How Not To Bake Bread

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown are away on book tour while I’m holding down the fort in L.A. and looking after their chickens.

I figured that while they are away and not blogging much, I can step in and entertain you with tales of my epic baking failures. Sure, lots of blogs have pretty pictures of food and neatly typed recipes, but everyone likes a good tale of failure now and then.

Now, my neighbor Erik, aka Mr. Homegrown is quite the bread baker. He can turn out beautiful, tasty loaves of bread with ease. Down the street here, my loaves are quite the disaster. I’ve been wanting to learn to bake bread for a while and my experiments haven’t been going well. I’m hardly an incompetent cook. I can even bake cakes and cookies and other things leavened with baking powder or soda. But with yeast, well, I just haven’t figured it out.

I’m trying to follow the Mother Earth News ‘no knead’ bread recipe that you bake in a dutch oven. I’ve tried other yeasted bread recipes before with little success. Since this one is supposed to be easier, I thought this is the perfect bread for me! Apparently some folks gets great
results with it. Grumble. Grumble. I get chicken feed. Not that the chickens are complaining. They love this experiment.

One loaf flattened out completely in the bottom of the pan. I was able to glean some of the pretty tasty insides before turning it over to the hens. The next loaf I was determined to shape better. The dough was a sticky mess. It stuck to everything including plastic wrap, my hands, the bowl. I added more flour to deal with the stickiness but things still went wrong. I at least got something that looked more like a loaf than a pancake. But I think I cooked it too long. Again, I cracked it open, ate the soft inside of the bread and gave the rest to the chickens.

I tend to be a very experimental cook. I like to learn from my failures. Often things taste good but aren’t pretty, but after a few tries I can make them taste and look good. But not bread. It defies all of my time tested methods of how I teach myself to do things. I’ve been reading books on baking and they make my head hurt. How much protein is in the flour or what kind of enzyme does what is way beyond my comprehension at this point. So when the neighbors get back, in exchange for ten days of chicken- sitting, I’m going to have Mr. Homegrown teach me how to bake a darn loaf of decent bread. With none going to the chickens.

Mr. Homegrown here–happy to give a bead lesson, but I’ve had plenty of failures myself. One tip would be to use a scale when measuring bread ingredients. Another would be to make sure you’re not using old, dead yeast. Lastly, I know you’re sick with a sore throat and that’s the time to order take-out.

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  1. Lora- my husband bakes our bread and it was that very same MEN no-knead article that got him started. He uses the same no-knead technique for his pretzel and pizza dough as well.

    The tips I could offer you in addition to Mr. Homegrown’s are to use instant yeast, as it’s more viable than active dry yeast. We buy ours at Costco- it’s around four-six dollars for a pound of Saf-Instant, which we dole into a small jar to keep in the fridge and the rest goes into the deep freeze. Steve also weighs out his flour, but I can tell you he uses lil’ole Gold Medal bread flour and it works fine.

    He also mixes it up in the proofing bucket that I got him, and he leaves it on top of the fridge which is nice and warm, even in the winter. Then he works it over the next morning with a spatula right in the proofing bucket and puts it back on the top of the fridge.

    Then after dinner he forms his boule and lets it rise. He turns on the oven to 500 degrees, and he uses a really heavy cast iron dutch oven.

    The bread gets baked for a half hour at 500, then he takes off the lid and bakes it 450 for another twenty minutes to brown it up.

    I think the thing that contributes the most to his success is probably the yeast though; the bread is always better when you uses the instant instead of the active dry.

    Good luck with your baking and I hope you feel better soon!

  2. Sorry about your bread troubles. And your sore throat! As I was bicycling to work today I suddenly realized – you’re tending the chickens, and someone is tending the kitten, but who is tending Erik’s sourdough starter?!

  3. Sourdough starter is in the fridge where I keep it when I’m away. A friend of mine managed to revive a starter that was in his fridge for over a year.

  4. Yes, I agree with Paula, get new yeast! Instant yeast is most user friendly.

  5. My biggest advice would be – stop over analyzing it. People have been making bread since forever and you don’t need to be a scientist. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’ve had lousy success with any of those no-knead breads. They taste … well, unkneaded. They don’t rise and they’re dense and just awful. Bread needs to be kneaded. And I’ve always used active dry yeast, which I keep in a big jar in the fridge.

  6. I’ve had great luck with Nancy Baggett’s Kneadlessly Simple for no-knead bread. I feel about bread baking the same way I feel about making pie crust–the less time spent stressing out about it, the better. Especially with the no-knead. With yeasted bread, you are looking at a steep learning curve but it’s definitely possible. And once you have it figured out, it’s infinitely satisfying, both physically and spiritually, to provide homemade bread for your family.

    Go easy on yourself–and think of how happy you’re making the chickens!

  7. keep at it definitely takes practice. i use the instant yeast from costco too at the price you just cant beat it i’ve found if you let the rise go for more than about 16 hours it may be over rising and collapsing good luck and keep at it

  8. I heartily second what Arne said. I checked out “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day” ( from the library and the book revolutionized my bread baking. It has delicious wholegrain and gluten-free bread recipes that are practically foolproof. Mix up a batch in a big container (you use cold water and there’s no kneading), leave the container lightly covered in the fridge, take out a chunk of dough when you’re ready to bake, let it sit awhile, then bake. That’s all there is to it, and the bread’s wonderful.

