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I've tried baking bread several times and I seem to always have the same problem. The dough seems fine, until I shape it and let it rise a second time, and then when it rises, instead of forming a nice tall round shape, it flows outward into a pancake shape. It bakes fine, not the best bread but reasonably fluffy crumb with a crisp crust.

Yesterday's recipe:

  • 150 g whole wheat flour
  • 350 g white AP flour
  • 300 g water
  • 10 g salt
  • 2 tsp dry yeast

I mixed it with a dough hook on speeds 2-4 for a few minutes, then covered the bowl with a warm wet dish towel and let it rise for about 6 hours at room temperature. Then I lightly reshaped it by hand into 2 long strips and put it on a baking sheet into a warmed oven (turned the broiler on for about 30 seconds). When it came out of this proofing 2 hours later they were shaped like long pancakes, about 5 inches wide but only an inch tall.

Is this because of the whole wheat flour? I'm seeing other posts about it destroying gluten / surface tension. I tried to use little enough to minimize any problems. Do I need to knead longer?

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Ok, this is going to be a long post, so patience, please.

  1. Ratios and gluten
    Your dough has a pretty mainstream ingredient list, meaning average hydration and a rather high yeast content. Whith the whole wheat you could go a notch wetter, but that is a question for another day.
    As you are not using any slow-raise / stretch-and-fold method, you need to develop your gluten by mechanical kneading. A few minutes in a machine sounds like the minimum of time, not like overkneading. Go by the appearance of the dough: It should go from lumpy to homogenous to very smooth, or at least mostly so if your whole wheat is very coarse. (How to handle this would be another question.) Only after that stage would you get to "overknead" and the dough tears. An overkneaded dough would have serious trouble rising at all, because the glutem strands are torn and can't hold the CO2.

  2. Timing
    I'm actually surprised that your dough is even willing and able to rise after a six hour first raise. My gut feeling, reading your ratios and with regard to the fact that you put the bowl in warm water, would be one hour maximum for the first rise. Whether such a fast rise is desirable is again another question. The general rule with yeast is to use visual clues, not a timer. Unless your recipe states otherwise, go for

    first raise = double volume.

    As I am currently baking, let me share a few photos:

    Before proofing 1 Double volume 1
    (Please ignore the bad quality, I had originally snapped the first photo only as visual reminder for me...)

    This is also true for the second rise:

    Loaves before Loaves after

    Ideally you want to bake your bread when it's slightly underproofed to maximize oven spring. Oven spring is not only a funny show to watch, but it means a light and fluffy loaf.

    If you greatly exceed raising times, two things will happen: First, your yeast will be "spent", loosing the ability to "lift" your dough, second, the gluten structure that you created while kneading, can weaken, causing the dough to fall flat.

  3. Tension
    When shaping your loaf, you want to keep the gas bubbles mainly intact. This does not mean that you can't touch the dough, just that you shouldn't knead in the sense of "mixing thoroughly" (there are exceptions).
    What you do want, though, is a taut surface of your loaf: Just like with a balloon, this will help your loaf to expand in all directions instead of flowing outwards. You are not destroing gluten here, but actually using it.

    There are many techniques, most are either based on a round "ball" which can then be pushed into a longish loaf, if desired, or start with a "roulade" of dough. The latter is typically used for baguette.

    For a boule (round loaf):

    boule 1 Boule 2

    First fold the dough towards the middle or slightly off-center (above: after three folds) until the surface (= the underside) of the loaf is taut. Then turn it over and rotate the loaf a few times on a non-floured surface, pressing the edges "down and under" with the edge of your hand.

    For a baguette:

    Baguette 1 Baguette 2 Baguette 3 Baguette 4

    First gently flatten the dough in a somewhat rectangular shape. Pull the far end up and push hard with all ten fingers down to seal. Repeat until all dough is rolled up. Hold your thumb parallel to the long axis and pull the dough over your thumb towards you. Work your way along the loaf, creating mainly crosswise tension. Roll gently to smooth out and shape the edges.

    Normally I use this only for real baguette, which is way thinner than the loaf here, but for the sake of a better explanation, I used the "baguette technique".

  4. Tools
    Note that I am using two different bannetons here - basically because I have them and because I can maneuver the loaves easily. If you look at the photos of the second proofing, you will notice that the loaves are quite "stable" per se. For (softer) baguette, a couche or, in a pinch, a floured linnen towel helps keeping them in shape. Place the baguettes between raised folds like I did with these breakfast buns:

    enter image description here

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Rise times seem very long (overproofed) - just let it rise to double in size, and "lightly reshaping by hand" sounds very far from a reasonable approach to loaves on a baking sheet, where you really need to engage the structure of the dough in being committed to not falling flat - or, you need to rise in one of those fancy floured-towel-lined baskets (which I know barely anything about, never having gone that way.)

I doubt I can fully convey how to effectively shape a loaf (and if I I do manage to I'll no doubt be dead wrong in 3 different ways by 3 different factions each of whom does the one true way, and all others are wrong) The good news about the factions is that there are many ways that work, actually.

One that is actually simple to describe, which stands up pretty well is the method I use when making Stollen, where the dough is rolled, patted, beaten or pushed out flat into a rectangle, and then rolled up (after adding various things when making a stollen, but you can do it that way without adding anything.)

The only "gentle" aspect of this is not going so far, so fast that you tear the dough. Other loaf-forming techniques I find harder to describe in a way that will convey the process effectively.

  • With eight hours in total and that yeast-to-flour ratio? Certainly overproofed. The best-shaped loaf in the world couldn't hold that any more, especially sans banneton! – Stephie Jan 2 '16 at 13:53
  • So after the first rise I can be more forceful and try to get some surface tension going? – Tesserex Jan 2 '16 at 17:20
  • Your 2 tsp yeast + 6 hour rise is the issue. Reduce the yeast & time by ½, pay attention to the look of the dough. Experiment. You'll get it. – michael Jan 3 '16 at 0:10
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I'd do a rest/first prove of nearer an hour or so - just double the size before knocking back / shaping. Then another hour or so for it to rise, before baking. If you can't give it the time because of work, you can try chilling the dough; a six-hour prove in the fridge will slow the yeast and might help you avoid over-proving.

Since you asked about flour -- look at the protein content of your flour (it's a good proxy for the amount of gluten in the flour). If you look at the nutritional information, the protein content can vary from around 10% for AP/plain flour to 14-15% for a strong bread flour, which holds structure better. More gluten will make it easier.

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