The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

ARGH! Dense Bread Causing Severe Depression

jjudson's picture

ARGH! Dense Bread Causing Severe Depression

I need help!

I've been trying my hand at getting better at making bread.  I bought and read Lionel Vatinet's book "A Passion For Bread" and followed his instructions for baking Country Fresh Bread.  I use a scale for weighing the ingredients, and I check the water temperature and dough temperature and keep them within his recommendations.  The recipe I'm using is:

454 grams unbleached, unbromated white bread flour

9 grams fine sea salt

5 grams instant dry yeast (Saf-Instant)

320 grams water

I've used King Arthur brand white bread flour, Carolina Ground 85, 75, and Crema flour, and every time and ingredient leads to the same result -- DENSE BREAD.  I can't seem to get past this.  I've tried adjusting the water amount, blending the flours, changing the time I'm kneading with the stand mixer, adding hand kneading after the stand mixer, going for a warmer final rise temperature.  Nothing seems to work.  I can't get that nice open crumb and fat loaf I see all the time with other bakers.

For those of you not familiar with Vatinet's process, I use 65-70F water, knead in a stand mixer at speed 1 for 5 minutes, followed by kneading for 4 minutes in the mixer at speed 2.  My dough temp ends up from 72-80F, and I let it rise for one hour at 75-80F or until doubled.  I lightly press the dough to deflate, then fold the corners to center and shape the loaf into a tight ball.  I then let it rest for another hour at 75-80F, but here is where it just doesn't go.  It rises a little, but not enough to get that nice crumb.  I've tried letting it sit longer, sometimes up to two hours, but then it still hasn't risen like it should and the outside gets dried out.

I've tested my yeast and it is fresh and good.

I'm really at a loss and almost ready to give up.  I've gone through at least ten loaves now with the same results.  Can anyone HELP???

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, jjudson.

Feeling "stuck" can be just awful, but you will overcome the block! (And it will feel so good when you do!)

Okay then. The formula seems reasonable, although my personal preference is for more whole grains and wild yeast leavened breads. Your mixing times should develop the gluten sufficiently. (The dough should stretch to a thin film without tearing.) You have a 70% hydration dough with 1% instant yeast. As I say, I don't do this type of bread anymore, but I believe you would expect something like a 90 minute first rise and a 60 minute proof at an ambient temperature of 68-70 dF. But your room temperature is rather warmer than this, enough so that the fermentation should be complete much faster (although at the expense of flavor).  If the dough is adequately fermented, it should be expanded, puffy and feel like a partly inflated balloon when you pat it. If you ferment in a glass bowl, you should see small gas bubbles throughout the dough.

You say you are proofing at 75-80 dF. A one hour proof may be right, or it may be too long. Over-proofing a little can result in very large holes in the crumb. Over-proofing a lot can result in the loaf collapsing and a dense crumb.

I assume, from your shaping description, that you are not using a pan, but you don't tell us how you are supporting the loaf during proofing. Is it not "rising" because it has no lateral support? Is it just spreading out? Or, is it rising and then collapsing because of over-proofing? 

You don't tell us how you are baking your loaf. Since you formed a tight ball, can I assume this is a hearth loaf? Are you pre-heating your oven? To what temperature? Do you use a baking stone? Do you humidify your oven? If so, how?

Do you get good oven spring?

Last but not least, can you show us photos of a baked loaf before slicing and of the crumb structure? Often, the crumb photo and crust appearance help pinpoint the problem.

There are many possible causes for a dense crumb, and it may well be there is a combination of factors. I hope your answers to my questions and a couple of photos can point to an easy solution for your problem.

Happy baking!


jjudson's picture

David, here are a couple of shots, though they're taken with my iPad and not the greatest quality.

And some answers to your questions:

"I assume, from your shaping description, that you are not using a pan, but you don't tell us how you are supporting the loaf during proofing. Is it not "rising" because it has no lateral support?"

For first rise, I place it in a bowl.  For the second after shaping the loaf, I place it on the cloth of a Super Peel.  There is no lateral support.  I do have a couche cloth, but I haven't used it yet.

"Is it just spreading out?"

I'm not sure, maybe you can tell me from the pictures?

"Or, is it rising and then collapsing because of over-proofing? "

It never seems to get very high.  It just seems to get to a certain point and stop.  I don't think it was over-proofed.

"You don't tell us how you are baking your loaf. Since you formed a tight ball, can I assume this is a hearth loaf?"

Yes.  I form the loaf by hand, then let it rise on the Super-Peel, followed by baking on a stone.

"Are you pre-heating your oven?"

Yes, for about 45 minutes to an hour.

"To what temperature?"


"Do you use a baking stone?"


"Do you humidify your oven?"


"If so, how?"

I soak the top half of a la cloche baker in water, then place on the loaf for the first 10 minutes of baking.

"Do you get good oven spring?"

Not really.  Moderate at best.

I really appreciate your help!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Try another photo. Try as I may, this looks not like a white bread only loaf.

jjudson's picture

Oops, should have used preview.  I somehow posted two of the same shots.  Here's the other one:

jjudson's picture

By the way, I have also tried using a brotform as well, with the same results.  The flour used in today's loaf was Carolina Ground's 75 bread flour, which by their description is "A provincial flour, rustic and yet refined, with about 20 - 30 parts sifted out. This could be considered a 'gray flour.'"  I tried the window pane technique today on the dough and could not get it to "pane".  It just came apart, even after additional hand kneading.  I've heard that flours with some bran still present could prevent using this technique properly, but as a newbie, I don't know for sure.

dmsnyder's picture

In general, you don't expect an open crumb with whole wheat flour or high extraction flour unless a lot of the bran is removed or is very finely milled. I don't know your "rustic and yet refined" flour, but the photo looks to me like a normal 100% whole wheat loaf. 

