You’ve probably heard that baking bread is a precise and delicate art form. While both statements are true, baking bread does not have to be intimidating. In fact, learning how to bake bread at home is an incredibly fun and rewarding process. The following tips will help you step up your bread baking game, so you can brag to all your friends and family.
Yeast & Bread Starters
Bread requires a specific leavener, yeast, to make it rise. Sometimes bakers even use a pre-fermented mixture called a bread starter which is most commonly seen in artisan bakeries.
Yeast is a type of leavener that is particular to breads, pastries, and pizza dough. Cakes, muffins and cookies use chemical leaveners such as baking soda and baking powder. These produce a chemical reaction which lifts the batter during baking. Yeast is different because it is a living organism. It thrives in moist, warm places and causes dough to rise when it reproduces and multiplies. In this environment, yeast will live long and prosper—at least until it is time for baking. You can find yeast in the baking aisle at the grocery store.
Bread starters are just what they sound like: initial mixtures to help get a new batch of bread started. Usually, starters are specific to certain types of bread such as rye or ciabatta, and consist of water, flour and yeast. The bread starter is added to other ingredients including more flour, sugar, salt and possibly eggs to create the dough.
Mixing the Ingredients
This is a fairly simple part of the process, but this is also the part where following the recipe is essential. How you mix your ingredients can make or break your bread loaf. If you follow these simple tips, you should wind up with some pretty amazing bread. Just don’t eat the whole loaf in one sitting, no matter how tempting it is.
Activate the Yeast
Working with a bread leavener like yeast requires you to activate the yeast, bringing it back from a dormant state. When baking at home, the yeast is soaked in a warm liquid for a few minutes to activate it before the other ingredients are added. The yeast will bubble and foam slightly when it is activated.
Use Measuring Tools
Unlike cooking, in which a dash of this or an extra sprinkle of that can be a good thing, baking requires precision and attention to detail or the whole recipe can be thrown off. In a commercial bakery, bakers use precise baker’s dough scales or digital portion control scales to measure their ingredients as scrupulously as possible. In the home kitchen, use measuring cups and measuring spoons, leveling the ingredients with the top of a butter knife to ensure the right amount.
Add Ingredients Slowly
Once the yeast has activated, you can add the other ingredients to make the dough. Add the sugar first, since that is what the yeast will feed on. Then, add the flour and anything else little by little until a soft and sticky dough is formed.
Water Temperature Matters
Some recipes will tell you that the water should be a certain temperature. Pay special attention to this detail as yeast will die in water that is too hot or cold. As I found out in culinary school, the proper water temperature will mean the difference between a properly risen dough and a dough that will yield a disappointing flat bread. If the recipe calls for a specific water temperature, it helps to have a meat thermometer on hand. If the recipe simply says “lukewarm” water, try testing the water on your wrist first. It should feel warm but not burn.
Kneading the Dough
Once all of your ingredients have been added together, it’s kneading time! Kneading bread dough is essential to producing the right texture in a finished loaf of bread. Although you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook, the following instructions are for hand-kneading and subsequently building some sweet muscles.
- Start with a clean, sturdy work surface such as a wooden table or a kitchen counter top.
- Add a liberal amount flour to the work surface as well as your hands.
- Put the dough on the surface. It should feel a bit sticky.
- Using the heel of your hands, push the dough away from you in smooth forward motions, using your body for extra force.
- Fold the dough over itself, back in toward your body.
- Turn the dough slightly and repeat steps four and five.
Dough is kneaded enough when it becomes smooth, satiny and stretchy. Stretch the dough slightly into a loose rectangular shape. If it holds this shape without breaking, the dough is ready for proofing.
Allowing the Dough to Rise
The rising process, also known as proofing, is an essential part of bread making. Doughs that contain yeast must be given time to rise, otherwise the dough will not form properly, and the bread will fall flat—literally. Remember what I told you about culinary school? Kneading activates the proteins in the dough so that it forms the proper texture. Now, it’s time for the dough to rise.
- Put the dough in a greased bowl with ample room to expand. Dough usually doubles in size when it rises.
- Cover with a light towel or cloth, and set it somewhere warm, usually between 60 and 80º F. You can set it on top of the fridge or in the oven without heat.
- Now you wait. Your recipe should tell you how long the dough needs to rise, but plan on 30 minutes to an hour.
- The dough is finished rising when pressing a finger into the dough creates a dent that does not immediately bounce back.
- If the recipe calls for a second rising, punch the dough down with your fist, knead for a few seconds, and put it in your bread pan or shape it appropriately. Allow to rise once more.
When the dough is nice and risen, it’s time for the oven.
Baking the Bread
As with rising, actually baking the bread takes some time. But trust me, the results will be glorious and the wait will be well worth it.
Put your bread in a pan (your recipe will tell you if the pan should be greased or not), if you haven’t already and pop it into your oven. Different ovens distribute heat differently, but the recipe should be a good guide. Remove the bread when the crust looks golden brown and it has started to pull away from the sides of the bread pan. Giving the crust a few light taps with your hand should produce a hollow sound. Allow the bread to cool a bit, and then remove it from the pan to cool completely on a cooling rack.
Now that you know how to bake bread at home, go forth and enjoy it. Try making a grilled cheese sandwich or mess around with different recipes and make cinnamon raising bread. Whatever you decide to do with your bread, be proud of yourself. Because now you never have to buy bread from the grocery store again!