8 Tips for Bigger Bread

8 Tips for Bigger Bread

How do I get bigger bread? That’s the question I’m asked more than any other. There’s not one simple answer. Many steps of the bread-making process can affect the final size of the bread. Here are some tips that might help:

1. Check your ingredients.
Be sure your ingredients aren’t old or compromised. Old yeast might no longer be active, or it might be technically alive but no longer at 100% power. The expiration date may refer to an unopened jar; once the seal is broken, the yeast expires faster. If you’re using a sourdough starter, make sure it is at maximum strength (fully risen and full of gas) before using it in bread. The fermenting power of the yeast or sourdough microorganisms are what make the dough rise, so you want them at their best.

While some tap water if fine to use in bread, water that is too hard, soft, or chlorine-filled can hurt the behavior of the yeast and dough. If you’re unsure, try using filtered or bottled water to see if there’s a difference.

Has your flour been sitting around a while? Anecdotally, I have witnessed flour that seems to degrade after a summer in a hot kitchen or a year in the freezer. The flour worked fine in cookies but wouldn’t form a cohesive bread dough, as if the gluten wasn’t “working,” so I suspect the conditions affected the flour’s protein.

2. Check your hydration.
How did the dough feel—too wet or dry? Sometimes recipes need to be adjusted when you use a new brand or package of flour. This is because the moisture content of the flour can change. There’s also always the possibility of a human error in measuring! In general, it’s always smart to assess your dough as you knead it. A wetter dough is good for making a bread with nice big holes inside, but it can also lead to a loaf that flattens out and doesn’t rise as high. If your dough is not in danger of being too stiff to knead, try holding 1–2% of the water. (In the bakery, we’d sometimes get a new batch of flour in and need to cut the water this way.)

3. Knead more!
Ah, kneading. This is the big one: the thing no one wants to hear. Unless you’re using a no-knead process, kneading is how you develop the network of gluten that gives strength to your bread and helps it rise. Kneading until your dough is fully kneaded (so that it can stretch into a thin “window” without ripping) is needed (sorry) to maximize the dough’s rising.

Kneading will get easier the more you do it, as you learn to be more efficient in your movements. I approach kneading as a workout: I brace my legs on the floor and put energy into it. I avoid stopping for breaks or to clean my hands. I know it’s hard when the dough can be sticky! I also sometimes get out the KitchenAid mixer and let it do the work.

If you finish kneading and you haven’t reached the “window” stage, add a punch-and-fold to add a little bit of extra strength. Instead of simply punching down your dough after the first rise, punch the gas out and fold over each side until the flexible dough is stretched tight. Be sure the dough has had enough time to rise (see #4); if you don’t let it rise fully the first time, it may have trouble rising the second time.

4. Warm up your dough.
The microorganisms fermenting your dough need some heat to work. Ideally, after you have kneaded, your dough is about 75 degrees Fahrenheit and the room is about 70. I know that my French dough will rise in about an hour at these conditions. If the dough/room is hotter, it may rise faster.

If your dough is on the cold side or the room is cold, the dough might have trouble getting going. Make a note to use warmer water next time, to get a warmer dough. Then put the dough somewhere warm to rise: I use the top of my toaster oven, which I turn on briefly to warm it up. Keep the rising dough covered so it does not dry out, but don’t wrap the dough ball tightly in plastic wrap so that it cannot expand. (I use a bowl covered with plastic wrap or a damp towel. After shaping, I do my final rise with the shaped loaf in a plastic container so it is covered but the shape is preserved.)

The dough should feel gassy when it has risen, although this may be less obvious in sourdoughs. Poking the dough gently should leave a dent.

5. Shape tightly.
When you shape your dough into a boule or baguette, you’re doing more than making it round or thin: you’re tightening the outside of the shape so that it looks nice and resists the pressure of the gas making it rise, so that it rises in a controlled and even manner. The method I learned is to do a series of folds, with each fold making the loaf tighter. After the shape is formed, I continue to stretch it more and more tightly, but stop before it rips. When you set the loaf aside for its final rise, it should stand tall, not spread out within a few minutes.

