What The Worst Homemade Bread Failures Can Teach Us

Each failed baguette has taught me something new about home baking.

It's not easy to fail at something for ten straight years. Generally speaking, if you work on something that long you either actually figure out how to do it well, or you stop doing it, but that is not the case with me and bread. Baking homemade bread is one of the first projects that ever got me into cooking, yet while I've come to the point of making consistently great burgers, vegetarian meals, and even Thanksgiving dinners, satisfactory loaves of bread have been vanishingly few and so far between.

This is especially true of baguettes, my ever-distant holy grail of bread baking. To me, baguettes are perfect, the quintessential expression of how even the simplest ingredients can be manipulated into something beautiful—and that makes it absolutely infuriating that I can't seem to make a good one at home. It's just flour, water, yeast, and salt, so what the hell am I doing wrong?

Why is it too dense? Why is it bland? Why didn't it rise in the oven? All I want is a hunk of bread that's reliably crusty, airy, chewy, and moist each time I make one. Is that too much to ask?

The difficulty of homemade baguettes

A lot of this has to do with the nature of baguettes. With something so simple, it's all in the skill and technique, so there is nowhere to hide. Every step of the process, from how you mix the dough to how you cool the bread, matters. Thus, it's a process that demands failure over and over again, because even if you "know" the exact right way to fold and seal your bread when shaping it, so much relies on feel.

Advertisement

Baking bread may still be a beast I haven't tamed, but it has taught me to be patient and appreciate failure.

For the longest time, my main problem was that my baguettes would collapse in the oven, and I'd end up with unappealing oblong pancakes. A quick internet search or flip through a cookbook will usually tell you this is due to over-proofing. This made sense to me because as an inexperienced baker I would air on the side of letting my loaves sit out and rise too long. I just loved seeing that magical rise and assumed the more air the better. But the collapse kept happening, even as I cut back on my proofing.

Following the advice of online strangers, I realized I must just not know what over-proofed dough looks like. On their recommendation, I began using the "poke test," where you push a finger into your risen bread to see how it springs back. If the exterior of the dough bounces back and takes its original shape quickly, it's under-proofed. If it springs back but slowly, it's good and ready to bake, and if it doesn't, the dough is over-proofed. This is critical, because it's hard to tell on sight just how far along in the process your dough might be. I embraced the poke test as a tangible measurement, a cheat sheet for how exhausted the yeast is.

Advertisement

We are in science country now, I thought. I am no longer an amateur making wild guesses; I am a rational person using empirical research and data to produce my finished product. I cannot fail. 

Can you tell where this is going?

It turns out there isn't one reason your bread can collapse—there are somewhere between four and 40. Nothing I was doing was technically wrong. The poke test can be helpful, and lots of bread does collapse because it's over-proofed. The real problem, however, was that I thought I could learn without doing. And there are few things that will teach you the folly of that mindset like baking bread.

Homemade bread breakthroughs and lessons in failure

My first breakthrough came completely by accident. I followed the same precautions for proofing that I had before, but this time I happened to shape my baguette into a nice, tight torpedo with a much smoother finish than I had previously. I knew shaping was important for making the loaf look pretty, but I never realized how it could affect the rise. Baguettes need the tight surface tension that comes with proper shaping; without it, soft spots will remain around the edges, and the bread will take the opportunity to expand out into those spots rather than upward, resulting in a flat loaf. In this case I had been doing everything correctly, but not well, because I just hadn't learned how to handle the dough yet.

Advertisement

Another milestone was when I finally pinpointed and corrected a lazy habit I'd formed right at the beginning of the process: I had been under-kneading my dough. I knew about the "windowpane test," which is when you test your gluten development by stretching out your dough to see how thin you can get it before it breaks. My dough had always seemed to pass this test, but it turns out I was stopping the knead just a bit short of where I should have been in small fits of impatience. It was never something I connected to my deflation problem, but without the best gluten formation your loaf can't capture all the air it should without breaking.

Again, everything I had learned made it seem like I was doing everything right, but until I had isolated and corrected every other potential mistake I didn't realize the biggest one I was making.

Advertisement

Failure can feel brutal when you cook; there is something particularly demoralizing about failing to feed yourself. People who pursue something like bread baking usually have high standards because of how much they already love the thing they're trying to make, so even a mediocre effort doesn't satisfy. Despite everything I've learned over the years, I've only turned out a few baguettes I was truly proud of, and I still can't do it on the regular. But as critical of myself as I can be, I have to admit that my bread is still so much better than it used to be. While I remained fixated on one type of loaf—baguettes—everything I learned was being incorporated into my homemade focaccia and rye bread, too.

I don't know if my baguettes will ever be as good as I want them to be, but I do know the biggest thing I've learned is to not be upset by that. They will get better, and so will I, and I know I'm going to have to keep screwing them up to make that happen.

Recommended

Advertisement