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How to Bake Bread at Home

How to Bake Bread at Home

Experienced bakers know that baking bread is unlike baking cookies, cakes or other goods. Bread baking requires some specialized ingredients and procedures that require some practice. Typical bread recipes call for flour, yeast, liquid, salt, and possibly oil, butter or eggs. Although bread ingredients are fairly simple, precision is key to a consistently great loaf. The following tips will help amateur bread bakers gain confidence in the kitchen.

In this article you will learn:

 

  • Basics on yeast and bread starters
  • The importance of kneading
  • How to proof bread dough
  • How to bake the bread to perfection

Using Bread Yeast and Bread Starters
Bread requires a specific leavener, yeast, to make it rise. Sometimes, bakers even use a pre-ferment mixture called a bread starter, which is most commonly seen in artisan bakeries.

Pizza dough balls being placed on a sheet panYeast. 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 multiples. In this environment, yeast will live long and prosper—at least until it is time for baking, at which time the high temperatures kill the yeast.

Bread starters. 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 bread ingredients, including more flour, sugar, salt and possibly eggs, to create the dough. >> Learn More

Mixing the Ingredients
This is a fairly simple part of the process, but here, following the recipe is essential. Make sure that your measurements are precise and your temperatures are spot-on. Here are some tips for making sure you create a bread dough bound for success:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Be aware of water temperature. Sometimes, recipes call for a certain temperature of water to be added to the mixture. Yeast will die in water that is too hot or cold, so getting it right is important to the outcome of the dough. 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. It should feel warm but not burn.

Kneading the Dough
Once all components of your bread dough have been added together, it is time to knead it. Kneading bread dough is essential to producing the right texture in a finished loaf of bread. After putting together the ingredients, the dough needs to be pushed around a bit to help develop the gluten and firm up the texture before proofing. Although you can use a kitchen mixer with a dough hook, The following instructions are for hand-kneading the dough:
A baker kneading a ball of dough

  1. Start with a clean, sturdy work surface, such as a wooden baker’s table, or a countertop if you are in a home kitchen. 
  2. Add flour to the work surface as well as your hands.
  3. Put the dough on the surface. It should feel sticky and not unified or smooth.
  4. Using the heel of your hands, push the dough away from you in smooth forward motions, using your body and not just your hands.
  5. Fold the dough over itself, back in toward your body.
  6. Turn the dough slightly and repeat steps four and five.

Dough is kneaded enough when it becomes smooth, satiny and stretchy. Some bakers suggest that it should feel like your earlobe when it is finished. Others advise stretching 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
Giving the dough time to rise, also called proofing the dough, is a crucial element to the bread baking process. Doughs that contain yeast must be given time to rise, otherwise the dough will not form properly, and the bread will fall flat—literally. After kneading, the yeast has been activated in the dough and the proteins have begun to bond, creating that stretchy, cohesive texture. Now, the dough needs to rise.

  1. Put the dough in a bowl or plate with ample room to expand. Dough usually doubles in size when it rises.
  2. Cover with a light towel or cloth, and set it somewhere warm, usually between 60 and 80º F. Some home bakers set it on top of the fridge or in the oven, sans heat.
  3. Wait. Dough takes a while to rise completely. Your recipe should tell you how long, but plan on waiting at least an hour.
  4. The dough is finished rising when pressing a finger into the dough creates a dent that does not immediately bounce back.
  5. 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. Repeat rising procedures. The second rising usually takes less time than the first.

When the dough has risen completely, it is time to put it in the oven for baking

Baking the BreadBaguette loaves cooling on a rack

As with rising, actually baking the bread takes some time. In today’s world of instant baked goods, it may be difficult to train yourself to wait, but the end product will be worthwhile. Put your bread in an ungreased pan, 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.

Baking bread is an artisan trade that has been carried on for centuries. It is also a commercial process that brings sliced loaves to our breadboxes for quick sandwiches and slices of toast. However, baking bread is also a skill that even the most amateur baker can learn. With a few simple ingredients and a dedication to the process, you too can bake bread at home.