Are you ready to read a very embarrassing post? Get yourself a bowl of popcorn and get comfortable because you’re about to read the heroic story of an almost failed baker.
I spent close to two years learning how to bake bread. In those two years, I’ve made every mistake in the book. I’m here to share my failures with you. Learn from them, avoid them, and go make different mistakes. Learning how to bake bread takes time and perseverance. One day last year I was so determined to finally figure out this bread baking thing that I baked six loaves in one day. I messed up different things every time. Every loaf went to the chickens, and they couldn’t imagine what they had done to deserve such a feast.
I however felt defeated, frustrated, and downright sick of this nonsense, but I didn’t give up. I took all I’d learned from those failed loaves and the next day I baked a perfect loaf of bread. With every loaf after that I’ve been having more and more success. I’m here to tell you it is possible for every person to bake bread, and I’m going to make it much easier on you by telling you everything I’ve done wrong and share some bread baking tips to make it easier on you.
1. Follow the Directions!!!
This may seem obvious to some of you. Some of you would never dream of straying away from a recipe. You can feel free to skip to the next tip. The rest of you are more like me. Hard headed, stubborn souls. Unless you are a master baker (which you’re probably not, because you wouldn’t be reading this if you were) you must follow the recipe exactly as it is written. If it tells you to sprinkle the yeast on the water rather than stir it in, just do it. There is a reason, and when it comes to baking bread, just one mistake can be do or die. You don’t know better than the person who wrote the recipe. It took me years to come to this conclusion, just trust me on this one.
2. Don’t let the bread rise for too long
You need your bread to rise just the perfect amount. This can be tricky but with practice you’ll get it right. On the first rise you usually need your dough to double. If you let it triple in this first rise, the little yeasties will consume everything around them and then die, leaving you with very few yeasties to get your dough to rise a second time. During the second rise, in the pans, if you let your dough rise for too long it will look amazing and spectacular and perfect, until you get it in the oven. Dough does a final rise in the oven called oven spring, and if you let it rise for too long before it hits the oven it will collapse and cause your bread to be dense and hard.
3. Use warm water, not hot
You know how the recipe says to pour the yeast into warm water? Yeah, it actually needs to be warm. Not hot. Think the same temperature you would make a baby’s bath water. We’re talking lukewarm here. Test it on your wrist or your face if you have to, hands are not dependable temperature gauges. Making the water hotter won’t bring your yeast to life quickly, it will kill it. When in doubt, go room temperature water. Your yeast will still wake up, just more slowly. The vast majority of my failed loaves were caused by this simple mistake. I would use water that was way too warm and kill most of my yeast. When I would go to check on my rising dough it would be sitting in the bowl looking up at me in exactly the same dense, sticky way it did when I left it.
4. Use Bread Flour
Unless stated otherwise, ALWAYS use bread flour. Bread flour is not all purpose flour. It contains considerably more protein, which will aid in gluten development, making your bread rise better, have an amazing texture, and taste wonderful. You don’t have to go to a fancy pants bakery supply store to get bread flour. Simply buy King Arthur Flourat your local grocery store. If you want to be a fancy pants and shop at the bakery supply- go for it! I won’t judge you. Or your pants. Well, maybe the pants. It depends on how fancy they are.
5. Proof your dough in the perfect place
Place your dough to rise in a place that is warm, not hot. Make sure it’s not a drafty place. Or a place where your deadly curious cat can stick his face in it. If you have no place like this, you should consider getting a Bread Proofer to take care of everything for you.
For months during my bread baking failures I would try to get my bread to rise in a warm oven. I would turn it on to 200 then shut it off and put the dough inside. Guess what? It didn’t rise. It just sat there. Because I killed the yeast by making the environment too warm. Just another case where warmer is not better.
Your dough will rise in cool conditions, it will even rise in the refrigerator, so don’t worry too much and just let it be. When it’s cold out I set our bread to rise in our bathroom. It gets perfectly warm in there when the heat is on and the door is closed. I also have an excuse to visit the gloriously giant gnome my fiance painted for me for Christmas last year.
6. Cover your Dough
When covering up your dough to rise, use plastic wrap instead of a tea towel. This is the one instance where I give you the liberty to ignore the directions. Covering rising dough with a tea towel works for some. If it works for you, then go for it. For me, not so much. Every time I tried to cover up my perfect little loaf in its pan with a tea towel it would rise and rise and no matter how damp that towel was, it would still stick to the fabric. When I’d try to take it off, it would be a battle and the loaf would deflate while I tried to separate it from it’s new best friend.
7. Knead it!
Knead, knead, knead the bread! When in doubt, keep kneading. If you don’t know if the dough is springy, elastic, or smooth yet, then it isn’t. This is another instance where my stubborn nature came out in full swing. They would say, ‘knead for 10 minutes’ and I would say, ‘pshaa, I’m a potter, I knead clay all the time. I’m an expert at this, so I can cut that time in half!’ Yes, as you can guess, stubbornness and arrogance do not mix well when baking bread. Save your lofty ideas about bread baking for the day when you’re a master baker and you truly can do whatever you want. For now, knead the bread for as long as they tell you to, longer even.
It’s hard to over knead bread. It’s easy to under knead it. Set a timer if you have to. This is one of the most crucial steps and if you mess it up, your bread is going to be crappy. Sure, you’re hands will hurt, and you’ll get bored, and you’ll look for distractions. But buck up and deal with it! It’s going to be worth it. Besides you’re getting a great arm work out and this is the perfect time to do some of that meditation you’ve been meaning to work into your busy life. Or, if you tend to lean more towards the angry dark side, take this time to smoosh out your frustration and stress on your dough. Really abuse it, it will only make it better.
8. Measure in weight
Whenever possible, use a scale to measure your flour instead of measuring cups. Flour is a very tricky thing. It’s very easy to use too much or too little flour when using cups because flour condenses when you handle it. If your recipe has the amount of flour needed in pounds or ounces, grab a kitchen scale and use it.
9. Don’t trust your oven
The actual temperature inside your oven can differ wildly from the temperature you set it to. Get a decent Oven thermometer and always follow it. Along the same lines, be sure to place your bread pans in the center of the oven, where the heat tends to be most consistent. Placing them along the edges, or too close to the bottom or top can lead to uneven baking.
Another thing to always remember is that every oven is different. Yours might bake the bread quickly while your friend’s oven may take longer. For this reason, you can’t exactly the trust the baking time on recipes. Keep close track while baking and check the bread frequently toward the end. You’ll know it’s done when you flip it out of the pan, tap on the bottom and hear a hollow sound. Any other sounds and it needs a little more time.
10. Never surrender
Don’t give up. It took me years of failing at bread baking to finally succeed. My wonderful husband choked down slices from every loaf with a smile on his face. I’ve done it all and each failure taught me a new lesson. You too will learn from every loaf. Persevere through the bad and you’ll get to the good, I promise. Whenever you feel like you’re the worst ever at baking bread, remember this photo and try again tomorrow.
Happy trails and happy bread bakin’
Pssst! Did you know our friends over at Craftsy teach online bread baking classes? I’ve taken their artisan bread baking class and it taught me so much. Click the links below to check them out!
Classic Croissants at Home
Handmade Sourdough: From Starter to Baked Loaf, with Richard Miscovich
Artisan Bread Making
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