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What’s wrong with my bread?

Image of a loaf of bread on a cooling rack

Struggling with bread-making issues? There’s a multitude of elements that can go awry in the bread-making process, yet one particular problem frequently arises as a notable hurdle in the journey of creating perfect bread.

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This past April, my Facebook feed was bursting with pictures of homemade hot cross buns – truly heartwarming. I saw a host of folks who were thoroughly pleased with their bakes, but also a few who weren’t quite as content…

Home baking with commercial Yeast

If your bread or buns turned out a bit dense and tough, it might not have been the recipe at fault – perhaps you just rushed the process a bit.

Back when I was instructing at college, we’d have a class of 16 students, each crafting their own interpretation of a single recipe. If a recipe outlined every single action of a method, it would stretch out for countless pages. So we shorten our method steps to something like “set in a warm place for 30 minutes”  

This is not very specific, and not always ideal if we don’t understand what outcome we’re trying to achieve. What’s a warm place, and does it mean exactly 30 minutes?

Bahn Mi bread rolls on a cooling rack.
Bahn Mi

How long should I prove bread?

Quite often, it’s not the recipe that’s wrong, but more a misinterpretation of its meaning, given that it may use a degree of shorthand.  For commercially yeasted bread, when your bread has turned out heavy, it’s more than likely you’ve just been a little too impatient and didn’t allow your buns (or bread) to prove enough before you popped them in the oven.

It’s the combination of time and temperature that provides the opportunity for yeast to grow and, ultimately, for the dough to increase in volume. It’s this expansion in size (volume) that is essential to avoid a heavy, unappealing loaf of bread. The required increase in volume varies depending on the style, but a doubling of volume might be a general target.

Now let’s look at some other factors that impact proving.

  • Was it warm where you put them to prove? 20 – 25 c
  • Was the dough in a draft?
  • Is your yeast in date?
  • Did you have it covered? If the surface dries, it’s not ideal.
  • Have you been storing your yeast in the freezer?  (don’t do that. It’s a myth; the fridge is OK, freezer is no good for long periods)
  • When a recipe tells you to rest for 30 minutes in a warm place, it means a warm place.  Don’t have a warm spot? I have loads of ideas that are shared in our classes, but you only need one, don’t you? 
    • Here’s my favourite. Just about everyone has a microwave. Place a heat pillow in your microwave and set it to warm as if you were going to put it on your body. Open the microwave, sit your dough bowl on the warm heat pillow, and close the door again. Your microwave is a perfect warming chamber.

Is 30 minutes always the right amount of time?

When a recipe provides a timeframe for proofing, it’s simply a ballpark figure. Yeast is susceptible to its environment, especially temperature, hence, proofing times may require adjusting based on the ambient conditions. Additionally, the specific yeast used can significantly affect the proofing duration. This consideration is particularly crucial for sourdough, where the type of yeast employed often necessitates extended proofing periods. So, when your recipe suggests ‘proof for 30 minutes,’ that’s under optimal circumstances. It’s beneficial to comprehend the desired outcome within this span. If it’s particularly cold in your kitchen, it may take much longer than 30 minutes.

What do we mean by commercially yeasted bread?

We mean bread that has been made with the addition of commercial bread yeast (ie. bakers yeast – fresh or dried yeast that we buy from a supermarket).

Sliced pieces of French baguette bread.
Baguettes

For small loaves:

Take a shallow heatproof bowl (I use the top of a pyrex dish), pop it in the microwave with about ½ cup of water. 

Set the water to boil. It usually takes about 3 minutes for mine. Then sit a cooling rack or plate on top (cooling rack works better if you have one small enough), pop your dough inside on top of the cooling rack and close the door.  The atmosphere will be warm and moist. Perfect for dough proving.  

For larger trays:

The second method is just as easy but I tend to use this for trays of dough rather than a loaf because of the surface area we need to cover and my larger trays don’t fit in my microwave. 

Cover your tin with clingfilm.  ¼ – ½ fill your sink with hot water, sit a cooling rack over the sink then place your tray over the cooling rack to keep the warmth and steam in I use a clean tea towel over the top.

When you prove your dough it really does need to almost double in size.  That can be really hard to judge I know. But if you make the same thing over a few times you will learn what that is. 

In my experience, this is where most people go wrong.  Especially with something like Hot Cross Buns because the remainder of the recipe is really very easy.  You don’t have to worry too much about gluten development and other things commonly used in bread making.

Black burger buns sitting in the oven on a rack, fully baked and cooling.
Black Burger Buns

Want to know more?

Why not have a go at one of these other bread related recipes.

Or perhaps you would like to learn how to make Easy Overnight Sourdough?

Easy Overnight Sourdough

2 Comments

  1. Becs as you know I’m less than a week in with your sites and my Thermomix. I get continually blown away by the time, care and love you put into creating recipes and doing all you can to guide us thru to success. I take my hat off to you, you’re inspirational 💜

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Leigh. I love what I do and am happy to help people create delicious food at home. I’ll keep going as long as people want my help. 💗

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