left dough risen too long, right dough risen well, two loafs

Bread Baking Tips from the Great British Bake Off

He pokes his finger in the bread, has a close look and says, without yet having taken a bite, ‘this is cleary underbaked’. He the takes another bread, looks at the air holes in them and concludes it hasn’t been kneaded well enough and could have done with a longer rise.

It’s a level of bread baking that I would like to get to some day, but clearly haven’t yet. It takes a very practiced eye to say those things with one look. And it’s exactly what Paul Hollywood, one of the judges of the Great British Bake-off, did. All his comments are rooted in a deep understanding of baked goods and can, of course, be explained by science as well.

Which is why, in this post, we’ll take a few of Paul’s comments, dissect and analyze them, add in some science and by the end of it, you should have a more practiced eye when it comes to evaluating your breads as well!

No one set of rules

There is no one set of rules for baking bread. Some styles require a lot of long proofing and mixing whereas others only need gentle mixing and a bit of patience. Still the overall process is quite similar. You start with a recipe. This can be a yeast or baking powder or soda risen bread, it can be with or without a fillings. You start making the dough, some are kneaded extensively, whereas others are just mixed together.

In the case of a yeast bread you’ll then leave the dough to rise. But do you mix your filling in already, or not? And for how long will you leave it to rise. Bakers always have to figure this out again for any new recipe. The first proof serves to create the desired bread structure and adds air to the dough in the form of little bubbles.

Once the dough has increased in size enough it’s time to take it out and shape it in its final form. Shaping can be a complex process of twirling, braiding or just a simple rounding of. Again, all will give a slightly different bread. Once the bread is shaped, it will be proved again until it’s ready to bake.

If you’ve watched the Great British Bake Off, a British show all about baking, you will see contestants struggling with all these questions all the time. Looking at doughs, staring into ovens, hoping they’re decided to do it the right way. If you’re a baker, whether you’re a home baker or professional baker, you’ll be facing the same doubts and considerations. So let’s look at a few of these tips and tricks that you can learn through the British Bake Off in improving your bread baking skills.

cinnamon rolls ready to bake
Cinnamon rolls, the filling was rolled in after the 1st proof.

You can add a filling before AND after the 1st proof

If you’re making a bread with a filling, whether it’s cheese, vegetables, fruits or a cinnamon/sugar layer, you have to decide when to add the fillings to the dough. Do you do that before or after the 1st proof? Paul Hollywood, one of the judges on the British Bake Off, tends to worry contestants by asking them when they add it, and looking quite worrisome after they’ve explained when.

Of course, there’s not one correct answer. Here on FoodCrumbles we’ve got recipes where we add the filling after the first proof (cinnamon rolls, yum) as well as where it’s added before (this Dutch Christmas bread or a basic bread with sunflower seeds).

It depends on the filling, but a lot of them tend to slow down the yeast and the proof. Therefore, they can better be added later since it will guarantee a good first proof that doesn’t take too long. Cheese is a good example of such a filling. Since salt slows down yeast, and since cheese can contain quite a bit of that, it’s one of the reasons it slows down they yeast. Other fillings just contains very little moisture, thus aren’t the best environment for yeast to grow on. If you have plenty of time on hand, this doesn’t have to be a problem though, you would just have to take a little more time.

In most cases where you’re adding a lot of filling, you want to add it after the first proof. That way, it doesn’t interfer with either the yeast, or the formation of a strong good gluten network.

An advantage of adding sugar rich filling after the first proof is that it gives the yeast some extra food. Yeast need sugar to grow and form those desired gas bubbles. Adding some raisins for instance can help the yeast in its second proof.

Another reason for adding the filling after the first proof is that it tends to become softer and more flexible. This actually makes it easier to incorporate a filling and fold it in.

Want some great examples of creative filled breads? Have a look at the bread week’s episodes on the British Bake Off there’s some fantastic breads made there.

Proving temperature

Now that you’ve decided on your strategy for mixing, kneading and incorporating a filling, it’s time to decide on the proving process. In the show, contestants have access to a proving drawer. Essentially this is a drawer where you can create temperatures between 30-80°C. Bakers will tend to use it between 30 and 37°C, at higher temperatures the yeast will be killed. However, you don’t need a proving drawer, a lot of electric ovens can simulate very similar conditions.

Whether or not you want to use a proving drawer again depends a lot on your recipe and bread you’re making. In season 1 the contestants have to make a ciabatta bread. Paul tends to recognize the breads of which the dough has been proved in a proving drawer (although not for one contestant, Martha).

