Why Does My Bread Dough Spread or Rise Outward Instead of Up, and How to Fix it

It can be pretty disheartening to witness the bread dough that you poured your heart and soul into spread out rather than rise up during proofing. Don’t fret though; it’s not you, it’s the gluten. Okay, it might have a little to do with you but has more to do with the gluten. 

The reason bread dough spreads out rather than rise up is likely because of weak gluten structure. A better gluten structure means a better upward rise. Gluten essentially acts as a netting that keeps the bread together, confining the gas produced during fermentation and giving it the texture we all love. 

A weak gluten structure can be boiled down to a couple of things, mainly a snail-like bulk rise or underdeveloped surface tension during kneading. 

4 reasons your bread is rising outwards instead of up:

Here are 4 possible areas of human error you may have practiced:

  1. Oops! You forgot to add yeast to the bread dough recipe. Not uncommon, whether newbie or expert, we’ve all had our days. It’s also easy to get into a habit, and having done it so many times that you feel like you followed the recipe to a ‘T’ only to find out that you forgot an essential ingredient.
  2. Maybe you didn’t forget the yeast, but perhaps the yeast you used was old or damaged?
  3. Salt and yeast added together – salt retards yeast growth (it can even kill it)
  4. Excess water or lack of flour will lead to more of a batter consistency and will always spread out, rather than rise, even in the confinement of a loaf pan.

With the above mistakes out of the way, we can get into the nitty-gritty of gluten being the culprit of an expanded rise, versus an upward one.

Proofing Might Be the Problem

While a long and slow bulk (or primary) proof helps produce the flavor and aroma that is so well-loved if left for too long, it over proofs giving a more expanded and flat bread. Bread dough left out at room temperature rapidly consumes sugars, thereby causing the bread to rise quickly. Once the sugars are done, that’s it – the production of gas and flavors ceases. 

If you neglect to punch the bread dough down after the first proof, then there is a risk of breaking the gluten structure so that it can’t hold in the carbon dioxide bubbles produced, so it can’t rise and is too soft to maintain any sort of form and therefore spreads out.

How do you fix this problem? Easy enough, simply proof in a cold spot, like your refrigerator. Cooler temperatures retard the production of yeast. As a result, carbon dioxide produces more slowly, allowing the bread dough to rise at a slower pace providing a greater opportunity for the flavors to develop. 

So, whether you just don’t think you’ll be shaping the bread dough within a three-hour window by bulk rising on the counter, or you prefer to give your bread dough the time it needs to bring out a deeper, more complex flavor – your best bet is to slow it down by putting it in the fridge. This way, you avoid an expanded mass, and you get the bonus of great tasting bread.

While over-proofing can be a problem, under-proofing has its issues too. If the bread dough does not properly proof, ideally two times, the bulk and second, the internal gases will not have had time to produce, and the structure will collapse.

It’s a good idea to keep on eye on the proofing stages – making sure to give the bread dough enough time to develop gluten along with the flavors, but not so much time that it ultimately flops.

How to Develop that Surface Tension

Another reason you may be experiencing a bread dough spread rather than a rise is due to underdeveloped surface tension. Kneading the bread dough until it has a smooth and elastic texture is crucial, or the dough can’t trap the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast. Kneading the bread dough develops the gluten structure, making a mesh-like netting to trap the gas bubbles. No gas means no rise because the gluten structure hasn’t materialized, which will lead to spreading.

To ensure the loaf of bread has a shape, it’s important to develop the surface tension while you’re kneading and shaping the bread dough. 

Surface tension develops through kneading and shaping. You can, for example, knead your bread dough until it passes the windowpane test. The windowpane test is merely taking a piece of dough, about the size of your fist, and gently stretching it until it is thin enough for light to pass through. If it stretches out uniformly until it is paper-thin, then the gluten has developed, if on the other hand, it rips, you’ll need to do a little more kneading. 

When shaping your bread dough, there are a few steps you can take to improve the surface tension. 

Step 1

Turn your bread dough out of the bowl after the bulk rise onto a lightly floured surface, and remove some of the gas produced.

Step 2

Flip the bread dough over, so the smoother (tidier looking) side is on the bottom, ensuring that there is still some flour on the surface to prevent any stickiness.

Step 3

Gently take the sides of the bread dough, pull it toward the middle of the mass, and then press and seal. Work your way around the dough, keeping in mind not to flip it over as you’re building more and more tension on the surface of the bread dough.

Step 4

Once you’ve gone around the bread dough a few times, and built up the surface tension, turn the dough over and tuck any loose bits underneath. Place the bread dough on your baking tray or baking pan and allow it to proof for no more than an hour before sticking it in the oven.

Ultimately, taking the time to work the bread dough will give you the desired texture, without compromising flavor, and maintaining the shape and structure of your baked bread.

Confine your dough: use a loaf pan

Lastly, but certainly not least and quite a simple solution – you can always try using something to confine your bread dough, thereby preventing it from spreading out, and instead of forcing it to rise upward.

A classic loaf pan is a common form of confinement, so that if you’re planning to allow your bread dough to double (or ideally a little less than double), the dough will usually rise about 1” to 1 ½” (2.54cm – 3.81cm) above the sides of the pan. If you’re working on a freestanding loaf, parchment paper or a floured cloth can be used with either folds in between or some object to hold up either side to confine and force the rise upward.

Once the bread dough is proofed, whether in a loaf pan or freestanding, the bread dough is quickly transferred to be baked in the oven.

Use a baking stone

Spreading out in the oven is an obvious possibility, especially if you aren’t using a loaf pan or other form of bakable confinement.

To prevent your bread dough from spreading while baking in the oven, it’s a good idea to use a baking stone and a well pre-heated oven. Using a baking stone can help the bread dough puff up before it has a chance to spread out. The carbon dioxide bubbles should fill up like a balloon rather quickly. If not and it’s baked too slowly, the gluten will stretch out, allowing the dough to relax before the crust has a chance to harden or the bubbles can all together collapse. I’m a big believer in using baking stone and use it all the time in my baking process. If you want to check out the baking stone I use and highly recommend check out my article here.

To sum it all up:

  1. Make sure you’re following your recipe, so you don’t forget any essential ingredients.
  2. Use as fresh as possible ingredients.
  3. Take care to avoid under- and over-proofing your bread dough.
  4. Knead, knead, and knead some more – develop that gluten structure and surface tension

With this in mind, you’re sure to avoid the dreaded spread out and the rise up you’re looking for.


Hi, my name is Amit. I started baking at a young age at my father's bakery. I hope I can answer some of your questions and hopefully you will find some hidden gems to help you out with your home baking skills.

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