Learn the science behind:
Bread making can be as simple as just mixing some ingredients, waiting and baking, to a complex multi-step process. Depending on what style of bread you’re after, you might choose for one over the other.
But for a beginning bread baker all these variations may seem daunting and complicated. Luckily, there are a few key steps that keep on coming back in a wide range of recipes. Keep in mind that you don’t have to follow all of them, or might want to extra some extra steps. But once you know which steps to take and what purpose they serve, tweaking your process becomes a breeze.
- Step 0: The Ingredients
- Step 1: Pre-fermenting
- Step 2: Mixing & kneading dough
- Step 3: First proof / Bulk fermentation
- Step 4: Shaping
- Step 6: Final proof
- Step 7: Scoring
- Step 8: Baking
- Step 9: Cooling & Eating
- Step 10: Practise & improve
Step 0: The Ingredients
Before you start actually making bread, you need to choose the ingredients you’ll be working with. These ingredients will impact your process, but also the final texture, flavor, and appearance of your bread. You can make a bread with as little as two ingredients, but most use at least four: flour, water, yeast and salt. A bread made with these ingredients is often referred to as a lean bread. For a little more complexity and a new range of textures and flavors, you can create an enriched bread by adding fat, eggs, milk and sugar. Once you’ve chosen your ingredients, it’s time to get to work.
Step 1: Pre-fermenting
This first step is optional. A pre-ferment is a mixture of part of the flour, water, and yeast from the bread that is left to rest and ferment before incorporating it into the rest of the dough. A sourdough starter (or levains), sponge and poolish are all examples of a pre-ferment. Pre-fermenting part of the ingredients has a few advantages:
- Flavor formation: if yeast is given time to ferment, it develops a lot of flavors, resulting in a more well-rounded loaf of bread
- Hydration of the flour: this is especially helpful if making a bread with a lot of whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour contains the bran of a wheat kernel. This takes longer to hydrate and absorb moisture than the rest of the flour. By pre-fermenting, it now has time to do so.
- Flexibility in time: most pre-ferments don’t require very precise timing. An hour more or less often doesn’t do much harm. As such, you can get this going in advance, without necessarily impacting the rest of your process and timing.
Step 2: Mixing & kneading dough
Next it’s time to mix the ingredients to actually start forming a bread. It is generally easiest to mix the dry ingredients first. This ensures minor ingredients such as salt and yeast are mixed in homogeneously. Next, it’s time to add the wet ingredients. Once moisture has been added, the actual bread-making starts. A dough starts to form, yeast is activated and ingredients start to interact.
Once the main ingredients are in, it is time to start kneading. Kneading is nothing more than continued intensive mixing. During kneading the ingredients are mixed, but, more importantly, the proteins are activated and will start forming a gluten network. By the end of the kneading process you should be able to take a piece of dough, gently pull on the sides and form a very thin, stretchy piece of dough. This indicates that a good gluten network has been formed. It is appropriately called the window-pane test, since you should be able to look through that thin piece of dough.
Kneading also introduces air into the dough which helps create a light and airy bread. Even though yeast will produce gas bubbles during proofing, generally speaking, most air bubbles are formed during kneading and they merely expand later in the process.
Kneading by hand vs mixer
Kneading by hand requires practice and patience. But once you have both, there are countless ways to properly knead a dough by hand. There are several techniques for doing so: repeatedly smashing the dough on the counter, pulling it apart and folding it over, continuously folding the dough over and over, etc. It requires skill to develop the gluten sufficiently and ensure enough air bubbles have been trapped within.
For the less experienced kneader, or if you need to knead a lot of dough, an electric mixer is a great solution. A small or large mixer with dough hook will do the job for you. The dough hook helps pull the dough along, folding and unfolding it upon itself, stretching the dough as it goes to make a smooth consistent dough.
Is kneading necessary?
Yes, and no. It depends. Kneading and time go hand in hand. During kneading you’re forming gluten networks. Given enough time and water, these gluten networks can also be formed without extensive kneading. However, in that case you need to give the dough time, often at least 24 hours for the structures to form. It’s a method we used when making bread in a LoafNest.
Tips for mixing & kneading
During this step there are a few key considerations to keep in mind:
- Yeast is very temperature sensitive. It can get killed if you add very hot ingredients – don’t let the yeast get above 40°C (104°F). But it can also slow down considerably when adding (very) cold ingredients.
- Fats interfere with the formation of a gluten network. This gluten network is crucial for many breads t to be able to expand and rise well. As such, it is often best to add the fat after the other ingredients have been mixed together into a dough.
