And how to fix them to achieve fresh-baked perfection.

Right now it seems that everyone across the country is turning to baking for comfort. Even my previously carb-phobic boyfriend has taken up a nightly session with the oven (I'm not complaining about being served warm cinnamon rolls in the midst of my nightly Netflix binge). And if you've had a bread machine sitting in the cupboard for ages, you might be tempted to break it out to easily make some fresh-baked, carby goodness. After all, the promise of set-it-and-forget-it fresh, crusty loaves is pretty appealing to even the non-bakers among us. 

However, the first few times you use your bread machine, you might come back at the end of the cooking cycle to a surprising result. Whether you're ending up with a dense loaf that didn't rise or an oddly-shaped lump, here are some of the common mistakes you might be making with your bread machine and how to fix them. 

Setting It and Forgetting It

I get it—often the appeal of a bread maker is not having to fuss over your loaf. It's an appealing proposition to just throw in the ingredients and come back three hours later to perfect results. However, not checking on your bread along the way may be causing you to miss some critical signs that your bread isn't going to turn out the way you are hoping. Things like the brand of flour you choose and the altitude where you live can affect the way a recipe turns out, so you can't just blindly trust formulas without a little investigation. 

Don't worry, opening the bread machine mid-cooking cycle isn't like doing so with a pressure cooker (trust me, don't do that). You're not going to interrupt the process or risk exploding parts by lifting the lid once it gets going—and in fact, it's critical to do so. The most important time to take a peek is about 10 minutes in the dough kneading cycle  to check the ratio of wet to dry ingredients. If your dough appears too wet or dry after five minutes of kneading, add in more flour or water in one teaspoon increments until it forms a cohesive, smooth ball around the blade. An overly wet loaf will result in a sunken middle, and one that's too dry will yield a small, dense brick. 

Not Accounting for the Ambient Temperature

The temperature and humidity level of the kitchen or area where your bread maker is sitting can make a big difference in the resulting loaf. If your kitchen is cold or drafty, it might take longer for your dough to proof properly. Because the bread machine is operating on a timer, and not your eyes, it can't know if your loaf didn't didn't rise to double its size in the normally allocated time, and will continue on with the next stage of the cycle before it's really time. This could result in a heavy, small loaf that's lacking in flavor due to the yeast not developing fully. 

One the flip side, if the room is hot or humid, the dough could rise too quickly, and you'll end up with a big dip in the middle of your loaf. 

Not Reshaping the Loaf 

If you've ever baked a loaf of bread that has the dreaded "ski slope" shaped top, this is probably where things went awry. And yes, to our earlier point,  it is another example of when you'll want to check on your loaf along the baking process. 

Before the final rise begins (also referred to as the proofing stage), ensure that your dough is filling the pan evenly by lifting the lid. If it's not looking loaf-like, simply take the dough out, reshape it, and put it back in so that it's distributed from end to end. Figuring out when the final rise is about to happen will require a little calculation. Most bread machines will tell you in the manual how many minutes each stage takes. Start your timer and be ready to interject right before the final rise, and get ready for picture-perfect, warm, crusty bread. 

Not Weighing Your Flour

Exact measurements are extremely important when making bread. Ever followed a bread machine recipe to a T and ended up with a disappointing loaf? You might have inadvertently used the wrong amounts of flour. Weighing your flour, rather than using cups, will help provide much more precise measurements and help you achieve those lovely loaves you so desire. Not all recipes provide weight for flour measurements, but a quick search on the internet yields plenty that do. Weighing your flour will prevent the need for constant adjustment, checking, and trial and error. 

Making Substitutions 

Different flours have different levels of absorption, so when you swap out all-purpose flour for whole grain or another alternative, it's not always a 1:1 proposition. Make sure to use a recipe that utilizes the flour you have on hand until you get the hang of how the different flours behave. For example, whole wheat flour doesn't rise as high as white, so you will likely want to add vital wheat gluten to give your dough an extra boost. 

If you decide to substitute honey or maple syrup for granulated sugar (because honey wheat bread is always a good idea), remember that these ingredients need to count towards your liquid measurement to keep your dry to wet ratios intact. Same goes for using applesauce for butter or any of the other myriad substitutions you can make. It's fun to play around with different ingredients, but at the beginning, follow recipes that use those same components to avoid a loaf that falls flat.