Learn the science behind:
There are a lot of steps involved in making bread. Some are optional, some are not (you’ll have to put it in an oven at some point!). Bread making may seem daunting, but once you understand why you have to take the different steps and have the tools to take the steps, it won’t be as daunting any more. Being a food scientist, making a simple diagram of the different steps should help you out here. Whether you want to make just one loaf or a whole shop full, the process remains the same.
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): there are a lot of different flours, if using wheat flour, choose a bread flour or all purpose flour (not cake flour) or a whole wheat flour, there are a lot of choices (bread flour, and browse through to see all the other types!)
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. For more details on the role of ingredients, have a look at our separate post on the topic.
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 (what about using a LoafNest?). And it’s true, good breads can be made without any real kneading, although they do tend to require more time and patience. Kneading helps the formation of a light and airy bread. Its main role here is gluten development, gluten are proteins in flour. Kneading stretches the gluten and connects the various gluten molecules with one another. This creates a gluten network
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.
Kneading by hand
Kneading by hand requires practice and patience. There are several techniques for doing so, repeatedly smashing the dough on the counter, pulling it apart and many more (watch Great British Bake Off bread baking episodes for great examples. However, personally, I’ve never become good enough at this, resulting in dense breads. A good electric mixer really makes your life a lot easier, saving you time and improving your bread (if your kneading skills aren’t up to scratch just yet).
The type of mixer suited for your needs mostly depends on the quantities of bread you make. If you’re a home baker with max. 1-2 breads per baking session, I would recommend a regular Kitchenaid stand mixer (it’s what I have) with the dough hook. I wouldn’t recommend buying the mini version, some bread doughs can be pretty tough to knead for the regular mixer already, I don’t think the mini will make it.
One size larger would be the professional version of the Kitchenaid mixer. It isn’t that much larger, but does also have a bit more power. For even larger sizes, we don’t have any personal experience anymore. A common brand of commercial mixers are Hobart mixers, when visiting the Boudin sourdough bakery in San Francisco we saw they used Kemper kneaders. When considering these sizes and up plugs might not work in regular electricity plugs anymore.
Step 4: First proofing / Bulk fermentation
Once a dough has been made it is ready for its first rise, also called bulk or first fermentation. 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!
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Apart from controlling temperature, humidity also plays an important role at this point. You do not want the dough to dry out. You can prevent this by properly covering the bowl in which the dough is rising. Take care though that the dough doesn’t touch the cover (keeping in mind that it will still grow), to prevent sticking. In most cases you can do this first proofing period in your mixing bowl which protects the dough against drying out on the sides and makes it easy to cover. A great way to cover your bowls is to use a shower cap, it’s waterproof and puff up so the dough will be able to grow without it touching the cap!
Some may use a proofing drawer or an oven that can go to low temperatures. This can help speed up a recipe, but in some cases it can also result in a lower quality bread.
Step 5: Shaping
Once the first fermentation is finished the dough has to be taken from the bowl you’re proven it in and split into the required dough sizes. Using a dough scraper (use the plastic one to take dough from a bowl and use the metal one to cut the dough into pieces) here will make your life a lot easier, I say so from personal experience, it will help to prevent your fingers being all doughy even before you started shaping.
It is now time to shape the bread and this was probably one of the steps that is highly influential of the final look of the bread, but is pretty hard to get right without some proper practice. 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. This will give the bread another chance to rise again since the yeast is fed again with sugars in the dough. Also, it prevents too large bubbles from forming.
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 giving just one way to shape your bread, there are a lot of different techniques that can be used.
Apart from your hands, flour and a working surface shaping a dough doesn’t require a lot of other tools. Larger scale production units will have equipment that shapes the bread using a smart system of rollers and folders, we’ve seen some of these at the Boudin Bakery in San Francisco.
Step 6: Rising no. 2 / Second fermentation
Now the bread is ready to rise again, however, since it has been shaped quite carefully, it is important that it is risen in such a way that it can rise and be moved without ruining the shape. You don’t want bread sticking to anything that won’t enter the oven with the bread.
The simplest way to rise the bread is on the baking tray you’ll be using to bake it on. However, not all bread will keep their shape on the tray. Another option is to proof the bread in the baking pan, but this does tend to increase the risk of the dough sticking to the pan after baking, nor does it allow you to pre-heat to the baking tray. This is why a lot of bakers use bread baskets which have been floured quite heavily to proof the dough. The flouring prevents the dough from sticking, allowing you to transfer it once it’s been proven for long enough.
Again, take care to cover up the dough during proofing so it won’t dry out and become less flexible.
If you’re making more complex breads (think baguettes), you might need more advanced ways of proving the dough. Baguette dough is shaped into a baguette, but it won’t be firm enough to hold its shape. It is very prone to relaxing back down, instead of rising up. This is why baguette dough will support each other, to keep their shape. You can do this using a regular heavily floured tea towel. However, there are also various tools available to make your life easier (e.g. a couche for the baguettes).
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!
You can do scoring with anything sharp, but not always to regular little knives give the look you’re looking for. That’s why there exist special scoring knives for doing this.
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.
It does matter on or in what you bake the bread. A baking pan helps a softer, more flexible dough to hold its shape during baking. We use both cast iron baking pans as well as simpler aluminium baking pans. Both work well for baking bread.
If you’re baking bread on a tray, whether it’s one or a few breads, you might want to use a silicone mat to bake the breads on (work great on this baking sheet). This makes cleaning so much easier.
Last but not least, you can also bake on a baking stone. This should give you a crispier crust. Personally, I haven’t used the method often. Instead of a separate baking stone, a conventional cast iron plate will also work!
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!
Study & improve
Once you’ve made your first breads, keep on improving the process. Here we advise a few books that can help you get even better in baking bread.
- Brilliant Bread: a bread baking book for the beginning/intermediate home baker
- Modernist bread: If you’re really passionate about bread, this would be a great bread for you. The authors have virtually tested just about everything for making bread. They’ve also made a podcast which might be a more budget friendly matter of getting acquainted with them.
- Professional bread making: For the professional bread maker, looking for some more background