Preview: “Why is my bread so dense?” is the #1 question I receive from my readers. This post will address the most common causes of dense and heavy bread. Don’t miss the final section devoted to issues unique to bread machine users.
Are you frustrated and disappointed that your homemade bread came out heavy, dense, and smaller than you hoped? It can happen to anybody, but especially beginners and people who like to experiment.
If that’s you, don’t give up making bread. Let’s brainstorm about the possible cause and figure out what to do next.
What’s the main cause of dense bread?
There are so many reasons–some more common than others. Fermentation is at the heart of many of them. (FYI: Fermentation refers to the process yeast goes through to make bread rise or proof.)
If the fermentation is too fast or too slow, too long or too short, or not as predicted, dense bread is often the result.
The question is: “What can I do to prevent making bread that’s dense and heavy?”
Note to bread machine users:
The final section of this article is written especially for you. However, bread maker-specific advice is sprinkled throughout this post and marked with double asterisks.
1. Does your bread have a high ratio of whole-grain flour to white flour?
Bread with a high ratio of whole-grain flour tends to be a low-riser. Substituting whole wheat flour for white flour in any recipe will change the texture.
If you aren’t using a tried-and-tested whole wheat recipe, start by substituting 1 cup of whole-grain flour for one cup of white flour. If that works well, try a little more next time.
In general, I wouldn’t use whole wheat for more than half of the flour in the average homemade bread recipe. Even then, you can expect your bread to be slightly for dense than a loaf made with 100% bread flour.
Try adding vital wheat gluten according to the package directions. It will help bread rise higher. A common recommendation is 1-2 tablespoons for every 2-3 cups of flour.
On a related topic: Is the ratio of non-gluten flour to gluten flour too high? For example, does the recipe have too much oatmeal or potato flour in relation to the amount of bread flour? If so, replace some of the non-gluten flour with bread flour or add vital wheat gluten as discussed above.
2. Is your flour fresh?
All-purpose flour and bread flour will stay fresh longer, but they also have an expiration date. You might be surprised how small the freshness window is. Don’t let old flour spoil your plans for a light and fluffy loaf.
3. Were there too many add-ins?
Added fruit, seeds, and nuts can be heavy and weigh the dough down. Next time, cut back on the amount.
4. Did you add the salt?
Sometimes, home bakers on low-salt diets want to cut out the salt completely. This allows the yeast to ferment too quickly. On the other end of the scale, too much salt can decrease the ability of the yeast to ferment.
I’ll use a car to explain. The brakes represent salt. The gas pedal is the yeast.
Driving a car without brakes will likely result in a crash. In the same way, yeast in bread with no salt will usually exhaust itself way too early causing dense bread.
Driving a car with your foot on the brake will get you nowhere. In the same way, too much salt will keep your loaf from going anywhere (specifically, rising as it should).
You must use the gas pedal (yeast) and the brake (salt) in tandem for your car (your loaf of bread) to arrive at its destination successfully. Some recipes are affected more by this principle than others.
If you are watching your salt intake, try cutting back, not out.
A final note about salt: Unless the recipe writer specifies the type of salt, it’s best to weigh it. If the recipe doesn’t specify, go with table salt or sea salt.
5. Did you get distracted and leave an ingredient out or lose count?
We’ve all done it!!! Whether you added too little or too much liquid or flour, the result can be a dense loaf of bread. Measuring (weighing is even better) everything out ahead of time is a good habit. (I don’t always do this, but I should.)
6. Is your water heavily chlorinated?
Water with a high level of chlorine doesn’t always play nice with yeast. Tap water will usually work, but if you’re having trouble with your bread, try using spring water.
TIP: Draw a pitcher of water and let it sit on the counter for 24 hours to let the chlorine dissipate before using.
7. Did you forget to add the yeast?
I’ve done this more than once. That’s why I know how to fix it. Read about how you can recover your dough. If this happens, don’t count on fresh bread for dinner.
**Remove the dough from the bread machine after you knead in the yeast, shape it by hand, and bake it in your oven. The timing will be off so baking in your machine won’t work at this point.
8. Is your yeast still viable?
Check the expiration date. If you aren’t sure, dissolve the yeast in a small portion of the liquid from the recipe. Watch for bubbles within the next 10-15 minutes. Bubbles tell you the yeast is good.
9. Did you measure the ingredients accurately?
Buy yourself a digital scale and start weighing your flour. Don’t be a “scooper.” Read all about the correct way to measure flour in this post.
It’s important to get the amount of flour right due to the high ratio of flour to the other ingredients in bread. Measuring one or two tablespoons too much per cup (easy to do) can cause your bread to be dense.
You may be thinking that Grandma made wonderful bread and she never weighed anything. She was probably mixing by hand with lots of experience, too. Using a machine (a stand mixer or a bread machine) is a different game.
