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I have been trying to bake my own Italian bread, French bread and Rolls. I have found many tasty recipes but I keep having the same problem so I'm guessing it's my technique somewhere. Please advise your thoughts.

The dough always has considerable spread during the rising time. Instead of rising UP it spreads out. It's not that it rises and then falls. It just seems not to gain much height.

Thanks.

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Jay's answer of a couche is great for relatively long loaves like baguettes or even ciabatta. For oval or round loaves, however, you'll need support on more than two sides. In that case, the solution is a basket known as a banneton or brotform (depending on which language you prefer to make your bread in). Again, they are not for baking -- you dust them with flour and then gently flip them to get the dough out right before baking. (Note that this is how bakers often make those lovely patterns of rings of flour on the top of their loaves.)

If you don't use either, you may still be able to achieve greater height by shaping more fully. Many people have been cautioned by various books to shape very gently and avoid degassing. I spent years producing flabby flat loaves this way, thinking that the key to loaf height was avoiding degassing and letting the bubbles grow. But it's often the opposite: by leaving the bubbles too big and shaping gently, you don't stretch the gluten enough to provide support and the yeast actually grow more slowly since they are immersed in their own waste product gases. (The only time to shape gently is if the yeast isn't strong enough to raise the dough again, which can sometimes happen with long sourdough fermentations or with very rich doughs like brioche, for example.)

While it's good advice to avoid unnecessary degassing (you don't actually want to "punch down" the dough to shape it), the main way to achieve a tall loaf is by having a very taut "skin," and that generally can only happen if you shape forcefully to stretch that "skin" multiple times. When I make free-form loaves without a banneton or other support, I generally:

  1. Cut the dough into pieces after bulk fermentation.
  2. "Preshape" the loaves roughly into rounds or ovals by folding repeatedly to tighten the "skin." (Stop when the skin feels taut, and definitely stop if it tears.)
  3. Bench rest for 10-15 minutes. (This allows the gluten to relax, before being stretched one last time.)
  4. Shape very tightly, again being sure to pull the skin quite taut.

For more shaping advice, I'd recommend looking at Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes, which devotes a 30-page chapter to shaping techniques, with a lot of drawings to illustrate the individual steps for each particular loaf shape. (He also has another entire chapter on braiding techniques.)

Also, to increase the "strength" (elasticity) of the gluten in the dough, you could also try incorporating "stretch-and-fold" manipulations periodically during your bulk rise. This will prepare the gluten even more before shaping.

Lastly, using a baking stone or steel can help in inflating the dough fast enough in the oven before it has a chance to spread even more: you want the bubbles in the dough to blow up like a balloon quickly during baking. If they bake too slowly, the bubbles can collapse or the gluten will stretch out and allow the dough to slacken before the crust hardens.

  • Thanks so much for that in depth answer and the reading recommendations. I have been thinking about those baskets and wondering if they are worth the expense. I will definitely see about those books. – Laura0703 Nov 17 '15 at 15:28
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    @Laura0703 - unless you really care about very pretty loaves or bake free-form loaves a lot, I wouldn't necessarily bother paying for bannetons. You can also approximate the effect by putting a very well-floured linen towel in a colander. As long as your dough is not too wet and sticky, it can work. (I recommend a colander rather than a solid bowl because a little air circulation helps the dough from sticking; the bannetons similarly have an uneven surface to prevent sticking along with the wood which absorbs some moisture.) – Athanasius Nov 17 '15 at 15:40
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    Braiding is actually also a good technique to get some structure, and/or to force you to really work/stretch the dough in order to make the strips to braid. – Ecnerwal Jun 5 '16 at 21:00
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A lot of free form bread will generally need a little support when it is rising. The tool to use in this situation is a baker's couche. Essentially it's thick cloth typically made of flax linen to support the sides of the dough. The flax linen is flexible enough to form around the dough but thick enough to hold its form.

This is one example of a baker's couche.

  • Thank you for your quick response. Do you bake the bread in it? – Laura0703 Nov 16 '15 at 17:50
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    @Laura0703 absolutely not! The couche just keeps the bread / rolls "together" during the final rise. Same for proofing baskets, which serve a similar purpose. – Stephie Nov 16 '15 at 18:57
  • Okaay that was a disaster in the making. Lol – Laura0703 Nov 16 '15 at 20:00
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    if you want something that is a bit less flexible but can go straight into the oven, there are perforated metal baguette pans available (which can be a lot more forgiving as you are learning the techniques). – NadjaCS Nov 16 '15 at 23:54

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