I've only made bread three times. Once it was Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead Bread) which has eggs and milk and sugar in it. And then twice I tried making this herb bread which is basically just flour, water, yeast, eggs, and some herbs. Both of the recipes called for dry yeast packets. Every time I ended up with a semi-risen dense bread that didn't taste good because it was so compact. I followed the recipes exactly so I assume it's something I'm doing wrong in the preparation (e.g. over-kneading or something like that). What are all the possibilities that I could try to fix this problem?
My bread never rises properly?
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I'd start with the simplest possible bread and learn technique with that. Here's a nice example: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/lessons/yourfirstloaf
It takes practice to learn how a dough should look and feel at various stages. The freshloaf.com site will take you to some good videos.
Over-kneading is unlikely, unless you are using a powerful machine. What is more likely is not allowing enough time for fermentation.
One thing to consider always is that not all recipes you find are good, and many are really bad. Just because someone posts somehting on internet (or even publishes it in a book) doesn;t mean it's a good recipe.
That said, there are some technical things that as a home cook (who has made bread for over 40 years) I can guarantee will help your breadmaking.
1. First of all, there is no exact recipe because yeast is a living organism, and has to reproduce to leaven the bread. If it's cold it will take longer, if it's hot it will take less time. Flours vary from place to place and year to year and so you can't guarantee that this batch of flour is identical to another. So you have to use a little "feel" for what you;'re doing.
2. make sure yr yeast is fresh, check the date. If in doubt, even if it says to mix it directly into the flour, put a small amount (1/4 cup) of water that it feels comfortably hot to the skin (you'd take a bath in it in the winter) into a cup. add a pinch, no more, of sugar. stir in the dried yeast (as much as the recipe calls for). Let it sit a few minutes. It should form a foam. You should actually see bubbles coming to the surface after a couple of minutes. That means the yeast is alive,. If it's not alive, you might as well throw it out. When you make your bread with this, you subtract 1/4 cup from the total amount of liquid, and you add this with the liquid.
3. When you knead you have to knead without maltreating the dough. You don;t want to tear or rip it. Press, lift the far end, pull towards you and press again, turn slightly, lift far end and pull towards you over the top of the dough and press again. Don't toss, smash, beat it. You're forming strands of gluten that will be what holds the air produced by the yeast and if it escapes the bread will not rise well. Think of forming a series of balloons, one inside the other, to trap the air, and if you break the balloons they deflate.
4. Knead till you feel that what's under your hands is not a floppy piece of formless substance, but that it has a sort of "life" - it tends to resist your pressure, it's elastic and smooth.
5. Let it rise, not by the clock, not by the size, but until you can poke it with a floured or wet finger and it will leave a dent. If you've let it rise too much it will collapse around the dent as well and then you should press it down, knead a couple of times, reshape it and let it rise again, no harm done.
6. don't "punch down" the dough if it calls for a second rise, no matter what your recipe says. You'll break precious gluten and burst your balloons! sprinkle a little flour around the edges, and detach the dough from the sides of the bowl gently, then press the dough down in the bowl.
7. always keep the part that's on top, on top when you let it rise, but on the bottom when you knead.
8. form the loaf by turning it upside down on a floured board and flattening gently with your hands. Now what was the top is now on the board and what was the bottom is now on top. Then you can use various ways to form a loaf, all of which involve turning what was the top in the bowl to wrap itself around what was the bottom in the bowl. You can do that in several ways, roll it like a jelly roll is the simplest, or fold the far edge to come to the center , then fold the two sides in slightly and then roll it down. Or if you;re making a round or free form loaf, hold it in your hand gently stretching the top down so it goes under and keeping doing that till you have a nice ball of dough.Put it in your greased pan.
9. let it rise, covered, until it passes the finger dent test - if it springs back it's too soon (doesn;t matter how much time has passed or how large it is!) and if it leaves a dent that only slowly fills in or stays dented it's ready. If it collapses, reform the loaf and rise again. It will always take less time than the previous.
10. remember to preheat the oven!
I hope this helps. Most recipes don;t explain all this. I've gatehred this from many cookbooks and advice and pure direct experience.
Bread is the most forgiving thing to bake. It doesn't require the precision of cakes or pastries. Use less yeast and it will take a little longer to rise (and develop a better flavor) - use a little more and it will take less time (though it might taste a little yeasty.)
Make sure you have fresh flour. I discovered this the hard way. Back when we could buy 25-lb bags of flour (about 40 years ago), I had purchased a "new" bag because I was baking bread every weekend. Suddenly, six weekends in a row my bread was failing. I didn't even consider the fact that flour could go bad, so it never occurred to me to try another bag of flour. Finally, out of desperation, I called General Mills (I was using Gold Medal at the time - this was pretty much before bread flours were available to the general public). The first woman I talked with (in the kitchens) said, "No... it can't be the flour. It must be your technique. You're probably killing the yeast." (Even though I told her I hadn't changed anything in my preparations.) However, she transferred me to another woman (in another department - I can't remember which) who said, "Yes! It most likely IS the flour. It's probably old!"
Who knew that flour does have a shelf life? I certainly didn't! But... I learned a valuable lesson. ;) I've never had that happen since (then again, I no longer bake bread every weekend, nor do I buy 25-lb bags of flour! LOL) However, I do keep it in mind should my bread ever fail again. We are blessed in that now there are actual expiration dates on bags of flour, instead of just manufacturing codes. :)