Bread making process – A concise overview

Ever lost track of all the different steps to take when making bread and why again you had to do those? Or think about scaling up your bread production, but kind of lost track of all the different steps that have to take place? It sounds like you’re in need of a concise overview of bread making.

This mega post will do exactly that, it forms a framework for a lot of other posts on baking bread. So click through and explore if you want to learn more about specific steps in the process.

While baking bread I keep on learning. Every bread you make is another lesson learned, whether it’s just one bread, or a whole batch of loaves.

bread-making-process

Step 0: The Ingredients

For every bread, or every food that is, you always start with: the ingredients. For making the simplest of breads (not taking into account flatbreads, only yeast risen breads), you only need:

  • Flour (most common is wheat flour)
  • Water
  • Yeast

The flour will form the basic structure of the bread. The gluten in flour help a yeast risen bread to become nice and airy and hold onto air inside the dough. The water will bring those gluten molecules together and it will ensure the bread becomes soft. Last but not least, the yeast will contribute to the flavour and it will form gas which will create the desired air bubbles in bread. It does this through fermentation.

Step 1: Mixing

Now that we’ve got our ingredients, it’s time to mix them! Even though mixing sounds simple (and of course, at the core it is!) it’s a very important step. When making bread it greatly helps to mix the dry ingredients first (without any filling though such as raisins, etc.) before adding the wet ingredients (such as water, butter, milk). Mixing doesn’t cost any effort/energy as long as there are no wet ingredients. So not adding the wet while you’re still mixing the dry saves effort.

Mixing assures all ingredients are spread out oer the bread evenly. It assures yeast is spread out through the entire dough and thus makes it evenly fluffy. Also, it ensures the salt is mixed through evenly. Since too much salt will prevent growth of yeast, it prevents (local) inhibition of yeast growth.

Even mixing should be done with care. Yeast can be killed if the moisture added is too hot. Take warm water, but only as warm as you can touch and drink. Boiling water or any water well above 40°C will kill the yeast.

Step 2: Resting & hydrating

This step is not fully necessary, but when mixing by hand or using a lot of whole wheat flour this can definitely help. This phase consists of leaving the dough mix just like that for about 30 minutes.

During this resting period the flour hydrates, more specifically the starch and gluten of the flour are hydrated by water. Water seeps into the grains and will sit around the molecules. If a flour has more fibers and grainy parts (as is the case for coarse whole meal flour for instance), it takes longer for water to travel through. Often a dough is a lot softer and more flexible after resting. It tends to make it easier to knead in the next step.

Step 3: Kneading

There are a lot of recipes out there for breads that don’t require any kneading. And it’s true, good breads can be made without any real kneading. That said, kneading does often greatly improve the structure of bread. One of the main reasons being gluten development. Kneading stretches the gluten and connects the various gluten molecules with one another.

Kneading also introduces air into the dough. These air bubbles are essential for creating an airy bread. Even though yeast will produce gas during rising, it has been found that no new air bubbles are necessarily formed during rising. Instead, existing air bubbles tend to grow. Therefore, creating these air pockets during kneading is vital. It’s these air pockets that allow bread to become fluffy.

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Three bowls of rising bread doughs, waiting patiently in front of the oven.

Step 4: Rising

As mentioned in the kneading stage: in order to make a fluffy bread air pockets have to be made. These are grown through fermentation of the yeast. Yeast consume sugars (glucose) and converts this into energy. While doing this carbon dioxide (CO2) is formed. This is a gas and causes the dough to expand.

Yeast have an optimal growth temperature. In other words, they don’t grow (or very slow) at temperatures below this growth temperature or above this growth temperature. If the temperature is too high it may even be killed. In the fridge yeast still produce gas, but it’s at a lower rate than at room temperature. Nevertheless, these lower temperatures also cause other reactions to occur which develop a lot of flavours!

Step 5: Shaping

This is one of those steps that I wasn’t aware of at all until very recently! Apparently shaping the bread after the first rising process helps to create a better structure of the bread.

Before shaping the bread the freshly risen bread should be pressed down again and air bubbles should be removed. You might wonder why you want to press out the air bubbles that you’ve just created during rising! Good question. There are several reasons, first of all it will give the bread another chance to rise again, also in the oven since the yeast has better access to its food. Also, it prevents large bubbles from forming. Pushing these down makes them into more smaller bubbles.

After the air has been pushed out you shape your bread. Of course, during shaping you determine the final type of bread you’re making, whether it’s long, round or square. But a good ‘shaper’ shapes the bread in such a way that a tension is created on the outside of the bread. This will make a more even bread when baked.

Here’s a nice short video showing exactly how it’s done.

Step 6: Rising no. 2

Now the bread is ready to rise again! This time you won’t thumb it down again so all the air that’s created will stay in. Nothing very different occurs from the first rising phase. Though there’s one important difference: since the dough has already been shaped, you should be able to transfer the dough into the oven within ruining the shape! Therefore, either rise the bread in the pan you’ll be using to bake it. Or, rise it in a heavily floured cloth so you can easily transfer the bread.

I prefer doing the last one, I heavily flour a piece of cloth and place it in a strainer. This makes a perfect spot to rise for round breads.

Step 7: Scoring

This is also a step which is easily overlooked! Scoring is nothing more than making a nice pattern on top of your bread. You have to do this right before baking. Besides the fact that it gives your bread a personal touch or makes it easier to differentiate different bread types, it also has an actual function during baking. Because of the shaping of the bread, you’ve given the bread strength. But, when the bread is put into the oven, you want it to be able to rise and expand. By scoring the bread, it has more space to open up!

100-whole-wheat-bread-brilliant-bread
See the pattern on top? Before it went into the oven these were just lines in the top of the bread. The oven has caused the bread to expand and form wide lanes.

Step 8: Baking

Baking is where your bread becomes a bread. During baking a lot of things happen. First of all, the yeast gets one last growth spike. Just before it dies because of the high heat it will greatly increase in speed thanks to the nice warm temperature. This causes the loaf to expand (especially if you’ve scored it nicely). Second, the bread actually cooks. Moisture evaporates, gluten networks are fixed and starch cooks (gelatinizes). Moreover, the Maillard reaction occurs, causing your bread to turn a nice golden brown.

The temperature of your oven influences how your bread turns out. A higher heat will give a darker crust more quickly. But, if the bread is very large, the outside may be nearly black whereas the inside is not yet cooked. Higher heats give thinner and softer crusts whereas lower heats give thicker crusts. The lower heat makes you having to bake your bread longer, so more moisture evaporates. This moisture evaporation is essential to make a crispy crust.

Step 9: Cooling & Eating

Nothing much to say her! The most essential part of the bread making process. Take the bread out of the oven. Let it cool (slicing hot bread is recipe for disaster, it will fall apart so easily) and enjoy!

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