My bread needs a spa day.
June 7, 2011 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Bread help: why is my dough so tight even when I withhold flour?

So, I started to make bread 2 years ago. I wasn't happy with it. I started making no-knead bread. I was very happy with it. And then, masochist that I am, I decided I wanted to try my hand at kneaded bread again. And, on a whim, I bought some Robin Hood Whole Wheat Best for Bread Flour (yes, perhaps a dumb idea, but it was a good deal and I justified it as being my "experiment" bread). I thought that I would try the manufacturer's recipe for bread (which gets rave reviews, apparently).

So, technically, the loaves I made were the best I have ever made, so I'm not too unhappy. The thing is, every time I make a dough (pizza dough, sweet dough, bread dough) the same thing happens: it gets really tough and tight.

Now, I always make sure to reserve at least a cup of flour when mixing the dough (for instance, in this case I put in only 4 of the 5.75 cups required and I don't think I even used a full cup when kneading, which means I used much less flour in total than called for). I also make sure to do an autolyse. And yet...and yet my dough always becomes a sad little ball of angst.

Next time I think I would like to experiment with the French fold form of mixing/kneading. I also know that I should be measuring ingredients, but I didn't in this case because I wanted to use the RH recipe. But still: what else can I do to avoid toughness? Where am I going wrong?* Many thanks in advance.


*other factors: the flour had sat in my kitchen for several months before using it and I use Canadian flour. Of course, every flour--no matter how old--yields similar results.
posted by oohisay to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Start measuring your flour by weight instead of volume. Your 4 cups could easily be equivalent to the recipe creator's 5.75 cups. Settling, manufacturing tolerances, measuring method, and (in)accuracy of your measuring cups all affect the outcome when measuring by volume. Measuring by weight avoids all of that and gives a more accurate, uniform, repeatable result.
posted by jedicus at 7:13 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Are you making bread using only whole wheat flour? That, in and of itself, is going to ensure a very dense loaf. Try making bread using unbleached white bread flour (not all purpose flour!), and note the difference. Then, you can go back and experiment with substituting some whole wheat flour for the bread flour until you find an acceptable personal ratio between poofiness and nutty whole wheat taste.

Also, if your loaf is not rising well - is your yeast fresh? Are you using really warm water to activate the yeast? Do you have a warm place for the bread to rise? If not, your bread will take much longer to rise than the recipe indicates.
posted by Wavelet at 7:16 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I bake a lot though I am no expert. My suggestions are:

1. Go buy "The Bread Bakers Apprentice" It's a wonderful book and a good read.

2. Add Vital Wheat Gluten (if nobody has allergies to gluten). It really makes the dough form and rise properly.

3. Just keep making more and more bread that isn't great. Use different recipes. You'll find something that really works and is wonderful.

4. If there is milk and/or oil in the recipe, use whole milk or buttermilk. It really does make a difference. If you don't want to do this look up substitutions that use oils or butter to make the milk thicker.

Keep baking! It can be tricky to get t right, but home baked bread is AMAZINGLY better than store bought bread - even when it doesn't quite work.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2011


I love baking bread, and I am very superstitious about going through all the steps.

Some ideas:

- Nthing the weighing of the ingredients. I always sift the flour, too - it's probably not necessary but, again, superstition rules.

- make sure the yeast is fresh

- bread always takes a little improvisation - weather (especially humidity) can speed up or slow things down a little

- knead really well. The better the dough is kneaded, the smaller and finer the crumb will be.

- let the dough double in size on the first rise before you punch it down

- try a little more liquid. wheat flour is thirstier than regular flour.

Stick with it. Homemade bread and homegrown tomatoes are two of the greatest things in life.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:38 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just chiming in to echo a couple other peoples' suggestions.
- Definitely weigh the ingredients (all of them that you can get your scale to measure), it will give you a much better idea of what the recipe is calling for than measuring by volume. Also, just from personal experience, (and, of course, if you're in the US) convert the needed amounts to metric and weigh in grams. Pounds and ounces are wonderful and very American and all, but trying to wrestle with fractions of a pound vs. ounces vs. decimals of a pound is a pain when you're just trying to set up ingredients. Grams are grams. Kilograms are just 1000 of them. Much easier.
- Seconding the Bread Baker's Apprentice. It was my introduction to bread baking years ago, and it will give you such a good overview of the process that bread goes through from flour/water/salt/yeast through to a finished loaf, plus has a TON of great recipes in it.
posted by Inkoate at 7:45 AM on June 7, 2011


knead really well. The better the dough is kneaded, the smaller and finer the crumb will be.
I disagree with this.

It sounds like you're over-kneading your dough.
posted by seanyboy at 7:50 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Even though it is possible, it's hard to over-knead bread dough by hand. With yeast dough, you want to create a lot of gluten strands and air pockets. Kneading is the way to do that.

