make good bread

January 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

On first glance, it might seemed like every bread recipe is different from every other. And yes, bread comes in an infinite variety of flavors, textures and shapes. On the one hand, bread seems so simple–just flour, water, salt and yeast. And yet, making a good loaf of bread can seem so out of reach, even for bakers who turn out cookies by the dozen and fearlessly sculpt three-layered cakes. Of course, the big difference is that bread is ALIVE!

I’m speaking of either yeasted or naturally (sourdough) leavened breads. The entire character of the bread depends on the action of the invisible creatures which foam your first yeast and water mixtures. No wonder bread making can be so frustrating and rewarding (at different times of course). Hmmm… sounds like children!

STEP 1 Measure and mix – accurately measure and combine ingredients to form a loose or shaggy dough (the flat beater works faster than the dough hook here, if you don’t mind cleaning another tool); an experienced baker can tell if the wet and dry ingredients are in balance and adjust if she needs to; otherwise follow the recipe and keep notes for the next time you make this same recipe (and you should repeat recipes!); you can cover and allow the dough to rest up to a half hour if you like at this point

“Loose” or “shaggy” dough mixed in less than a minute with the flat beater

STEP 2 Knead the dough by hand or machine – this evenly mixes all of the ingredients and develops the chewy texture (gluten) of the bread; watch the entire kneading process, and you will see the body of dough continuously change; it’s more important to watch for the changes in gluten development, than to knead for an exact amount of time; look for a smooth, but stretchy appearance of the dough; notice how some dough sticks to the bottom of the bowl in the last picture frame, important for a bread that isn’t too dry!

Switched to the dough hook, ready to knead

1-2 minutes of kneading

3-4 minutes of kneading and already done! Notice the small amount of dough that remains on the bottom of the mixer bowl

STEP 3 Let the dough rise or ferment – this first rise is also called a bulk rise, since you let the dough rise in one mass until it about doubles in size; usually room temperature or just slightly warmer works fine, but you can slow the rising by chilling; don’t place your dough in too warm of a location–it’ll be quick but you’ll compromise flavor and texture; sometimes you’ll turn or fold the dough on itself (“punch down”) to allow another rise; you’ll know the dough has finished its rise when a light poke of your finger leaves an imprint, but doesn’t deflate the risen dough

Beginning of bulk rise (smooth side up, rougher edges down in bowl)

End of bulk rise (dough still “face up”)

STEP 4 Dividing and shaping – if you’re making more than one loaf or making rolls, you’ll divide the dough into even pieces (by eye, or by weight, but don’t fuss too much about it); you may pre-shape and rest the pieces, or roll them into their final shapes.

Dough “face down” on lightly floured board

Divided in half; starting to shape

STEP 5 Proofing – refers to the rising of the shaped loaves (as opposed to the bulk rise); usually the loaves will not quite double in size, and a light finger poke on the surface will fill in slightly.

Shaped and ready to proof in buttered pans

Ready to bake (see my fingerprint in the bottom corner?)

STEP 6 Scoring or slashing the loaves – this allows the bread to fully expand in the oven (oven rise), otherwise you might end up with a loaf that is dense, or that tears itself open when it expands; if your kitchen knives are a little dull (and who’s aren’t?), keep some single-edged razor blades on hand

One dusted with flour, both scored

STEP 7 Baking – Unless the recipe calls for a fair amount of sweetener and/or fat, most breads bake best in a hot steamy oven (375°F for pan breads, 500°F for hearth-baked loaves); introducing steam into a home oven can be tricky and even dangerous; On page 126 of BWJ, this is suggested:

“You are going to have to make steam in the oven and you can do this in one of two ways. You can either throw water directly onto the floor of the oven–often a risky business if you have a gas oven– or on the heating element of an electric oven. Preheat the oven (with the skillet in place, if using it). Humidify the oven by carefully tossing 1/2 cup water onto the oven floor or into the preheated skillet.”

Or, on page 130:

“Preheat the oven. Pour some water into a spray bottle and set aside. Spray the oven walls with water and immediately close the oven door to trap the steam. Slide the bread onto the hot baking stone, and immediately spray the oven walls again; close the door as quickly as you can.”

I’ve taught bread baking to home cooks for a few years now, and it’s very difficult to mimic the steaming action of a commercial oven; plus when many loaves are baked together, they release their own steam in the baking process as well! If you use an approach similar to one of the above, just be very careful to avoid steam burns to your face, hands and arms. It is also easy to spill water on a glass door, accidentally spray the light bulb, or eventually break the electric heating element or warp the oven floor. I doubt your warranty covers these activities! I mention how I steam my home oven in the previous post “My Home Bakery”, which I think offers less risk and sufficient oven rise drama.

Just out of the oven, still in the pan

Out of the pans, cooling on the rack        Notice the contrast of the flour dusting

Be sure the bottom is browned too!

STEP 8 Cooling – An often overlooked step, cooling allows the interior crumb of the bread to finish cooking, crusts to set and flavors to deepen. But I won’t tell!

STEP 9 Storing – Breads are best eaten just when they cool to room temperature. A simple yeasted bread will keep for a day on the bread board (keep the cut side down on the board). A sourdough loaf will keep for a couple or few days in plastic (but the crust will soften). Breads that are sweet, rich (buttery) or are moist to begin with will last longer than those that are not. If you can’t eat the whole loaf in this time frame, cut it into manageable portions and freeze. Refrigerating bread does slow molding, but drives the moisture out of the loaf, so it’s still better to freeze. A moist loaf will stand up to slicing before freezing, but will dry out faster than larger pieces of bread. Besides, the bread will be so delicious, you won’t store it for long!

Cooled, sliced and ready to eat!

STEP 10 Repeat to become a better baker!

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