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WHY Won't My Dough Rise?

If I had a nickel for every email that asks that question, I could retire. Sadly, there's not a single answer, any more than there's a single answer when you ask your mechanic, "Why won't my car start" before the poor guy's had a chance to even look at your car.

All I can really do is put a list together of the many things that can impact rise and suggest you go through the list and check them out. Since there are a number of yeasted recipes on this site, and I do sell cookbooks that use yeast, I'll mention yeast issues as well as sourdough issues. I'll start at the beginning of the dough making process and go through the end.

This page has a troubleshooting focus. If you want to understand what is happening when dough rises, you might look at "The Art of the Rise" a page where we look at the mechanics of dough rising in a bit more depth.

Is your riser active? Whether you are using yeast, yeast based preferments, sourdough starter, baking soda or baking powder to raise your baked goods, the riser has to be active. Each riser has its own needs and requirements.

Riser Discussion
baking soda baking soda reacts with acid in your batter to produce gas which will raise the batter. This reaction begins as soon as the baking soda is mixed with the acid. "Acid?" I hear you asking. Yes, the fruit content of many quick breads, as well as buttermilk, soured milk, sour cream and a host of things - including sourdough starter - used in quick breads provide the acid that the baking soda needs. Since the reaction starts as soon as the batter is mixed, you should bake batters made with baking soda without undue delay. baking soda won't go bad or get weak. However, too little riser or too little acid in the batter can be a problem.
baking powder baking powder is basically baking soda premixed with a stabilized acid. When it is heated, the reaction starts. baking powder does tend to break down, so it needs to be fresh. Use it before the "use by" date for best results. Also, while a batter made with baking powder can be held longer than a batter made with baking soda. it shouldn't be held more than 6 hours at room temperature.
Sourdough Is your starter active? With the fairly thick starters I encouage people to make, the starters should be able to rise to twice their size between feedings. If one of my starters can't double itself, it can't double your bread. Other starters have their own tests for vitality, however, your starter should be in a known state and able to raise itself. There is a lot of good information about this here. I can't stress this enough, it takes a consistent process to create a consistent product. And grabbing your starter out of the fridge and using it just won't cut it. I prefer to use sourdough between the time it has risen to a peak and before it starts to fall. It is usually at this peak for several hours, so this is a wide window of time.
Yeast One of the reasons that yeast became so popular was because in the hands of the inexperienced, inattentive or impatient it is much more reliable than sourdough. However, it isn't foolproof. If you've had your yeast too long, you might want to get a fresh pack from the grocery store. Also, please be aware that too high, or too low, a temperature can kill yeast. And dead yeast won't raise bread. Yeast manufacturers suggest proving active dry yeast by mixing it with warm water and either sugar or water. If you do this, use a thermometer to make sure that the water is no higher than 100F. Personally, I don't bother proving active dry yeast. I just put it into the dough. I've been doing this for years, and it works for me. Instant dry yeast is very sensitive to temperature changes, and the manufacturers suggest it be added to the flour which should then be mixed with the liquids. I do this with both active dry and instant dry yeast.
Yeast based preferments I love yeast based preferments. They offer many of the advantages of sourdough with a lot less hassle. Better taste and keeping qualities than a straight yeasted dough, and most of the ease of use of a straight yeasted dough. Using preferments cuts ones yeast costs also. We talk about preferments a lot in our "Advanced Baking Techniques with Preferments" cookbook, which is for sale in Mike's Bread Shoppe. However, you need to take all the precautions you would with yeast, and you need to be sure the preferment is ready to use before you use it. With a poolish, I like to see that it has risen to a peak and just started to collapse. You can see cracks or little ravines forming in its surface. With a biga, you want to see that it has risen and has a yeasty smell. With a sponge, you want to see that it has risen and has become frothy.

Now that we know that the riser is good, let's look at your dough a bit. What's your dough's temperature? Most doughs seem to work best around 78F. And we need to make sure they are at that temperature. Bakers use what is called the rule of 240 to get temperatures right. We talk about it in the second Introduction to Baking page. If the dough is too cold, it will rise very slowly, if it is too hot it might rise quickly, it might have off tastes, and if it gets way too hot it might not rise at all.

The next dough topic is How wet or dry is your dough? Beatrice Ojakangas, in her wonderful book "Great Whole Grain Breads" comments that dough would rather be a bit too wet than a bit too dry. One of the most frequent comments I get in my hands on classes is, "I see I've been making my dough too dry, I'd never made my doughs as wet as this." And, in the grand scheme of things, the class doughs aren't all that wet. There is a tendency among new bakers to add more flour to a dough to make it easier to handle. However, when the dough is too dry the riser faces a task similar to the one we face when asked to blow up a very resistant balloon. We huff and we puff and we don't manage to inflate the balloon. If we stretch the balloon, it gets easier. Similarly, if we make the dough wetter, it goes better.

