Many home bakers yearn to make the perfect loaf of bread. It should be soft and flavorful without being overpowering, and have just the right amount of crumb. For many, perfecting bread baking is one of the signs that they have made it as a baker.
However, breadmaking is a very complicated process and there are many things that can go wrong along the way. One of the most common problems is bread that is too crumbly.
Crumbly bread has difficulty holding its structure, making it a poor choice for sandwiches. It also loses much of its moisture and doesn’t taste as good as it should.
If your bread has been coming out crumbly, you can fix this mistake by trying to identify the problem. The following are a few common reasons why this happens.
The Importance of Gluten in Bread Making
Gluten is a type of protein that forms when flour is mixed with water. Most traditional loaves of bread contain gluten, although there are gluten-free breads and flours for people with allergies or celiac disease.
Gluten is important because it gives bread the soft, elastic structure that makes it so delicious. When a baker mixes ingredients for bread together and kneads the dough, they are helping gluten develop.
However, when gluten does not develop properly in bread, that is when the texture comes out wrong. Usually, bread that is too crumbly is the way it is because gluten has not developed as it should.
There are many factors that affect a bread’s gluten development as well as its texture, from the ingredients to temperature. While overdeveloped or underdeveloped gluten is not the only reason why bread can turn out crumbly, it is often a significant factor.
Reasons Why Bread Might Be Too Crumbly
There are many different factors that affect bread’s textures, and any one of them could be making your bread crumbly. You may recognize your error immediately after thinking back on what you did during the bread-making process, or you may need to test out a few loaves before identifying the cause of your crumbs.
1 – Too Much Flour
One of the most common culprits for too much crumbling in bread is an excess of flour. Too much flour makes the bread very dry and affects the texture and structural integrity of the bread, making it crumbly.
Bread’s primary ingredients are flour and water along with yeast and salt. With so few ingredients, there is little room to make mistakes when it comes to ratios and quantities. When the ratio of flour to water is not exactly what it should be, then the texture will be affected.
The reason why many beginner bakers add too much flour is that most bread recipes don’t come with precise instructions. They give a ratio or a suggested bread amount, which is difficult for beginners to follow.
Beginning bread makers also struggle with understanding the texture of the bread. They panic when it is too sticky during kneading and immediately add more flour when kneading some more usually gets the stickiness out.
If you suspect that your heavy hand with flour is causing your crumb problem, the solution is to add more precision when you are baking. Weigh out the suggested amount of flour before you start baking so that you’re sure not to add too much.
People tend to add more flour than they think they add because recipes usually tell you to add as you go. Weighing out your flour beforehand means that even when you add it in increments, you will not exceed the recommended amount for the whole recipe.
In addition to weighing your flour, another way to stop yourself from adding too much is to knead your bread for longer than you usually do. Many bakers add too much flour once they start kneading their bread and notice that the dough is sticky.
However, the stickiness in your dough will usually go away once you knead it for a little longer. Next time, instead of adding more flour, try pushing your bread around for longer and see if the texture improves with work. Kneading is also necessary to develop gluten.
2 – Not Enough Gluten in Your Flour
As mentioned above, gluten is crucial to developing the pillowy bread texture that we all know and love. However, not all flours have the same amount of gluten. If you’re using the wrong flour, you could be setting yourself up for failure before you even add any other ingredients.
Whole wheat flours overall have less gluten than white flour. Even among white flours, there is a difference. All-purpose flour has less gluten than bread flour, which is milled specifically to create bread with optimum texture.
If you are using flour with less gluten, that will affect the texture of your bread. Instead of being cohesive, your bread will become crumbly.
The best solution to stop your flour from sabotaging your bread is to use flour with the right gluten content. The best flour for making bread is obviously bread flour because it has a higher protein count, which forms gluten when mixed with water.
However, that doesn’t mean you cannot use other flours if you choose to do so. You can adjust the gluten level to the right amount by mixing your whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour with bread flour.
You can also buy powdered wheat gluten online or in specialty baking stores and add it directly to bread doughs made with flours with low levels of gluten. Usually, you should add about one tablespoon to your regular dough.
3 – Over-Proving
Most people do not realize it, but proving bread dough for too long actually makes it more crumbly. When it comes to proving, beginners assume that the longer they leave their dough, the better, but that is not always the case.
A bread’s rise and soft texture are formed when the right ratio forms of gluten, air, and steam. However, when bread proves for too long, the yeast becomes too active, throwing off that ratio.
Over-proved bread loses its texture and allows too much air into the bread. This affects the cohesiveness and leads to more crumbs.
Luckily, over-proving is a relatively easy problem to correct for future loaves. Record for how long you prove bread each time, and if you notice too much crumbling, prove it for less the next time.
Most recipes recommend proving bread for about 45 minutes. However, this time will vary depending on the recipe, the yeast, and even the temperature of the room.
A good rule of thumb when checking to see whether your bread has proved or not is to see the change in size. Most recipes call for the bread to double.
You can also try poking a hole in the dough. If the hole stays in place or only fluctuates a little bit, then your bread is done.
4 – Not Kneading Enough
Another part of the bread-making process that can cause a crumbly texture is kneading. While proving for too much time causes crumbs to develop, the problem with kneading is that bakers tend to do it for too little time.
Kneading is a crucial part of the baking process because that is what helps the dough develop gluten. Gluten is what makes the bread stick together and provides structure for the dough.
Besides being important, kneading is also fairly arduous. Many bakers decide to hand-knead their dough and then quit too early because they get exhausted or think that they’ve done enough.
