manifest density
November 16, 2017 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Last weekend, I made Metafilter's favorite Mark Bittman no-knead bread and it turned out delicious, but a little denser than optimal. I've identified a few possible issues – can some of the master bakers out there weigh in?

Possible issue #1 - wrong flour? I used Gold Medal unbleached all-purpose
Possible issue #2 - not enough yeast? I added ingredients according to weight
Possible issue #3 - not enough time? I gave it 18+ hours as per directions
Possible issue #4 - it's supposed to be dense, deal with it .

Thanks in advance.
posted by roger ackroyd to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Room temperature can make a significant difference.

Is your scale accurate enough to weigh a single gram of yeast with any sort of precision? Mine isn't.
posted by jon1270 at 1:38 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

No, it shouldn't be dense. Did you use the right yeast? Also unless you have a very precise scale, I'm a little dubious of the concept of weighing yeast.

I will tell you what I use that always results in a perfect loaf. (Also, I measure the ingredients.)

Flour: King Arthur AP
Yeast: SAF instant
Salt: 2 t (up from the recipe)
Water: tap water, 1-5/8 c, sometimes a tiny bit more (dry climate)

House temp is around 68-70. I usually go the whole 18 hours.
posted by HotToddy at 1:42 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd be inclined to test theory #5, oven temp --- many home ovens get out of whack over time, the actual temp can be +/-50F than what it says on the dial. The no knead recipe depends on the oven and the pot both being ripping hot to achieve its effect --- if it's actually 425 in there when you set it to 475 that can mean less oven spring and therefore denser bread.

Size of the pot can affect it too --- if the pot's big the dough tend to spread out rather than rising up, as it's so wet. Also if you don't fully preheat the pot that can impact it, same reasons as above, the bread will actually be at a slightly lower temp than intended. Letting the pot preheat for a full hour isn't excessive.
posted by Diablevert at 1:47 PM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't see the recipe, but I will say that gluten helps a lot with this problem generally. Either use "bread flour" which has more gluten (King Arthur makes some), or add a little separately-purchased gluten.

Having gluten on hand is worthwhile because it makes whole wheat bread work well. Add some gluten, and you won't have to add extra sugar (which I personally really don't like in whole wheat/whole grain bread) or even white bread flour. Whole grain flour + gluten = very low calorie and delicious bread (as long as you don't forget the salt, which I unfortunately do occasionally).
posted by amtho at 1:48 PM on November 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I often add a little gluten, helps the rising action, in my experience.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:50 PM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I get a better result with that recipe when I make 1.5 x the quantity. Or use a smaller pot. And the yeast needs to be not too old. And the oven perfectly heated. With those factors it always produces a nice light loaf.
posted by lollusc at 1:55 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Adding to my response above, after seeing the comments: I do use a smaller pot than the recipe recommends--a 3.5 qt pot--and I do the variation of raising the temp to 500 until you take the lid off. I bet the smaller pot has a lot to do with it, because my bread always, always, always looks nicer than the ones in the photos. It's a taller loaf, and more holey.
posted by HotToddy at 2:03 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I haven't done that specific no-knead recipe, I don't think (I tried a few and went back to kneading), but in general I have way better luck with bread when I use bread flour. More gluten to hold in the bubbles instead of letting them escape. It's an easy thing to try.
posted by tchemgrrl at 2:06 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am not a master baker, and this is literally the only bread recipe I bake, and it's turned out perfect and airy every time. Per lollusc's suggestion above, I've always used a ceramic casserole dish that's just a little bigger than how the loaf turns out, and made sure it is up to temp.

Also, while allowing the rise to happen, I've left it on top of the fridge where it benefits from the heat rejected via the back of the fridge and the ambient temperature is a little above the average in the room (when I first started making this, we lived in a drafty place, hence this decision). And I've always erred on the side of the full 18 hours.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:52 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your water temperature also probably matters as a variable to control. I haven't made this particular recipe, but it's not far off from Ken Forkish's slow and too-wet-to-knead formulations, and he's all kinds of nerdy about the dough temperature at the start of bulk fermentation (as controlled by water, air, and if you were to mechanically mix it).

(Underproofing would also make things dense).
posted by janell at 3:15 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are otherwise following the recipe, this sounds to me like a straightforward underproofing issue. Try letting it proof for longer, until it looks and feels fully done. That amount of time can and will vary depending on minor variations in room temperature, gluten content, yeast performance, etc. -- but none of that really matters if you pay attention to how the dough is performing and control the time (and perhaps, a little bit, the temperature) to compensate. That 18 hours is really just a guideline -- at the end, you're going to need to steer it by look/feel.