Handling the Dough:
10. Did you knead your dough long enough to develop the gluten?
Before you bake bread, the gluten must be developed first. No-knead bread recipes accomplish this with water and time. Traditional recipes require manipulation with your hands or a machine. Some refrigerator bread doughs combine both methods.
Without getting too far into the weeds, the gluten must be untangled and rearranged into nice long strands. These strands will form a “netted bag” to hold all the carbon dioxide bubbles produced by the yeast.
When those strands are strong and well-organized in a traditional recipe, the dough will be smooth, shiny, and elastic. If your dough is rough and tears easily, keep kneading. Experience helps you know when the dough is “Goldilocks” right.
11. Did you allow the bread to fully proof or rise at least two times?
Most (but not all) recipes require two rises. Shortcutting either rise could cause your bread to be small and dense.
How do you know when the bread has risen enough the first time?
- Use two floury fingers to indent the dough. If the dough has proofed correctly, the dough will immediately and slowly start to fill in the hole. The next step is to gently de-gas or flatten the dough with your hands and shape it.
- If the hole fills in quickly, the dough needs to rise longer. Check back in 15-30 minutes.
- If the hole doesn’t fill in at all, the dough has most likely over-proofed. Push it down gently and let it rise again. Watch it carefully to catch it at the right time and you might have a chance at a decent loaf, but no guarantees.
How do you know when the bread has risen enough the second time?
Since the dough has been shaped, use one finger or a knuckle to gently press on the side of the loaf or a roll. The dough should show a slight indentation. If it bounces right back, the dough is not ready. If the indentation doesn’t fill in at all, the dough is likely over-proofed and may fall when baking. Dense bread is your reward.
A couple of other tips about the second rise:
- If using a loaf pan, the dough should not fill the pan more than half full. When the dough peeks over the edge, it’s a sign that the bread is ready to bake.
- Although the first rise is usually done when the dough has doubled in size, in my experience, it’s better to end the second rise just before the dough has doubled. This leaves a little more room for oven spring. If your bread doesn’t get any bigger from the time you put it into the oven and the time you pull it out, you will know you let it proof a little too long the second time.
12. Did you use too much flour when shaping the dough?
Try to use as little flour on your work surface and hands as possible. If you get the consistency right when mixing the dough, this is not usually a problem.
TIP: Try using a little olive oil or water on your hands instead of flour to reduce the sticky factor.
**Bread machine users: Questions 11 and 12 only apply when you are using the DOUGH cycle.
13. Was your oven preheated before baking the bread?
Oven spring is what happens to a loaf of bread when it is suddenly hit by high heat. A preheated hot oven will cause your loaf to “spring” up. This creates a lighter and more airy crumb. This especially applies to rustic bread.
**Bread machines don’t heat much higher than 350˚F. Add to that the fact that your bread dough is already sitting in the bread machine oven as it preheats. This makes it hard to get a good oven spring and a crispy crust with a bread machine. It’s one more reason to use the DOUGH cycle and bake your bread in a conventional oven.
14. Did you let your loaf cool completely before slicing it?
Loaves of bread can take from 1-3 hours to cool depending on their size. During this time, the starches are still moving around and settling down. If the bread is cut too early, the crumb may be gummy, moist, and dense.
Temperature and climate issues:
15. Did you add any ingredients that were too hot?
Hot liquids, butter, or add-ins such as still-hot roasted nuts can kill the yeast. Allow any hot ingredients to cool before adding. According to Bob’s Red Mill, yeast will begin to die off around 120˚F. At 140˚F, none will survive.
16. Do you live at a high altitude?
High altitudes can play havoc with bread. My only advice is to look for recipes online tested by somebody who lives in your area. Several issues must be addressed to prevent your bread from turning out too dense.
If you are making sourdough at a high altitude, check out Leavenly for her recipe.
17. Is your current weather situation extremely hot, cold, humid, or dry?
Extreme weather conditions can affect the quality of your dough and fermentation. Be prepared for shorter or longer proof and bake times than normal.
**This might be a good time to try the DOUGH cycle on your bread machine. Shape the dough yourself and bake in your conventional oven. This will allow you to adjust the proofing and baking times for your current weather conditions.
Why is my Bread Machine Bread so Dense?
**To all bread maker owners and users:
This may seem obvious, but this is a reminder. Your bread machine has no brain!
Like a computer, it can only do what you tell it to within the constraints of somebody else’s programming.
When you agree to let a machine do the kneading and baking, you put your bread in the hands of a pre-set timer.
The timer is now the BOSS and will be making all decisions about your bread. Your job is to set up the bread dough to perform in a way that aligns with the timer.
Talk about a daunting task! Consider all the variables like weather, ingredients, and characteristics of your machine.
