The Hourglass Effect in Baking Loaves

I just baked my last loaf of Sandwich bread for the school year, and wanted to share a little of what I’ve learned this year. For those new to my blog, beginning last September, I’ve been baking my kid’s sandwich bread every week. They love the fresh bread and seem genuinely disappointed when my schedule forces me to buy store-bought Arnold’s. About 6 months ago I noticed that my American Sandwich Bread was showing a tendency to collapse in on itself. Some slices, particularly mid-loaf were hourglass-shaped rather than rectangular. This was not happening originally (either with Chris Kimball’s original recipe or my loaves from a few months prior). See the photo below.

Mis-shapen and poor edges.

When you look closely there are actually two problems with the slice you see. First, is obviously the shape. The hour-glass shape reduces the surface area on which peanut butter and jelly can be applied, meaning my son will be hungry by the end of the school day. Second, you can see that the dough near the edges is uneven. The crumb in the center of the loaf is open, but is yellow and stringy along the edges.

The main changes that I had made that may have been to blame: (1) switching from Active Dry Yeast to Instant Yeast. Instant Yeast has more bang-for-the-buck, so it is possible that the increased potency was causing the problem. I eliminated the ginger powder (which I had been adding to help the yeast increase its effect) and cut back on the yeast, but with absolutely no improvement. I am sure this was 100% blameless. (2) My kids like a softer crust, so I had reduced the cooking temperature and increased the cooking time. But it’s possible that the softer crust couldn’t support the weight of the loaf. I readjusted the time and temperature, and there was some improvement; maybe 25% better. (3) Because  my two boys need to make 10 sandwiches per week, the last change I made was to switch to a pullman loaf pan. It is bigger and has more rectangular shape.  This turned out the main cause; in order to fill the large loaf pan I was letting the bread rise a little too much, so the loaf was too weak. As the air inside the loaf contracted during cooling, it sucked the sides inward causing the mis-shapen loaf.

My main theory was that the dough isn’t strong enough to hold outer edges in place. Briefly here are some other things I tried, which turned out not to be my problem:

  1. Too much bottom heat. I raised the rack from the bottom of the oven to the middle. This didn’t help at all, in fact, made the problem even worse.
  2. There are some talk on the internet about Tight fitting lids. While I was just using foil, I tried tenting it more loosely. Again, this made no difference and only controlled how toasted the top of the loaf became.
  3. Some on the internet claimed that Bread Flour was too strong for bread making process. I tried using All-purpose flour, but again the problem was worse. I am sure that my loaves were too weak; not too strong.
  4. Too high an improver level or too strong an improver. This is done by including enzymes (such as amylases and proteases) to act on the starch and gluten.  This is why I eliminated the ginger powder from my bread; to decrease the excessive enzymatic activity. It didn’t help, but I never re-started adding ginger powder, because I had switched from Active Dry Yeast to the more potent Instant Yeast.
  5. But still the internet insisted that the problem was NOT the weakness of the dough, but rather that the dough is too strong. There was a concrete recommendation to reduce the Ascorbic acid because it was over-strengthing the gluten. I did try eliminating the ascorbic Acid, which I add to change the pH of the bread to inhibit mold. It made no difference, so I re-started using the Vitamin C, because I needed my loaf to last for 5 days.
  6. There was also some talk about a long, slow baking contributing. I went back to the original cooking temperature and times that Chris Kimball gave in his recipe. It did help a little, but my kids disliked the darker crust.
  7. I also tried turning off my convection, but that didn’t help.

In the end, the cause turned out to me my new loaf pan. It was large and my solution is two-fold. (1) instead of trying of over-rise the bread in order to fill the larger loaf pan, I increased the flour and water. Viola! Problem solved 100%. (2) I mention this second reason, because even with my new formula there were weeks when I accidentally allowed the dough to over-rise, but those weeks meant an imperfect loaf. So I repeat; It is important that you don’t allow the dough to rise past the normal doubling in size.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $.90 for 29-ounce loaf.
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Low/Medium.
Start time 4:00 PM. Finish time 7:30 PM. (But don’t slice for another 3 hours)

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared and baked the bread today are given below:

3-1/2 oz warm water
1/8 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast or dry active yeast
3-1/2 oz flour