Non-yeast doughs are another thing.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:09 AM on June 7, 2011


It sounds like you're over-kneading your dough.

This is possible, but from my experience (using hands or Kitchen-Aid mixer) it is very hard to over-knead if you're making bread, english muffins, or biscuits. For lighter breads like crackers or light pastries it's easier to over-knead.

It's very easy though to under-knead for time's sake or for fear of over-kneading. Use the window-pane test to see if your kneading is right.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 8:09 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Woops, I just noticed that you are asking about a dense dough, not a dense loaf. Regardless, I still think that the stickiness/denseness comes from using all whole wheat flour, which has less gluten than bread flour, and hence less of that satisfying sproing while kneading.
posted by Wavelet at 8:13 AM on June 7, 2011


I'm not 100% sure what you're asking - i.e. is the finished bread tough, dense, or both? is the dough tough when you knead it?

But here are some suggestions for things to vary:
-try blending whole wheat with white flour as you refine your technique. 50-50 will still taste like whole wheat and is much more forgiving.
-if you want a more tender loaf, try substituting some milk for the liquid (but the bread will not rise quite as much)
-another thing to try for a more tender loaf is to use some soft or all purpose flour mixed in. It won't rise as much but it will be softer.
-if you want an airier loaf you can try proofing longer, or proofing in a warmer, more humid environment (try boiling a pot of water and putting it in a cold oven with the proofing bread)
-another way to boost 'airiness' is to add butter or other saturated fat (solid at room temp) when you're kneading - this will bump the oven spring (amt the bread rises in the first few minutes in the oven)
-If you're used to the no-knead bread, you might want to try steaming your oven (many techniques out there, ask google) - you get this effect with no-knead because of the closed pot. It will give you a thinner crust, which is important if you have well developed gluten (because a thick crust will be very tough in that case).

Also, it is probably not the source of your problem but months on the counter for whole wheat flour is way too long - it will be going rancid. Store whole wheat in your fridge and don't keep it around too long.

hope that helps.
posted by aquafiend at 9:20 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Denseness comes from using ww

French folding is a great technique but I've seen the most success with doughs made with mostly white bread flour. The bran in whole wheat can sheer the gluten chains so you need to be careful of that
posted by JPD at 9:22 AM on June 7, 2011


Shear of course
posted by JPD at 9:23 AM on June 7, 2011


Hi all,

Some clarifications:

1. In this instance, I am using a blended whole wheat flour. The bread, as I say, came out fairly well; a passable sandwich loaf that was, while hardly noteworthy, much nicer than supermarket bread and not hard like a brick. But, as I mention in my question, even when I use white bread flour--or any combination of flour--I have this problem. For instance, I have a hard time shaping my pizza dough because it seems to lack elasticity, even when I let it rest before shaping.

2. Yes, I know I need to weigh the flour. I have in the past but it hasn't prevented this problem.

3. It is the dough, not the loaf, that is tough and dense. You know all the trillions of youtube videos that show how to knead bread? You know how it looks pillowy soft all the way through? That is not what my dough looks like. I know I am not over-kneading it. I am doing it by hand and rarely spend more than 10 minutes. Moreover, the dough tends to tighten up within the first 4-5 minutes of kneading.

4. The yeast is fresh and my bread proofs just fine, thank you.

So, to reiterate, how do I keep the soft and loose while kneading, keeping in mind the fact that I have in the past tried many of your suggestions (white flour, weighing, etc.) and haven't noticed a change in the dough itself (even if the finished product is eventually improved with better technique)?

Or, conversely, should I care if my dough doesn't seem right if the end result is passable?

Can you recommend a good "control group" white bread recipe that I can try to test all of these different factors?
posted by oohisay at 9:36 AM on June 7, 2011


I should add: This question was instigated by my research into proper kneading technique: it became clear to me that I simply couldn't "do the right thing" with my dough because it was impossible for me to add air and stretch out the gluten since my dough was a dense, inelastic ball.
posted by oohisay at 9:44 AM on June 7, 2011


Hmm after your updates it seems like it might be that your liquid to flour ratio is not high enough. It took me a long time to realize that the dough had to be sticky-almost wet to work right. I wanted it to not stick to things (like it looks in the books/websites) but for me a stickier/wetter dough works much better and is more formable.

I add more liquids or remove flour from almost any recipe I use. I'm probably "doing it wrong" but it works for me and everybody who eats it.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 9:47 AM on June 7, 2011


In addition to scaling your ingredients rather than measuring by volume, try substituting a significant portion of unbleached white bread flour for the whole wheat and see what happens, especially in your pizza dough recipe. I like to use around 10% whole grain flour in my pizza dough recipe. A little bit of whole wheat goes a long way towards giving you a more nuanced flavor and fermentable material for the yeasts.

