We've all been there. A loaf of bread you toiled over for hours emerges from the oven and it's, shall we say, less than you hoped for. Instead of rising majestically into a tall, airy loaf, it just sat there. What went wrong?
Actually, there's a lot that could go wrong. Let's look at some of the most common reasons why your bread didn't rise.
Follow the Recipe
The most common problem is not following the recipe. This seems obvious, but it's worth repeating. Once your bread consistently rises and turns out well, by all means, start to experiment. But until then, your plan should be to pick the right recipe and follow it exactly.
The right recipe should list its ingredients in weight, not volume. Measuring flour in cups and ounces is wildly inaccurate, and can lead to all sorts of problems when proofing and fermenting your dough. Instead, use recipes that list the quantities in grams. That means you're going to need a digital kitchen scale. They're cheap, and they're absolutely essential.
Even with a good recipe, your bread still might not rise. But if you know you followed it exactly, it's easier to pinpoint what the problem is.
Problems With Yeast
Yeast is what gives bread its rise. If your bread isn't rising, make sure your yeast hasn't expired. Yeast is a living organism, so if you've kept it in the fridge too long, some of it may die, and it won't produce enough rise. So check the expiration date, and store it in the fridge or freezer. If it's past the date on the package, replace it.
Use the type of yeast your recipe recommends (dry or instant are best). With dry yeast, you have to dissolve it in warm water before adding it to the other ingredients. But if your water is too hot, it can kill the yeast. If it's too cool, the yeast won't be activated. Use a thermometer to make sure your water is around 110 to 115 F.
Instant yeast can be mixed with the other dry ingredients without dissolving, but it can take a bit longer to rise, and the liquid may need a temperature range such as 120 to 130 F. Follow the recipe (and the package instructions). Tip: Companies that manufacture yeast and flour have recipes on their websites. Use them.
Too much salt or sugar can also kill your yeast. The salt should be no more than 2 percent of the weight of the flour, and the sugar, no more than 10 percent. But, follow the recipe, and you shouldn't have to worry about this.
Use Your Eyes, Not the Clock
If your bread didn't rise, it might just be because you didn't give it enough time. Some recipes offer vague instructions like "let the dough rise until it's doubled in volume" followed by some arbitrary unit of time, like "about an hour." But factors like the temperature and humidity in your kitchen will affect how fast your dough rises. Instead, focus on the dough, and use time units as rough approximations.
If you're baking in a loaf pan, a helpful guideline is that the crest of the dough (at the center of the loaf, not the edge) should rise one inch above the rim of the pan. (This assumes you're using the correct loaf pan, and we'll get to that in a second.) Letting it rise beyond that can weaken the structure of the gluten and cause the bread to collapse in the oven.
If you're baking a boule or something else that doesn't use a loaf pan, you'll have to eyeball it; what constitutes "doubled in volume" can be a subjective assessment. Another way to check it is to use the poke test, which is exactly what it sounds like. Flour your finger and poke it into the dough, up to the line where your nail begins. If the dough springs back and fills in the dent, it's not ready to bake yet. But, if the dent remains, it's ready. (The dent will fill back in when you bake it.)
Use the Right Loaf Pan
Speaking of loaf pans, you might be surprised to know that there's a big difference between an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch loaf pan and a 9 x 5-inch pan. It doesn't sound like a lot, but the latter is actually 30 percent larger than the former. This can impact the shape of your loaf. With a 9 x 5-inch pan, your bread is going to be shaped flatter. So make sure you have an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 loaf pan and use it. (Keep the 9 x 5 for baking quick breads, which is what they're designed for.)
Under or over-kneading the dough: Under-kneading won't develop the gluten to the stretchiness needed to inflate. Over-kneading causes gluten protein to become tight, and the yeast gases don't have enough force to inflate them.
Hard/softness of water: Hard water can slow the fermentation rate of your dough, while soft water can lead to a slack dough. Use bottled water if your water is too hard or too soft.
Chlorine in the water: Excessive chlorine can kill the yeast culture, especially with sourdough. If your water smells of chlorine, let it sit out overnight so the chlorine dissipates.
Whole grain flour: Whole grain flours such as whole wheat or rye don't produce the same stretchy glutens as all-purpose flour, which can lead to denser doughs that don't rise as well.
Dry crust: If the surface of your dough dries out, it can impede rising. Keep your dough covered while it proofs so the crust doesn't dry out.