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Recently, several people have told me, “I can’t make bread. It won’t rise.” Despite our best efforts, sometimes flour + water + yeast doesn’t equal a tantalizing loaf of bread, but is just a large lump of dough. It’s kind of like Cinderella, only you don’t even get to the ball. You catch a glimpse of what the coach could be, but you are just left with a pumpkin.
Needless to say this can be frustrating. Making a loaf of bread is a commitment. We carve time out of our day to plan and mix in anticipation of something that can’t be recreated at the grocery store, a freshly baked loaf of bread, its aroma wafting through the house. Baking bread isn’t just putting food on the table, it’s an experience
Old Dead Yeast. Dry, inactive yeast can live for years if kept at the right temperature. But if you used a packet of yeast found hiding in the back of the refrigerator, a remnant of your big baking experiment of 2012, chances are it was dead. You might even buy a brand new package of yeast and find out that it is dead. Yeast that has been stored in a hot warehouse or submitted to fluctuating temperatures may be dead too, no matter how recently it was purchased. Don’t automatically assume you did something wrong, it could be as simple as dead yeast.
Yeast Is Too Hot. Recipes that call for active dry yeast direct you to dissolve that yeast in warm water. Sometimes the recipe calls for the liquid to be heated with fat and then added to the yeast. Either way, if the liquid is too hot it will kill off yeast cells. Yeast is pretty picky. It doesn’t like it too cold and it doesn’t like it too hot. Invest in a kitchen thermometer so you can test the water temperature next time.
The Room Is Too Cold. As mentioned above, yeast prefers a narrow temperature band, usually between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. There is a little wiggle room on either side, but not too much. So if the dough sits too long in a cold room, the yeast will eventually die. Many of us experience this in the winter when it’s nearly impossible to keep the kitchen at 75 degrees. You can set the rising dough in a warm place, like on top of the refrigerator or in a gas oven that has an always-on pilot light. I usually turn my electric oven on preheat for just a minute or two, turn it off and let the bread rise in the oven. Just don’t forget to turn the oven off before adding the dough! And don’t forget to remove the dough before heating the oven for another reason. Sadly, this is the voice of experience. Semi-baked dough, melted plastic wrap – it was a mess.
Not Enough Time To Rise. We live in a “I want it now” world. But rising dough takes time. Maybe longer than you or the recipe writer expect. A longer rise time could be due to a room that is a little too cold or it could be that most of the yeast was dead. It could be because you are using a different kind of flour, or whole grain flour. Even sweet bread dough takes a long time to rise. If the dough hasn’t risen as much as you expect give it more time. Besides, a slower rise results in a more flavorful bread.
The Wrong Size Pan. Sometimes it isn’t that the dough didn’t rise, but that it doesn’t look like it rose. Usually it is because the pan is too large for the amount of dough. Use this rule of thumb for the best size pan:
• A recipe with approx. 3 cups of flour is perfect for an 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 inch pan.
• A recipe with approx. 4 cups of flour is perfect for a 9 x 5 inch pan.
• A recipe with approx. 4-1/2 cups of flour is perfect for a 10 x 5 inch pan.
In the meantime, what can we do with that flat lump of dough that didn’t rise? Don’t throw it out!
• Roll some of it and bake homemade crackers.
• Wrap strips around sticks and let the kids cook it over an open fire – still one of my favorite memories from childhood.
• Stretch it thin and bake into flatbreads.
• Stretch it thin, cook in a skillet, and spread with butter and cinnamon and sugar.
Your dough may not have risen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make bread. It just means you made a bread alternative and now you can try again. Good luck!
McGee, Harold (1984). On Food And Cooking. New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Hamelman, Jeffrey (2004). Bread. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
King Arthur Flour Company (2003). The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. Woodstock Vermont: The Countryman Press.
Renee Pottle is an author, Family and Consumer Scientist, and Master Food Preserver. She writes about canning, baking, and urban homesteading at Seed to Pantry.
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