How? Well, the use of a proving drawer will increase the growth rate of the yeast. At higher temperatures they grow faster. Faster growth isn’t necessarily better. It can actually make too much air bubbles and make it run out of food too quickly.

In the case of ciabatta in this challenge, the fast growth at the start would over activate the dough. Ciabatta is a very wet dough, making it easy to expand large air bubbles, but also making it more prone to collapse if there’s too many air bubbles. This is why proving the ciabatta at room temperature in this case would have been better.

Why an egg wash can be troublesome

“Are you putting an egg wash on top of your bread?” “Yes, I am.” “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Leaving the contestant (in this case Martha in season 1) in doubt what exactly she was doing wrong, if anything at all.

Adding an egg wash, crusty top layer or cocoa powder to a bread dough all have the same disadvantage. It makes it harder to see whether a bread is finished. If you make bread on a daily basis, you’ll nevertheless know what you’re looking for, but if you’re experimenting, you might not.

An egg wash fools you because it initiates browning a lot faster through the Maillard reaction. The top turns brown quickly whereas the inside isn’t necessarily baked. The same for a crusty top layer, you can’t see the actual colour of the bread and it might brown faster (or slower!) than the rest of the bread.

The reason cocoa makes it hard to judge isn’t because it browns a brown more easily. Instead, it makes the bread darker to start with. It won’t change colour as much anymore. This might make you falsely assume that your bread is ready, when it isn’t.

How a tear tells you something about your proof

bread loaf cracked open on the side
See the massive tear on the side? This bread could have done with some more proving before it went in the oven.

Even though there’s a lot you can see from your dough when making a bread, the final bread can tell you a lot about whether you’ve actually proven or baked it for long enough.

When you bake your bread you expect it to rise it some more in the oven. The sudden heat gives your yeast an extra boost making it rise one more time. By cutting into the bread you allow the bread to do that in an acceptable way. It will open up and push up where it can.

However, in case case it might also break open where it’s not necessarily supposed to. These cracks or tears tend to be a sign that you bread hasn’t been proved for long enough. The bread wants to rise a lot more still than it should in the oven.

These tears are thus a sign of insufficient proving. However, in other baked goods (e.g. certain cakes or muffins) they are actually desired, being a sign that the batter is properly expanding.

A collapsed bread, means…?

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the collapsed roll or bread. It’s when you bread just doesn’t come up and remains quite small. In the ciabatta challenge we mentioned before that was a common issue. If bread has been proved for too long, or at too high temperatures, the yeasts doesn’t form enough new gases. Even worse, there’s too much gas for the bread to hold on to, it can’t maintain it and it will collapse down.

The photo at the top of this post is a great example of this. Both breads are the same recipe. However, the one on the left was risen too long whereas the one on the right was just right. The overproved bread didn’t come up any further in the oven. Instead, it remained flat, almost brick shaped here.

Poking a finger in bread to test for bake quality

If there’s no crack and if your bread hasn’t collapsed but has a well rounded shape chances are the proving of the bread was right. But there’s still the baking to go through.

Most bakers, including myself, will tap on the bottom of a bread to hear whether it’s hollow. A hollow bread should be baked enough, enough of the moisture has evaporated and the gluten and starches have set. But the tapping test isn’t always easy. Measuring the core temperature can be done, but even that depends on your recipe.

Once you’ve cut open the bread though it will be obvious whether your bread has been baked well. A simple poke of your finger in the bread will tell you. Does the dough stick down after you’ve gently poked it? If yes, it’s not been baked enough. The dough hasn’t properly set into its final texture, instead, it’s more dough like.

seeded sourdough bread slices
A well risen bread, with nice air holes. not shaped too vigorously.

Filling complicates baking

Adding a filling makes it a lot harder to properly bake a bread. Generally these breads need to be baked for longer and at a lower temperature. The lower temperature will help prevent the outside from burning before the inside is cooked. Especially high moisture filling make baking tricky. Moisture will have to evaporate to properly cook the dough and make it dry enough.

Several bakers in the British Bake Off have struggled with this, including Jordan in the 2014 series. He made a bread with a cheese cake and jam filling that simply had too much moisture in it.

Lesson learned? Choose a filling that’s not too moist or properly adjust your cooking times when making a filled bread.

Impress your friends or co-workers next time you’ve baked a bread. Is there are a tear? Exclaim you haven’t risen it long enough! It’s collapsed a little, explain you must have undermixed or overproven it. Next time, correct what you did wrong and your bread making skills will improve by the day.

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