Also, that flour probably absorbs more water than the usual white bread flour, so the effective hydration would be lower than the nominal 70%.

So, first of all, either work on mastering the recipe with all white flour or adjust your expectation. Second, I would use either your banneton or a couche to provide lateral support for the loaf during proofing. I think your loaf has spread out. It is less spherical than it could be. Third, use the "poke test" to judge proofing. That is, when you poke a finger 1/2 inch into the dough, the indentation should fill in slowly. If it springs right back, you need to proof longer. If it never fills in, you have over-proofed.

From the very modest oven spring and bloom, given that you are using a cloche, I would guess you have over-proofed the loaf in the pictures.

I hope this helps.


etheil's picture

It's difficult to troubleshoot from pictures alone, but my first impression was that the bread was over-proofed (exactly as David says above.) You might want to try going through the same exact process, but cutting the proofing time. Try making two loaves and baking one sooner than the other to see the effects. Either way, do the poke test that David mentions and pay attention to how the dough responds and the result you get from the baked loaf (take a video of the poke test.)

I've been there (and have traveled back many times since.) Just when you think you've figured it out, the process has a way of providing a pretty potent reality check.


andychrist's picture

What kind of mixer are you using, jjudson? And does the Vatinet process call for an autolyze? Because that would really help with a high fiber dough. And with a dedicated bread dough mixer such as a Bosch or Ankarsrum, you need not bulk ferment, but should be able to immediately shape your dough and then simply proof it in a moist environment for one single rise before baking. Dunno whether this will negatively affect the flavor of your recipe, but am willing to bet you will get a much lighter crumb using this method. Such has been my experience — whole grain doughs developed in a mixer are pretty much good to go from there, but will most often loose their oomph on a second rise. 

Hope you get your loaves into shape, jjudson.

jjudson's picture

andychrist, I am using a KitchenAid Artisan stand mixer with a dough hook.

I haven't autolyzed, and would like a bit more info on that.  So do you gently mix the flour, water, and salt, then let it rest, followed by adding the yeast and kneading?  Or do you just do the flour and water first, then add the yeast and salt and proceed to knead?  (or none of the above?)

I'll also give the idea of baking after a single rise a try.  I really like these flours from Carolina Ground, but they do tend to come up looking more like whole wheat than they let on in their description.  The flavor is really good, and they mill in small batches from local farm sources.  I like to try to support local farms and retail if possible.

David, I'll try giving the loaf more support with a couche or brotform to see if that helps, too.

Thanks again to the both of you for your advice.

cerevisiae's picture

Autolyse can be done a couple different ways.

1) Combine water, preferment and flour until no clumps or streaks of flour remain. Let rest for anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. Add salt, proceed with recipe.

2) Combine water and flour until flour is all wet, like above. Let rest for anywhere from 15 minutes to overnight. Add yeast and/or preferment, and salt. Proceed with recipe.

This does a few things. You're giving the flour time to fully hydrate an absorb the water, which leads to soft, nicely swelled starch cells, including the usually hard, sharp bran in whole wheat flour.

This hydration encourages amylase (enzyme) activity and can lead to a sweeter and more complex flavor.

It also gives you a head start on gluten development, which is particularly nice when working by hand. Since you're using a machine, you will definitely want to reduce your mixing time a least a little. How much you reduce your mixing should be inversely proportional to the length of your autolyse; e.g., if you do a fifteen minute rest, you might cut a couple of minutes off your mix, while if you do an overnight one, you might only mix enough to incorporate the yeast and salt.

DavidEF's picture

To which I might add that if softening the sharp bran is one of the goals, I would certainly leave out the pre-ferment and make the autolyse a long-ish one, then proceed to add the pre-ferment, salt, and the rest of the ingredients. Not that I'm right, but that's what I would do. Give that bran all the time it needs to soften up a bit.

"This hydration encourages amylase (enzyme) activity and can lead to a sweeter and more complex flavor."

Moreso when the leavening and fermenting agents are left out. Once yeast gets involved, the sugars that are broken out of the flour by enzyme activity are quickly snatched up and fermented.

cerevisiae's picture

With the current flour, described above, it sounds like bran would not be as much as an issue, since it sounds like a high extraction flour. In general, red wheat tends to be more bitter than other forms, so even with reduced bran, might benefit from the longer autolyse for flavor reasons. In this case, I would suggest at least 2 hours of rest, but preferably 8 - 12 hours, in which case, yes, leaving out the fermenting agent is a good idea.

andychrist's picture

Here's a link to an Epicurious primer on bread baking methods, with an explanation of autolyze down under section 3, Mixing and Kneading. The whole site is very informative, especially this page. 



Wild-Yeast's picture

Might want to try the recipe with unbleached high protein flour. Whole Wheat, like David said, will yield a dense crumb. At the very least this would provide a comparison to restore your bread baking psyche...,


jjudson's picture

You've all given me some things to think about and try.  I'll let you know how I make out.  Thanks all!