6 Major Mistakes You're Making When Baking Bread, According to One of the World's Top Experts
Among all the pastimes that have dominated during the pandemic—Zoom happy hours, puzzling, dance parties in your PJs (TikTok or it didn’t happen), guzzling wine, adopting pets, scrubbing your shower doors until they sparkle—baking bread from scratch is arguably the most popular.
At first, it seemed like the goal was to make a homemade version of a grocery store staple that many families rely heavily upon so we wouldn’t have to run back to the supermarket constantly. But now I see that America’s obsession with bread baking goes deeper. It encompasses the “four C’s” of quarantine sanity: creativity, community, comfort, and carbs. Sourdough starter requires just two ingredients but endless amounts of time and attention? Sold. Perfect. What could be better.
But if you’ve attempted baking bread at home this month and find that it’s still not as good as your local bakery, it could be because you’re making one of these common missteps. Here are six of the biggest mistakes people make when baking bread from scratch and how to solve them. All is according to two of the world’s foremost experts on the matter: Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya, authors of Modernist Bread, a 2,642-page celebration of bread-making that includes over four years of nonstop research, photography, experiments, writing, and (yes) baking.
Using the wrong equipment.
Precision is one of the most important parts of baking quality bread at home, so if you aren’t weighing out your ingredients, expect sub-par results. “When it comes to gear for making bread at home, a scale and a cast iron combination cooker are two essentials tools that will make an immediate difference in your baking,” says Myhrvold. “But the scale is the piece of equipment we recommend most emphatically for all bakers. If you have been measuring ingredients only by the cup and teaspoon, now is a great time to buy a good scale to begin applying more percentages as well as grams, which is another benefit.” A super-precise fine weight scale is the best way to measure tiny quantities of ingredients like yeast or salt, and should work equally well for your flour (as most kitchen scales can hold up to 11 pounds). For the most user-friendly experience, look for a kitchen scale that will show measurements in both grams and ounces.
When it comes to choosing a cooking vessel, Myhrvold swears by cast iron combination cookers, like those from Lodge or Le Creuset. “The pot’s base and lid create a tightly enclosed environment for the proofed and scored dough. Cast iron absorbs heat well and retains it even better, helping to mitigate the temperature drop when you open the oven door,” he explains.
Being lax about your starter.
Managing a starter—sometimes referred to as a levain—can seem like a complicated process. Understandably so: it involves commitment. How often do you feed it? Where do you keep it? What if you miss a feeding? “We conducted a series of experiments to test which factors really matter and how changing them affects your levain,” explains Myhrvold. “And two factors above all stood out to us as what matters the most when caring for it.”
First, the frequency that you feed your starter makes a significant difference. You have to remember to feed it (i.e., remove a portion of it and add more flour and water) at the same time each day. “And fed too much, your starter will become diluted and become inactive.” Second starter tip is maintaining the storage temperature that suits your palette: those grown at higher temperature occupy a slightly more acidic range than those kept in cooler environments.
Believe it or not, Myhrvold says that the ratio of water to flour that you feed it plays actually the least significant role.
Using the wrong type (or amount) of yeast.
Because of the way yeast works to make well-risen bread, the style you use matters, so be sure to follow your recipe’s instructions exactly. However, you’re likely to encounter an occasional bump in the road when your local grocery store has only one type of yeast on hand, you’re living in quarantine, and everyone else on planet earth has been baking bread, too.
Fortunately, this is one bread-making problem that’s easy to fix. According to Myhrvold, if you have instant yeast, but need active dry, simply multiply by 1.33. If you have active dry yeast, but need instant, multiply by 0.75. “While the conversions are easy, the difference is so nominal in small batches that it will have little or no effect on the bread,” he says. Another simple solution if you can’t track down any form of yeast? Try making one of these delicious yeast-free bread recipes instead.
Over- or under-proofing your dough.
“Calling proof is a part of the bread-making craft that is hard to teach—even experienced bakers find it can be one of their most difficult tasks,” says Myhrvold. If your dough is over-proofed, all is not lost. You can revive it with this technique they developed while working on Modernist Bread.
You can also try Myhrvold’s method for cold-proofing dough, which slows down the fermentation process by refrigerating the dough for 8 to 18 hours (think of it as the cold-brew coffee of bread baking). “While cold-proofing dough allows you to adapt the dough’s needs to your schedule and improves its flavor, the limitation of cold-proofing is that it doesn’t work for all types of dough,” he explains. It’s best for those that are completely made with homemade starter as the preferment, but this method works for most commercial yeast-based doughs as well. “We tested doughs cold-proofed from 8 to 72 hours; all the doughs we baked produced loaves that looked great and had sour taste, an open crumb and a crispy crust. But our favorite time-and-temperature combinations are 24 hours at 4°C/ 39°F and 14 hours at 13°C/55°F, which is why we love proofing in a temperature-controlled wine fridge!”
Bottom line: experiment with proofing times and temperatures to find the flavors that you like best.
Tossing your extra starter.
Waste is a rightful concern for many as they learn to bake their own bread. The process of feeding your starter, for instance, involves removing a portion of it before adding fresh flour—another ingredient that’s been disappearing from grocery shelves—and water. Easy fix: put your spare starter to work in one of these delicious dishes (like pancakes, pretzels, and pizza). You can also freeze your starter for up to two weeks, which gives you plenty of time to polish off your first loaf and start over.
Improperly storing your bread.
Another waste issue we hate to see is fresh bread that’s gone prematurely stale. You can prevent this from happening by storing it properly. First, never refrigerate your loaf, as the dry air in the fridge will make your bread equally arid long before you have a chance to toast it. As soon as it starts to turn, freeze your fresh bread instead.
“The freezer isn’t going to make your bread last forever, but freezing is the best way to keep bread for relatively long periods without it suffering too many negative consequences,” explains Myhrvold. The key is to protect the bread as much as possible from the freezer’s harsh environment. Otherwise, the circulating air will pull moisture off the surface of the bread, drying it out. “Plastic wrap is your best option because it’s impermeable to water and oxygen, it stretches easily to conform to your bread’s shape, and it contacts the bread’s surface directly. We recommend portioning your bread in the amount you’ll use at one time, and then wrapping each piece with two layers of plastic wrap in case the first layer tears.”
Other impermeable materials, such as aluminum foil, don’t seal as well as plastic wrap because they have a tendency to tear. Find Real Simple’s complete guide to bread storage—plus delicious ways to cook with stale bread—here.