The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Dense and flavorless- all my breads

Leslie B's picture
Leslie B

Dense and flavorless- all my breads

Hi All,

I've posted a few times.  Am new to baking and still haven't gotten a nice loaf.  All my breads are turning out to have the same density- no crumb, little flavor and a hard to eat crust.

This last attempt was a sourdough- using a borrowed "fail-safe, robust" starter.  But, I got the same results as a prefermented attempt, and a simple no kneed attempt.  Is the window pane test supposed to work on all breads?  I kneeded this bread for 50 mins and still didn't get a nice thin pull that didn't tear.  This time I tried the Mike Avery kneeding - for his San Francisco Sourdough.  On others, I tried the pull and fold method. 

I am at altitude (boulder) and it's cold in my house (out of my control).  I have the bread rise in the oven, it all seems to rise but this time when I went to slice it (forgot term) it collapsed.  I had pretty big bubbles forming on top.  I also did only 1 rise (as said in directions) for half the dough, and a second rise for the other half.  No changes.  Same thing happened.

I may have had the dough too wet in the beginning since it was sticking to my floured board and never really got unsticky until about the end of the kneeding where it felt stiff.  Still, I also think it dried out.

Oh well, can't figure out how to insert photos, just think of sandwich bread.

Thanks, leslie

Davo's picture

If it slumped badly on slashing, it was overproved.

I make heaps of bread and most of it pretty good (to me and others) and I have never bothered with a window pane test. I generally have wholemeal rye in my loaves along with strong white flour and the pane test doesn't really suit, but I've also made all white and never got the pane test working.

I do all my kneading using slap and fold (french fold) technique, and I don;t use flour as this dries out the mix. If anything in the early stages I wet my hands and wet the bench a smidge. This stops sticking. I do short kneads about 3-4 times (one minute knead, then 10 mins rest, 3-4 times). Then I rest for about 30-40 mins and do stretch and fold using light flour on the bench, thre or four time s(resting in a covered bowl do it doesn't dry out).

50 minutes - wow, I think you overworked the dough.

Then shape, into banettons, and prove.

From memory Mike Avery has a relatively long bulk ferment and short prove time for the shaped loaf. I tend to go for a longer prove. Make sure the oven isn't too warm - anything much over about 26 -28 deg C is trouble for me (gluten breaks down), optimal is around 20-22 celcius, for me.

Still with all this I'm surprised it's tasteless. Overprved bread usually has poor texture but tastes fine. Do you have around 2% (of flour weight) salt? Most common lack of taste issue is undersalting, I find. Bread with say 1.2 % salt is dull dull dull, unfortunately.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

You have to be very careful not to overproof.  Try using a little less yeast in the dough.  If your recipe calls for 3 teaspoons, use 2 and see if that helps.  Link

If you are kneading for 50 minutes, you might want to try saving yourself some working time.  Instead of kneading the first 20-30 minutes after getting the flour wet, cover the bowl tightly and come back to it.  This lets the gluten develop on its own first.  The dough will then absorb less flour when working with it after the rest.  Then do a few stretches and folds before tipping it out of the bowl.  Also a good time to try a window pane test, so you have something to compare.  Then knead it only a few minutes or up to 10.  With your climate, I would cover the bowl with a damp, wrung out cloth and then a large lid or clean shower cap.  (If there is a lot of space in the bowl or bucket, I might be tempted to put a few drops of oil onto some plastic wrap, scrunch it up rubbing to spread out the oil and place it directly onto the dough surface when resting.  Reuse for each rise during this baking session.  Then discard.)

When kneading, try not to add any additional flour.  It will be a little tacky but use quick jerky movements when handling, be so fast that the dough doesn't have a chance to stick to what little surface area you offer it.  (I think if you ever checked my dough for fingerprints, it would show only three finger tips of each hand and the curving ball part of my wrists.)  The first time I kneaded using lightly wet hands, it was awkward to say the least and didn't fit my "kneading ideal," but after a few tries, I got the hang of it.  Not a bad technique in dry climates!  (or sticky doughs)  

If you first put about 1/2 a teaspoon (or less) of olive oil on the clean work bench (not wood) and smear a large area about the size of a huge pizza and while doing this, rub some into your hands before beginning to knead, you may find this also helpful until you get used to the dough's stickiness.  (and lovely Mediterranean hands!) 

Can't comment on flavor.  Get some opinions from those tasting it.  There are all kinds of ways to alter dough flavour.  Some easier than others.  Make sure your flour is fresh is a biggie.  Don't forget about spices, butter, fats, eggs, various milks, coconut milk, sesame seeds, herbs, herbed oils, nuts, nut flours, malted flours, vinegars, pickled things and their juices, cheese, potatoes & other vegetables (roots: scald or cooked first)  roasted flours, other flours, cereals, whole grains, dried fruits, soakers, hot soakers, poolishes, sourdoughs (different flours) altus and and and.  (and I left out all the various sweet syrups & sugars) Temperature changes in the dough itself can also make a difference and so can the length of the ferment.  Let's not forget about browning the crust:  light to dark has different tastes as well and whether you smear something on it or not.  

