Baking a loaf of bread shouldn’t be rocket science. As long as you know why it’s burning, that is.
You’ve mixed your bread dough and followed the procedure to the letter. The warm, comforting smell of baking bread is replaced with the smell of burning and the screams of the smoke alarm let you know something is very, very wrong.
Your creation is burnt. Not just toasty, nutty brown, but charcoal black.
An oven that shows one temperature but heats to another is a good place to start looking for culprits. Perhaps the pans were not the right pans? Let’s look into these—and a few other likely causes and solutions—to burnt bread.
Baking Is the Transfer of Energy
Bread dough bakes through the transfer of heat energy. How energy is transferred to your dough can make the difference between a loaf that’s under-baked, over-baked, and one that’s baked just right..
Heat is transferred in three ways:
- Conduction: Direct contact to heat or direct contact to a hot surface. Baking a pizza on a pizza stone, for example.
- Convection: Hot air is moved by a fan in the oven.
- Radiation: Broiling cheesy garlic toast to get a golden brown top.
The Fresh Loaf webpage has this blog post explaining some of the specifics of the transfer of heat.
For our burnt loaf, it got too hot for too long or it got too hot too fast.
Too long means overbaking, which is pretty plain. Too fast could mean the oven thermometer isn’t calibrated properly or the temperature was set too high for that specific loaf of bread.
If you see your bread is browning too fast, wrap a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the loaf. The loaf will still brown, maybe pretty well, but burn should be eliminated, as long as it isn’t also overbaked.
Calibrating an oven thermostat is probably a technician’s job. Stoves today all seem to have a computer motherboard that requires trained staff to maintain. Of course, you can check your oven’s temperature with an oven thermometer. They’re available in most kitchen stores or online sellers.
Hydration Has a Role to Play in Burning
“Hydration” means the amount of water in the dough. Hydration is measured as a percent of the flour in the recipes. If our dough uses 100 grams of flour and 50 grams of water, it is a 50% hydration dough.
Sandwich loaves are about 60-70% water. Focaccia can be up to 80 or 90% water. Higher water content means more time in the oven is required to get the water out of the loaf in the form of steam. That allows more time in the oven with little risk of burning.
Some breads, sandwich loaves in particular, often contain sugar. Added sugar can accelerate the browning process which can cause bread to burn more quickly.
The Baking Pan Also Matters
The transfer of energy is impacted by resistance. Yes, that sounds like a 9th-grade science class. But don’t worry, there’s no final exam on this one. Just the sweet smell of success (or, if we get it wrong, burning). Not all pans conduct heat with the same efficiency which will impact the final baked goods.
Personal bias time: I hate glass baking dishes for baking. They look pretty under planters or holding pens but that’s as far as I’m willing to go.
The chief issue with glass is they are inefficient at transferring heat. Glass absorbs heat before the heat moves to the food. Metal does, too, but with greater efficiency. Glass takes a long time to cool, which means heat keeps transferring to the baked item. Glass breaks. Broken hot glass is not fun to clean up. It also means your baked good is garbage.
I do like the aluminized steel sandwich bread pans. Some bread pans are aluminum. Sheet pans are also aluminum and bakers often line those baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. A lined sheet pan is no guard against burnt bread. Dutch ovens, both ceramic and cast iron, are very good mini-ovens for baking boules or no-knead loaves.
Sturdy Pans Make a Difference
Grocery stores and discount stores sell baking pans. Sometimes they are flimsy and very thin. Flimsy, thin pans tend to be efficient at transferring heat—but not uniformly. Flimsy pans can have hot spots which means those places get hotter than other spots burning what’s in contact with the pan.
Sheet pans and bread pans should have some heft to them for their size. “Gauge” is the term used to indicate how thick the metal is. A good gauge for sheet pans is between 10 to 18. That’s mostly what’s available for sheet pans which makes choosing easy.
Online shopping sites may not indicate the gauge for bread pans. Read customer reviews for insight into how those pans perform.
Managing The Hot Spots
A cool spot in a hot oven seems like a contradiction. Ovens do have hot spots. The sides and back wall of the oven will be hotter than the middle.
Sometimes radiation heat and conduction heat happen together. Oven walls are made of metal, and metal accumulates heat, then radiates that heat inward. The middle of the oven might be cooler than the edges. Just like that one room in your house that never seems to be cool enough when the A/C is on, the oven also has quirks.
Baking pans of a suitable thickness conduct heat more uniformly which helps even out those oven inconsistencies. Turning your bread pan a quarter of a turn or a full turn can also help keep the bread from burning as it allows you to mitigate the hot spots in your oven.
If It’s Not Burnt, How Do I Know It’s Done?
Commercial bakers tip the hot loaf over and thump the bottom. A tap tap tap with the tip of a finger produces a hollow sound in a fully baked loaf of bread.
There’s the obvious challenge of handling a hot pan and a hot loaf of bread all while not burning yourself. An instant-read thermometer pushed into the center of the dough just above the top of the bread pan will tell us when the bread is done.
The range is between 195°F and 210°F. Enriched doughs like Challah and Brioche will be done nearer the higher end and baguettes near the lower end of that range.
A pizza stone can also help manage hot spots in the oven as well as keep the heat consistent when the oven cycles.
Pizza Stones Aren’t Just for Pizza
Pizza stones are excellent tools for conductive heat. A bread pan sitting in direct contact with that hot surface gets a uniform transfer of heat for a consistent brown on the bottom and heat for the oven spring.
Our focus has been on managing the bread so it doesn’t burn.
Pizza dough on a hot pizza stone forms an impressive crust and, if allowed to bake long enough, develops a solid crunch.
At the right heat, which is 450°F, the pizza bottom and crust and maybe even the curly pepperoni get a bit of char on them. That’s the good stuff.
That char or deeply browned crust and bottom is flavor which is the happy result of the complex Maillard Reaction. King Arthur Flour has this good introduction to the Maillard Reaction.
Dark Brown Bread Means Flavorful Bread
When I worked in a small bakery in New Jersey, the head baker—a Frenchman—pushed the envelope of what is a good bake. The baguettes often were just to the point of starting to burn. The flavor and crunch was intense. 30 seconds more and it would have been too much.
Good pans, the right temperature, and patience to let the bread bake well should give you a great bake.You've voted for this post