has one because our ovens are never perfectly calibrated from the factory.  Get a good baking stone, use a pan on the bottom of your oven for water or ice cubes to create steam... if your breads are still not right, then you've narrowed the problem down to the mix, the way you measure or weigh and the knead..

You are working with a pretty high hydrated dough and remember too that your environment can dictate that a bit too.  Where I live, in the desert Southwest, I always have to add a bit more water since my flour tends to be drier.  If you live in a humid environment, that can also affect your dough.

Good luck!

ladonohue's picture

Thank you so much...these posts are awesome and I am having some similar problems.  with crumb and crust. 

I started setting a timer for kneading and did it for 10 min, even after that I did not have a window pane.  The dough starts to feel tough and it essentially becomes a big ball and its not easily pulled.  I think I am adding too much flour.  I am certainly not weighing and I think this could be a big part of the issue.  Also as I knead I am constantly throwing flour down onto the surface and its hard to tell exactly how much is being added.  So while kneading the dough should continue to be sticky/tacky?  how do you keep from sticking to it/the counter without continually adding flour? 



Dragonbones's picture

Yes, you're adding too much flour, unless perhaps you're making bagels. Dough is usually slightly sticky or tacky.

Do weigh, and try not to constantly add flour as you knead. It's okay for the dough to stick a bit to the counter, and you can learn to use that to help you knead. Or you can oil or wet the counter and your hands.

The extent to which the dough should be sticky or tacky depends on the recipe. Good recipes will often say 'dough should be (insert description of level of stickiness here) at this point'.

Some doughs are so wet and sticky that I work them on a wet or oiled counter using a scraper and not my hands, e.g. ciabatta.