Because you can make bread with just three ingredients -- flour, water and a leavener -- you would think it would be easy to get right. But because so many factors affect its texture, perfecting your loaf or changing its texture may take some time and experimentation. The ingredients you use and their amounts, the weather on the day you bake and your techniques all contribute to making bread dense or airy, chewy or tough and moist or gummy.
It's in the Water
The amount of water in your bread dough changes the texture of the bread, with more water producing bread with more air bubbles, such as an Italian focaccia loaf or Jewish challah, and less water producing dense bread with a tight crumb, such as sandwich bread loaves. Water gives a light texture in two ways: It allows the gluten in flour to become strong enough to support the gas bubbles formed by the yeast, and it creates a dough that lets steam bubbles easily expand.
Hold Your Punches, or Not
Over-kneading dough and punching it down vigorously after the first rise results in a dense or fine crumb that works well for sandwich bread where you don't want airy holes for peanut butter to ooze through. If you prefer a rustic loaf with a coarser crumb and open, airy texture, knead it only enough until the gluten is elastic and retains its shine, and press the dough down gently after the first rising to allow more air to remain.
Going By the Book or Improvising
Baking bread is both a science and an art -- exact measurements and substitutions both make a difference in a bread's texture. For example, if your recipe calls for sugar and you leave it out, less gluten forms and the bread becomes more dense. And if you carelessly measure flour instead of sifting or lightly spooning it into cups, or better yet weighing it, your bread won't come out as expected in the recipe description.
Giving the Dough a Lift
Preheating your oven to the temperature called for in your recipes gives the yeast what is called "oven-spring," a quick rise just before the oven's heat kills the yeast and the carbon dioxide bubbles evaporate. If your oven isn't heated properly, either because it always has a lower temperature than the dial indicates or because you didn't preheat, the bread will never rise as high or achieve the airy texture that it should and may turn out gummy. Use an oven thermometer if you suspect your oven's dial isn't accurate.
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