Q: The crumb of my bread is dense, with small holes, and sometimes there are dense areas in the bottom half of the slices. How do I fix this?
A: First, be aware that our expectations for bread’s texture are shaped by our experience with commercial bread, a product that is made with dough conditioners and other additives that keep the loaves very soft. Homemade bread like ours is denser and more toothsome than commercial white bread. But there are several things that can help you to achieve a crumb with a more open hole structure:
1. For white-flour recipes, are you using something other than U.S. all-purpose flour? If so, check this page for water adjustments.
2. Make sure that your dough is not too wet or too dry, both extremes will result in a dense crumb. You can check to see if you are using the right amount of water for the type of flour you use (click here to check). And make sure you are measuring using the scoop-and-sweep method, click here for a video of that.
3. Be gentle! Once you determine that your dough is the right consistency then make sure you are handling it very gently. We find that people tend to want to knead the dough, even a little. This knocks the gas out of the dough and will give you a dense crumb. When shaping the dough be very careful to leave as much of the air bubbles in tact as possible. These bubbles will create the holes in the bread. We say to shape the dough for about 30-60 seconds, but we’ve come to think that even that is too long. Try getting it down to 2-40 seconds!
4. Try a longer rest after shaping: In our first book (Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day), we opted for a very short rest time, usually 40 minutes for one-pound loaves made mostly with white flour. For most readers, that was enough to prevent dense results. But others found this to be a little dense, especially if your kitchen is cooler than 68 degrees. Try 60, or even 90 minutes for white-flour loaves, and see what you think. Whole grain loaves almost always need a 90 minute rest.
5. Longer-stored doughs may be best for flatbread: If you are using a dough that is close to 2 weeks old or older, you may want to stick to pizza, pita, naan or another option from the flat bread chapters in the books, or from our third book, due in 2011, which will be all about flatbread and pizza. The yeast will not have its full power and if baked as a high loaf it may come out denser than you want.
6. Check your oven temperature: Use something like this thermometer on Amazon; if your oven’s off, you won’t get proper “oven spring” and the loaf can be dense.
The “refrigerator rise” trick is convenient and results in a nice open crumb:
It’s also super-convenient, allowing you to shape your dough and then have it rise in the refrigerator for 8 to 14 hours before baking. This is what you do:
1. If you want fresh dinnertime bread or rolls, then first thing in the morning cut off a piece of dough and shape it as normal. Place the dough on a sheet of parchment, loosely wrap with plastic and put it back in the refrigerator. If you want to bake first thing in the morning, shape and refrigerate at bedtime.
2. Eight to fourteen hours later, the loaves or rolls may have spread slightly, and may not seem to have risen at all. Don’t panic, they will still have lovely oven spring! Because you don’t handle the dough at all after the refrigerator rise the bubbles in the dough should still be intact. Preheat your oven with a stone on the middle rack to 475 degrees. When the oven is nice and hot take out your cold dough, slash it as normal and bake per recipe directions. Allow to cool and serve.
More in The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, and our other books.