So, first: make sure you know what properly proofed bread looks and feels like -- it's almost certainly a little more risen than you think. You actually might not get to really know this look/feel until you let it go too long and see what overproofed bread looks like -- it'll just be one more experience that helps you develop your instinct. Test it by touching the side of the dough lightly with your fingertip; the indentation should remain for a moment and then begin to fill back in slowly/reluctantly. If it pops right back up at you, it is underproofed. If it deflates -- whoops, it is overproofed. You'll begin to be able to see what it looks like, too, especially if you make this dough repeatedly. It's hard to describe but I think of it as a balloon that has been fully blown up and then lost just a little tiny bit of air. It'll have a bit of give -- it won't be stretched drum-tight anymore.

If it's underproofed (and I think it almost certain it was underproofed this time), then give it more time before you put it in the oven. Check it often, and pay attention to how long it takes to get to fully done. If it's always running to 20+ hours, you might want to consider letting it rise in a warmer location, like inside a cabinet, over a fridge, or some other draft-protected place. Watch it carefully in this case! A warmer room temperature can make it proof faster than you might expect.

If it starts to proof too fast (which is what generally happens in the summer or if you put it in a place that's too warm), then you'll need to give it less time and/or try to keep it cooler to extend the rise. You can do that by using ice-cold water, keeping it in a cooler spot.

Anyway, my main takeaway here is:
1. Learn what fully proofed dough looks like (through trial and error, mostly)
2. Use 18 hours as a guideline, not a prescription -- steer to the end by look/feel
3. If you want to learn more about how to manipulate time & temperature during the rise, get Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, read the chapters at the beginning, and then start with the recipe for Pain a L'ancienne, a delicious no-knead bread that features a very long proof in the fridge.
posted by ourobouros at 4:26 PM on November 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Nthing bread flour.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 4:56 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree that it sounds underproofed.

Bread flour is good, but it doesn't mean the crucial difference between a loaf that rises and one that doesn't. You can get a good loaf with AP flour, and a ton of recipes call for it. I personally don't think it's necessary to run out and buy bread flour just yet.

Beyond that, it could be an issue with the oven, but my first instinct is to check how well it's proving.

Also, The Bread Baker's Apprentice is great, and it answers a ton of basic questions, with photos.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:38 PM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks to all of you! I'll try the recipe again in the next day or two and pay more attention to the proofing outcome. Also, I'll measure ingredients by volume this time, because my kitchen scale was having issues with the precise weight of the yeast (a fact I neglected to mention because it slipped my mind until jon1270 and HotToddy brought it up).
posted by roger ackroyd at 5:49 PM on November 16, 2017

Breadmaking 101: How to Troubleshoot Bad Bread from Serious Eats.
posted by mumimor at 7:26 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly I've never been very precise with the yeast measurements. It starts increasing exponentially pretty fast so I don't know that the starting quantity needs to be all that exact.
posted by lollusc at 3:40 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

You should measure the bulk ingredients by weight, but yeast can just be measured with a spoon. I don't have a scale accurate enough to measure just a gram of anything, so I always measure my salt and yeast by volume. Short of just having some completely inactive yeast, I don't think that was your problem, though. Even a tiny amount of yeast will multiply in wet dough at room temperature if you let it.

I go back and forth between bread flour and all purpose. I do prefer King Arthur to other supermarket AP flour, but I have baked many loaves with King Arthur All Purpose (because my local Safeway was out of the bread flour) and they've all turned out just fine. I don't think your flour is really to blame.

So anyway, here's another vote for "underproofed" and an endorsement of ourobouros' excellent answer, and I'm not just saying that because I started some pain à l'ancienne dough last night.
posted by fedward at 8:18 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

don't mean to breadsit, but reporting in to say that this new dough is significantly bigger at 12 hours than the previous loaf was at 18
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:03 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Now, that's what I call bread. Thanks again to everyone for all the helpful advice!
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:29 PM on November 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ta daaa! That's what it's supposed to look like! Was the only difference measuring rather than weighing?
posted by HotToddy at 8:56 PM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I measured by volume and used bread flour rather than AP.

Plus – this is embarrassing – rather late in the process today I took a look at the All Purpose flour I used for the previous loaf, and realized it was three years past its "Sell By" date. Not sure what effect that had, but it probably did something.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:35 PM on November 17, 2017

Interesting. I know there's an issue with aged flour being preferable to new flour, but in terms of weeks. That's pretty old!
posted by HotToddy at 7:43 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

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