- Inclusions: if you’re planning on adding pieces of other ingredients such as nuts, cheese, meat, or dried fruits you can do so at the end of the kneading phase. Don’t do it any sooner or you’ll interfere too much with the gluten formation and you’ll run the risk of breaking up your inclusions! Some bread styles will only add the inclusions after the first proof which is also possible.
- Over kneading: it is quite easy to see when a dough has not yet been kneaded enough. It might not yet be smooth and not pass the ‘window-pane’ tets yet. However, keep in mind that you can also over-knead a dough. Longer isn’t always better, when it’s done, it’s done.
- Take some extra time: some recipes may call for quickly mixing the main ingredients (flour, water, yeast) and then resting it for 15-30 minutes before properly kneading it. During this resting time, flour gets a chance to hydrate. After this resting period the dough will be more flexible, making it easier to knead into a good dough.
Step 3: First proof / Bulk fermentation
Once a dough has been made it needs to rest. Doughs without yeast just need some time to relax the gluten network before they’re processed further. However, yeasted breads need more time because the yeast needs to get to work!
Yeast ferments sugars, either from the flour or from sugars that have been added directly. During fermentation, yeast converts these sugars into carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas. This gas is responsible for the increase in volume of dough during this phase. The extra gas pushes the dough up, supported by the gluten network that was developed during kneading. But that’s not all. During fermentation, a wide range of flavor molecules can be formed, if the yeast is given enough time. This can add an extra layer of depth to the flavor profile of your bread.
Keeping yeast happy by controlling temperature
Yeast are living organisms. As such, just like humans, they thrive under certain conditions and are less happy under others. For one, yeast have an optimal growth temperature. That is the temperature they grow and ferment fastest. They don’t grow (or very slowly) at temperatures (well) below or above this ideal temperature. If the temperature is too high they may even be killed.
Varying temperatures in your kitchen of bakery can drastically affect proofing times. For optimal control, you can use a proofing cupboard/drawer during proofing which is what professional bakeries will do. It makes the process more predictable, but it is not a requirement.
Some recipes will tell you to store the dough in the fridge for a long proofing time. In the fridge yeast will still be active, but way more slowly than at room temperature. As a result, it takes a lot longer for the dough to proof. But, this gives the dough time to properly hydrate, and it gives yeast and other microorganisms the chance to form a wide range of flavor molecules!
Controlling humidity to prevent dry dough
Proofing can take a while and you do not want the dough to dry out. You can prevent this by properly covering the bowl in which the dough is rising, without the dough touching that cover. At home, a great way to cover your bowl is by using a shower cap, it’s waterproof and reusable many times!
Tips for proofing
- Re-use a bowl: you can proof the dough in the same bowl that you kneaded it in. There is no need to transfer it to a different container!
- Oil the dough: to make it easier to take the dough out of the bowl after proofing, you can coat the dough with a thin layer of oil, this prevents sticking to the sides.
- Poke it: when a dough is ready depends on the type you’re making. Some significantly incresae in volume, others not so much. Follow the instructions for your bread style. If there are none, a good test is to gently poke the dough. If it bounces back it’s likely ready to go.
Step 4: Shaping
Depending on the bread you’re making you may use the whole piece of dough for one loaf of bread, or you may need to portion it into several smaller pieces. If doing the later, cut it in such a way that the dough already resembles the final shape where posisble. So cut squares for a round douh and rectangles for an elongated long dough. Use a dough scraper to remove and cut the dough, or wet/oil your hands to help ensure the dough doesn’t stick to everything.
Punch it down
Next, you’ll generally want to punch down the dough lightly. That is, you push out some of the air again. The reason for doing so is that you’re giving the yeast extra food to go at it another round. It also prevents some very large bubbles from forming. But, be gentle here, you don’t want to push out all the air or your bread won’t be as light as you’d be hoping for.
It is now time to shape the bread. Shaping adds to the visual appeal of a bread, making a baguette a baguette and a braided challah in to a braid. But is also has a more technical function. During shaping you’re adding tension to the dough by folding or tucking it into oneself. This tension helps create a better loaf. The gluten strands tighten up which helps the whole piece of dough to rise evenly. Unshaped, some parts might puff up more than others, resulting in uneven loads.
There are countless ways to do it (here are 10 ways to do so for plain breads, and here are more ways to do so for bread with a filling). Shaping is a skill that takes time to fully master. It may seem less important than some others, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll see the quality of the bread improve.