Softer doughs can be supported during the final rise by putting them in a basket or wrapping a couche (linen towel) around them, supporting their sides.

6. Make sure your oven is hot.
Having a hot oven is the first trick to maximizing oven spring—the beautiful expansion your dough undergoes in the first 10-15 minutes it is in the oven. A few things cause the expansion: a final burst of chemical reactions that produce gas, the migration of dissolved CO2 into gaseous form, and the expansion of gases in the dough, all caused by the hotter temperature. Make sure your oven (and any stones or covered dishes you are using) is well preheated. Don’t trust the beeping of the oven telling you it is ready; the air inside may be hot, but the walls and objects will still be absorbing heat.

The trouble with home ovens is that they lose all their heat easily when the door opens, and the temperature drops. (Bakery ovens are more massive and can lose heat without the temperature dropping.) By the time the oven has reheated, you’ve missed your chance at oven spring.

A few tricks to have a hot oven are as follows: Preheat to a hotter temperature than your baking temperature. Don’t dawdle with the door open. Use an object like a pizza stone or even an old cast iron pan that can absorb heat and then help the oven reheat after the door closes.

7. Make sure your dough is fully proofed.
A hot oven won’t do much good if the heat cannot penetrate into the center of your loaf. When the shaped dough is fully risen or proofed, it should have gas bubbles all throughout it. The oven heat will reach the center more quickly and be able to expand the whole loaf. The bigger gas bubbles will expand more than smaller ones, as well. By contrast, a ball of dough with a dense center will heat more slowly and expand less.

The trouble is that when you “test” a loaf by poking it, you are assessing only the outer part of the dough. Sure, your finger leaves a dent, but that doesn’t mean the center of the loaf is filled with gas! And if you wait too long, the dough will become overproofed; the yeast run out of oompf, the dough becomes soft and overly gassy, and the loaf doesn’t expand as nicely in the oven. In the worst case, the whole thing collapses! You want to find the moment when the loaf is full of gas, while still feeling a little bit springy.

My best advice is to learn from repetition. Keep track of your dough and room temperatures and rising times, to give yourself some idea of how long the dough has been rising. Ideally, shape two loaves. When you think they are ready, bake one of them. See how it does. How does the second loaf look 45 minutes later, when the first loaf is done and the oven has reheated—does it still look good, or did it overproof in that time? By taking such data, you’ll have some guidelines for next time.

8. Use steam.
When your dough enters the oven, it expands until the crust starts to form. (Sometimes you’ll see a loaf where the crust formed and then the loaf wanted so badly to keep expanding that it suffered a “blow out” along the bottom.) You can delay the crust forming by spritzing your dough with a water bottle to create a layer of water on it. The crust won’t be able to form until this water evaporates, giving your loaf more time to expand.

Bakery ovens often have a “steam” button that enables the baker to shut the oven door and then fill the oven with steam, which has the same effect described above, only better. Instead of just spritzing, you can try these tricks: Pre-steam your oven with a pan of water to create a more humid environment. Leave a little water in for the start of the bake (but not too much, since it is absorbing heat.) Heat a cast iron pan in the bottom of the oven and drop some ice cubes into it after putting in your dough (be careful not to drip on the glass window in the door). Spritz heavily into the oven after your dough is in (be careful of the oven light).

My favorite and best method is baking inside a covered casserole or Dutch oven. This method has the benefit of providing both heat and humidity. Preheat the dish well. I remove it from the oven for easy loading, and load the dough in on a sheet of parchment, which prevents sticking and enables me to lower the dough into the pot. Get that cover on, and your dough will be baking and expanding before it’s even back in the oven. After 15 minutes, remove the lid to allow the steam to escape and the crust to form. If your lid fits tightly, you don’t need to spritz at all; in fact, if you do spritz, the loaf might appear done while still being doughy inside, because the moisture inside couldn’t escape.

So if you want bigger bread, try some of these steps. I hope you’ll be able to find the ones that work for you!