The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

help! balancing/improving bread

tams's picture

help! balancing/improving bread

Help Please!
I'm making round loaf, rustic breads and I'm not sure how to know when to "improve" the flour/dough with something to optimize the bread. I know its done ahead of time in Europe for bakers which is apart of why the bread is so fabulous...please assist

LindyD's picture

I think you mean a pre-ferment, which is created to enhance the structure and flavor of the bread and is the base upon which you build your dough. If so, the Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart is an excellent reference to have on hand.

Jefrey Hamelman's Bread is another wonderful learning source.


Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

You can make good bread in many, many ways.  There's not just one path to the holy bread grail.  And there's more than one holy bread grail.  "Whatcha tryin' to make?" often illuminates the path.


Reinhart echoes European bakers when he says it's the bakers job to unlock the flavor of the ingredients.


In general, a slow rise is a good first step in getting there.  Take your time.  Use less yeast.  Use unbleached and unbromated flour.  Play with flour varieties.


Going to preferments can help.  Old dough, sponges, poolish, biga, sourdough and even an autolyse can help.  All those techniques are talked about around here a lot.


Letting the fermentation flavors build helps.  Baking it enough to carmelize the crust also helps.  You can make stunning bread with just the basic 4 ingredients and a straight dough.


The other day I made a simple bread that was just delightful.  It was 100% Harvest King, 60% water, 2% salt and .68% SAF instant dry yeast.  I just kneaded it for about 15 minutes in my DLX (by hand or in another mixer would have done the trick), let it rise for about 2 or 3 hours, kneaded it a bit, shaped it into pan loaves, let them rise 1 or 2 hours and then baked them at 375 for about 45 minutes.  Simple, but a deep rich wheaty taste with lovely fermentation notes.  We're still enjoying that as breakfast toast,. grilled cheese sandwiches, and French Toast (OK, Pain Perdu). 


Anyway, what sort of bread are you trying to make?




tams's picture

I'm just trying to make simple round loafs with the basic ingredients....farmhouse white...honey whole wheat etc... I guess my main challenge is that I'm very confused about the do I know whats a good flour and a bad flour? I use a mill that does stoneground methods and the four is unbleached...I however don't know if there is something I need to do to "balance" it like adding crushed vitamin c or something...I want to avoid throwing in more yeast...our loaves tend to turn out dense and without much oven spring...

Kuret's picture

Higher hydrations, stiff preferments and the "evil VC" all helps the bread spring more, atleast to my understanding. So try making a biga preferment and using a bit higher hydration and maybe les proofing time, improved crumb?

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

I don't know how experienced you are at baking, so if some of my suggestions seem elementary, please accept my apologies.


As someone else commented (their message is on another screen), higher hydration, or in simpler terms, more water and less flour. When I started baking, the recipe I was using from the Joy of Cooking suggested adding more flour until the dough was no longer sticky. I'd keep kneading, and it'd get sticky again! 45 minutes later, I figured I had to be done. And the dry dough baked a beautiful brick. Most beginning bakers seem to be afraid of wet doughs, of sticky doughs. I suggest to them that they shoot for tacky rather than dry. This is compounded if they scoop cups of flour out of the flour sack. When you scoop, you compress the flour and the cup weighs more than it should. Flour companies and most cookbooks want you to sift your flour once,spoon it into a cup, and then use a straight edge to scrape off the excess. How much difference does this make? The way the flour companies want you to fill cups yields cups around 120 grams, plus or minus 10 grams. Scooping can yield cups of around 200 grams. So, if you're using 4 cups of flour, it's the difference between 480 and 800 grams. Worse, scooping yields cups with as much as a 25% variation from cup to cup.


My suggestion to bakers is to mix the liquid ingredients with about 1/2 to 2/3 of the flour called for. Add more flour until the dough is too stiff to mix by hand. If your recipe has a range of flour, such as "4 to 6 cups" start with the lower number.


Then pretend that flour costs as much as saffron ("The most expensive spice in the world") and that you are Ebeneezer Scrooge from "A Christmas Carol." Add flour sparingly and grudingly - a tablespoon at a time. Shoot for dough that is tacky and more interested in sticking to itself than to you or the work surface. Kneading technique is very important. Many people don't knead well and wondery why it takes so long and their dough doesn't rise well. If you're mixing by hand, you might look at the kneading videos on my web page at If you'd rather not knead, the stretch and fold technique covered in the web page at is very effective.


Temperature is another big thing. You want a dough temperature around 78F. Check the temperature of your room and flour, subtract both from 240 and use water at that temperature to get dough at about 78F. (That's the simlified rule of 240, for the whole thing, well, sorry, I guess I'm pllugging my web site again. In the temperature ranges, too low can kill yeast, somewhat too low can slow the yeast, a bit too hot can speed the rise so much good flavors don't have time to develop but off-tastes do, and way too hot can killl the yeast.


When the dough isn't too thick, it can rise better. When the temperature range is right, it can rise in a timely fashion.


Now then... oven spring. There are few times, though it does happen, that it will turn a flat piece of dough into a well risen loaf. You normally can't, and shouldn't, count on oven spring to make your loaves marvelous. One consideration on the subject is the French consider excessive oven spring to be a fault - excessive oven spring means you didn't let the dough rise long enough, and as a result it didn't develop its full flavor potential.

