1. Visually - The more you bake, the more you'll be able to gauge how a loaf of bread should look when it's nearing doneness. For the most part, the crust should be dry, very firm, and a deep golden brown color with darker spots here and there. If the crust is very pale, give it a few more minutes. Recipes usually describe how the bread should look at the end of cooking (the good recipes, anyway!), so you can use that as a guide until you're more familiar with the loaf.
2. Tap the Bottom - Take the loaf out of the oven and turn it upside down, taking it out of the pan if you're making a sandwich loaf. Give the bottom of the loaf a firm thump! with your thumb, like striking a drum. The bread will sound hollow when it's done. If you're new to this technique, try doing this every five minutes toward the end of baking and you'll hear how the sound changes.
3. Take the Internal Temperature - Insert an instant read thermometer into center of the loaf. (If you go at an angle and through the side or bottom, you can minimize the visual evidence!) Most breads are finished baking at about 190°. Breads enriched with butter, eggs, or milk are finished when the internal temperature is closer to 200°.
If you're ever in doubt, it's better to cook the loaf a little longer than to undercook it. An extra five minutes isn't going to burn the crust, and the worst that will happen is that your bread will be a bit on the dry side. But better dry than un-baked!
Also, if you're consistently having trouble with over- or under-baked loaves, check the temperature of your oven with an oven thermometer. If your oven temperature is off, it could be affecting the cooking times of your loaves. You can adjust the temperature gauge yourself, but call a professional if the temperature is inconsistent or off by more than 50 degrees.
Any other tips or questions about knowing when bread is done baking?
(Image: Emma Christensen)