Water.  Water can also affect the taste, if your water tastes bad to you, don't expect it to make your flour taste any better.  I once made a loaf with chicken soup because the water was so bad.  Coffee?  Tea?  Other liquids?  Well, I guess I did have a comment or two on flavour.  :)   What you do is up to you.  

It's your bread and you can make it to match your tastes.  

Hope I gave you some ideas...


cranbo's picture

I think Davo and Minioven covered most of it:

  1. How much salt is in your recipe? Make sure it's about 2%

  2. Better to leave your dough slightly wetter, especally at your altitude. You can handle wet dough with water on your hands, or (as Reinhart has suggested) with a little cooking oil. 

  3. Also I understand that breads rise faster at higher altitude. If it collapsed when you slashed it, it was likely overproofed. 

When you say "hard to eat crust", describe your perfect crust? Are your crusts too thick? Bake at a higher temp for a shorter time, or a significantly lower temp. Too hard? If so, use less steam, or brush with butter.
Leslie B's picture
Leslie B

I baked at 375 for 45 mins.  The crust was not a nice rustic hard crust that can make the roof of one's mouth raw, it was thin and like a hard rubber.

I don't understand percentages in baking yet.  I have been choosing recipes from posters at high altitude hoping that I would have success here.  Avery's sourdough is for a similar altitude.

If temp is an issue, since the rising period says 12-15 hrs, can I split my dough into 3rds and bake each one separately at different temps?  Or, would this extra hour in time affect the other 3rds?

Oh, and steam.  How much is too much?  I poured 2 cups in a brownie pan, it didn't all evaporate at 375, which I thought was strange. 

cranbo's picture

Hi LeslieB,

If you want a nice hard rustic, crust, bake at a higher temp (450F) for a shorter time (~30 minutes).

Yes, you can split your dough into 3rds, but yes, the extra time will affect the dough. If you say the rising period is 12-15 hours, you might be able to swing it if you start baking at 12 hours, which means you'll finish baking at about 14 hours. The other option is if you refrigerate your shaped dough, you can stagger the time that you remove them from the fridge; this will help with the extended rising time (although I don't recall if your recipe calls for a slow, final rise)

Steam: I think 2 cups is too much. When I bake at 450F, it's usually about 1 cup. You want to remove steam 20 minutes or so into your bake. 

Good luck!

Zeb's picture

Goodness that sounds like a challenge Leslie,  I just googled baking at altitude to see if I could find out anything about it and there are various books about it. One writer has an ask the question slot on their site here - I don't know if they cover sourdough but must be worth asking?

Best thing to help diagnose/advise is to write out exactly what you do in as much detail as possible.  Lots of good advice already above. I wonder if baking in a dutch oven might work at altitude. How hot can you get your oven?  I"d check the salt and another thing to add flavour to a sourdough is yoghurt or the whey you get when you drip yoghurt in a cloth for a few hours, or buttermilk, if you sub some of that for the water in your bread, it complements the sourdough flavour you're after.

best wishes,  Joanna

Leslie B's picture
Leslie B

Hi Joanna and MiniOven, If I add things to give it flavor, how do I substitute?  For example, if I'm using weight, yoghurt is heavier than water.  Do I not use water at all?  By volume seems easier.

I'm excited to experiment, but would like to get something that comes out decently.


AnnaInMD's picture

and recipes (King Arthur has one online).  Amazing what wonderful breads can be accomplished without the K word and even baked with a cold pan or clay baker.



Leslie B's picture
Leslie B

Thanks Davo, MiniOven, Zeb, and Anna,

I'm pretty sure it's my kneeding.  I try to get my doughs to look like the consistancy on the videos- which doesn't tell one much.  I will keep my dough moist and try the oil technique. 

I have baked in a dutch oven, and while it looked beautiful, it still had no crumb and was tasteless- just like my other attempts.  I used Bob's Mill unbleached ap flour  and whole foods organic whole wheat for the recipe.  I used different flours on other attempts. 

I've also used recipes that required a measurement of all ingredients, and others using volume.  Same results.  So, I'm thinking my kneeding is a good place to start.  In the mean time, I should make a no kneed bread to boost my confidence a little.

Thanks again, Leslie

placebo's picture

If you have a bread machine with a dough cycle, you could try using it to mix and knead your dough. It'll generally do a better job than you can do by hand. You could try it just to see what the dough should be like. Plus you can see if the denseness of your bread really is due to poor kneading on your part.

You might also want to try a different kneading method. One method involves picking up the dough and slapping it on the counter. (You can see Danielle Forestier demonstrating this method when she was baking with Julia Child. There's a link to the video somewhere else on this site. I'd include the link I have saved, but it doesn't seem to be working.) I tried this method and found it surprisingly effective for kneading dough. After just a few minutes, I managed to get a nicer and smoother dough than I had ever gotten before.

Chuck's picture

I'll add my two cents about each of several of the problems you listed (windowpane test, no crumb, little flavor, rubbery crust, suspect steam, high altitude, bakers percentages). I'm guessing the various problems are mostly not connected.