While some people say, "Wetter is better!" that's only true up to a point. As you add more liquid to a dough you reach a point where it stops being a dough and becomes a batter. While there are batter breads, that's not what we're making here. Batters don't have the strength needed to make most types of bread. Instead of rising, they just spread out, and have trouble making good breads even in a bread pan.

Now that I've mentioned the pitfalls of the extremes, what are we shooting for? The feel of the dough should depend on the kind of bread you are making. Bagel, bially, pizza and Challah dough are usually quite dry. Ciabatta and focaccia are usually quite wet. Regular sandwich breads are somewhere in between. It is very hard to tell someone what a dough should feel like. While we have strong memories of touch and smell, we have limited abilities to share those sensations. A few people talk about how dough should feel like a baby's bottom or other body parts. I've felt a few baby bottoms, and I've never felt dough that felt like a baby's bottom - or any other body part. And those comparisons don't take into consideration the fact that some doughs are properly more firm than others. So, I like to focus on how dough handles. In particular, what happens when you are kneading dough or forming loaves? I don't know of any bread made with a batter so thin that we can stir it with a spoon. A wet dough is thicker than that and can be handled, if only with a dough scraper. It will form a single blob of dough when folded over with no effort. The dough will be a single piece with no seam to show where the dough was folded over.

A somewhat drier dough, suitable for most breads, will form a single piece of dough with a bit of effort, with no seam to show where the dough had been joined. This is suitable for making most breads. A drier dough will form a single piece with considerable effort and will have a seam to show where the dough was joined. This may be suitable for bagels, bialys, pizza and Challah. It may also be a bit too dry. The final stage we'll talk about is a dough that will not form a single piece. When you fold it over, there is a top and bottom flap, much like fat sheets of a newspaper. You can easily unfold the two pieces. This dough is much, much too dry to do anything with. It needs to have water added to it.

There are many ways to develop dough, and dough development is critical to the dough's rise. Flour has two proteins in it, glutenin and gliadinin. When they are combined, they form gluten. Gluten is the springy protein that holds the dough together and traps the gasses of the riser. Gluten, and dough, can be developed through mechanical action, such as kneading; through chemical action, as in the New York Times no-knead bread where flour and water are mixed and left largely undisturbed. There are many ways to develop dough. Kneading emphasizes the physical action, but depends on the chemical action of the water on the flour as well. The New York Times no-knead technique largely depends on the chemical action of the water on the flour, but it also gets a boost from the physical action of the riser stretching the dough. The stretch and fold technique uses a more deliberate combination of physical action, chemical action and boost from the riser. It's a great technique that people who have trouble kneading can use, and which lends itself to scaling up to large quantities of dough. A second recurring theme in my classes is that everyone seems to think they know how to knead, but most people don't do it very well. Most people do it very inefficiently and thus have to knead too long. I rarely use my mixers because I find it is as easy to knead by hand. I strongly recommend you view the kneading and stretch and fold pages.

We went to a lot of trouble to make sure the dough was at the right temperature. We also need to make sure our rising area is at an appropriate temperature. Simple organisms like yeast and bacteria speed up as they are in warmer areas, and slow down in cooler ones. Normally, I raise bread in a 78 to 85F area. There are some times when it pays to reduce the temperature drastically. We talk about that in the dough retarding page.

Loafing techniques are a very important part of building the strength of the loaf, and a topic we are not presently addressing, We plan to add some videos to the web site after the site redesign is complete, For now, I suggest looking at the "Kneading and Converting" and "Stretch and Fold" pages. Also, you might look at the Julia Child pages at pbs.org.

My first rise was great, and then nothing! This is fairly common. There are two major issues. The most common issue is not kneading enough between rises. The yeast cannot float through the dough, so it has to just eat the flour near it. If it exhausts that supply, it's stuck. Kneading the dough a bit - and it doesn't take much - puts the yeast and bacteria back in touch with fresh food. Next, and much less common, some starters just don't have the strength for a second rise. If you find this to be the case, you need to cut back to one rise. Just knead the dough, let it rest enough to let it rest and relax, then form a loaf and let the dough rise once.

