Learn the science behind:
With just four simple ingredients, flour, water, yeast and salt, you can make bread. And not just a bread. There are literally countless ways in which to bring these four ingredients together to make a slightly different bread every time. From a fancy baguette to a basic loaf and so much more.
Breads made with just these four ingredients are often referred to as lean breads, and are eaten all over the world. Since there are so few ingredients, the role of each is crucial. Flour provides the basic structure, water brings it all together, yeast adds the much desired fluffiness and salt adds flavor and texture. Understanding the role of each ingredient opens up a wide world of possibilities.
- Flour – provides structure
- Water – gives flour space
- Yeast – crucial for fluffiness
- Salt – flavor, structure & inhibition
- Perfection nor failure is easy
Flour – provides structure
Flour is the core of any bread. It provides the structure and mass required to make a product. Even though you can make bread from a wide range of flours, the most commonly used flour is flour made from wheat. But rye, buckwheat, teff, corn, and many more other sources can be used for making bread. Aside from its widespread availability, wheat flour does have a few special properties that sets it apart from the rest, which is why we’ll focus on it here.
Types of wheat flour
Even within the world of wheat flours there’s a wide range to choose from. Depending on the type of wheat the flour is made from and how it’s been processed, it will behave slightly different. For instance, many yeast breads require using a flour with a high amount of protein, aka gluten. Different wheat varieties contain different amounts of this protein, making only certain varieties suitable for baking these styles of bread. Flours with a high protein content may in some parts of the world be appropriately called bread flour!
Wheat needs to be milled before it can be used in bread. During milling, parts of the wheat kernel may be sifted out. Depending on how much of the kernel is sifted out, the flour behaves differently. If none is sifted out, you’ll have whole wheat flour, making a denser style of bread. When more significant parts of sifted out you’ll end up with white flour varieties. These can be made into lighter fluffier breads.
Starch provide mass and structure,
Within any type of wheat flour, the majority of it is made up of starch. Starch is a large carbohydrate. Starch easily absorbs water and thus helps a dough to be formed. During baking, starch gelatinizes, causing bread to ‘cook’. The wet, flexible dough turns into a dry, sturdy bread. Without starch, there would be no proper bread, but, it does also have a downside. Starch is responsible for bread turning stale over time.
is an energy source
In order for yeast to proof a bread, it needs to eat. More specifically, it needs small carbohydrates. It can’t feast on just starch alone. Flour will already contain some of these smaller carbohydrates naturally, but some are also formed while a dough is resting. Enzymes in the flour help break down starch into some food for yeast.
and provides color
Breads turn brown in the oven. How much so depends strongly on their composition, but flour in general plays a crucial role. The browning process is due to a process called the Maillard reaction, a reaction between sugars and proteins. The sugars from the starch are crucial for forming these dark brown colors on a well baked baked.
Gluten form a network
The second major fraction in wheat flour is made up of proteins. These proteins, mostly a mix of glutenins and gliadins have the special ability to form a gluten network once mixed and kneaded with water. During kneading, the proteins align themselves and form complex 3D networks by connecting to one another. This network is crucial for making an aerated dough since it allows the dough to expand and trap gas bubbles that are formed within the dough. As a result, the bread increases in volume.
During baking, the gluten network will initially still be flexible. As a result, it will expand in the oven. However, once it gets too hot, the proteins will start to denature. This is an irreversible process in which they change shape and set. Compare this to cooking an egg which transforms from a liquid into a solid thanks to its proteins.
The functionality of gluten is a major reason for wheat flours popularity for making bread. Flour varieties that do not contain these proteins cannot be made into light and fluffy breads as easily.
Water – gives flour space
The second most important ingredient is water. Without it, all you’d have is a pile of powders. Water brings it all together and activates a lot of the ingredients. Yeast can’t grow without water, but also gluten and starch can’t do their thing without water. Water provides them with space to move. Gluten and starch both absorb water and in doing so can realign themselves and form those necessary networks.
Dough flexibility is governed by water
Water has a big impact on the overall structure of the dough. Too much, and the dough will be sticky and collapse. Too little, and the dough will be very stiff and will have trouble expanding. The ideal flour to water ratio depends heavily on the type of bread you’re trying to make. A bread with large holes and a light structure requires more water than a denser style bread.
Yeast – crucial for fluffiness
You can make bread without yeast. But, that bread will most likely remain quite flat. These flatbreads – pita and chapati are both great examples – are still very popular and delicious, but are fundamentally different in structure. To make a light and fluffy bread, yeast is crucial. Yeast produces gas bubbles which are trapped within the dough. They can cause a dough to expand and rise and make for a light instead of dense crumb.
Yeast is a living microorganism
Yeast are tiny microorganisms, made up of just one single cell. There are a lot of different types of yeast in the world, but for making bread specifically we use a variety called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It feels at home in bread doughs and can use the carbohydrates present in flour as fuel to grow and thrive. In bread dough, yeast ferments available sugars and produces carbon dioxide (CO2) as well as a wide range of other (flavor) molecules. As such, yeast adds more than just air, it can also play a crucial role in flavor development.
Keep in mind that yeast is alive and should be kept alive to do its job. But yeast have their preferences for ideal conditions to thrive in. It shouldn’t be too hot, nor too cold or they’ll slow down or even die. It’s why your bread can turn out quite different on a hot summer day vs. a cold winter night. Also, they don’t like too much salt, nor too much sugar.
There are different types of yeast to choose from, such as instant yeast or active dry yeast. For a home baker, for most simple breads, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
Salt – flavor, structure & inhibition
Finally, salt is added to a lot of bread recipes. The addition of salt isn’t essential, but it does have a big impact on bread quality. First of all, salt is crucial for flavor. Bread made without any salt will taste very bland to those who are used to eating bread with salt. Salt doesn’t necessarily make bread salty though. Instead, it lifts all the flavors in the bread, making for a more well-rounded flavor profile.
Salt also has a few functional properties that do not relate to taste. For instance, it can slow down the hydration of flour. That is, adding salt will slow down the absorption of water into the flour, especially the proteins. It is why some recipes do not add salt immediately. Salt also slows down yeast fermentation. Adding more salt, will result in longer proofing times, but the reverse is often true as well. Keep that in mind when adjusting the salt content of your bread recipe.
Perfection nor failure is easy
Of course, the ingredients make up just half the bread. How you put them together is just as important, which we discuss in a separate article.
It is hard to truly mess up a simple lean bread. True, it might not be perfect, or super delicious, but a lot of ‘failures’ are still perfectly edible (and if all else fails, maybe French toast can be your savior?). That said, achieving perfection isn’t easy either. So, as long as you aim for somewhere in between those two extremes, you’ll be good to go.
There’s more complexity to add!
Even though there are countless types of lean breads to make, at some point, you may want to add some variety. Again, the options are endless. From enriched doughs with added eggs, fat and dairy, to breads relying on sourdough starters for extra flavor (though many sourdough breads can still be made with just 4 ingredients!).