  9. The problem is not the yeast- it is more likely my inability to measure things and follow instructions. I’m using Saf-Instant yeast. I have a large supply, which has been part of why I keep trying to bake with it. I get a great rise. No knead bread is a long rise method- 6 to 18 hours. The flavor of the bread is great. The long rise allows for much more complex flavor. At this point, I think it is the final stages that I am really having trouble with. The shaping and getting the dough into the pan seem to be very challenging. Mr. Homegrown will be back soon and I’ll have him show me. I definitely learn best when someone else can be there and walk me through the steps and interfere when I’m doing something wrong.

  10. Hmmm, guess some are meant to make bread and some are not!! Used the no-need recipe once it was introduced to my brain. Other than measuring the yeast and water, I just dumped in flour until it was the consistancy I wanted. Covered it. Let it sit overnight. In AM prewarmed the oven. For max usefullness, sort of poured the dough into a bread pan (or two). Let it rise for abit and then into the hot oven. Perfect bread every time. Makes the best pizza crust of all time too. And focaccia bread . .Now I’m gluten free and haven’t had a decent bread in seemingly forever.

  11. I’m absolutely hopeless at baking bread. Everything else I get (generally) first time, no trouble. Bread, though… I’ve tried multiple times, and the only batch that turned out was the one my mom “helped” me with. (By helped, I mean, she basically told me to get out of the way while she did it all.)

  12. What temperature is the water when you add the yeast? I find 115 works well, much hotter and you will kill it. Too cold and it may take forever to start.
    7 cups of flour. I use a measure equal to a packet of yeast. 2 yeast in the water. Same amount of salt in the flour. Once yeast is working add the flour and mix until it holds together. Put dough in your proofing bucket and let it sit. After a couple of hours I put mine in the fridge and later take out what I need for bread. There are three small boules in per bucket. Next day, turn on the oven, take out what you want, shape it and let rise while the oven heats. I use 450 but 500 works. I use cast iron also and have done this bread on charcoal too. After 30 min cook, remove lid and brown for 15 min.
    Do not wash the proofing bucket. Over time your bucket will develop its own house sourdough flavor.
    The scale is important 7 cups flour =28 oz of flour.
    Go to for more cast iron bread making and every kind of food you want to cook.

  13. I spent a wonderful weekend at San Francisco Baking Institute and really learned to bake bread. There are a lot of tricks, but the two that make the biggest difference for me are (1) weigh your ingredients. Get an inexpensive digital scale and you won’t be sorry and (2) use a thermometer to test the temp of the dough and to know when to take the bread out of the oven. Also King Arthur Flour web site has excellent information for the home baker and I find most of their recipes always work.

    Bread baking is my hobby, fun, challenging and you can eat your results. Also, relax and get into the zen of the is worth it.

  14. So, I’m going to be that guy. The one who says “No, I’m not good with yeast either.” I blame our climate. We haven’t had consistent enough temperature/humidity for me to have figured out the magic formula just yet.

    What we do have is beer. One of my new neighbors owns an award winning brewery in town, and it has made my life ever so amazing. In addition to being able to score used mash (free flour once you dry and grind it!), I’ve been able to experiment with delicious things. My current favorite?

    Beer bread.
    1 bottle (or 12 oz, if you’re rocking a growler) beer. I generally use stouts. Chocolate stout is an amazing choice.
    3 1/2 cups all purpose flour (whole wheat is delicious too)
    1 Tb. baking powder
    1 1/2 tsps. salt
    3 Tbs. sugar (I usually use Turbinado, but regular white sugar is fine.)
    1 egg, beaten

    Make sure your baking rack is on the lower-middle or middle position, and preheat your oven to 375 degrees f. Take a baking sheet, and dust it with a bit of extra flour. Mix your flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add beer (THE WHOLE THING! :D) to the mixture slowly. It’s going to fizz a bunch, but don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that. Stir the goo only until it’s combined, and then turn the dough out onto your baking sheet. Flour your hands, and then smoosh your dough into a round shape. With either a serrated or very sharp knife, cut an x in the loaf, then brush it with a beaten egg wash. Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes.

    I make this recipe almost every other day. ๐Ÿ™‚ Soooo good!

  15. both of my husband’s attempts at home made bread making were fun failures, but at least we’re trying right:) good luck on the next one. i hope to try this myself soon.

  16. Not sure why you are not supposed to knead. I mix a tablespoon of yeast in 1/4 cup of warm water. When it’s dissolved add a couple of cups of warm liquid (variable) plus some fat, sugar and salt. Then some flour, until it’s too stiff to mix with a spoon. Then turn it out and knead until it’s smooth and bouncy. Raise in a greased bowl under a towel until doubled. Shape into loaves and put in greased/floured pans. Raise again and bake. It works every time. The Book of Bread by Evan and Judith Jones has lots of great recipes, explanations, etc. It’s way too old for sourdough or no-knead stuff but I’d start with their traditional techniques before trying more exacting artisanal recipes.

  17. I’ve been using the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day no-knead recipes for a while now and even though I’d never considered myself a baker, they work for me. It looks like the main difference between their method and the one you were using is that you let it rise at room temperature for only 2 or 3 hours and then you can keep it in the fridge where it develops its flavors. It’s a lot easier to shape your loaf when it’s cold, with these sticky no-knead doughs.

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