The problem is not that whole wheat flour has less gluten exactly, but that the jagged shards of bran interfere with the creation of the gluten network. This isn't a problem in a sandwich bread where you're going for a fine, uniform crumb. For pizza, on the other hand, you want a supple and extensible dough with lots of long, uninterrupted gluten chains.

The bran also absorbs a lot of water which means that a recipe formulated for a white dough will be much stiffer if you attempt to make it with whole wheat flour. One thing you could try is sifting your whole wheat flour to remove some of the bran. What you will end up with is essentially a high-extraction white flour. You'll be surprised at how much bran you can pull out.

On preview:
Up your hydration until it feels right! Shoot for texture rather than a number! Keep adding water during the autolyse until you get a kind of shaggy mess. See how loose it is here? It shouldn't really feel like dough at this point.

If I'm not mistaken, Canadian wheat is generally higher protein than American wheat. Try switching part of the flour to an unbleached all-purpose. If you're trying to do an artisan-style hearth loaf, you don't need much beyond 11.5-12% protein.
posted by clockwork at 9:51 AM on June 7, 2011


1) Have you tried letting the dough rest as soon as it starts to tighten and return to kneading after a few minutes?

2) It kind of sounds like you are under hydrating, but your description of leaving out flour doesn't really match with that. First off I would try bumping up to 60-60% hydration.

If you are already using a high-hydration recipe, do you dust the surface before working the dough? This gives a much smoother feel and preserves the gluten film. It would certainly improve your pizza shaping.
posted by aquafiend at 9:51 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


uh, make that 60-65% hydration
posted by aquafiend at 9:52 AM on June 7, 2011


Add a glug of olive oil after you mix everything together, then add in 10% more water. This is called double hydration. The fat will slow gluten development, and the extra liquid should give you a softer, looser dough.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 10:12 AM on June 7, 2011


I suspect your flour has a low moisture content. I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by theora55 at 10:31 AM on June 7, 2011


Have you tried letting the dough rest as soon as it starts to tighten and return to kneading after a few minutes? No, but it seems to make wild amounts of sense. Will try that.

It kind of sounds like you are under hydrating, but your description of leaving out flour doesn't really match with that. First off I would try bumping up to 60-60% hydration.
Ah....now this is getting scientific. So, let's say I intend to use roughly 600g of flour. For a 65% hydration I am looking at approx. 390g of water?


In addition to scaling your ingredients rather than measuring by volume, try substituting a significant portion of unbleached white bread flour for the whole wheat and see what happens, especially in your pizza dough recipe.
Well, I only use white flour for pizza, but I do like the idea of adding a tiny bit of whole wheat for flavour.

Add a glug of olive oil after you mix everything together, then add in 10% more water. This is called double hydration. The fat will slow gluten development, and the extra liquid should give you a softer, looser dough. This is interesting--I do this after mixing but before autolyse?
posted by oohisay at 11:16 AM on June 7, 2011


So, let's say I intend to use roughly 600g of flour. For a 65% hydration I am looking at approx. 390g of water?
Yes, it is quoted relative to the weight of flour. 65% means "water=flour*0.65" all by weight.

You can get some great results pushing the hydration much higher than that, but the dough becomes much harder to work with. Lower than 60% and you are almost certainly in low-hydration territory (which would explain why the dough feels tough).
posted by aquafiend at 11:38 AM on June 7, 2011


I like a hydration of about 70% for hand kneading, but I have a stainless surface to work on.

The technique vortex genie 2 mentions is similar to the French technique bassinage where a portion of the water is reserved until the very end of mixing. Gluten develops faster in a lower hydration dough and it's easier to work with. If you try this technique, be aware that the dough may seem like it's going to break apart completely, but keep kneading and it will come back together again in the end.
posted by clockwork at 12:18 PM on June 7, 2011


Aquafiend has it. What you need to do is what's called autolysing your dough. Add the (weighed) flour and water and lightly mix together - but not the salt or the yeast. Let it set for twenty minutes or so, then add your yeast and salt and knead etc. The autolyse makes hand kneading dough infinitely easier and better.

The reasons why we autolyse are outlined here on one of my favourite bread sites, The Fresh Loaf.

More info on autolyse here. I'm yet to see a wheat-flour oaf that doesn't benefit from this (it doesn't make a hell of a difference to rye breads due to the absence of glutenin in the flour).
posted by smoke at 4:00 PM on June 7, 2011


So, let's say I intend to use roughly 600g of flour. For a 65% hydration I am looking at approx. 390g of water?

Yes, it is quoted relative to the weight of flour. 65% means "water=flour*0.65" all by weight.

Wow - that's... different.

When I make bread I measure out some flour, and then I add water. How much water? Enough. When the texture is right, you stop adding water - before you start kneading the dough should be quite wet.

And what's with the 'reserving' flour? That's just weird.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:05 PM on June 8, 2011


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