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Why Your Bread Is Tearing—And How to Prevent It

The heartbreak of torn bread has happened to all of us. Let’s sift through the causes and talk about how to prevent it.

You’ve shaped the perfect sandwich loaf of bread dough. Along the way, you nurtured it, coddled it, and even punched and shaped it.

And what do you get in return? A loaf that looks as if a ticking time bomb went off inside it in the bread. One side or the top has blown open, and you probably feel all your effort is for nothing.

One possible reason is under-proofing the dough. Perhaps you were too aggressive in shaping and made the loaf too tight. Let’s explore these two possibilities—and a few more.

Why Under-Proofed Bread Tears

Bread dough ferments. Fermentation develops the dough’s flavor.

As bread dough ferments, it creates gas bubbles. Gluten—the protein in flour—holds those gas bubbles, which give the dough a final rise when it’s baked. When fermentation is done, the dough is shaped into loaves.

The loaves, once shaped, need to be proofed.

To “proof” means the dough rises into the shape it’ll keep. The yeasts eat the sugars in the dough, producing gas as a byproduct. This gas gets trapped in the form of air bubbles in the gluten. Proofing allows the gluten to gradually achieve its near-full capacity before the baking process.

This analogy may help:

Imagine you are at the kitchen sink, filling a balloon with a slow, steady stream of water.

The slow and steady stream of water is akin to the consistent warmth of a proof box. The dough rises in the steady, consistent atmosphere in the proof box.

If you fill the balloon just over halfway and turn the faucet to full blast, the balloon will expand rapidly and burst within seconds. Under-proofed bread behaves the same way. The gluten remains too tight, and as the yeast produces increasing amounts of gas, this gas within the gluten mesh expands faster than the gluten can accommodate it, causing the bread to tear.

While it’s not a perfect analogy, it does show that a sudden change in circumstances will alter the expansion of the balloon.

Now back to our bread dough.

Under-proofing the dough means the gluten hasn’t expanded to near-full capacity.

When the shaped but under-proofed loaf of bread dough is put in the hot oven, the heat of the oven causes the gas bubbles in the bread dough to expand rapidly.

The gas expands too rapidly for the unstretched gluten to contain. At a weakness in the mesh of gluten protein, the expanding gas breaks the bonds of gluten, causing a tear. Once that weakness is revealed, more bread may expand out of that spot.

Bakers are passionate people. Many, and I was once just like them, will insist there is a very fine point between just properly proofed and over-proofed. (Over-proofing is a different issue.) The main point here is there is a time window—probably bigger than the passionate and loud bakers will admit—where the risk of the bread tearing is virtually zero.

How Scoring the Loaf Can Prevent Blowout

Scoring the dough means cutting slashes into the top with a lame, double-edge razor blade, or with sharp paring knife. French baguettes may be the most famous scored bread.

Scoring has an aesthetic appeal. The dark, golden brown crust with the gradient of lighter colors in the scores is visually appealing.

Scoring also serves an important physical function of preventing torn bread.

Scoring the top of the bread with several slices, as in a baguette or one long slice as a sandwich loaf, gives expanding bread a weak place in the dough to expand.

Baguettes and long loaves of bread are usually rolled tighter. That means the surface tension on the outside of those bread loaves is stretched tight. Sandwich loaves and sourdough rounds are generally not shaped to make a surface tension quite that tight. (This is just a generalization. Individual bakers may have different techniques.)*

Bread dough rolled tight will require a deeper score than other bread doughs. If the scoring is not deep enough, the weakness created might be insufficient for the bread to expand only there. Expanding baking bread is a bit like water; it will find the nearest place to expand. If there’s a weakness in the gluten matrix nearer, the bread will tear in that spot.

Well-scored loaves do not guarantee no blowouts, especially if the dough is also under-proofed. Properly proofed dough is still the first best hedge against torn bread.

Read More: The Difference Between Split-Top vs. Round-Top Bread

Why You Should Be Steaming That Dough

Steam, And What It Does to Your Loaf

Bread dough is simply hydrated flour with salt and yeast. (Not a poetic description, but, by all means, an accurate one.) Bread can’t be made without water. And, bread can be made better with water in the form of steam when it bakes.

