Bread contains two main ingredients: flour and liquid, usually with the addition of a leavening agent and salt. Enriched dough also contains sugar, butter and/or eggs for a softer, more tender crumb and richer taste. In addition, there are countless add-ins that can be used to create texture and flavor (fruit, nuts, cheese, herbs, spices, etc).
Flour contains gluten, a group of proteins that turn into cross-linked strands when kneaded to form the structure that keeps air trapped inside the dough. The stronger this structure is, the more the dough can rise without collapsing, which in turn depends on the protein content of the flour and the amount of kneading done.
- Strong, so called bread flour contains 12-13% protein and is best for lofty breads with a chewy texture. All-purpose flour contains only 10-11% protein, which is great for cakes and other baked goods that require a fine, tender crumb.
- Wheat flour contains significantly more gluten than other flours, so when using other types of grain the bread will be more compact. For the dough to rise at all, at least a portion of the flour should still contain wheat.
Liquids most commonly used are water and/or milk. Milk makes the bread sweeter and darker than water, since lactose is not consumed by the yeast.
Leavening agents expand the bread by incorporating or generating gases. They include air, steam, eggs, baking soda, baker’s ammonia, baking powder, sourdough and yeast.
- Air is commonly added to batters by beating eggs or butter with sugar, by folding in whipped egg whites or cream, or by sifting the flour.
- Steam is generated when water droplets inside the dough boils, which is the primary leavening agent in pastry.
- Egg is not only a leavening agent, but adds flavor, color and a softer texture and crust.
- Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and baker’s ammonia (ammonium bicarbonate) react with water to produce carbon dioxide. The reaction requires acid in the form of honey, molasses, buttermilk, cocoa, etc and needs quick handling since the reaction starts right away.
- Baker’s ammonia is rarely used due to the smell but results in crisper cookies and crackers compared to baking soda.
- Baking powder is baking soda with acid already mixed in, as well as delaying agents that allows for a second reaction when heated (double acting).
- Sourdough and yeast contain living cells that consume sugar and generate carbon dioxide. They also create other substances that give flavor and aroma to the bread. The slow release of gases requires a strong matrix, which is why they are primarily used in dough containing gluten. Fresh yeast is very active but has a short shelf life. Instant yeast is just as potent but keeps for a long time and can be added directly to the dry ingredients. Dry yeast looks similar but needs to be activated in liquid first (until you can see bubbles forming).
Sugar, including honey, syrup and molasses, makes the bread sweeter, darker and keeps it moist for longer. Too much sugar can inhibit gluten formation.
Fat, like butter and oil, adds flavor and tenderness but also suppresses gluten formation.
Tangzhong is an Asian method to add extra gluten for really fluffy and moist breads. A roux/flour paste is made by mixing a few tablespoons of flour in part of the liquid, which is then carefully heated to the point of thickening and used to enrich the dough.
When using yeast it is important to keep the concentration of salt and sugar below viable levels. This can be done by mixing the yeast with flour first, then adding the rest of the ingredients. Fresh yeast is always dissolved in the liquid.
Flours absorb liquid differently, so it is a good idea to leave part of it out and add only as much as needed. Cake batter and cookie dough should not be stirred too much after the addition of flour, since gluten formation makes them rubbery. To extract more flavor from the flour and initiate some gluten formation, you can let it swell in the liquid for a while before adding the remaining ingredients. This works not only for bread dough but for pancake batter as well.
The ideal temperature for yeast to grow is slightly warmer than room temperature. To achieve this use lukewarm liquid when you mix your dough, similar to hot bath water. Using cold liquid makes the dough rise slower, allowing more time for flavors to develop. Unless you are in a hurry, bread should always rise slowly to maximize taste.
Softened butter or oil is usually added last after some kneading, since it can suppress gluten formation. However, some recipes call for melted butter mixed in with the liquid.
Add-ins like fruit, nuts and cheese are often added during shaping, since they can weight down the dough and interfere with rising.
Sourdough is perhaps the most well known, but there are other ways to help the yeast get started.
- A sponge or starter is a loose dough, often made by mixing liquid, yeast and half of the flour, that has rested/risen for anything between 20 minutes to overnight before being mixed with the other ingredients.
- A poolish is a batter made from half the yeast, half the liquid and a third of the flour that is left to rise for at least 4 hours to overnight to give extra flavor to the dough.
