Bread 911

Yeastcrazy: I have been trying to bake a lot of bread -- but I consistently have two problems -- the dough won't take the amount of flour that is called for, and the dough won't rise as much as it should. I have been using a thermometer to make sure the water is not too warm or too cold. The only way I can get the dough to rise (and it's still not enough) is to set it as close as I can to the stove and to turn on the stove -- it needs way too much heat to rise. Any ideas?

Although I consider myself a student of (rather than an expert in) breadmaking, I'll share a few pointers that have worked for me and lessons learned along the way.

You state that you have been "using a thermometer to make sure the water is not too warm or too cold" -- but what are you using as an acceptable temperature range? Dry yeast is not activated unless the liquid (usually water, sometimes milk) is between 105 and 115 degrees. Then you need to let the yeast foam up, about 10 minutes, and I like to cover the bowl with a towel so the yeast can think.

The other thing to keep in mind with yeast is to check its expiration date. Yeast is a living thing and will not perform past its prime, like the rest of us.

As for your dough resisting the "amount of flour that is called for," my experience has shown that weather and climate on any given day can have a dramatic impact on the amount of flour needed. Always add flour in increments, 1/2 cup at a time, so that dough can absorb. A fairly accurate indication that your dough has enough flour is when it just clears the sides of a bowl and is forming into a shape. When you turn the dough out onto a work surface to begin kneading, you may find that the dough would like more flour, please, and as long as you add it gradually in even smaller amounts, you'll minimize the chances of a tough dough.

As for getting the dough to rise, here are a few points to consider:

Are you greasing the container so that the dough can stretch with ease while it grows? Cooking spray, brushed oil or melted butter are all acceptable lubricants.

Are you using a deep bowl? And is it anything but metal?

How are you covering the dough? I like to use plastic wrap first, which helps keep in the moisture, then I wrap the entire bowl in a towel.

Everybody's house is different -- and yours may be drafty, which may be slowing down the rise. Turning the oven on, as you mention, is perfectly fine. Set it to 250 degrees or even lower, for just a few minutes, then turn off the heat, open the oven door and place dough on oven rack, keeping door ajar.

Beth Hensperger, author of many bread books, including "The Bread Bible," offers two inventive ideas: Placing dough atop a clothes dryer in mid-cycle, or my favorite: "Take the dough for a ride around town in the back of the car. Dough loves the gentle motion and warmth of the automobile."

And now it's your turn; weigh in on these doughy matters in the comments area below, particularly if your tips are tried and true.

Washington readers: I'll be signing copies of my holiday cookbook at the National Press Club's 30th annual book fair. Stop by and introduce yourself! Doors open at 6 p.m. $5 admission.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 1, 2007; 8:44 AM ET Bread
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Kim -- are you saying we SHOULD use a metal bowl, or we should NOT use a metal bowl? I usually use one, but haven't made bread in a long time!

Posted by: Anonymous | November 1, 2007 9:22 AM

NO to metal bowl. Sorry if that was confusing. Pottery, glass, even plastic are all good choices.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 1, 2007 9:29 AM

I'm not Yeastcrazy but I very well could be. He/she describes the exact same problems I've been having in my frustrating quest to master (or least not totally fail at) breadmaking. I like to fancy myself a decent cook, but bread is my Achilles heel. I've even tried the much-touted "No Knead" method with nothing but inedible results. I made what sounded like a foolproof (Patricia Wells) recipe for ciabatta last weekend and tossed it after one slice. I have perfectly fresh yeast, I always make sure my water is the correct temperature, I get the foam and the dough clearing the sides of the mixer, I use a well-oiled ceramic bowl for rising but somewhere in there it all goes wrong. Maybe I'll try taking my dough for a drive this weekend and see if it likes me any better. Thanks, Kim!

Posted by: Juicy | November 1, 2007 10:10 AM

Kim - why not metal? i have always had fine results by using the very deep work bowl from my kitchen aid, covered in plastic wrap and placed on the counter, under the light fixtures, which I leave on for the heat.

Posted by: Newton Mom | November 1, 2007 11:35 AM

A bread making question: I have this whole wheat loaf recipe I want to try and it calls for malt extract. I cannot find it anywhere, even online. Help!

Posted by: WorkingMomX | November 1, 2007 11:49 AM

I use my great-grandma's ceramic bowls to raise bread in...the ceramic will hold heat better than metal.

I've read about raising bread in the microwave, though I've not tried it. Supposed to cut an hour rise down to 15 minutes?

As far as having tough bread, it's usually from over-kneading. I learned two tricks for testing to see whether the bread has enough flour and whether it's been kneaded enough...pinch a triangle of dough between your thumbs and forefingers. If the ridge created remains visible, you're good. Also, if you smack your hand into the ball of dough, your handprint should may spring back a bit, you should still be able to see the outline.

