Seeing your dough cracking or bursting during proofing or baking can be quite a concern for some bakers.
This cracking suggests that something has gone wrong and you might not know why. Fortunately, it’s not a huge problem and your bread should still taste fine, but it’s something you’re probably going to want to avoid next time.
Cracking in dough occurs when there is poor gluten development. This can be due to inadequate kneading, too little water, or the wrong flour. By using bread flour, more water, and kneading the dough adequately, you will develop enough gluten to allow the dough to rise without cracking.
So, the most important steps you can take to prevent cracking is keeping the dough hydrated and making sure that there’s gluten development.
Remember, baking bread is a science and a lot goes into making bread that’s very good.
There are plenty of mistakes to be made during the process, so if your dough is cracking, it’s just another learning curve. This one is a fairly easy mistake to fix anyway.
Let’s take a deeper dive into dough cracking, the causes, and how you can prevent it.
What Causes Dough Cracking?
Your dough can crack or burst during proofing or baking. Either way, it’s annoying, so you should know what’s causing it.
Once you know what’s causing it, you can figure out the ways to fix it and you’ll be on your way to success.
Cracking During Proofing
Dough cracking during proofing might not seem like much of a problem at first, but if it’s cracked on the final proof, the dough is going to expand out those cracks as it bakes and leave you with an ugly loaf.
If it’s only cracked during the first proof, it’s not a huge issue since you’ll be shaping it and allowing it to proof again.
Here’s what causes dough to crack during proofing:
A Dried Surface
When the surface of the dough dries out, it becomes less elastic, tougher, and much more leather-like.
This surface becomes harder than the dough underneath and cracks/splits as the dough rises.
A dry surface of the dough is most common when it’s not covered properly or in a very dry environment.
If it’s not completely covered, you risk losing some humidity. If it’s not covered at all, there’s a high chance that it will crack.
Insufficient Gluten Development
Gluten is one of the most important things to have in good bread. It’s what creates the bread’s structure and allows it to rise properly.
Without gluten, you get a very dense piece of baked dough. You need to fully develop the gluten for good results.
If there’s not enough gluten development, the dough will start to split/crack as it rises since the structure isn’t strong enough to contain the gas produced by the yeast.
Amateur bakers quite often either don’t knead their dough for long enough or use flour that won’t produce enough gluten in the dough. These problems will have a significant play in how good your bread is when it’s baked.
Too Little Water
A dry dough is much more likely to crack because it won’t be able to develop much gluten.
In order for gluten to develop, it needs enough water, so without this water, it won’t be able to develop properly.
The flour in the dough needs to be fully hydrated for enough gluten development.
Even the lowest hydration dough should almost always be slightly tacky by the time it’s fully kneaded. If it’s not tacky, you may have not added enough water.
Cracking During Baking
When your dough cracks/bursts open during baking, there’s no going back and you’re left with a messy loaf.
Nobody wants their bread to have cracks, so it’s useful to know why it’s happening so you can try to avoid it next time.
A Dry Oven
One thing that you need to have in your oven whilst baking bread is humidity. Without humidity, your dough is going to brown too fast and parts of the dough are more likely to crack/burst.
When there’s humidity (steam) in the oven, the dough browns a lot slower and the crust takes longer to set. This allows the dough to rise more during baking and therefore prevents it from cracking.
A Tight Surface
You might have heard that it’s important to build a tight skin or ‘surface tension’ on the dough so that it stays in shape rather than spreading out when proofing.
Without surface tension, the dough wouldn’t rise very well in the oven, but with too much surface tension, you may overstretch the gluten and cause it to tear.
Be careful when tightening the surface of the dough. Don’t do it too much or you’ll ruin it.
It Wasn’t Scored
Some dough just needs to be scored in order to bake without bursting open.
If you find that your bread bursts open fairly often, it would be useful to start scoring it in order for a more controlled and better rise for your bread.
Here’s an article on why scoring bread is so important.
How To Prevent Your Dough From Cracking
Use More Water
As I’ve already mentioned, if you’re not using enough water in your dough, you’re not going to be able to get a good structure to your bread.
A lack of water will leave you with dry dough and limited gluten development.
Without this gluten, the dough is more likely to crack.
Aim for at least 60% hydration in your dough, but higher may be better depending on what flour you’re using.
This percentage of hydration means that for every 100g of flour, you want to be using at least 60g of water to make the dough.
This should sufficiently hydrate your bread flour to allow for a good gluten structure.
Another use of water is to add steam to your oven. Steam prevents cracking or bursting by the process of starch gelatinization. When the dough is met with heat and steam the starches on the surface of the dough become more flexible and elastic, which allows for the surface to expand more rather than firming up too soon.
Avoid Adding Extra Flour
Additional flour is a big mistake many amateur bakers make. It might seem like a good idea to add more flour when the dough is sticky, but you don’t need to.
When you first start kneading the dough, everything is a sticky mess since the gluten isn’t developed.
You’ll find that by the time you’re finished kneading it, it will be much less sticky and more manageable as a result.
You will only need to add extra flour if you’re really struggling with the dough after you’ve kneaded it. Where you need to add flour, try to use a minimal amount.
Knead It Properly
Since gluten is such an important part of good bread, you need to make sure that it’s fully developed in your dough.
Fully developed gluten occurs when you knead it for long enough to create an elastic dough that’s going to be able to hold gas and rise well.
Most people can knead their dough for 8-10 minutes and the gluten will be well developed.
To make sure that you’ve kneaded the dough properly, you can also take some time to do the poke test and the windowpane test.
To perform the poke test, you simply need to form the dough into a ball, allow it to rest for a few minutes so the gluten can relax, and poke your finger or knuckle about an inch into the dough. If it springs back almost completely, there’s enough gluten development. If it doesn’t spring back much, it requires more kneading.
For the windowpane test, you should allow the dough to rest for a few minutes so the gluten can relax before taking a piece of dough and stretching it very thin. If it can be pulled thin enough to see light through without tearing, the gluten has been developed properly.
Use The Right Flour
Using flour like rye or wholemeal won’t cut it in terms of gluten development for most bread.
What you need is bread flour or at least all-purpose flour to get a good amount of gluten development. These flours have a higher protein content, so they’re much more suitable for making dough with structure.
Keep It Covered
You want an undisturbed and consistent proof on your bread, so you make sure that it’s in the best conditions possible.
For the best proof, your dough should be in an airtight container.
Making sure that it’s air tight is very important as too much exposure to fresh air increases the risk that the surface of the dough will dry out and become tough.
When it’s sealed in an airtight container, the surrounding air stays humid and prevents any unnecessary drying.