Why Is My Bread Hard? Here’s Why
Contrary to popular belief, baking and cooking are not the same. Ask any professional baker or chef and they’ll both tell you the same thing – cooking is an art, while baking is a science. That’s not to say that they can’t be both (just look at Bake Off if you don’t believe me), but it’s vital that bakers have certain bits of knowledge that only come from experience. If you’re here, it’s because you’re wondering “why is my bread hard?” Luckily for you, DreamyHome has all of the answers (and a few tips to help out).
The most common reasons for hard bread are overbaking, baking at too high of a temperature, or kneading – but there’s a lot that goes into this, so buckle in.
As I said, baking is a science. That means we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, so let’s get right into it.
Why Is My Bread Hard?
So there are a lot of things that can cause this issue. We’re going to assume you don’t mean hard as in stale, as that’s a rather obvious answer. Instead, let’s get into the science of why bread works and how to answer the question.
We’ll begin with the beginning of bread and move on to baking issues with time.
Gluten, Salt & Yeast
This is the first issue that amateur bakers will run into that can cause a hard, dense bread. And before you take offence – veteran or newbie, we all make these mistakes. I’ve seen professional bakers make this mistake on more than one occasion, so don’t fret too much.
Salt and yeast are the staples of just about every type of bread. You’ll find both in everything from sourdough to pizza dough, and for good reason. Before we talk about the mistake, let’s talk about what yeast, salt, and gluten do for your bread (and how they work).
Yeast is the cornerstone of most bread (minus flatbread) for one reason – it’s what allows your bread to rise. It creates that light, airy crumb that you think of when dreaming of bread through the formation of gasses.
For the uninitiated, yeast is a living organism. That means that it eats and creates waste – which is what you want.
Yeast consumes sugar and releases gas as a byproduct. This gas is in turn trapped by the formation of gluten (we’ll get to that momentarily) and stays in the dough, causing it to rise as it bakes and proofs.
(Again for the uninitiated), proofing dough is the process of fermentation occurring in your dough. It rises, proving to you that the yeast is doing its job.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that can get in the way of dough proofing properly. One of the most common things that is done to arrest the rising process is putting your dough in a cold environment. However, there’s a common mistake that you may have made yourself. Adding salt to yeast kills the yeast. That will result in a heavy, dense dough that hasn’t risen at all (or barely, depending on when it was added).
This is the flavour-packer. Salt (as you likely know) enhances the flavour of whatever it’s added to. Yes, it makes things “salty” when overdone, but adding salt to any dough will improve its flavour drastically.
However, timing is crucial in baking – and that goes doubly for yeast and salt. Remember how I said that salt will kill yeast? There is a time and place for adding salt to your dough. Here’s a basic idea of what the process would look like to make a pizza dough properly:
- Combine your yeast with a small amount of water that has been temped to around 38° C in a mixing bowl. This will vary depending on how hot (or cold) and humid your environment is.
- Anything above 54° C will kill your yeast. This will also result in dense, hard dough.
- Let it bloom (it will visibly change textures, you’ll know it when it happens) for 5-10 minutes.
- Once the yeast has bloomed, add your room temperature water (the remainder of what’s called for in your recipe).
- Break up any clumps of yeast with a whisk or fork to prevent clumps of yeast in the final product.
- Add salt. This will arrest the yeast’s whole “thing” and make it stop blooming (the room temperature water also helps with this).
- Add flour and mix for ~10 minutes, with the length varying on the size of your batch.
By adding your salt at the right time, it prevents the yeast from causing your dough to expand too quickly. It also makes it extra tasty.
Gluten & Flour
Gluten is (arguably) the hardest part of baking that amateurs will need to understand. We’ll give a quick “SparkNotes” version of what it is so you know, and then move on.
Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. While early humans certainly had no idea why their breads came out how they did, gluten was the MVP in creating the bread we all know and love today. The process of kneading and mixing dough forms a gluten network/matrix. This matrix in turn traps the gasses created by your leavener (often yeast) and creates the chewy texture you find in (among others) pizza dough.