Posted by: librarylady | November 1, 2007 11:52 AM

I usually don't oil the bowl and yet the dough always rises nicely. I too have had no problem letting the dough rise in the metal mixing bowl. If you use instant yeast (eg., SAF or RapidRise), you don't have to proof the yeast. The difference between these yeasts and regular dry yeast is that there are more live yeast beasties in the instant yeast. It can just be combined with the flour. To substitute these for regular, use a little bit less of the instant.

Rose recommends adding the salt to the flour and wisking it in, then add the yeast (or vice-versa) since direct contact with salt can kill yeast. But salt is necessary both to make the bread palatable and to constrain the yeast from going insane!

Juicy - Both of the breads you've mentioned have a high percentage of water and this makes them harder for the novice to deal with. Try something more basic first. Also, there really is no shame in using a bread machine. I finally bought one and it's been very useful. I often use it to mix the dough and let it rise. It mixes better than the KitchenAid and it keeps the dough at the right temp for perfect rising (though final rising is in a regular pan, etc.) Bonuses - my husband likes using it and it has a timer so he can put the ingredients in before going to bed and tell it to have it ready in 10 hours and we have a loaf of sandwich bread for lunch.

Posted by: Fran | November 1, 2007 12:04 PM

I always use my microwave as a bread-rising incubator. I take a coffee cup about half full with water and put it in the microwave on high for about 3 or 4 minutes. Enough to make it really boil and get the microwave nice and steamy. Then I put my dough (in a glass bowl with plastic wrap and then a towel on top) in the microwave. I try to do it as fast as possible so not too much steam escapes. The dough usually rises much faster than the recipes say, usually in 1/4 to 1/2 the time, so it has to be watched closely. I also use rapid rise yeast, so that contributes to the speed. I keep my yeast in the freezer so it stays fresh and I've never had a problem with it. Also, the people at America's Test Kitchen recommend using rapid rise yeast. There's no difference in the taste of the finished product.

Posted by: Upstate NY | November 1, 2007 1:25 PM

I just read a tip--- I am nearly certain it was in Cooks Illustrated-- about using a microwavable neck wrap to help bread rise. One of the cloth neckwarmers, moistened and microwaved for (hm... don't remember how long) then wrapped around the base of the covered bowl. Said to offer gentle heat to help the bread rise. I thought it was a clever idea. I would imagine you could get similar results with a heavy towel soaked and nuked, although I think the density of the neck wraps helps them retain heat longer. Of course, I made a heat pillow out of plain rice and have had it as an all-purpose warmer/therapy bag for years. I'd think it would do the same in terms of providing a gentle external heat to help the bread rise.

If I can find the written tip again, I'll post it.

Posted by: no pain in the neck | November 1, 2007 1:30 PM

About a month ago I made fresh bread for the first time. I am a cook by nature, not a baker (hate following recipes). But, it came out even better than I had imagined it could. Even though my kitchen was fairly warm the dough took about 50% longer to rise than the recipe stated. But, instead of following the time in the recipe, I just waited until it looked right to me. I think that a lot of people are afraid to use their intuition in cooking and baking. Don't always assume that the recipe writer knows better than you do. There are any number of reasons that a recipe may work differently for you. I've become pretty fearless about doing my own thing and I think the result is better food.

Posted by: Sweetie | November 1, 2007 2:28 PM

I'm not very good at baking bread yet, but I do know this much so far:
1. you have to work/knead the dough sufficiently (longer than one thinks, maybe 7-10 minutes in a stand mixer on a low speed with the dough hook attachment) to help give the bread proper structure; the dough will first come off the sides of the bowl and then let it mix for another 5 minutes or so to get the dough really smooth and tacky but not sticky to the touch. If it's too sticky, add a small amount of flour.
2. never add the salt to the water with the yeast when you're rehydrating the dry active yeast, only the sugar (if necessary)

Posted by: Aspiring Patisserie | November 1, 2007 2:47 PM

I know it would be a VERY expensive fix, but something to consider for a breadmaker is an oven with a "proof" setting. My MIL has one that I love -

I cheat and use my breadmaker, which works wonderfully for me.

good luck

Posted by: CA | November 1, 2007 3:26 PM

hey workingmomx, try king arthur flour for the malt extract.

bread & yeast can be very tempermental. i have a bread machine that i usually set for overnight so we can have fresh bread in the morning. same recipe, same ingredients can have varying degrees of success depending on other factors. heat of house, humidity all play into whether i have a "pretty" loaf or an ugly one.

