Your first few home baked bread loaves will likely be a bit disappointing. While they look great, the flavor can often be bland and tasteless from following a beginner recipe. We can follow some simple steps to improve the taste of bread which I will explain in this article.
Why is my homemade bread bland?
Bland bread comes from either too little salt or a rushed rising stage. When the dough rises, fermentation adds flavor. The longer it can rise without over fermenting, the more complex the flavor will be. Slowing down the rise will make tastier bread.
At a guess, I would say the recipe you are using has a fast rising stage – around an hour or so. This is too little to develop good flavor in the bread, so you need to slow down the rise or start using a pre-fermented dough in your recipe.
Let’s address the main two problems of bland bread. I promise that you can achieve great bread with only flour, water, yeast and salt as long as you follow these two pieces of advice below. You don’t need to add extra oil or butter for great tasting bread.
1. Does Your Bread Have Enough Salt?
Let’s get the obvious out the way first. Did you forget to add the salt? Everyone has done it one time while making bread! It will be quite obvious if you have – it will be so bland that it will be almost inedible.
If that’s not the case, then let’s check your salt quantity. Typically a bread recipe has around 2% salt weight to the flour weight. So using 500g of flour means using 10g of salt. Using these ratios of weight is known as bakers percentages and is a good way to compare recipes.
I appreciate that not everyone has scales to weigh 10g of salt, especially when starting out. So by my measurements, 10g of salt is about 1¾ teaspoons. I recommend ordering a scale (like this one from Amazon) that can measure down to 0.1g for salt and yeast. The grains can be different sizes so it’s hard to measure in spoons accurately.
If you are struggling with scales or spoons then you can at least try adding half as much salt as you used last time and see how it tastes. But that’s not before you’ve also tried boosting flavor with more fermentation as that is the real key.
2. Add Flavor By Fermentation
This is the key to transforming beginner home baked bread into something you might find at a good bakery. Fermentation happens when the yeast eats the flour and produces byproducts such as CO2 gas (to help bread rise), and alcohol and acids (to make it taste good).
Recipes typically have two rises – the first rise, a shaping, and then second rise also known as the proofing stage. It’s these stages which build the flavor and texture of bread.
With a recipe that is too short on these combined rises, then we will typically find bland bread. The complexity of flavor builds up as you add more time. A one or two hour rise will give simple bread, rising many hours or overnight is better, and using a pre-fermented dough or sourdough starter will achieve the most complex tasting bread.
If we break these into 4 categories with some explanations:
- Short fermentation – Lots of yeast and a quick rise over one or two hours
- Long fermentation – Less yeast and rising for more hours or over night
- Pre-ferment added – A pre-ferment is flour, water and yeast mixed up the day before which is then added to the final dough to boost flavor
- Sourdough starter – A pre-ferment of flour and water built up over several days resulting in a culture of wild yeast and bacteria
If you want to have a longer fermentation time you need to control either the yeast quantity or temperature. That is because yeast activity slows down in cooler temperatures, and so allows you to rise for longer and build flavor without over fermenting. Over fermenting causes the dough to lose strength to become sticky and hard to shape. Or even collapse when it is baked.
It’s all relative, so a cooler room can extend fermentation by a few hours. Or further, leaving in the fridge overnight is a common trick used to achieve the tangy flavor in sourdough.
The amount of yeast used naturally speeds up or slows down the rise. So leaving dough at your normal kitchen temperature, but lowering the yeast right down also works well.
Recipe #1: Bread Dough With Less Yeast
The first bread you should attempt to break out of bland bread is with less yeast and allowed to rise for several hours.
- 500g bread flour (3 cups + 2 tbsp)
- 360ml cool water (1½ cups)
- 4g yeast (1 tsp)
- 10g salt (1¾ tsp)
Mix the ingredients and knead for 5-10 minutes until it is smooth and springy. Let the dough rise, in a bowl covered with a kitchen towel, until it is triple the size. This should be around 3-4 hours but might be shorter or longer depending on local temperature. Next fold the edges of the dough into itself a few times to knock the air out. Shape into your favorite bread – e.g. loaf, boule. Let the dough rise again for another 1-1.5 hours before baking. It’s fully proofed when a pressed finger leaves a partial dent and doesn’t spring back instantly.
