Help! Why Does My Bread Fall Apart in the Middle?

A friend of ours has been experiencing something strange with her loaves of bread recently. She follows the recipe and everything seems fine, but when she slices into the loaf, the middle always tears and falls apart. It's cooked through, but the crumb is just very very loose in the center. Any thoughts?

Our friend said she's been following the basic white bread recipe from the KitchenAid cookbook. She makes the dough in the mixer with the dough hook and follows all the instructions in the recipe. The baked loaves have good flavor and a nice chewy texture, but just don't seem to have enough holding them together.

Here are a few ideas we had:

Knead the Dough Longer - It's possible that the dough just isn't forming enough gluten to support the structure of the bread. We suggested kneading the bread at a low speed for 8-10 minutes and then testing to see if it's done. If the dough holds a ball shape, springs back if you poke it, and passes the window-pane test, then it's ready. If not, knead it a few more minutes.

Proof the Shaped Loaves Longer - Most of the time, we're worried about over-proofing loaves of bread - letting them get too pillowy and puffy. But under-proofing has it's problems too. If loaves aren't proofed enough, they often rise rapidly in one big burst in the heat of the oven. We think this might make the middle weak.

It can be hard to tell when loaves have risen completely. Generally, if they look like soft pillows, have almost doubled their original size, and if your finger leaves an indent in the side, they're ready to go in the oven.

Switch to a Different Flour - It also might be that the flour she's using is too low-protein, which affects gluten development and structure. We like King Arthur Flour and Trader Joe's Flour for their relatively high (and dependable) protein content. A few tablespoons of vital wheat gluten can also help with a low-protein flour.

What other suggestions do you have?

Related: No Knead Bread Hack: Make a Sandwich Loaf Instead

(Image: Emma Christensen)