We all strive for that perfect-looking loaf of bread – it’s light, it’s fluffy, and it’s golden. A fair amount of love and work goes into a great loaf of bread. So when we get less than optimal results, it hurts. It’s hard to accept. We want to figure out where we went wrong. Pale, un-caramelized bread falls into this category.
Pale bread is, more often than not, the result of over fermentation. There are a few other reasons that can contribute to a paler loaf of bread, such as over-steaming, baking at low temperatures, under-baking or simply forgetting to add salt. If your loaf, however, is exceptionally pale it’s likely due to over-fermentation.
Familiarizing yourself with what to pay attention to, as well as what to avoid is useful when you’re aiming for a perfectly caramelized loaf of bread (read this in-depth post What is the Ideal Oven Temperature for Baking Bread? to learn more about caramelization).
How to Avoid Over-Fermenting Your Dough?
First and foremost, let’s do a quick overview of what fermentation is. Fermentation involves the active yeasts in your bread eating up the sugars in the dough (by the way sugar is what encourages caramelization during baking). Over fermentation means, the yeasts have exhausted all the sugars in the dough (which means the bread doesn’t caramelize).
For dough leavened with commercial yeast (NOT sourdough), you can test the dough for over-proofing by using the poke test, if the dough doesn’t spring back it’s over-proofed. You can try saving the dough by punching out the gas, reshaping, and proofing once more.
Timing is Important
This may be obvious, but sometimes a little reminding is required – it’s important to follow a recipe. It’s understandable. We get into the swing of things, we become more and more familiar and comfortable with our bread-making abilities, and as a result, we can often become overconfident. Overconfidence can, on occasion, cause mishaps.
A recipe is an already tried-and-true, well-tested, method of making bread. So, when the recipe suggests allowing the dough to rise a certain amount of time, it’s because the particular range of time has led to the best results. That being said, as much as bread making is a science, there is an art and feel to it as well which cannot be dismissed.
As mentioned above, even if you happen to be following a recipe to the ‘T’ you may have noticed that ranges are often given, such as allowing the dough to rise for a minimum of X hours and a maximum of Y hours. Seasons as well as the room or ambient temperature, are also sometimes mentioned. Your dough will likely take longer to rise (ferment) in the winter than it will in the summer, during which time the dough rises quite quickly. Consider as well, in the summer the air conditioning might be running, whereby the room temperature will be quite cold and impact the amount of time required to rise. These are just some of the little things that we have to pay attention to and adjust when making bread. Read Baking Bread in Humid Weather, and How to Deal with it to learn more about how the weather can affect your bread making. If you are living in a place where it’s usually pretty cold you should consider reading this article about Bread baking in cold weather.
Slow Down Fermentation In The Fridge To Avoid Over-Proofing
Whether working with commercial yeast or sourdough starter, retarding your dough in the fridge is a great option when you want to slow down fermentation to avoid over-fermentation. While this is normally done during the final proof, you can, however, use it during the bulk proof. Sometimes we start making bread, without realizing we don’t have the time. So, if you’ve started preparing a dough without realizing that you’re not going to have enough time to allow it to bulk proof on the counter, the fridge is a great solution. Then, when I’m ready to pre-shape and whatnot, you can simply remove it from the fridge and allow it to get to room temperature.
Monitor your Starter and Dough
While it’s important to take notice of how your dough leavened with commercial yeast is behaving, sourdough has a few quirks that, when monitored, can help with calculating the approximate amount of time required to proof. When activating/feeding your sourdough starter, you can measure how long it takes to double. Use a measuring cup, jar, or container that has a uniform shape, such as a cylinder, but mainly that it doesn’t narrow or widen anywhere, letting you watch the starter grow uniformly. Using a clear, uniform jar will also allow you to easily mark where the sourdough starter began (i.e., with a rubber-band, or a dry erase marker). You can also write down what time you fed it at and once the sourdough starter has doubled, take note of how much time has elapsed.
Knowing how long your sourdough starter took to double is helpful toward approximating the amount of time you should bulk proof your sourdough. Consider, for example, if it takes your starter 4 hours to double, then you should bulk-proof for no longer than 4 hours – anywhere from half that time to within half an hour.
Using a clear bowl or container, whether glass or plastic, is advantageous in allowing you to watch the growth of your dough, whether sourdough or other. While a bowl will be slightly more challenging to mark, you can still get a pretty decent idea of how much your dough has risen. A square container is a little easier in that you can mark where the dough started and eyeball when it’s doubled in volume.
How Steam Can Help You Get The Perfect Golden Loaf
Introducing steam into your oven, or in and around your loaf of bread, while it is baking helps you get that golden, caramelized look in a couple of ways:
- Steam helps slow down the process of caramelization between the sugars and amino acids, thereby allowing the bread to rise as much as it can so that the crust doesn’t form too quickly and possibly burning the top. Steam, and slowing down the crust formation, allows for a thinner, crispier crust – rather than hard, and thick.
- When you add steam to the baking process, the surface of the cold dough and the starches react with the steam and become gelatinous. This reaction to the steam in the oven is what will ultimately create a thin, crispy, crunchy, and golden crust.
It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t want to oversteam. You only need to introduce the steam at the beginning of the baking process, not prolong it throughout. Oversteaming will give an almost boiled effect, which can have a hand in a paler-baked loaf of bread.
Ensure You’re Using the Right Temperature When Baking
You’re probably thinking this is obvious, of course, you’re going to set your oven at the right temperature, duh! Ovens, however, are quirky. The longer you have an oven, it seems, the quirkier it gets. If you’re not sure how accurate your oven temperature is, you may want to invest in an oven thermometer.
If you’re thinking of investing in a dough thermometer to ensure optimal fermentation or an oven thermometer to make sure your oven is set at the right temperature, reading my article The Best Bread and Oven Thermometer You Should Use and Why before you buy will guarantee you know what you’re doing.
I can’t stress it enough: ensuring that you’re using the right temperature when baking bread is important because bread is baked at higher temperatures (between 392-437℉ / 200 – 225℃). If your oven isn’t hitting the mark, you’ll find you run into either burning or underbaking. Read more about the ideal temperature for bread baking right here.
Bake for the Right Amount of Time
So, you’ve managed to ensure your oven temperature is accurate, now it’s time to consider…time. How long should you bake for? Well, set the minimum by the recipe you’re following. If you find your loaf isn’t getting that golden crust, try adding just five more minutes to the time. Sometimes it takes just five minutes to make all the difference, taking your bread from pale as a ghost, to golden delicious.
Finally, Did you Forget To Add Salt?
When you think of a dark brown color you immediately think caramelization coming from sugars and you would be correct in thinking this way. Many types of bread do not call for any sugars but all bread calls for salt. If your bread is pale it could very well be that forgot your salt. Surprisingly salt too has an effect on the color of your bread as well as many other benefits such as gluten structure and controlling your yeast not to mention flavor.
If you ever try to make a reduced-sodium bread you will immediately notice the pale color of it. If it is a one-time thing and your bread is pale it could be that you forgot the salt. Your recipe should consist of approx 1.6% to 2.2% (baker’s percentage ) of salt.
As you have already understood pale bread can be the result of several factors. I suggest you go with the elimination method and check each of the factors until you understand what you did wrong and just correct your mistake. Baking bread can be a long road of trial and error until you get it just right. Good luck!