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Making whole-wheat bread—or any bread, for that matter—can be difficult for first-timers. Learning what works and what doesn't takes a good deal of time and trial-and-error. I hope that, by sharing a few of the tips I have learned over the years, I can help other breadmakers avoid some of the same mistakes I have made.
There are several likely causes for this. First, your water may have been too hot or too cool: water that is too hot (above 135°F) kills the yeast; water that is too cold will not allow the yeast to grow properly. Try using water that feels warm to the touch, but not hot.
Secondly, you may have placed the dough to rise in a space which is too cool or too hot. As above: spaces that are too cool inhibit the yeast's growth, and spaces which are too warm (like outdoors on a sunny day) can dry out the crust and prevent your bread from rising further. I like to put my bread in a warm oven (200°F), covered by a damp towel, with the door open.
Thirdly, your dough may be too dense, either from using flour which is too coarse, or from adding too much flour. If you suspect your flour is too coarse, try using a finer flour: coarse flour contains ragged edges which can tear through gluten strands, so a finer, smoother flour his will make your bread lighter and fluffier, and more likely to rise. If you think you might be adding too much flour, try adding just enough so that the dough just barely cleans the sides of your mixing bowl. Mix the flour in little by little so you don't end up adding too much.
One additional note: I've noticed that recipes calling for regular (non-instant) yeast only turn out well when regular yeast is used. Instant yeast is only meant to rise once, and will not rise as well after you punch your dough down. Be sure that you use instant yeast only for recipes which let dough rise only once, and regular yeast for recipes where you have to punch dough down and let it rise multiple times.
Likely cause: drying. Bread can kind of dry out and get hard in the baking process, especially with whole wheat. Try rubbing the tops with butter and placing a damp towel over the top after baking it, letting it steam for about 10 minutes. This will produce a nice, soft crust most of the time.
Likely cause: flour content. If you put too little flour into your recipe, the dough can be too thin, making it rise, and then kind of slop over the edges, and eventually become too heavy for itself and sink back in. Too much flour will keep the dough from rising at all. So try to add just enough flour to where your dough is elastic and barely cleans the edge of the bowl as you mix it: no more, no less. Using wheat dough with a gluten content that is too low will cause your dough not to rise correctly, which can collapse before you get a chance to bake it, or even during baking. Use a hard winter wheat for yeast breads if you can find it, or if you grind your own. Important: if you bake with small children under foot, make sure they don't get too rowdy and bump the oven. This will make it collapse for sure.
My rule of thumb is to knead dough until the point that it feels elastic when I stretch it. You need to allow time for the gluten to develop in the flour, which is what makes the bread stay together and rise well. How long this process takes is largely dependent on what you use to knead it: if you are use a quality mixer, like a Bosch or a KitchenAid, you may need as little as 4 minutes. Kneading by hand may take as long as 10 minutes, and sometimes longer. Listen to the dough—it will tell you all you need to know.
By Emily Church
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