Before you throw out your machine…
I have good news. You are not obliged to let the bread machine make all the decisions. You have options. Are you are open to a different way of using your machine? Don’t miss this post about how to make beautiful bread with a bread machine.
Let’s talk about some things that you can do to ensure success with a bread machine.
**18. Were the kneading paddles engaged correctly?
Were the blades pushed down all the way? Was the top of the blade flush with the post so the paddles would operate as designed? If not, the dough will not knead properly.
Like a netted shopping bag with holes, poorly kneaded bread won’t form a strong network of gluten. Without that structure, your bread may not rise evenly.
Do the bread machine blades seem sluggish? As a machine ages, the belts can stretch and even break. Watch for that if you use your machine a lot.
**19. Is the size of the recipe within the manufacturer’s recommendation?
Do you know the limits of your machine? Check recipes listed in the bread machine manual. For example, a manufacturer may advertise the machine as suitable for a 1-2 lb. loaf.
A 2-pound loaf will usually contain 4-1/4 cups of flour. If you try to make a recipe with 5-6 cups of flour, your machine is going to be challenged to knead that much flour efficiently and correctly. The motor can overheat.
Don’t try to double a bread machine recipe.
Using a recipe larger than recommended will likely cause the dough to rise too high. When the pan is not large enough, the dough is in danger of falling. Anytime your bread falls, it will be dense.
A recipe that is too small presents a kneading challenge. The paddles in your machine may be unable to pick up and knead the dough correctly. Also, the large bread machine pan will make your loaf appear squatty even if it turns out perfectly.
20. Did you use active dry yeast instead of instant yeast?
I doubt if this is your problem, but it could be, so it’s worth mentioning.
In years past, active dry yeast required dissolving to activate. Modern-day formulations no longer require dissolving (although you still can if you want). However, active dry yeast is a little slower to start the fermentation process. Adding a quarter teaspoon more active dry yeast may help.
**Instant yeast (aka bread machine yeast) dissolves as soon as it gets wet. Newer bread machines are designed to use instant yeast. I ALWAYS use instant yeast.
**21. Did you substitute all-purpose flour for the bread flour specified in the recipe?
All-purpose flour contains less protein and thus, less gluten than bread flour.
Because of less gluten, the loaf made with all-purpose flour may not rise as high.
The bread machine timer cannot recognize that your bread dough hasn’t risen enough. The baking cycle will start and bake your loaf, ready or not.
If you don’t want to or can’t use bread flour, try one of these ideas with all-purpose flour:
- Use the DOUGH cycle on your machine for more flexibility. When the DOUGH cycle ends, remove the dough and shape by hand. Bake in a conventional oven after the dough has proofed again.
- Add Vital Wheat Gluten to your recipe to help the all-purpose flour rise a little quicker.
**22. Were you careful to keep the yeast dry (especially when using the timer)?
Do you like to use the timer on your bread machine? If so, be especially careful that the yeast does not come in contact with any moisture before mixing and kneading starts.
Once the yeast gets wet, the meter starts running on the yeast. When the energy is gone, fermentation is over, even if your bread has not risen enough or been baked yet.
**23. Was your dough too dry or too wet while kneading?
How stiff or wet your dough is has a huge effect on how your dough will handle and bake. Dough consistency will also determine how fast or slow your dough will ferment.
Too wet and the dough rises faster. Too dry and the dough will take longer to proof.
**Bread machine users: Always open the lid and check. Read this post to learn how to fix a consistency problem on the fly in a bread machine. It will make all the difference, I promise.
**24. Was the gluten well-developed at the end of the kneading portion of the cycle?
Open the lid and check. The dough should be shiny and elastic, not dry and shaggy, or too wet like cookie dough. When too wet or too dry, it’s hard for the dough to get traction.
Gluten will not develop without friction. See question #20 and make sure your dough is neither too wet nor too dry while you can still fix it.
THE GOAL: When the dough is almost done kneading, it should briefly stick to the sides (friction), then pull away cleanly. This does not apply to certain wet doughs like ciabatta, brioche, or rye bread. But it’s a general principle that works for most bread recipes.
**25. Did you use any ingredients straight out of the fridge or freezer?
Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before mixing. This includes eggs, butter, and any flour that has been stored in the fridge or freezer.
The temperature of the ingredients matters when you intend to bake your bread in the machine. If the ingredients are too cold, the dough will take too long to rise. This will ultimately result in dense bread.
Some bread machines come with a pre-mix cycle. Although the idea is good, I turn it off since I never use it. It’s faster to use the microwave or hot water (for eggs) to bring cold ingredients to room temperature.
**26. Did you open the bread machine lid too much while the dough was proofing or baking?
Letting out too much heat while the bread is baking or during the last proof can cause the dough to fall. Along the same line, a sudden jolt to your bread machine early in the baking cycle can be disastrous in the same way.