How much dough did you put in the pan? It's not always easy to know how much dough to put in a bread pan. Different doughs rise different amounts. Some will double in size. Some will rise less. A true German pumpernickel will rise at most a little. And that's OK. Some dense whole grain breads will rise to about 1 1/2 times their starting height, and that's OK. Many breads will rise to twice their heights. Others will rise to three or even four times their starting height.

That's cool, but where does that leave you? The first time you make a bread, you should probably fill the bread pan between 1/3 and 1/2 full. Let the dough rise, and then adjust the amount of dough the next time you make the bread. I prefer a loaf of bread that is somewhat taller than the loaf pan, and I prefer the top of the loaf be rounded. So, I play with the amount of dough I put into the pan to get the loaf I want to make. Of course, every bread is slightly different, so you might want to take notes when you make the bread, so the next time you'll know how much dough to put into pans.

So, what's doubled, and why do we care? Many recipes, including more than a few of mine, tell you to let dough rise until it has doubled. We're trying to remove that phrase from this site because its really a lazy turn of phrase. It's so easy to type, "let it rise until it doubles" without even thinking about it. You could even put a macro in your word processor so all you had to do was invoke the macro and BOOM that magic phrase is there. However, as we just discussed, some doughs rise, some doughs don't, some doughs double, some rise less, some rise more. It's easy to say, let or rise until it doubles. It's harder to tell someone what to look for to tell if their bread has risen fully.

If you are using a bread pan, it's easy to tell when your dough has doubled. It had half filled the pan, now the pan is full. A free-form loaf is a different matter. Many loaves spread as much as they rise. So, when it has doubled in height, it has also doubled in length and width. So, it's 8 times its original size. (2 x 2 x 2 = 8)

One way to find out how far your dough has risen is to put about 1/4 cup of dough in a Pyrex measuring cup. If you put your loaf of dough and the Pyrex cup in the same place, they'll rise at pretty much the same rate. And if the dough in the measuring cup rises to the 1/2 cup mark, the dough has doubled. If it rises to the 3/4 cup mark, the dough has tripled. If it goes to the cup mark, the dough has quadrupled - a great rise.

What we haven't covered is what's good bad or indifferent. With any riser, you want to let the dough rise fully. A full rise allows the bread's flavors to fully develop. As the dough rises, the surface will stretch. The dough will become more fragile. At some point, it will collapse if you touch it, move it, or slash it. If it gets to that point, you let the dough rise too much.

What I encourage people to do is to look at and feel their dough, to see how much it rises, and remember how it comes out. The next time you make that bread you can let it rise longer, or not so long. Again, take notes.

There are some things that you can look for. Some people press the dough lightly with a finger. If the dough springs back it hasn't fully risen. If the dough collapses, it has over risen. And that's the problem with poking the dough. Many people prefer to gently place their hand on the dough and feel the dough's tension. You can feel when the tension of the dough is high and it should be allowed to rise further. With practice, you will be able to see when the dough has risen as far as you want it to rise.

Have you protected the dough from drying out? In some areas this isn't a big issue. When I lived on the Gulf Coast, nothing dried out. Ever. When I lived in the mountains of Colorado, dough formed a skin in about 10 minutes. It was absolutely crucial to protect the dough, or the dried dough on the surface would act as a girdle that kept the dough from rising. I like to cover the dough with cling wrap. If the dough is a smooth dough, I spray the dough with olive oil to keep the cling wrap from sticking to the dough. If your dough isn't rising, touch it. Does it feel more like dried leather or the dough you prepared? If it's dried out, you need to protect the dough next time, There really isn't satisfactory way of dealing with dried dough. Some people knead it back into the dough, but it doesn't seem to rehydrate, it just becomes hard lumps in your bread.

Are you prepared to take advantage of oven spring? One thing that amazes people is when you put dough in an oven, it rises or springs from the oven's heat. There is some argument as to why bread springs in the oven. Is it the gas in the bread suddenly expanding? Is it the yeast suddenly producing gas as it is heated? I'm not sure. But it happens. I've had several bread recipes that didn't seem to rise until they exploded in the oven, from flat to big open crumbed loaves. Oven spring is a double edged sword. Oven spring helps open the slashes in bread and helps make loaves more attractive, unless it goes too far. I've had loaves tear themselves apart with oven spring. The French feel that excessive oven spring is an indication that the dough hadn't risen enough and hadn't developed its flavor fully.

This brings up the point that if the bread has risen too much it won't spring. Less fully risen dough will spring better. Other things that help oven spring are putting the dough on fully heated oven tiles, a hot wet oven, and a wet dough. Slashing the dough is also said to help the dough open up and fully spring. Different bakers find some of these suggestions help more than others, but any of them have helped some bakers.