Baking is a skill that improves with practice. It takes experience to know how dough should feel as it's kneaded or to determine if it has risen enough. "The hardest thing for most new bakers to learn is that there are no absolutes when it comes to baking," says Cooking Light Test Kitchens staffer Kathryn Conrad. "The results are influenced by the conditions—everything from humidity in the air to the warmth of your hands when you handle the dough." Conrad says she sees novice bread bakers make three common—and easily rectified—errors.
1. Adding too much flour when kneading and shaping the dough. In an effort to keep dough from sticking to their hands, many bakers add too much while kneading, which will make the bread tough and dense.
2. Not kneading long enough. Kneading time varies from one recipe to the next. Knead dough until it reaches the desired texture (usually "smooth and elastic"), using the suggested time as a guideline.
3. Not proofing long enough. Again, use the recommended time as a guideline. But remember the texture of the dough, as noted in the recipe, is the true indicator of whether it's risen enough.