My wife makes home made bread and we love it, but she can't seem to get it to rise enough. This is regular dough bread. She lets it rise once then forms it in the pans and lets it rise again, but it doesn't raise enough to suit us. What can we do?
There are a number of things your wife can try, or check, that might help.
First, be sure that your yeast is alive, and strong. Old yeast that is nearing its expiration date may have a large number dead yeast cells, making it weaker. While a lot of people like the new instant and fast-rise yeasts, I personally prefer the traditional type because you can easily check to be sure it is still good. Just dissolve the yeast in some of the liquid from the recipe and wait about 10 minutes. If the surface is bubbling or foamy, the yeast is likely good. If you are using one of the yeasts that is mixed with the dry ingredients, at least check the expiration date to be sure it is still good.
Bread rises because of small balloons formed by gluten that trap expanding gases. If the bread is not kneaded enough to form sufficient glutens, it won't trap the gases and rise. The common way to tell is the windowpane test. Take a small amount of dough, a bit bigger than a golf ball, and stretch it over the first and second fingers of both hands. Simultaneously move your hands apart and spread your fingers until you have the dough stretched across four fingers making a rectangle of about 1 to 1½ inches (2.5 to 4 cm) to a side. The dough should stretch, without tearing, to form an opaque window that you can see light through. If it tears, keep kneading. It is almost impossible to over-knead bread dough by hand or with a home mixer. If it is over-kneaded, however, the gluten strands break down and the dough will again not be able to hold the gases.
If your recipe says to keep adding flour until the dough is no longer sticky, and you do that, your dough will likely be too stiff by the time you are done. This was one of my problems when first learning to make bread. Until you are finished kneading, the dough will still be fairly sticky. It shouldn't, however be a wet shaggy mess, unless you are making ciabatta, or some other rustic breads. By the time you finish kneading, it will still be a bit sticky, but not clinging to everything.
While most recipes say to leave the bread to rise for a given amount of time, the real measure is until it has increased in volume, usually until it has doubled. If the recipe says to leave the dough rise for an hour or until it has doubled in volume, the hour is just a guess at the time it will take. Let it rise until it has doubled in volume, whether that is an hour or two hours or whatever. If you aren't sure what doubled in volume looks like, use a fairly straight sided container to raise the bread in, measure how tall that is and let it rise until it is twice as tall.
Punching down is a misnomer. When handling bread dough, it should be gently pressed and folded to redistribute the yeast and gases. It shouldn't have all of the bubbles forced out.
Check your oven temperature using a thermometer designed for the purpose and make sure it is warmed up for about 20 minutes before the bread goes into the oven. The final way that bread rises is through oven spring. When bread is put into the oven, there are bubbles of carbon dioxide trapped in gluten throughout it. Also, the bread will have a certain amount of alcohol produced as a byproduct of the yeast. Since alcohol has a low boiling point, it turns to a gas easily. These two gases expand in the heat of the oven causing the the gluten bubbles to expand even more. Oven spring can contribute up to about ¼ or more of the total volume of the finished bread. Most breads start their baking at somewhere between 375°F and 425°F (190°C and 220°C) in order to maximize oven spring. If your oven thermostat is wrong, it may not be getting hot enough to give much spring.
Also, an oven that has just reached cooking temperature will cool more rapidly when the door is opened than one that has been warmed well beforehand. The thermostat in ovens measures the air temperature. While the air may have reached a given heat, the walls and racks of the oven may still be warming up. When you open the oven door, most of the hot air spills out immediately and is replaced by cooler room air. After you close the door again, heat from the metal surfaces reheats the fresh air in the oven. It is important for getting oven spring that the entire oven and not just the air inside is heated fully.
Finally, check your loaf pans, too. Loaf pans made of shiny material, or having a shiny surface may reflect heat away from the loaf, lessening the oven spring. Dark colored pans are better than bright silvery ones.
One lesson which I have learned over and over is that people who are skilled at something like nothing more than a willing student to pass their knowledge on to. If you wife is still having problems making the bread you both dream of, she might try finding someone in the community who makes homemade bread and spending an afternoon or two with them.
Since homemade bread is such a wonderful treat, I hope these suggestions help.