And finally, flour. Small mills remind me of the old saying, "When you're hot, your're hot; when you're not, you're not!" At their best, small mills will produce better flours than the big nationals. By and large the big nationals are not trying to make the best flour they can. They are trying to make the best flour they can make consistently. So, they get grain from a number of sources and blend it as needed. A small mill can't do that. So, when they get good grain, they are excellent. When they have poor grain, they have no fall-back position. Also, the current wisdom suggests that flour be used within 2 days of being ground, or be allowed to age for several weeks before being used. Inbetween it is hard to use and won't rise well. So, look into your flour. You might try a national brand, like King Arthur or General Mills, and see how your results are. And then go back to your more environmentally concious local mill.


So.... try making some of the changes discussed above and then get back with us with your results!



holds99's picture


Without sounding patronizing, you are a real asset to this site.  I'm an avid reader of your comments, suggestions and recommendations.  I downloaded your Intro. to Sourdough Baking (sample) and am eagerly awaiting for the full version, which I will download when available.

After a long struggle trying to save my old starter I threw it out and started from scratch and will use your recommeded method (III & IV in your Table of Contents) for building for baking sourdough loaves.  I thought I understood the process but since reading and reading and reading I have found I didn't really understand the process.  I recently used Maggie Glezer's starter recipe and it seems to be doing well in the 7th day.  Anyway, thanks for all your postings.  As I said, you make a major contribution in helping those of us who sometimes struggle with seemingly insoluble problems, particularly with sourdough, with your comments, observations, recommendations and links.

Howard - St. Augustine, FL

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Thanks for the kind words. I do appreciate them!





tams's picture

Thanks for the assistance thus far! So I have the specs back on my flour...the protein is lower than I would like (10.4%) and then it has listed the falling number etc. Does anyone have suggestions on how I should work with the flour to assist it re the protein matter and what does the falling number communicate to me?...thanks ahead of time!!!

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

A lot of anguish goes into people thinking about protein levels.  French bakers usually use flours in the 9% protein range.  American bakers trying to duplicate their results use flours in the 12 to 14% range.  My take home message.... our American obsession with protein may be misplaced.  French flours are straight process floursm the grain is ground and sifted to lighten it.  American flours are more complex.  When American flours are milled, the grains components are separated into streams, bran here, germ there, different parts of the endosperm to other streams.  The miller recombines the streams depending on what he thinks the customer is trying to do.  And that is not always successful.  Anyway, some of the best tasting bread I have made has been with unbleached, unbromated all-purpose flour at 10% or so protein.


Falling numbers.  For most bakers, they don't mean a thing.  A falling number is measure of enzyme activity.  A specific amount of the flour under test is mixed with a specific quantity of pure water under controlled conditions.  The water/flour mix is put into a cylinder and a weighted piston is dropped on it.  The number of seconds it takes the piston to fall to the bottom of the cylinder is the flours falling number.  If the mix is thin, the piston falls quickly.  If the mix is thick, the piston falls slowly.  More enzymatic action yields a higher falling number.  Too low or too high are bad.  If memory serves, something around 250 to 280 is good for bread making.  If it is too low, you can add some diastatic malt extract.  If it is too high, you can mix it with flour with a lower falling number or send it back and get other flour.  In practice, you have to be pretty sophisticated for this to really matter.


Many learning bakers, and I get the impression you are a learning baker, obsess over things that they aren't really ready to get into.  Until your process is under control, you don't know where inconsistencies are coming from.  Is the change due to the addition of sugar to your bread or due to the oven deciding to run 50 degrees hotter this time? It's hard not to obsess.  And there are times when close enough is in fact close enough. 

I give two pieces of advice to all beginning bakers.  So far, it has served them in good stead.  One, get a set of scales and thermometers.  Weigh your ingredients, check ingredient temperatures, check oven temperatures, and check bread temperatures to make sure it's really done.  Doing this eliminates many of the variables that bedevil learning bakers and really speeds the learning curve.  You'll have more control over your variables.


Two.... a GREAT exercise for a learning baker.  Go to a local bakery and buy a loaf of a plain bread that you like.  One of their regular breads.  One they make often and consistently.  Buy the loaf, take it home, and dissect it.  Slice it.  Look at the crumb structure.  Feel the crust.  Smell the bread.  Taste the bread.  Pay attention to the mouth feel, to the taste of the bread.  Pay attention to the differences in taste between crust and crumb.  Take notes.


Now look for a recipe for a bread like that.  It doesn't have to be a good recipe, and it might be better if it isn't.  Make the recipe, and dissect the bread you made.  Your goal is to make a bread as much like the one you bought as possible.  Not better.  ThE SAME.  Dissect your loaf of bread as you did above.  Write your recipe in your notebook along with your observations.  Pick an area where your bread differs from the bread you bought.  What do you think you could change in your recipe and procedures to make your bread more like the bread you bought?  Only change ONE thing.  And remake the bread.


At this point, go through the examination, change, and bake cycle until you think you have the bread nailed.  Then go buy another loaf and see how close you really are.


If you make a better bread, by all means, keep notes so you can make it again.  But your goal is to learn enough about technique to be able to duplicate the bread.  Duplicating the bread is the path you follow, but learning about baking is the real goal.


Later, you'll make other breads.  And you'll say, "gee, the crumb isn't open enough.  I can do this, that or the other thing and make the bread I want."  The goal isn't so much to duplicate the bread from your local bakery, but to learn what changes to recipes do.  What happens when you increase or decrease the amount of water, riser, bake time, bake temperature?  What happens when you add liquid or solid oil?  What effects do milk, buttermilk and potatoe water have?


Above all, have fun,



GrapevineTXoldaccount's picture

that is really what it is all about in the end, isn't it, the flavour of our own loaf, the satisfaction with our own product.  Simplicity is the art of learning to appreciate what we've said it so well. 

Oh, and I totally agree with holds99, you offer up such great information.  I appreciate ALL of your contributions.