One of the most interesting and unexpected trends to come out of sheltering at home is the sheer number of people who have started baking bread. All over social media feeds, among practiced bakers and total newbies alike, is loaf after loaf made with varying degrees of success.
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"For some of us, there's something very soothing about taking time out of your day and preparing food," says Jessica Cording, RD, author of The Little Book of Game Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress and Anxiety.
"There's a lot going on right now that's out of our control. If you're confident in your baking abilities, there's something soothing about knowing that you can take these simple ingredients and make something delicious. That can be very calming."
"When you bake your own bread, you know what's going in there. You're not using preservatives or fillers, and you can control how much sugar and salt go in it. And if you have allergies, you have more control over cross-contamination."
Plus, baking your own bread has solid nutritional advantages: "When you bake your own bread, you know what's going in there," Cording says. "You're not using preservatives or fillers, and you can control how much sugar and salt go in it. And if you have allergies, you have more control over cross-contamination."
Having homemade bread around also crosses an item off your shopping list, so it helps keep you out of the grocery store. "You're saving yourself a trip to the store, which is great," Cording says. "Right now, you have to mentally prepared to go to the grocery store given the germs, the stress of a long line and how expensive things might be. And sometimes things that you want or need aren't available. If you can make bread yourself, you get what you want."
Of course, you don't want the bread baking to become its own form of stress. If your loaves have fallen flat, here's some expert troubleshooting to help you make your next ones fluffy and light.
1. Your Yeast Is Expired
"With so many people baking right now, there's been a yeast shortage in some stores, so I think people are pulling out packets they had in the back of the pantry. The 'use by' dates on those packages are pretty generous, so if you have a packet that's past the date, it's probably expired."
Fix it: If the date is close, or your package doesn't have a use-by date, Reid recommends testing it before committing.
"Put a pinch or two of yeast in ½ cup of warm water (make sure it isn't hot; put your pinkie in it and it should feel just slightly warm) with a pinch of sugar and gently stir, dissolving the yeast and sugar as best you can. After a few minutes, check for bubbles, which means your yeast is fine. If it's flat and doesn't do anything, then it's probably old and won't give your bread the rise you want."
You can use this method to test active dry or instant yeast, Reid notes. "When you're actually making dough, they behave differently. Active dry yeast needs to be activated, started in liquid. Instant yeast can be mixed directly in dry ingredients. But either one can be tested this way."
2. You're Adding Too Much (or Not Enough) Flour
"When it comes to bread, accuracy and the ratios between wet and dry ingredients are everything," Reid says. A kitchen scale is the best way to measure your dry ingredients.
"When you're spooning flour into cups, you can be off by as much as 30 percent. You can end up with a lot more flour than you need, which will give you dense loaves."
Fix it: Often, recipes will give a range in terms of how much flour to use, and Reid recommends starting on the lighter side.
"When you mix your dough, if it seems too wet or too dry as you're mixing it, give it a few minutes at rest before you do the next step. That gives the flour time to hydrate and you may find that you don't need more flour or water."
After a few minutes, give it an initial knead, and see then if you need to add a little more flour or water. "You want to err on the side of the dough being slightly wet because you're going to add a little more flour during the kneading process."
3. You Aren't Letting the Dough Rise
Once you've made the dough, don't rush the rising process, Reid says.
Fix it: "Really give it time," she says. "If the recipe says to let it rise to an inch over the top of the pan, let it do that. Give it plenty of time, and be patient. That will make your bread that much fluffier and lighter."
Give your dough the best environment for rising, too. "Place it in a good warm spot — just warm, not hot. I like to use the oven turned off, but with the light on."
Reid recommends leaving a post-it note on the outside to remind yourself and anyone else in your home not to turn on the oven while the dough is rising.
4. Your Oven Isn't Hot Enough
Making sure your oven is hot enough when you bake is really important, too," Reid says. A too-cool oven can leave you with a coarse texture.
The trouble is, just preheating isn't always enough. "Ovens can be pretty far off," Reid says. "The internal thermometer in most ovens is located in the back, which is a hotspot. That's why, when you're baking cookies, you have to rotate the baking sheets halfway through."
Fix it: Invest in a $7 oven thermometer to check the temperature and place it in the middle or front of your oven.
And when you preheat your oven, give it an extra 10 to 15 minutes after it says it's at the right temperature, just to make sure. It could be off by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit."
Remember that bread baking is a skill that can take a lot of practice, and no one's judging you. "It's really important to be patient with yourself," Cording says.
"We're used to operating at a very different pace. This is a good time to give yourself a little grace and be patient with yourself."