If your dough collapsed either during proofing or baking, then something has clearly gone wrong somewhere. Don’t let it get you down though, it’s most probably just a learning curve. Once you know what went wrong, you’ll be able to avoid making the same mistake next time.
Bread commonly collapses because it has overproofed. This means that the yeast has consumed all of the available sugars and starches in the dough and therefore can’t continue to produce carbon dioxide. Without this continuous gas production, the dough will collapse.
Keep in mind that this isn’t the only reason why bread can collapse. Although this is the most common reason, there are plenty of other mistakes that can cause it to collapse. In order to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, you need to make sure that you’re figuring out what’s going wrong for your bread specifically, so you can know what not to do next time.
Why Your Dough Collapsed
There are a few common reasons why your bread dough can collapse, but they mostly stem from one of three things: gluten development, fermentation, and hydration.
If you manage to mess up just one of these three, then you can run into all sorts of problems. Of course, it’s not just these that you need to think about, but they’re what causes most of the problems you come across when making bread.
Let’s take a deeper dive into what might have caused your dough to collapse.
A Lack Of Gluten Development
Gluten is quite literally the foundation of bread. Without it, you won’t be able to make good bread, so you need to make sure that you’re developing it properly.
If you’re new to working with bread dough, then you probably don’t know how to judge gluten development. Generally speaking, the dough should be less sticky and very elastic when the gluten is well developed.
A lack of gluten development can be a result of the dough simply being under-kneaded, the use of the wrong type of flour, or the absence of salt.
Underkneading means that there hasn’t been enough mechanical action on the dough for the gluten to have developed sufficiently. The dough should be kneaded for a few more minutes until it’s soft, smooth, and passes one of the gluten tests (more on this below).
Using the wrong type of flour usually means that you’ve used a type of flour that doesn’t contain enough protein. You see, gluten is created by two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which come together when mixed with water. When there isn’t enough protein in the flour, you won’t be able to get enough gluten development. It doesn’t matter how much you knead it, you won’t be able to create enough gluten.
Any flour with 12% protein content or higher is very capable of creating enough gluten. Flour with a lower protein content can still be used, but the results generally aren’t going to be very good.
If you’ve completely forgotten about the salt, your dough simply won’t be as strong. When you add the salt, it aids in strengthening the gluten, which helps the dough to rise more without the gluten tearing and/or the dough collapsing.
Without the salt, the gluten can still form reasonably well, but it won’t be able to hold the carbon dioxide from the yeast as effectively.
To judge when the dough is kneaded sufficiently, you can use the poke test, and the windowpane test. These tests give great indications to whether the dough is ready, or whether it needs more kneading.
The Poke Test
To do the poke test, you want to roll your dough into a tight ball. The surface should be relatively smooth and taut. Once you get it ready, you want to push your finger (or knuckles) about half an inch into the dough.
You’ll know that there’s enough gluten development if the indentation springs back very quickly. It doesn’t need to spring back completely, but the indentation should mostly go.
If the indentation doesn’t spring back right away, or very much, then you should continue kneading the dough until it does.
The Windowpane Test
This one sounds weird, and it is. For this test, you’re going to want to be able to see light through the dough, like a windowpane.
Simply take a piece of your dough, and stretch it out as thin as you possibly can without it tearing. When it’s stretched out and thin, you should hold it up to a light source and be able to see light through it easily.
You want to make sure that the dough has rested for a few minutes before you try this test since the gluten tightens and becomes easier to tear as it’s kneaded more. Resting it will allow the gluten to loosen and become easier to stretch.
If it tears very easily before it can get thin enough to see light through it, then you’ll need to continue kneading and try again.
It Was Overproofed
Dough is generally classed as overproofed when it collapses. This is either due to the yeast using up its available food supply in the dough, or when it produces too much gas, so the gluten stretches too far, tears, and falls.
All dough can overproof, no matter how much yeast it has, or how strong its gluten network is. Dough doesn’t even always collapse when it overproofs, so you might not even know that it’s overproofed by the time you get around to baking it.
When dough overproofs, it’s either due to there being too much yeast, or the temperature being too high. Either way, the dough has had too much time to proof.
Make sure that you’re keeping a close eye on the dough as it’s proofing. You don’t want it overproofed or underproofed, so you’ll need to learn how to read your dough.
A very simple way to check if your dough is proofed (besides checking if it’s doubled in size) is to poke your finger about an inch (or less) into it. The dough shouldn’t spring back all the way, but it should spring back relatively quickly and leave a small indentation. If the dough springs back fully, it’s not ready yet. If the dough doesn’t spring back at all, it’s overproofed, unfortunately.
Your Dough Was Too Wet
Generally speaking, the higher the hydration your dough is (the more water it has), the less able it is to keep its structure, even after shaping it.
Although you can still create plenty of gluten in the bread dough, the added water means that the entire dough becomes slacker rather than tight. Since it’s slacker, it’s more difficult to keep it in shape without it sinking/collapsing. If you’re not very experienced with high hydration dough, you’ll most likely end up making a sticky and soupy mess.
You can get high hydration dough to keep its shape without collapsing or spreading out, but it’s difficult and requires special technique and skill in order to do it properly, so it’s not suited for a beginner bread baker.
Try cutting back on the water you’ve added to the dough so it’s at a more reasonable level. 60-65% water per 100g of flour will provide you with a dough that’s not very sticky, so give that a shot.
You Damaged The Dough
Whilst handling the dough, you might have been too rough, causing it to tear in places, or knocking out the gas after proofing. This can lead to damaged gluten and loss of gas, which can cause the dough to collapse either before or during baking.
When you’re handling the dough, you need to make sure that you’re being very gentle with it. Although most doughs are quite forgiving, they can still be damaged if you’re not careful enough. Always have a gentle touch when handling your dough. If possible, use a bench scraper or two when moving any free-form dough so you can avoid putting too much pressure on it.
Why Your Sourdough Collapsed
Having your sourdough collapse on you is much more disappointing since you generally spend more hours on sourdough than you do with regular yeast-risen bread.
The difference between sourdough bread and regular bread is just the type of yeast used. Regular bread uses dried or fresh yeast, whilst sourdough bread uses a ‘homemade’ yeast and lactic acid culture called a sourdough starter.
So, if you don’t think that your sourdough collapsed for any of the reasons listed above, it most likely collapsed because of your sourdough starter.
This will generally happen when your sourdough starter is young, or just not strong enough yet. It might not be strong enough because you didn’t use it at the right time (just after it peaks), you haven’t fed it regularly enough, or it just hasn’t had enough feeding to develop full strength yet.
If it is your sourdough starter, it may just be that it’s not strong enough to raise your dough for long enough yet, so give it a week or two extra of consistent 1-2x a day feedings and it should be much better.