Step 6: Final proof
Before the bread can be baked, it needs to rest and proof again. The yeast sets to work to re-expand the gas bubbles that were partially pushed down during shaping.
Since you’ve shaped the bread already, it’s important not to break up the shape again during this final proof. A lot of special tools exist, especially for special breads, but you can proof most breads with simple tools. There are a few options to do so.
- Proof on baking sheet: if the bread will hold its own shape, proof it on a baking sheet, can be the one you’ll be using to bake it on. Do cover the tray + bread to prevent it from drying out, either with a towel or a large (garbage) bag.
- Baskets, or bannetons: these baskets will help a dough keep its shape during proofing. An added benefit is that they let the outside of the dough dry out ever so slightly. This makes it easier to score the bread later on.
- In the pan: for breads baked in a pan, proofing can be down within that pan. It helps the dough keep its shape.
- A couche: some breads, such as a baguette might need something more custom. These are often proven on towels/linen folded in such a way that they support each other, without the dough of two separate baguettes touching.
Step 7: Scoring
Just like shaping, this step is easily overlooked. And, just like shaping, scoring can both make a loaf look better, and improve its overall structure. During scoring you make slight cuts on the top of the dough, just before baking. You’re essentially cutting through the gluten strands. This makes it easier for the dough to continue expanding and opening up in the oven. If you don’t score these breads, they might ‘explode’ at their weakest spots, which simply doesn’t look as nice as a scored expansion. But you can also use it merely to add a pattern on top. Again, practice makes perfect here.
Not every bread needs scoring to expand properly. Doughs with a lot of fat, or very wet doughs, may not need it.
Step 8: Baking
Last, but not least, it’s time to bake that bread. This is where that soft, flexible dough transform in a firm set loaf of bread. Bread is baked by placing it in a hot oven. The heat cooks the starches and proteins, and sets the bread. There are a lot of different types of ovens that each work slightly differently both a lot can be used to make perfectly fine bread.
Oven spring, yeast’s last growth spurt
During baking a lot of things happen. First of all, the yeast gets one last growth spike. Just before it dies because of heat it will do one last burst of gas production thanks to the nice warm temperature. This causes the loaf to expand. The loaf also expands because existing gas bubbles within the dough start to expand. Hot gas takes up more volume than cold gas, as explained by the ideal gas law. Additionally, even more gas is formed because water starts to evaporate, again pushing the loaf up.
Many professional ovens inject steam during the beginning of the baking process. This helps create a nice crust and seems to help with the oven spring. At home, you can simulate this effect by adding a pan with hot boiling water in the oven for the first several minutes. Alternatively, you can bake bread in a pan with a lid. The pan serves as a tiny oven and traps the moisture that evaporates, creating a nice and moist environment for the bread. It’s a greaet way to replicate steam ovens and helps incresae that oven spring further. After the first 10-20 minutes simply lift off the lid to let he steam escape and let the bread turn brown anddry.
A crust forms and browns
The bread can only expand as long as the outside is still flexible. But, once in the oven, the outside will start to dry out, moisture evaporates. Combined with the cooking of the starches and proteins, the outside of the bread becomes firmer and a crust starts to form. Just how much of a crust is formed depends on the type of bread and the oven conditions. Higher heats give thinner and softer crusts whereas lower heats give thicker crusts since moisture has more time to evaporate.
Once the crust is dry and hot enough, it will also start to turn brown due to the Maillard reaction. It is important to set the oven temperautre such that the outside doesn’t turn too brown, or even black, before the inside has had a chance to cook. Breads with a high sugar content are especially prone to burning and turn often bakeed at a lower temperature.
Step 9: Cooling & Eating
Once your bread leaves the oven, there’s just one step left before you get to eat it: cooling down. During cooling bread still loses a lot of moisture. It is important that this moisture can dissipate and isn’t trapped somewhere along the bread’s crust or it woul become soggy. So take breads out of the pan (unless you want a soft bread) and cool them on a rack for best result.
A cooled down bread starts to turn old almost immediately, so most, but not all, breads are best eaten fresh. Want to store your bread for some time? In almost all cases doing so in the freezer is the best choice.
Step 10: Practise & improve
You won’t learn how to bake bread by just reading books. The best way is to just get started and start making some. Start simple and make things more complex as you go. Once you’re ready to dig in more, and when you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of all the steps that (can) go into making bread, you might want to read Modernist Bread, Volume 3: Techniques and Equipment. It’s an expensive series, so check it out at your local library first. It does contain a lot of information and especially a lot of beautiful visuals to explain what’s going on.
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