Posted by: quark | November 1, 2007 4:47 PM

Sorry I missed the column until now - I am looking for the correct temp as stated in the column - I am letting it sit and proof for the 10-15 minutes - and the yeast is new, less than two months old. I appreciate all of the tips - I think I will look for the rapid rise yeast. I do think that my house maybe contributes to the problem - I turn up the thermostat whenever I want to do some bread. The funny thing is - this is a new house - and I am finding the same issues that I had in our old house - particularly the part about the dough not accepting the amount of flour called for. I have had the pizza dough and bread work out just fine with a smaller amount of flour, but I was wondering if I am doing something WRONG. Maybe not. . .I love the Beth Hensperger book and that is the one I have been working with the most. So - back to the drawing board. More cinnamon rolls are needed! These are a family tradition and matter of pride, so I am trying to do them well, as well as trying to make them my own! Thank you!

Posted by: yeastcrazy | November 1, 2007 7:27 PM

Do remember that the longer, slower rises yield a much better tasting bread. It gives the flavor time to develop.

Posted by: rmh | November 1, 2007 11:13 PM

Wow... so much misinformation here.

Some basic tips for good bread:

1. Buy a small digital scale. Use it to weigh out your flour and water. For an inexperienced baker, I would suggest 65g water (or milk or whatever) and 2g salt to every 100g flour.
2. Use instant ("rapid rise") yeast. It does not need to be dissolved beforehand. For a single loaf, you'll want half of one of those little packets, max.
3. Warm temps actually make worse bread. Try to aim for about 75 degrees. Note: you need to be using instant (or fresh cake) yeast for this.
4. Let your dough rise slowly. This actually will improve the flavor and texture! If you're using half a packet of yeast and 75 degrees as your target temp, an hour and a half rise (give it a fold halfway through) plus another hour of proofing should be about right. The dough will have just barely lost its springiness when it's ready.
5. If you want crusty "artisan" loaves, bake your bread inside a dutch oven for the first 25 minutes at 450, then pull it out and finish it directly on the rack until evenly golden brown (10-25 minutes depending on loaf size). Let cool completely on a rack before storing or serving to stabilize the crust and crumb.

An excellent, though somewhat daunting, book is Jeffrey Hammelman's Bread.

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 2, 2007 2:52 PM

A couple more things:

Metal bowls -- make no difference.
Flour -- use good flour. King Arthur all-purpose (don't use "bread flour" unless you're making bagels or hamburger buns) or Gold Medal Harvest King are my grocery store choices

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 2, 2007 2:57 PM

Sorry I missed this until now! I love to bake bread. I bake bread a couple times a week--just our basic sandwich bread which is an oat/whole wheat/white flour combo. I also make other breads & rolls occasionally. The first advice I'd give is that this is not like the rest of baking where everything has to be exact. The wonderful thing about bread is that you can kind of wing it and it will be ok, as long as you don't kill the yeast. I don't check the water temperature, and I don't level the cups of flour.

The second advice I'd give is that flour varies widely from the type, brand, and sack. Pick a brand and stick with it if you like it, and then know that there will still be some variation. I have a recipe for scones where the amount of milk I need to add varies by as much as a half cup! Why, I don't know, but I go for the right consistency, not the amount. You should do the same thing with bread. Start with your water & yeast, add all but 1 or 1 and a half cups of the flour (depending on how much they say to use), add in all the other ingredients (salt, additional liquid, etc.), then mix that all together for a couple of minutes. (I use my Kitchen Aid.) From that point, add additional flour until it's tacky but not sticky. You want it to feel a little tacky on your hands, but not leave clumps on you.

As far as the rising goes, the previous advice on keeping it warm is right on, but once again, ignore what your recipe says and watch the bread. Go by its size, not the clock. I don't use rapid rise because I buy the yeast in big packages, and it does take longer than some recipes but not others.

If you try a few different recipes from different books you'll learn what you need to adjust. My dough always takes longer than the Cooking Illustrated guidelines (because of the difference in yeast) and I always use less flour (I use Bob's Red Mill Organic, and they use King Arthur). Another book I use a lot is the Macrina Bakery cookbook, and with that book it's the amount that appears to be off. When I make the oat bread I referenced earlier, she says it will make one loaf and I always end up with two. (No complaints--it's gone in two days, but the first time I thought I did something wrong. The second time I knew it wasn't me.) When it happened with other recipes from that book, I was prepared.

It sounds like you have all the stuff in place, but you need to quit paying so much attention to what the cookbook says and pay attention to what the bread is telling you. Just keep trying and good luck!

Posted by: seattle cooking mom | November 5, 2007 12:59 PM

I would love to hear people's experiences using whole wheat flour only (not half white/half wheat) in their breads.

Posted by: Karen | November 30, 2007 4:30 PM

An excellent book for those getting into whole grains is King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. Their Flour Baker's Companion is great too. The Web site is wonderfully done.

Posted by: Leslie | December 13, 2007 2:46 PM

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