The Bell Curve of Baking

I am often asked about how best to troubleshoot the problems we face in the production of artisan bread. This in itself is a complex request because there are many steps that must be followed to achieve a predictable outcome. Also what one baker may claim to be a flaw in a finished loaf of bread another might purposely aim to achieve the same characteristics. So through the process of listening and learning, talking and teaching, I have devised an unscientific way of explaining how to achieve your own desired goals and troubleshoot some of your own problems that you might face in the production of artisan bread. I purposely state “artisan bread” because I mean to imply that we are using basic ingredients without the addition of enzymes or chemicals that are not already present in the raw ingredients or developed naturally during the process. Some of the modern day additives can both increase strength or decrease strength in our bread dough and alter our results.

Most problems in the production of bread occur between the ingredient and the final proof stage. This article does not apply to the baking stage. The problems we face many times are a result of the dough being too weak, lacking volume or proper crumb structure or the dough being too strong and it doesn’t mould easily and also has poor crumb structure. By visualizing the bread’s life span made up of several stages and each stage having its own effect to the overall final product we can begin thinking about the ways in which we can strengthen or soften/weaken our dough by making the proper adjustments with the tools we have available.

The bell curve theory helps us to visualize some of the stages in the breads life span and how they come together and interact with one another. It also helps to discern where in the process you are and how to modify your process to achieve the desired results.

Some of the factors that affect the bell curve are Flour, Water, Acid, Mixing, and Fermentation

The Bell Curve theory can be applied to many aspects of bread baking.


Flour from Wheat is the most commonly used flour in our profession and in this very flour we can see the bell curve alive and well. Wheat flour contains two proteins that combine together to create gluten. The Glutenin protein is responsible for the elasticity of our bread; it is the protein that resists stretching. The Gliadin protein is what gives our loaves extensibility; it is the protein that allows our loaves to be stretched. Too much extensibility or too much elasticity is both a bad thing. We want our flour and dough to have a good balance between the two.


It takes water to activate the gluten forming proteins in flour. An inadequate amount of water in dough can result in the proteins not being fully hydrated and not allowing the dough to properly develop during mixing and fermenting. Think about biscuits or scones and how crumbly they can be. We artisan bakers typically play on the other side of the curve. We often add exorbitant amounts of water to our breads resulting in weaker dough. We often make up for this weakness with folds and a longer bulk fermentation period as well as the development of acids from preferments or starters.


Lactic Acid and Acetic Acid are both by-products of fermentation. The acids can both help condition the proteins in our bread for strength but also begin to break them down if not controlled. I am giving acids its own category because they can exist in a loaf of bread that is not actually fermenting. For example a loaf of sourdough that is held in the retarder at a cold temperature where the yeast is no longer active.


The Bell Curve might be most easily understood or applied in the mixing process. We have all probably seen an under mixed dough and the results. The dough is not combined well and doesn’t contain the gluten development to hold the gasses produced from fermentation. We artisan bakers often do this on purpose because we plan to ferment our dough a long time and even give folds to the dough during the process, which adds strength. (More on this in a few minutes)

On the other side of the equation is the dough that has been over mixed and is also weak because the gluten has been degraded from over processing or mixing. This weak dough has crossed over the top of the curve where we would have the most strength and finished mixing on the right side of the bell curve in the weak area.

Folding or Turning the dough

This is a subcategory of mixing. This in reality is mixing but it is typically drawn out over the bulk fermentation stage. If the dough is under mixed additional strength can be achieved through one or more folds. The goal of folding is to bring the correct amount of strength to the dough in a slower process than mixing and to not oxidize the dough. It is possible to “over fold” a dough which can cause it to be bucky or excessively strong.


Again the Bell Curve can easily be applied to fermentation. We have all seen young or under fermented dough that lacks body and are a little flat after shaping. The cause might have been the dough temperature is to cool or just not enough fermentation, either way these loaves lack development and have less volume.

At the top of the bell Curve of Fermentation we have the dough that has a lot of strength. We typically do not ferment to this point in our profession unless we are compensating for weaknesses caused in other areas, example: an excess amount of water.

On the opposite side of the curve we have over fermented dough. Again these loaves will show signs of weakness through lack of volume. This problem could have arisen from too warm of dough temperature or too much fermentation time or simply too much yeast in our formula.

Combining all the components in the process

Now that we have pointed out some of the key components of the process involved in bread baking lets discuss how they interact with one another and give a few examples.

Ciabatta is a common bread made by most of us these days or at least understood to be a highly hydrated bread dough with a very open crumb. Ciabatta is made with a lot of water and is typically fermented for 2-3 hours and many times given folds during the fermentation. By applying the concept that the addition of the extra water weakens the dough we understand that we need to build strength in other areas to compensate for this weakness. We typically mix a moderate amount and then do a long bulk fermentation while folding the dough. This in turn gives us dough with enough structure to support the weakening effects of the excess water.

On the opposite side are the American Hard Rolls or Kaiser Rolls. We would typically mix these breads/rolls a lot more and reduce the overall fermentation. These changes in the process along with the reduction in water compared to a Ciabatta dough result in a different dough altogether, but one that has the proper amount of strength for the desired end product. The Hard Roll typically gets its strength from more yeast and more mixing but not from a long fermentation. If we were to add in lengthy bulk fermentation to the process we would end up with excessively strong dough that would tear during moulding with the possibility of the finished product being too round and tall.

When you are troubleshooting problems in your own bakery, try to analyze if the problems are caused by a lack of strength or too much. If you find that your dough is weak determine which side of the bell curve you are on and how to compensate. If you find that some of your issues are due to an excessive amount of strength then decide how to lower the strength in the individual stage or process or use another stage in the process to compensate. For example if you have too much strength due to a high protein flour you might decide to mix very little and add more water; both would result in weakening the dough. I have used these techniques over the years and have found them very useful in solving problems quickly, hopefully you can apply these as well in your own bakery.

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