The obvious solution when you think that you have not been kneading your dough enough is to knead your dough for longer. Most recipes recommend kneading your dough for about 10 minutes, so set a timer and challenge yourself to keep going for that entire time.
Many people skip the second knead, which is supposed to happen after proving the dough. This time is shorter, about two minutes, but it is still crucial in helping the dough develop gluten.
One way to tell that your dough is kneaded enough is to break a small piece of dough off of the main mass and stretch it. If it forms a windowpane without breaking, then your dough is done kneading.
No matter how long you knead your dough, it won’t matter if you are not using the right technique. Double-check that you are kneading properly by attending a class or watching an online tutorial.
5 – Too Much Yeast
Breadmaking relies on a precise ratio of ingredients. We already discussed what happens to crumbs when the ratio of water to flour is off, but adding too much yeast can also affect the texture of your bread.
Adding too little yeast means that your bread will not rise. However, if you add too much yeast, then your bread will rise too fast.
When bread rises too fast, this throws off the balance of gluten to air that forms the right texture. It also makes it harder for the dough to form a cohesive bread loaf, leading to more crumbs.
If you think that your yeast measurements are the cause of your crumbling bread loaves, the best way to fix this problem is to add more precision to the process.
Many bakers use active dry yeast, which comes in single packets that are already apportioned to the right amount for bread dough. If you don’t have yeast packets, measure out your yeast to precisely 2¼ teaspoons, which is the amount that usually comes in packets.
6 – Not Enough Salt or Fat
Some bakers think that salt or fat in a bread recipe is not necessary since it does not impart much flavor. However, besides preventing bland bread, salt and fat are crucial to developing the right texture in a loaf of bread.
Salt and fat stop yeast from developing too quickly. As mentioned above, dough that rises fast does not have time to form the right texture and level of gluten.
Fat, in particular, is important because it helps prevent the bread from drying out. Bread that stays moist maintains a cohesive texture, while bread that dries out forms crumbs.
If you’ve been skimping on your seasoning or fat during the bread-making process, the first thing you should try next time you make bread is to add more salt and fat.
Most recipes recommend about one teaspoon of salt. This flavors the bread and acts as a barrier to yeast growth without overpowering the dough.
You can also try adding an extra tablespoon of butter or oil to improve the moisture content of your bread.
7 – Temperature
Temperature affects the way that dough proves, and as we’ve already discussed, over-proving your dough affects the texture of your bread. A high temperature causes the yeast to become more active.
If the room that you are using to make bread or prove the dough is too hot, this will make yeast more active and cause crumbs once the bread is done baking.
Besides room temperature, the oven temperature can also affect the texture of your bread. If you are baking your bread at a temperature that’s too high, it will dry out your dough.
Even adding too much hot water at the beginning of the bread-making process, when you are trying to dissolve your yeast, will affect the texture of the final product.
While you’re baking, be mindful of the temperature at all points of the process.
First, you should only dissolve yeast at a temperature of 130 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Any hotter and the yeast will become overactive.
You should also take care not to bake your bread at a temperature that is too hot. Many home ovens are imprecise, so you can invest in an oven thermometer to ensure that your oven is actually heating food to the temperature you set.
Finally, you should make sure that the room you are baking in is not too hot. If it is a hot day outside and you must bake bread, adjust your proving times to be shorter so that the yeast does not overdevelop.
Sometimes, even the actions you take after the bread is done baking can affect the bread. When you take the bread out of the oven, it is not finished baking. The steam that is trapped inside has to finish baking the dough to the right texture.
Wait until it cools to slice the bread to allow the texture to become cohesive. You should also use a serrated bread knife to minimize crumbling.
If you only notice that your bread is crumbly a day or two after baking, that means that it is stale. Homemade bread goes stale faster than store-bought bread, so it will form crumbs sooner.
If you cannot eat all the bread you make right away, make sure that you store it properly. Wrap it tightly the day after baking, and store any pieces you want to use later in the freezer.
How to Tell What Is Making Your Bread Crumbly
This article just listed several factors that affect bread texture, any one of which could be affecting your loaf.
Sometimes, the solution will be apparent. For example, if the last time you made bread, you completely left out the salt and then it turned out crumbly, you know what you need to do next time.
Other times, you may not be sure where you went wrong during the bread-making process. In that case, you may need to engage in a little trial and error and make adjustments each time you make a new loaf.
Don’t get discouraged, trial and error is a normal part of perfecting your bread-making skills. Some bakers record each attempt in a notebook where they note what they did differently each time, which could also help you.
Making Bread That Is Fluffy, Not Crumbly
The last thing you want when making bread is to create a loaf that will crumble in your hands. Ideally, you want bread that is perfectly seasoned, light, and airy, but with enough structure to support a sandwich.
There are many ways that the bread-making process could go wrong because the chemical reaction that forms it requires a precise ratio of ingredients, the right environment, and perfect timing. One small mistake could leave you with a crumbly loaf.
Adding the wrong amount of flour, yeast, salt, or fat could create a bread loaf that falls apart in your hands. Other common mistakes that cause crumbs include not kneading the dough for long enough, proving the dough for too long, or even cutting bread too soon after it comes out of the oven.
However, part of the joy of making bread is that the process is also a voyage of discovery. You have the opportunity to learn more about the science of baking while correcting your own mistakes.
Through trial and error, and diligently recording your attempts, you can bake a loaf with the right cohesive texture and just the right amount of crumbs.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.
Wednesday 13th of April 2022
My gluten-free sourdough bread strongly disagrees with number 2 of this article ;)