Baking bread is more popular than ever. Even my previously carb-phobic boyfriend has taken up a nightly session with the oven. (I'm not complaining about being served warm cinnamon rolls during my evening Netflix binge.) And if you've had a bread machine sitting in the cupboard for ages, you might be tempted to break it out to easily make some fresh-baked, carby goodness. After all, the promise of set-it-and-forget-it fresh, crusty loaves is pretty appealing to even the non-bakers among us.
However, the first few times you use your bread machine, you might end up with a surprising result. Whether you accidentally bake a dense loaf that doesn't rise or an oddly-shaped lump, here are some of the common mistakes you might be making with your bread machine and how to fix them.
Setting It and Forgetting It
I get it—the appeal of a bread maker is not having to fuss over your loaf. It's an appealing proposition to just throw in the ingredients and come back three hours later to perfect results. However, not checking on your bread along the way may cause you to miss some critical errors. Things like the brand of flour you choose and the altitude where you live can affect the way a recipe turns out, so you can't blindly trust formulas without a little investigation.
Don't worry about opening the bread machine mid-cooking cycle. Unlike doing so with a pressure cooker, you're not going to interrupt the process or risk exploding parts—in fact, it's critical to do so. Take a peek about 10 minutes into the dough kneading cycle to check the ratio of wet to dry ingredients. If your dough appears too wet or dry after five minutes of kneading, add more flour or water in 1 teaspoon increments until it forms a cohesive, smooth ball around the blade. An overly wet loaf will result in a sunken middle, and one that's too dry will yield a small, dense brick.
Not Accounting for the Ambient Temperature
The temperature and humidity level of the kitchen can make a big difference in the resulting loaf. If it's cold or drafty, your dough might take longer to proof properly. The bread machine is simply operating on a timer, so it can't know if your loaf didn't rise to double its size in the normally allocated time. It will continue on to the next stage of the cycle, resulting in a heavy, small loaf that's lacking flavor due to the yeast not developing fully.
On the flip side, if the room is hot or humid, the dough could rise too quickly, and you'll end up with a big dip in the middle.
Not Reshaping the Loaf
If you've ever baked a loaf of bread that has the dreaded "ski slope" shaped top, this is probably where things went awry. And yes, it is another example of when to check on your loaf during the baking process.
Before the final rise (also referred to as the proofing stage), lift the lid and check that your dough is filling the pan evenly. If it's not looking loaf-like, take the dough out, reshape it, and put it back in to distribute it from end to end. Figuring out when the final rise is about to happen requires a little calculation. Most bread machines will tell you in the manual how many minutes each stage takes. Start your timer and be ready to interject right before the final rise, and get ready for picture-perfect, warm, crusty bread.
Not Weighing Your Flour
Exact measurements are extremely important when making bread. Ever followed a bread machine recipe to a T and ended up with a disappointing loaf? You might have inadvertently used the wrong amounts of flour. Weighing your flour, rather than using cups, will help provide much more precise measurements. Not all recipes provide weight for flour measurements, but a quick search on the internet yields plenty that do. Weighing your flour will prevent the need for constant adjustment, checking, and trial and error.
Different flours have different levels of absorption, so when you swap out all-purpose flour for whole grain or another alternative, it's not always a 1:1 proposition. Make sure to use a recipe that utilizes the flour you have on hand until you get the hang of how the different flours behave. For example, whole wheat flour doesn't rise as high as white, but adding vital wheat gluten will give your dough an extra boost.
If you decide to substitute honey or maple syrup for granulated sugar (because honey wheat bread is always a good idea), remember that these ingredients need to count towards your liquid measurement to keep your dry to wet ratios intact. Same goes for using applesauce for butter or any of the other myriad substitutions you can make. It's fun to play around with different ingredients, but at the beginning, follow recipes that use those same components to avoid a loaf that falls flat.
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