The first times I made bread by hand I was so excited to see what the results would be. Bread is my life and I had visions of eating it warm with butter melting on it. You can perhaps imagine my upset when my first ever loaf came out looking not too dissimilar to a brick and was dense and heavy inside too. Not quite my vision!
So why does homemade bread often come out dense and heavy?
There can be a few reasons but the main one is that the dough hasn’t been kneaded to the required amount of time which means the gluten in the flour hasn’t been able to stretch as much.
When you think about it, especially for newbies at making bread, this is a common issue.
The recipe states to knead for 10 minutes or until the bread feels smooth and elastic. Here’s how my first attempts at loaves of bread started:
I knead the dough for about 3 minutes and realise my arms are aching in a way they never have before. I check the time and realise I have 7 more minutes to go. How is the dough going to change? Is it elastic and smooth enough now? I don’t even know what I’m looking for. 5 minutes in and I’ve had enough – surely that’s enough now? Ok I’ll leave it to rise and we’ll give it a go.
It’s no wonder really that I didn’t have the success that I wanted. I didn’t know how to knead and I didn’t know what the end result was supposed to look like. (Ok we also didn’t have YouTube back then – that might have helped too!)
What has caused my homemade bread to be dense and heavy?
As I mentioned above, the main reason why it’s dense and heavy is that the dough didn’t get the kneading that it needed. Kneading is more than just mixing the ingredients together. Kneading helps to form the gluten in the bread by breaking down the protein in the flour and stretching it. It really does actually change the look of the dough as it’s kneaded long enough.
If dough hasn’t been kneaded long enough the gluten doesn’t form well enough and that means that the dough isn’t stretchy enough and doesn’t have the movement in it to work with the yeast to form the air in the dough as it proves and as it cooks. Basically the yeast can’t stretch the dough enough.
There are other reasons it might be dense so if you’re sure you kneaded enough have a look at these:
- not left to rise long enough
- too little water
- yeast that might be going out of date which is less effective
- left to rise in a cold kitchen
I hate to say it, because when I’m looking for answers I don’t like to hear it, but baking bread really does just require time, patience and experimentation. You’ll get many bad results but also many good results too – take what you learn from each one and keep trying to improve!
What to do with dense bread?
It could be that the bread is dense because it’s not quite cooked through. You could try another 5-10 mins in your oven to see if that helps it. Sometimes bread can seem cooked on the outside but doesn’t quite get cooked all the way through, often because the oven was a bit too hot. (see my tips on what to do with bread that’s uncooked in the middle here)
If you’re just wondering, how on earth do I not waste this bread? Can I even eat it without fear of sinking if I go in the water?
Dense bread is perfectly fine to eat but might not be the kind of bread that you’ll want to use for sandwiches. It can be a little stodgy and hard to eat that way.
There are two ways that I like to eat it:
Toast! Toasting the bread helps to lighten it as it dries out the water there. Yes it might still be a little heavier than your normal toast that you might be used to with shop bought bread but it can still be quite nice.
With soups, stews or curries – I like to eat dense, homemade bread with soups or stews. Anything you can dip the bread in really. You don’t need much but the moisture of the meal helps it go down well and if you’re like me you’d have likely eaten bread with it anyway! Soup is great because it’s normally a light meal so the dense bread feels like a good accompaniment .
You can also freeze your bread if you’re not sure you can eat it all at once and you’re keen not to waste it. I recommend slicing it first before putting some in the freezer. Maybe take some out to have with your soup as and when you want it.
How to make bread lighter
So if you’ve got this far you’re pondering your next loaf and haven’t given up – that’s great!
What really helped me when I first started and when I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to look was to use a stand mixer or a bread maker to mix up the dough. I bought a really cheap bread maker at first (which I don’t really recommend – the bread they make isn’t always great) and used the dough setting. I’d then use that for shaping my own bread or making pizzas. The main thing was that it helped me see how the dough should feel and look.
And you know, it really does look smoother and more elastic! It feels stretchier and it’s easier to stretch too. I could understand then that the yeast had a better chance of working with the dough to create air inside.
I really recommend working on knowing when your kneading is done!
As well as the all important kneading, here are some more tips to make your bread lighter:
Use strong bread flour
I’ve used regular plain flour to make bread loaves before and while they can be passable they aren’t the best. The reason for this goes back to the gluten in the flour – regular plain flour has a lower gluten content than strong bread flour. Yes they look the same but they really aren’t.
Also, while you’re still learning to get your best loaves I really recommend using just white flour. It’s lighter and so the yeast can work better. Wholemeal bread can be trickier to get right so master white bread first!
Make sure the yeast is good
Having good yeast is essential to make lighter, fluffier loaves of bread. Yeast does die though, it’s a microorganism and has a lifespan.
I always use Allinson’s Easy Bake Yeast which is dried and comes in a green tin or green sachets. This doesn’t need to be activated before hand and can be just added to the dough ingredients. I’ve always had good results with this and you can get it in most supermarkets.
If you need to check whether the yeast is still good, mix some with a little warm water (not boiling) and a small amount of sugar. Leave for 10 minutes and you should see the mixture bubbling. If so, the yeast is good. If not then you might need a fresh stock of it.
Get a good rise of your dough
Perhaps easier said than done, but making sure your dough gets a good rise is also beneficial for a lighter and less dense loaf of bread.
Always aim to leave your dough in a warm place. Make sure it’s covered with a tea towel or some cling film so it doesn’t dry out, but warmth is essential. When I’ve had cold houses I’ve sometimes put the oven on for 10 mins, turned it off and left the bowl in there (not a plastic one!) or put the microwave on with a cup of water in it for a few mins and then put the dough in afterwards. Anything to make sure it has some warmth.
Dough will rise in cold places, even in the fridge, but I’ve had mixed results doing it that way so I don’t recommend it.
Good luck with your experiments!