Kneading the dough generates gluten so that the dough can rise. Stretching and folding makes the gluten strands longer and stronger. The more you knead, the more elastic the dough will become and the more it can rise before collapsing. Anything between 5 and 30 minutes is normal, depending on the recipe.
A slow rise is better than a fast, so room temperature is usually fine, but using a proving drawer or the yogurt setting on the instant pot will speed it up significantly. For a slow rise that generates lots of flavor, refrigeration overnight is another option.
To prevent the dough from sticking to the sides of the container and make it easier for it to grow, grease the bowl with some oil before placing the dough inside or cover the dough with a light dusting of flour. To prevent drying, a plastic bag, wrap or lid should be used as a cover.
In order to create even more gluten and redistribute nutrients and temperature within the dough, you can fold it during the rise. This is done by carefully stretching the dough over itself, once from each side, or you can simply knock it back and let it rise again.
Sometimes very large air pockets are formed during rising that may collapse during
proving and baking. To remove them, the dough is “punched” or pushed down against a
surface. Usually, the dough is adequately knocked back during shaping, but to ensure a small, tight crumb like that in sandwich bread, flatten it out completely before shaping.
Shaping the dough takes practice but a soft and elastic dough is easy to work with. Adding flour at this stage should not be necessary (unless the recipe asks for it).
- To get a nice smooth surface on loaves, stretch the dough by pulling it under itself or flatten the dough and then roll it up tightly and evenly.
- Nice round buns are formed by rolling them inside a cupped hand against a flat, dry surface dusted lightly with flour.
All yeast breads can be frozen after shaping and stored in freezer bags for baking later. Just let them thaw in room temperature and they will begin to prove.
The final rise before baking after the dough has been shaped is called proving. To prevent drying the dough should be covered with plastic, or be kept in a draft free space while being sprayed regularly with water (like inside a cold oven). This is especially important in arid climates, because if a skin forms on the surface the dough will not rise properly.
To determine if the dough is ready to be baked, press carefully with a finger. If it springs back without leaving a mark, it is not ready. If it springs back slowly and leaves a little mark, it is time to bake. If it does not spring back at all, it is over-proved and needs to be knocked back, re-shaped and proved again.
Baking with steam helps the dough to rise and prevents the crust from tearing. It is easily created by spraying or tossing some water into the hot oven, or by placing a pan with hot water on the bottom.
- To get a crisper crust, air out the steam toward the end of the bake by opening the oven door a few times. Spraying water on the bread while still hot out of the oven will make the crust crackle (as seen on French bread)
- Fat in the dough makes the bread softer, including the crust. Olive oil or melted butter can be brushed on before and/or after baking for extra flavor and an even softer crust.
- Egg also makes the bread softer, more golden in color and brown more easily in the oven. An egg-wash before baking creates a golden, shiny crust. Just be careful not to “glue” the dough to the sides of the pan and thus prevent it from rising.
- Milk with or without a little dissolved sugar leaves a soft, sweet crust.
- Syrup or honey mixed with a little water and brushed on while the bread is still hot out of the oven leaves a sweet, sticky crust.
Slashing the dough with a lame, razor blade or sharp knife allows it to expand during
baking. It also controls the direction in which it expands and can be very decorative. The scoring looks even better if the surface is dusted with flour before slicing (especially white rice flour that does not brown in the oven).
Almost all yeast and sourdough breads benefit from scoring but some are more closely identified by the look. Round, rustic loaves (boules/cobs) are often artistically decorated on top, french bread and baguettes have their distinct diagonal slashes and dinner rolls look absolutely adorable with a simple cross on top.
Avoid opening the oven door while the bread is baking. This is especially important for batter cakes, since they will collapse if the temperature suddenly changes.
For extra oven spring, start at a slightly higher temperature and then lower it after the bread has been placed in the oven. Using a baking stone improves rise and reduces baking time.
To check cakes and sponges, use a cake tester or toothpick. If it comes out dry the cake is done, if not let it bake a few minutes more.
To check if bread is cooked, take it out and tap it on the bottom. It should sound hollow, if not leave it in for another five minutes and check again. If you use a thermometer, the center should be 190-200°F (90-100°C). If the bread begins to look too dark, place an aluminum foil on top.
Remember that the baking and evaporation continues during cooling, so let the bread rest after coming out of the oven. Wait until it has cooled down a bit before eating or slicing it (difficult, I know!).