Recipe #2: Bread Dough With Poolish Pre-ferment
To achieve even further depth of flavor, you should try the classic French pre-ferment called Poolish. This is where some flour, water and yeast are prepared the day ahead and then mixed into the final dough.
- Poolish (see below)
- 500g bread flour (3 cups + 2 tbsp)
- 360ml cool water (1½ cups)
- 1.5g yeast (⅓ tsp)
- 10g salt (1¾ tsp)
For the Poolish, mix 100g flour, 100ml cool water and 0.3g yeast (two pinches) the day ahead, and let it ferment for around 12 hours until doubled in size. The next day, mix all the ingredients and prepare the bread with the instructions on recipe #1. The Poolish will add a depth of flavor and increase the keeping qualities of the bread from the extra acidity.
Baking Instructions For Best Flavor
Some tips when baking is to get the oven very hot. This ensures the bread gets nicely browned, which will add to the flavor. Preheat the oven to 475F/245C for 30-45 minutes to ensure it is very hot. I bake on a baking steel like this one which gives heat from below.
Using steam in the oven also helps the bread stay moist and allow it to rise fully before forming a crust. Add a tray of boiling water to the bottom of your oven just before you place the bread inside. Alternatively, use a Dutch oven with a lid for the first 20 minutes, which will steam the bread as it rises. Then remove the lid to allow the crust to brown. Having a well baked bread that has risen fully seems to make better tasting bread. It’s not just the texture that is affected.
Remember to cool the bread properly after baking so the crumb is set. Read my guide bread cooling guide for the best slice.
Adding Other Flavors To Bread
By following the above two steps of the right salt quantity and more fermentation, you will be able to achieve much better tasting white bread. But you can push the tastes in different directions with some of the following suggestions. This comes down to personal preference. Maybe you like the tangy taste of sourdough, maybe you like the nuttiness that some wholegrain flour will bring. I suggest start with the basics, and when you have that mastered, you can try some of the suggestions below to create even better bread. Some examples of these flavor directions are:
- Whole wheat nuttiness
- Adding seeds, nuts and olives
- Toasted crust flavors
- Tangy sourdough
Whole Wheat Nuttiness
You can replace a proportion of the white flour with a whole grain flour to create a completely different tasting bread. Try adding 20% whole wheat flour to start, such as 400g white and 100g whole wheat. You can take this further by using a rye flour which adds a greyish tint and distinct taste. Try 85% white, 10% whole wheat and 5% dark rye.
Adding seeds, nuts and olives
You can mix in seeds to the dough, or add seeds to the top of the loaves. Sesame seeds or poppy seeds work well and they look fantastic when placed on top. Another favorite is olives or nuts for interesting flavor combinations. Just fold them in after the kneading stage.
Toasted Crust Flavors
To create a deep toasted flavor then cook the bread a little longer than you usually would. You can bake until the crust is almost burnt, which gives a very rich, earthy flavor. I usually do this with most breads as I like this color and taste. Keep the oven temperature very high and cook the loaf for around 45-50 minutes.
Cold temperatures allow the yeast and bacteria that prefer the cold environments to thrive. This produces acetic acid which gives the sourdough its sour taste. So if you like that taste, then keeping the starter in the fridge and proofing your loaves in the fridge are the way to go. You can keep sourdough less strong by fermenting at room temperature and using less of the starter if its kept in the fridge becomes particularly sour.
Things To Avoid
Avoid anything that will speed up your process too much. Electric bread makers will make fairly poor bread because they will proof the dough at a higher temperature. It’s best to slow down the fermentation with cooler temperatures.
Secondly, recipes with too much yeast will make the dough rise too fast. Most recipes online are for beginners and include too much yeast. You won’t find any of these basic white bread recipes being used in a bakery. Lower the yeast ratio to below 1% of the total flour weight. Around 0.8% will need a 3 hour fermentation, and 0.4% will need about 5 hours or more (depending on your room and water temperature of course).
Homemade bread doesn’t have to be bland, and with a few steps in the right direction, you can make amazing bread with just flour, water, yeast and salt. I really recommend extending the fermentation for as long as you can. You don’t have to maintain a sourdough starter either to make great bread. A bit of prior planning to start early, or even make a simple pre-ferment the day before will works wonders. It only takes 5 minutes!
If your bread has failed, you can always check out my post 12 things to do with failed bread.