Wet Ingredients:
1-1/4 cup milk (10-1/2 ounces)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon rapid-rise yeast or dry active yeast
1 tablespoon granulated lecithin

Dry Ingredients:
3-1/2 cups bread flour (18-1/2 ounces)
2 teaspoons table salt
1/4 teaspoon fruit fresh or other powdered Vitamin C

  1. About 12 to 24 hours before making the loaf, prepare the sponge by heating water in microwave for 15 seconds to 105-degrees. Whisk in yeast and let it hydrate for 5 minutes. Finally, whisk in flour, cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm spot in your kitchen for up to 24 hours.
  2. Adjust an oven rack to low-middle position. Pre-heat the oven to 200-degrees, then turn it off. You will use the residual heat of the oven to speed the first rise.
  3. Add 10-1/2 ounces of milk to a Pyrex measuring cup (at least 2 cup capacity). Heat in microwave for 45 seconds until mixture reaches 105-degrees. Mix in olive oil, sugar, yeast and granulated lecithin; allow to hydrate for 5 minutes.
  4. Add sponge and dry ingredients (15-oz bread flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and ascorbic acid) to the bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook.
  5. Turn on standing mixer to lowest speed and slowly add liquid; use a rubber spatula to scrape out measuring cup. After the dough has come together, increase speed to 4 on KitchenAid mixer (medium-low on other models). Continue mixing for 10 minutes, stopping twice to remove the dough from hook. The dough will become smooth, add a little more flour or water if necessary. Lightly flour a work surface and gently turn out the dough. Knead by hand for about 15 seconds to form a smooth ball.
  6. Lightly oil a large glass bowl with non-stick cooking spray, add dough and roll around to lightly coat the dough ball. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in your warm (but turned off) oven. The dough should take about 45 minutes to double in size.
  7. Spray your loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray. Gently turn the dough out onto floured surface. Gently press the dough into a rectangle that corresponds exactly to the length of your loaf pan. Lightly spray the dough rectangle with a water bottle before rolling to try to prevent large air bubbles (or brush water on using a pastry brush). Roll the dough into a tight cylinder so that it corresponds to the length of your loaf pan, firmly pressing down as you roll to ensure that the dough sticks to itself and that there are no large air bubbles. Pinch the seam closed along the length of the cylinder, and put into your loaf pan seem-side down. Softly press the dough so that it touches all four sides of the pan.
  8. Loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap, realizing that the loaf will grow above the top of the pan. Place it in a warm spot in your kitchen for between 1 to 2 hours. Depending upon pan size, wait until the dough grows to fill your loaf pan.
  9. About 20 minutes prior to baking, begin pre-heating your oven to 400-degrees. Adjust an oven rack to middle position; any lower and your bottom crust will be too hard.
  10. Carefully remove plastic wrap, spray the loaf three times with water from a spray bottle, and place loaf pan in oven. After 5 minutes, reduce oven temperature to 325-degrees and turn loaf 180-degrees. Bake uncovered for 8 additional minutes. Tent with aluminum foil to keep the loaf top very soft; baking for another 12 to 14 minutes until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads 195 degrees. Carefully remove bread from pan, and let cool on a wire rack for 3 hour before slicing.

9 Responses to The Hourglass Effect in Baking Loaves

  1. Anna says:

    Gorgeous bread!

    What are the dimensions of your loaf pan? (Did you list that already and I missed it?)

  2. Elizabeth says:

    So, how much time do you suggest to rise properly in the large pullman? Thanks.

    • Hi, primarily it depends upon kitchen temperature. Unfortunately there is no absolute answer. During winter I needed to use the proofing feature of my oven otherwise it would take a few hours. At this time of year, the first rise usually takes about 45 minutes. I guess it’s this exact ambiguity that scares people away from baking bread.


  3. mmalpha says:

    Thanks for all the info. I’m anxious to try this. I’m tired of spending $3-4 a loaf on average tasting bread.

  4. Stephen G says:

    How do you get the slices so perfect ?

    • Wow, thanks, perfect slices! I cut them by hand using just my eye to make them the same thickness. I do have a long serrated bread knife than makes cutting any bread a joy. It’s the same bread knife Chris Kimball recommends (best buy); Victorinox 10-1/4″ Curved Blade Bread Knife.

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