I love bread. To me, it is one of the most amazing things in the food universe. Turning four simple ingredients into a golden loaf with a soft and airy crumb is a process that I find exhilarating. And who knew, with just a few tweaks to the formula or by using a bread pan, that you can completely change the bread from a crusty, thick skinned baguette, to an open and airy ciabatta, or a soft and fluffy sandwich bread? And other ingredients can be added, too! Butter? You have brioche! Eggs? You have challah!
Well. Actually both of those breads have eggs and butter, just in different proportions. But, that’s not my point!
So, I really want to make bread. And I really want to blog about it. But bread making can be quite an enduring task for those that don’t know much about it. Even the pizza dough that I did might seem intimidating for some people, whom would rather just purchase the dough to avoid the hassle.
Many years ago, while I was working 10 jobs (ok, it was just 3,) I was employed by small bakery in Salem, Massachusetts called A & J King Artisan Bakers. It was the best baking job I’d ever had, and I learned an incredible amount from my mentors and peers there. They had only been open about a year when I got the job, and I’m happy to say that they’ve grown very much and are doing well. I’m also proud to say that one of the breads they have on their weekly special rotation is one of my formulas, tweaked for their production 😉
So, at the time, I also worked part time for a wine retailer, and on the weekends I would bring the bread that I made at A & J to sell at the store. The regular customers ate it up and loved the fact that the person who recommended wines for their dinner also baked artisan bread. (Or is it artisanal bread? The bread itself is not an artisan. But it was baked by an artisan.) Anyways, some of them approached me to teach a bread baking class.
And so I did. I came up with a bread baking crash course to get people interested in baking bread and confident enough to try it. Fortunately, I saved all the documents and found them recently on an old external hard drive. So now I can share with you!
But we’ll start out small. No need to dive into different types of wheat, different types of flour, bread formulas, and all that. We’ll begin with the twelve steps of baking.
The Twelve Steps of Baking
This is the measuring of all ingredients before mixing. All ingredients should be weighed when possible. This is the most accurate form of measuring in a kitchen. A cup of flour does not equal the same weight as a cup of sugar. A cup of flour on Tuesday may not even weigh the same as a cup of flour on Friday. If you plan on baking a lot at home, it will be necessary to get an accurate scale. This will help ensure a consistent product almost every time.
Mixing is everything! This is where you control 80% of how your final product will turn out! Mixing can be done by hand or with a machine, such as a Kitchenaid style mixer (using a dough hook, of course.) There are two steps in the mixing process. The first step in mixing is incorporation. All ingredients are added into the mixing bowl in a certain order and then the mixing begins. Here’s a rundown:
- Add water
- Add yeast
- Add flour
- Add Salt
- Add remaining ingredients
- Start mixing (on speed one if using a machine)
This seems simple enough, but it’s necessary. The flour acts as a barrier between the yeast and any other ingredients that might have an adverse effect on the yeast, such as salt. Once the ingredients are very well incorporated, then we can start the second step, which is called development. This is where we develop gluten. I know you’ve heard of gluten before, but what is it exactly?
There are many types of protein in wheat flour. There are two in particular that have to do with gluten, called glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin and gliadin, when in the presence of moisture begin to intertwine with each other and start to form a criss-cross elastic network. This is known as gluten development. What gluten development does is provide structure for the dough so that gases from the yeast are trapped. As more gases are trapped, the dough expands and stretches, and creates the wonder we know as bread.
Mixing the dough, either by hand or with a mixer in a higher speed, develops the gluten. When the dough is well developed, in can be stretched so thin without tearing that you can see through it. We call this “pulling a window”.
Now we do the first and primary fermentation. Fermentation is a biological process from the yeast. Yeast eats sugar and break it down into alcohol, carbon dioxide and various acids. The alcohol burns off in the bake, the carbon dioxide gets trapped and makes the dough rise, and the acids add flavor. The longer and slower the fermentation process, the better the flavor.