Windowpane test:
No, all bread does not need to pass the windowpane test. Twenty years ago it was common for the recommended solution to all bread problems to be "knead more". It's since been discovered all those experts could have jumped in a lake. With the higher hydration lean doughs that are common these days, it's possible to make a good loaf of bread with little or no kneading at all. The flour and water will figure it out on their own, given a) enough resting time, b) an "autolyse" step, and c) several "stretch and folds".

No crumb:
Can you post a picture?

If you mean the crumb is very tight (very small holes) and/or sorta tough, it probably indicates over-kneading. (One of the frequent answers to the common quest for "big holes" is "less kneading than you think".)

Little flavor:
(Different from "bad flavor", a problem you do not seem to have if I understand correctly.)
If you have this problem consistently even with a variety of good recipes, I'd suspect one of:

  • What you think is salt in your kitchen isn't really salt. Sometimes if the god of clean kitchens did a "massive cleanup" a year or more ago, what's in the container labeled 'salt' is really something else (sugar, salt substitute, cake decorations, cornstarch, etc.)

  • You're trying to use "volume" measurements, but you have a specialty sea salt or kosher salt. As those crystals are larger than common table salt, there's more air in between crystals and the volume measurements will all give you less salt than the recipe intended. Use weight measures if possible thus avoiding this problem, or if converting to volume measures use a conversion factor for your kind of salt rather than just a generic table salt one.

  • You need more salt than the average person to really taste it, so everything you make tastes flat if you follow the recipe. Try adding half again as much salt as the recipe says next time and see if you taste any difference.

  • You're using not-so-good flour. The desire to save a few pennies by buying no-name sale won't-be-repeated flour out of a bulk bin can really come back to bite you.

  • Your rise times are too fast, so the dough doesn't have enough time to develop any flavor. At first this seems possible since things rise faster at high altitudes. On the other hand, thirteen hours is plenty. But I list it anyway just in case.

Rubbery crust:
My guess is this is due to drastic over-kneading. As someone else posted here recently, if you keep working the dough long enough with your hands, eventually it gets to the point of having an almost un-chewable crust.

Suspect steam:
My suggestion is to for the immediate future use no steam at all. It will work decently. You won't get as much oven spring, slashes won't open right, and the crust won't be as thick and crunchy as it could be; but it will nevertheless make reasonable bread. Solve your taste and crumb problems (and improve your crust) first. Only then return to the steam. This way, you'll be sure that "bad steam" is not causing any of your other problems.

The main effect of an open pan with lots of water in the oven is probably simply to drop the oven temperature, as water can absorb a huge amount of heat. Two cups is definitely too much. Look for and try methods involving lava rocks, towels, a cover ("magic bowl"), a pan with drip holes, or scraps of old metal. And if the method uses liquid water, pre-heat that water in your microwave.

High altitude:
As minioven said, try cutting back the yeast from what the recipe says. Be careful of over-rising or over-proofing, as the estimated times in the recipe will probably all be too long for you. And if you judge doneness by temperature, you need to make an adjustment (for example if the recipe says "bake until 210F", for you that translates to "bake until 2F under the boiling point of water", then use the water boiling point at your altitude to figure out your target temperature).

Bakers percentages:
In bakers percentages, all percentages are of the total amount of flour. Unlike most percentages, they will not add up to 100% (nor 200%:-). The flour is always 100%, and everything else is based on the flour. So for example if a recipe uses 500 grams of flour, and the amount of yeast needed is 1%, that's 1% of 500 or 5 grams of yeast in that dough.


Leslie B's picture
Leslie B

Thank you Chuck.

I had switched from using packaged yeast almost directly in a recipe to trying preferments, and recently starters.  I was told these were easier to work with at high altitudes.  I borrowed starters (put a request out on the local community board).  These local home bakers (I borrowed 3 in case I killed one starter) have all said that they follow the recipes almost exactly but keep the bread on the moist side, do not add flour when kneeding, and bake to about 190 internal temp. 

I think my first mistake is over kneeding.  At all times I was trying the window pane test.  And, probably also added too much flour when kneeding(trying to compare my dough to all the videos)(and I paniced when my dough was sticking to everything but I did get some great pointers with oil from this posting).

I use sea salt and I will weigh a volume of table salt to see if I can convert the measurements better.  I'm sure it's salt- I use it all the time for cooking.

Steam- I'll try without it a few times and will work on my other issues first.

Crumb- I tried uploading photos but can't figure it out.  My crumb looks like sandwich bread.  No holes at all- just a tight, dense, crumb. 

Taste- it's not bad, but it tastes like sandwich bread.  I'm trying the preferments and starters because I want that really lovely nutty or sour flavor.  My attempts have all been bland.

Proofing- I'll lessen my proofing time and see what happens.  It is also very cold in my house and I was giving it about 13-14 hrs rise time to compensate. 

It is frustrating though.  I love bread.

Thanks for all your suggestions.  It's so much to think about I think I have to organize everyone's suggestions and mark off my attempts.