Underkneading will result in, for lack of a better term, dough soup. Overkneading, on the other hand, results in a dense, hard, and overall unpleasant bread. The key is to find the perfect moment to stop kneading. In some types of baking, you’ll see profesionals perform the “windowpane” test. This is a colloquialism for the process of stretching dough and looking through it. You will physically be able to see the strands of gluten forming when thin dough is held up to the light.
One final thing to note about gluten is that not all flour is created equally. If you’re making pizza dough, you’ll want a high-gluten flour, rather than a cake or bread flour. This will help with the formation of the proper gluten structure. When baking a cake, if you used high-gluten flour you’d end up with a shewy, bread-like cake, rather than the light, airy sponge you’re likely aiming for.
And just as with the water for your dough, the temperature of your flour will alter the final result. Make sure all of your ingredients (unless specified otherwise) are at room temperature.
Overbaking & Temperature
Now that we’ve gotten the science out of the way, it’s time to talk about… more science. Wait! Come back, I was kidding!
If you’re new to baking, you’re likely tempted to do one of two things:
- Check the bread in the oven every few minutes, anxiously waiting for it to be done.
- Ignore (or forget) your bread in the oven.
Both are bad, but for opposite reasons.
The former will make your oven lose heat, resulting in an underbaked (and doughy or raw) loaf. The latter, on the other hand, has a rather obvious consequence – burnt bread. But it can do more than just burn your bread – it can cause an overly-dense texture that is closest in similarity to a brick. And I don’t just mean that the crust will be too crunchy; the whole thing will harden beyond edibility.
This is another key to baking that may take you time to learn. When baking, it’s vital that you cook your dough at a particular temperature that will vary on the type of thing you’re making. Things like bread generally cook at a higher temperature, resulting in a strong crust and airy interior. Cake, on the other hand, generally cooks at a lower temperature to achieve that light and airy texture.
In short, follow your recipes. When you’re given a temperature to bake at by a recipe, it’s because the author tested it and knew what was best.
Cooking a loaf of bread at a higher temperature won’t make it cook faster. It will burn and turn into a brick with a doughy centre.
Patience is key when baking – you can’t rush it. Your dough needs time to rise (proof), time to bake, and depending on the type of dough or batter, time to arrest the rising through refrigeration. Rushing (or outright skipping) any of these steps will change the end result.
How to Fix Hard Bread
First things first – you can’t fix bread once it’s done. Each time you add an ingredient, you’re making a final decision. So if you add the salt too early, or use too hot or cool of water, you’ve made the decision that now is the time. If you realize you’ve made that mistake, there is only one fix – start over and don’t make that mistake again.
But to adapt your recipe or actions to fix an overly-hard bread next time, there are several things to keep in mind:
- Pay attention to your recipe and don’t deviate unless you’re an experienced baker that knows what you’re doing.
- Follow the temperatures given for all steps – if one isn’t given, the author is assuming you have it at room temperature.
- This goes twofold for your oven temperature. If you crank up the heat to bake “faster,” you’ll just ruin the bread. You can add baking time, you can’t “unbake” a loaf.
- Knead (or mix) your dough until it’s formed the amount of gluten you want. Underkneading will leave you with soup, overkneading will result in a loaf that’s too dense to eat.
- Don’t add anything to your yeast while it’s blooming. It only needs warm (not hot) water to do this.
- And perhaps most important – be patient. Wait as long as the recipe says for each step and don’t try to rush things.
Baking is, at times, a pain in the butt. If you’re new to it (like countless people thanks to the pandemic), you’re likely to experience a few hiccups that may be discouraging. The best advice I can give to bourgeoning bakers is to not give up. I’ve seen professionals have to throw out hundreds of kilos of dough because they forgot the salt, or added it too early. I’ve seen professionals burn batches of dozens of croissants (perhaps the hardest bread to make consistently), and much, much more.
They didn’t give up, and they’re getting paid good money to bake perfectly. The only way you can learn to make the best bread, cake, or batter possible is through trial and error – and that’s okay. Learn from your mistake, take a breather, and try again with a bit more attention to detail.