Skilled bakers can manage to produce a usable loaf of bread under almost any circumstances, but even the best occasionally have to admit defeat. The yeasts that give your bread its rise are living organisms, and like any other living creature they'll sometimes let you down. Whether the yeast itself was old or whether conditions worked against it, some batches simply don't rise. When that happens your bread is doomed, but there are still ways to use the dough.
Ordinarily, the yeasts in your dough consume sugars and transform them into tiny pockets of carbon dioxide in your dough. The accumulation of that gas, as the yeasts reproduce, is what rises your bread. If your yeast gave you little or no rise, you can still count on steam for a bit of aeration. Divide your bread dough, and roll it into rectangular sheets roughly 8 to 10 inches long and no more than 1/4 inch thick. Cut these sheets into finger-width bread sticks, and bake them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot oven converts the moisture in the dough to steam, puffing the bread sticks as they crisp and brown.
The same basic principle applies to flatbreads. The characteristic pocket in pita bread comes from baking at high heat and relying on steam to provide much of the puffing effect. Do this at home on a preheated pizza stone, using your oven's highest temperature. For general-purpose flatbreads, roll the dough into thin sheets and brush it with oil. Sprinkle the tops with fresh herbs and coarse salt, if you wish, or grated cheese and thinly sliced vegetables. You can even use your failed bread dough for thin-crust pizza, where the lack of rise won't be an issue.
The European peasant tradition is famous for frugality, and surplus bread dough never went to waste. One alternative is to use it for dessert. Roll your dough flat and brush it with melted butter, then sprinkle it with sugar. Fold it into thirds like a letter, roll it out again, and repeat the process. After you've done this three or four times, it's ready to use and will bake to a thin, sweet, flaky finish. Line a small baking sheet with the dough, fill it with fresh fruit and bake it to make a rustic tart. Alternatively, cut the dough into strips, twist them or tie them into bows and brush them with cream before baking to make them soft and golden.
Go Back to the Start
Artisanal bakers make a regular practice of saving dough for the next batch of bread. Natural enzymes in the bread break down its starchy carbohydrate molecules, releasing the wheat's natural sugars and flavors. Your failed dough won't make decent bread on its own, but it will make a fine addition to another batch. Leave the dough overnight in your refrigerator so the enzymes can do their work, and then add a portion to your next batch of bread. Knead in enough old dough to make one-quarter or one-third of the total, and it will lend your new bread a fuller, better-rounded flavor. Freeze the remainder to enrich future batches of bread.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread; Peter Reinhart
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images