When home bakers proof their loaves at home, several things happen to the bread. The yeast makes more gas, the loaf rises, and the surface dries out. The dough loses some of that water. To replace it, add steam to the oven to rehydrate the surface and return the elasticity the loaf needs to rise to its fullest.

Commercial bakery proofers are kind of like saunas for bread dough. They can be set to a specific temperature and a specific humidity. The humidity prevents the top of the bread from drying.

Dried bread dough will rise poorly in the oven and will almost certainly tear since the supple elasticity of the gluten is gone. Think of really old rubber bands that don’t stretch but simply break or crumble when you pull them. Dried-out bread dough will also crack and break instead of stretch.

The Reason Commercial Bread Ovens Have Steam Nozzles

Commercial bread ovens have steam nozzles in the oven to steam the loaves for the first 30 to 60 seconds.

Ovens are hot, but it is mostly dry, hot air. The oven surface is hot, and the contact between the bread or bread pan and the oven causes an instant response from the yeast, which makes more gas, and the gas expands. Direct contact, pan to oven bottom, is conductive heat.

The transfer of energy through direct contact is pretty efficient. The hot air in the oven, less so. Steam, which is hot, is in physical contact with the bread. This allows the same rapid response from the yeast and gas bubbles.

Steam in the oven has the added effect of keeping the dough skin supple—even if for a few additional seconds—which can have a big impact on how well the dough rises and keeps its shape. Steam also adds to a shiny, finished loaf.

How to Steam Your Bread in the Home Oven

You and I don’t have commercial baking equipment at home.

There is at least one home version of a countertop proofer that can create a humid environment for dough. (I own one of these countertop proofers and they work. They are especially useful where winter weather impacts your kitchen.)

My stove does not have steam nozzles, but I can improvise. You can, too.

Before baking, place a pie plate or cake pan at the bottom of your oven. Carefully pour half a cup of water into that pie plate or cake pan and swiftly close the oven door. Home bakers can replicate the steamy oven, which creates pretty loaves of bread.

More Bread-Baking Mistakes to Watch Out For

Baking Your Sandwich Bread Seam Side Down

Sandwich loaves can sometimes be placed top-side down in the bread pan. This means the seam is up. The seam is the weakest part of the shaped loaf, which means it’s susceptible to unintended splits during baking.

Placing the loaf seam-side-up is an easy oversight. If you find yourself in this situation, consider scoring along the seam. This will guide the expanding loaf in a controlled manner, rather than leaving it to chance.

Making Too Dry a Dough (Low Hydration)

Remember that bread is just wet flour with stuff. How wet the dough is will make a big difference.

Bakers measure the amount of water in bread by percentages. The minimum for a workable loaf of bread is about 65%, or 65 grams of water for every 100 grams of flour. That’s not a very wet dough. Bakers refer to water amounts as hydration, as in, Hey, Frank, what was the hydration of your baguette?

If there is too little hydration, the gluten cannot function properly to form the complex protein matrix. Even if it can’t stretch, when baked, it will rise because air bubbles expand. Then it will tear. A higher hydration will improve the dough. A higher hydration will also change how to work with the dough, but that’s another article.

Poor Humidity During the Proofing

Proofing your loaf on the kitchen counter, which may well be how you were instructed, will create a loaf with a dried surface. Just as with the low-hydration dough, the dry loaf surface will crack and tear before it stretches.

Spritzing water on the surface moments before it is baked can aid this dry dough problem. It’s not a perfect solution, but sometimes we don’t live in a perfect world. If you spritz your loaf before baking, do so within 30 seconds of baking and also make steam as discussed above.

Remember, It’s Still Bread

Torn bread can be a disappointment. It can seem to stand as a visual reminder of failure.

It is not that. Torn bread is the bump in the road to the perfect loaf. Torn bread is still bread. Sandwiches, croutons, and bread crumbs all taste the same.

Any food made with love is delicious. This includes torn bread.

Know your author

Written by

Dann Reid is the author of Cooking For Comfort. He started in commercial kitchens at 13, washing dishes. Dann worked his way up to head chef, then head baker and pastry chef. Dann also worked as an assistant bakery manager for a major grocery store chain. Now, he develops recipes at home and challenges himself with gluten-free baking for a family need. Follow Dann at Culinary Libertarian.