You’ve finally decided to give baking a loaf of bread a whirl, or you’re trying to up your miche, baguette or sourdough loaf game. Good for you! Here’s expert advice on avoiding the most common errors.
“Traditional, intuitive bread making does not lend itself naturally to a written recipe,” writes Bay Area baker Chad Robertson in his cookbook Tartine Bread.
Judging based on my baking adventures so far, the James Beard Award-winning restaurateur is (no surprise!) quite correct. I recently made a slab pizza which I’d made about half a dozen times before, and for which the recipe recommended a food processor. This time, I used my hands and let the dough rise overnight instead. The resulting pie was the best yet—tender and toothsome in texture, properly bubbled with lots of airy pockets, and a real affinity for all the olive oil I’d slathered in its sheet pan.
But beyond your own intuition, there’s a lot the pros can teach you. I reached out to acclaimed baker Zachary Golper of Brooklyn and Manhattan bakeries Bien Cuit, whose cookbook I keep next to Robertson’s as I try to anticipate common baking pitfalls. When I asked him about errors home bakers make, he cautioned, “That’s a tough question, because in every instance if you’re paying attention [baking] is a learning experience, because you’re becoming a better baker on the other side of it. Success without failure teaches you very little.” It’s a smart, Zen approach, but I managed to wrest a few pitfalls home bakers could avoid from him.
1. Over-flouring wet dough
“Often people are scared of sticky dough, so they keep adding flour,” warns Golper. “They’re afraid to let the magic happen…If people want a good loaf of bread, they’ve gotta get over that.” Some doughs will simply be very moist when they’re ready; it’s the way the science of fermentation, time, and heat works.
2. Not using a digital scale
“People push back on scales,” says Golper, but they’re enormously helpful. “A teaspoon of finely granulated salt is a major difference from a teaspoon of Kosher salt. A teaspoon’s not a teaspoon. Salt is a huge, huge ingredient that if you mis-scale in one direction or the other it can be problematic or not taste good.” I can attest to this one: The day I started making my go-to loaf using a scale I found its lack of saltiness to be immediately fixed.
3. Failing to keep notes
It’s OK to nerd out when it comes to your baking. Keeping notes about the crumb structure—whether it’s too dense or too loose, whether you like the crust, and whether the flavor is right—are all things pro bakers do, and they’ll help you when you make your next loaf.
4. Ignoring the water factor
“People like to talk about ‘the perfect water,’” laughs Golper, adding that “there was this lore for a long time about the great water of this region or that region.” But he admits that two things matter with water: First, if you have potable tap water, leave it out overnight so that any chlorine will evaporate. (It interferes with the ability of dough to ferment, and it doesn’t taste great!) Second, remember that the pH of your water will match the pH of the local bacteria and yeast floating in the air. “One has to understand that local bacteria and yeast will not live in an area where it doesn’t get along with the water,” says Golper. “There’s a symbiotic relationship…. You can’t take your sourdough starter from New York to Iceland and expect the same results. Keep it in the region.” Local water pairs well, unsurprisingly, with local flour, so if you see it, try it. “You’ll have more consistency because you’ll have the same bacteria and same yeast that are in that area,” he says.
5. Always using commercial yeast
Yeast and starters are scary terms for many novice bakers. Let the package yeast from the grocery store be your starting point if it helps you get going, but then consider making your own bread starter. It can be as simple, as in Robertson’s book, as combining flour and water and setting it aside at room temperature for about a day, “feeding” it periodically with more flour. (In Golper’s book, he tends to use a pinch of commercial instant yeast, too.) So long as you are using unbromated, unbleached flour, it should start to bubble and get lively, and can be the base of a loaf.
6. Doing everything in a standing mixer
Depending on your batch size, making bread by hand is often the best bet, says Golper. He suggested that unless you own a $450, commercial-grade standing mixer, you’re shortening its life by baking small batches of bread in it, even if it comes with a dough hook. Use it “for making meringue and cake batter and stuff like that,” he suggests. “When you touch the dough you have a very intimate relationship with it. You can learn a lot from your dough.” Also, a machine can “dry out” your dough, over-oxidizing it, and you’ll end up with a drier loaf.
7. Switching up flours willy-nilly
Thinking of swapping out a recipe’s flour for a different one? Maybe don’t. Flours probably have different protein levels, which affects the bread’s loftiness when it comes out of the oven. White flour tends to be very slightly higher in protein than whole-grain. If you want a lofty loaf of bread but want to incorporate whole grain such as rye, “which is really where you’re winning on the flavor level,” says Golper, use 12 percent or higher protein-level white flour. The issue with whole grain is essentially that its bran will cut through the gluten network of proteins in your bread, so if you add too much, you’ll have a flat loaf. (Some cooks avoid this by soaking whole grains overnight so bran fibers are less sharp.)
8. Too hot, or too cold
“A small mass of fermenting dough will quickly equalize with the ambient room temperature,” Robertson warns in his book. He keeps his bakery between 78 and 82 degrees, but you might not be able to pull this off when your dough is rising. You can tweak it, he writes, by mixing the flour with warmer water—perhaps 90-degree water if your kitchen is below 70 degrees. Your oven, even if it’s turned off, will often be the warmest place in the kitchen, so consider letting the dough rise in there if your kitchen is cold.
9. Being impatient
One tip from this amateur bread baker: If the recipe says “12-18 hours” for the initial resting stage but the the recipe notes indicates that its developer always bakes it for 18 or more, go for 18. My no-knead loaf was enormously flavorful after 18 hours, but failed to rise properly in the oven when I’d only waited 12 hours during the initial rise.
10. Not letting bread proof completely
“Proofing,” or the final resting of a loaf of bread before it goes into the oven, can be frustrating. That dough probably smells delicious, and you’re ready to see what you’ve made. But let it proof completely. For most loaves, this is when a soft poke with your fingertip leaves a small indentation on the dough, slowly creeps back, and “almost doesn’t come back all the way,” says Golper. (If you poke in and the poke mark stays, whoops, you’ve overproofed!)
11. Forgetting to score
Those gorgeous lines you see in the tops of bakery loaves? That’s called scoring, which is essential so the bread can release gas properly while rising in the oven. As Robertson writes, “an unscored loaf will not rise to its potential and will often burst open along the sides.” The types of scores you use can become signatures, he adds. You can use a sharp knife or a razor to carefully score a square on a round loaf.
12. Taking bread out of the oven too early
There’s a fine line between “burned” and “perfectly done” bread, and Golper literally named his bakery for this phenomenon. “Bien cuit, pas trop cuit” is French for “well baked, but not overdone,” he writes in his cookbook. By baking your bread till it’s just past golden but not burned, you’re enabling the Maillard reaction, which essentially creates a marvelous new set of flavors in some protein-laden foods cooked at high temperatures. It can make for a bread whose crust is booming with flavor rather than just ho-hum.
If you’ve made it correctly, a well-done loaf will feel light in the hand, “which tells you that the right amount of water has been cooked out,” says Robertson. “When tapped on the bottom, the loaf will feel hollow.”
How lovely is that? And if your first loaf isn’t just what you wanted, keep trying. Environmental factors—the humidity of the day, the yeast in your kitchen, and even the caliber of the water—all affect what you’re doing, so keep playing around until you strike bread gold.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.