Punch and Fold
This step is kind of a part of the bulk fermentation step. Once the dough has doubled in size, then we will degas the dough, which redistributes the yeast, and then we fold the dough a few times, which helps to further develop the dough and redistributes the heat that is caused by fermentation. After punching and folding, we continue the bulk fermentation once more.
Now, don’t actually punch your dough. Many amateur bakers will take this literal. It’s a metaphor, really. All that is required is a gentle press while folding the dough, and that will do the job.
To properly fold dough, start with the dough on the counter. Take the top and fold down towards the center. Grab the bottom and pull that towards the center and over the first fold. Next, grab the left side and fold it towards the center as well. Finally, take the right side and fold it over the rest.
After the bulk fermentation and punching has been done, the dough is divided into its proper weight for the final dough shape. Loaves are usually divided into one to two pound loaves. This step is often more appropriate for bread professionals who are producing many loaves, requiring pounds and pounds of dough. For a lot of us at home, we’re only making one loaf of bread, so dividing won’t be necessary.
Once the dough has been divided into pieces, the individual pieces are then rounded into a ball, called a pre-shape. In some cases, the pre-shape will actually be more of an oblong or football shape, as would be the case for making a long baguette. Pre-shaping helps with development and makes it easier to do a final shape.
Handling the dough will toughen it up a little and cause it to be elastic and difficult to work with, so it will be necessary to let the gluten relax and become more extensible again. A small amount of fermentation continues during the bench rest, but not a whole lot. Bench rest usually lasts from twenty minutes, up to an hour depending on the dough type.
Now the dough is shaped into its final shape. Common shapes are boules (rounded) or batardes (football) but there are hundreds of different shapes out there. The final shaping influences what the bread will look like when it is finished, and it helps to create surface tension, which is necessary for a good oven spring.
The final shape(s) need to sit in a warm spot, covered, and rise to their final poofiness. Generally, the dough will double in size. Proofing will take some practice, though. Not proofing enough will cause the dough to burst when it’s being baked. Proofing it too much might cause the dough to not rise enough, as the dough will have stretched too much. In some cases, the bread could fall completely. Flat breads are trendy, though 😉
Bread baking is one of the shortest steps of the process, and often the most rewarding. Or disappointing. There are some things to know before throwing that bread into the oven, however. First of all, your oven is not a commercial one, so don’t expect commercial results. Commercial ovens are designed to keep within a certain temperature range at all times. Not so much with your oven at home. If you set your oven at 400 degrees F, expect temperatures ranging from 375 – 425 degrees F. Bread ovens are also equipped with steam capabilities. Steam helps to create better oven spring and will interact with the starches on the surface of the bread to create a sheen. There are things that can help adapt your oven, however. Invest in a baking stone. Sheet pans work ok, but baking stones are much better, as they help transfer heat evenly to the bread more efficiently when preheated properly. A pizza peel will also come in very handy for getting the bread in and out of the oven. I also recommend a spray bottle full of water. You can spray the sides of the oven a few times during the first five minutes of baking to simulate steam injection.
When getting ready to bake, make sure the oven is hot, especially if you have a baking stone. It will take at least an additional half an hour after the oven has preheated to get the stone nice and hot. The dough will need to be “slashed” to relieve the surface tension of the dough and prevent it from bursting when it completes its final rise in the oven.
Now we cool the bread. Although tempting, a good quality bread should never really be eaten warm. The heat will actually disguise the flavorful nuances of the bread caused by the fermentation. It’s actually the same reason why bad quality bread tastes better when it’s warm. Olive Garden breadsticks, anyone?
So, now you can store it or eat it. Hopefully you’ll eat it, since you worked so hard!
Those are the twelve steps of baking! It can be argued that some of the steps are so similar or close together than they could be combined into one step. Some refer to this procedure as the ten steps of baking. But twelve steps is how I learned it, so I’m sticking with it.
Hopefully, armed with a little bit of this knowledge, bread baking might not seem so intimidating. These steps are the foundation of a good bread baking knowledge, and the best preferments and fancy ingredients won’t mean a thing if you can’t master them!
More basics to come, and then we’ll get into some advanced methods. In due time!