I still have a long way to come before I can consider myself an adept breadbaker. Never is preparing food more clearly both an art and a science, and for someone who is usually sloppy about measurements, shameless about altering recipes, and committed to using whole grains, it has been a bit of a steep learning curve. Breadbaking is still a major, time-consuming undertaking for me, and my loaves often end up a bit more squat, dense, and dry or gummy than I would prefer. Thankfully they usually still taste fantastic, and it has been a fascinating path of discovery, as I begin to get a better feel the process with each loaf I bake and each book I read. Beth’s Basic Bread Book, by Beth Hensperger, and The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book proved to be incredible resources. More With Less by Doris Longacre, and King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking also provided helpful information on bread baking. Some of the tips and techniques I’ve gleaned have served me right away. Others I have not yet tried or had need of, but am listing here for future reference for myself and anyone else who could benefit from them.
Recently, I have shifted my energy towards sourdough. Most of the information below applies to both yeasted and sourdough breads, but there are a few additional nuances to the process that I am gradually discovering as well.
Make sure flour and yeast is fresh. Whole wheat in particular tends to go rancid quickly, and should be kept no more than two months on the shelf. You can refrigerate flour and yeast in an airtight container to store longer (or even freeze for long term storage). Don’t forget to let the amount you need return to room temperature before mixing the dough.
Salt is a key piece of bread chemistry, strengthening the gluten and slowing the action of the yeast. It is not simply adjusted “to taste” in yeast breads.
Be sure to use non-chlorinated water, especially for slow-fermented and sourdough breads — you don’t want to chlorine to kill the very micro-organisms you are depending on to leaven your bread!
Whole wheat and rye contain less gluten and take longer to rise. Most other grains do not contain gluten, and pastry flour is too low in gluten to aid in bread baking. Bread flour, and whole wheat flour from hard red spring wheat (the best for light loaves according to Laurel’s Kitchen), hard red winter wheat, or hard white wheat are high in the gluten so key for bread baking. All purpose flour is generally adequate as well. The “sponge” pre-ferment method is invaluable for providing additional structure when using low-gluten flours.
Fat, sweetener, potato or cooked grain, and milk contribute to a slower rise and softer, moister texture.
Eggs add more “bounce,” richness, protein, and structure to the bread, but can stiffen dough if worked and shaped too slowly.
Soak dried fruit, uncovered, in warm water for about 10 minutes before using in baked goods.
Beware of using unpasteurizing honey, dairy, or fermented products, especially with long-rising breads — the same micro-organisms responsible for the health benefits of these items can wreak havok on the delicate chemistry of bread baking.
According to The Laurel Kitchen, it is most effective to use salted cold butter. This lubricates the gluten and contributes to higher rise — it takes twice as much melted butter or oil for the same effect.
Mixing & Kneading Bread
It is important to consider the temperature of the ingredients as well as the room. It is usually ideal to use ingredients as close to room temperature as possible, but on hot days or when you want a slower rise, you may want to use cold ingredients, perhaps even ice water! Try to avoid shocking the dough with sudden changes in temperature.
“Lean” breads — French and Italian style breads with little or no fat or other rich ingredients like eggs and milk — should be mixed with cold ingredients and kept cool (dough no more than 70ºF) throughout process.
Beth’s Basic Bread Book recommends mixing dough by mixing together liquids (besides yeast and warm water set aside to proof), then blending in first cup of flour in thoroughly for a few minutes before adding the yeast slurry. Then gradually add flour a half cup at a time just until the dough pulls away from the sides.
Laurel’s Kitchen, meanwhile, argues that since whole grains can be variable in the amount of liquid they absorb, especially considering other factors like humidity, it is important to begin with the dry ingredients. Then make a well and add the remaining ingredients. The dough can then be adjusted slightly by adding flour or water, a tablespoon at a time, as needed.
As soon as the dough grows “shaggy” and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, scoop it onto a lightly floured surface (use white flour when possible). Beat, whack, and slam the dough for several minutes, flouring the surface from time to time as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. It took me a while to realize how much force I needed to use — throw your full weight into it, not just your hands or arms. Don’t be afraid to really rough it up, that’s the whole point!
Lean and whole grain doughs need to be kneaded longer — according to Laurel’s Kitchen, up to twenty minutes for two loaves. The larger a recipe, the longer the kneading time. However, it is important to realize that whole grain breads will remain a bit “tacky” and coarser textured when they are finished. If you try to knead them until they are as smooth and elastic as white bread, you will end up incorporating too much flour, and you will end up with dry and crumbly bread. Letting the dough rest for a few minutes (a great time to grease the bowl) midway through the kneading, as soon as it is no longer sticky, is particularly helpful for whole-grain breads.
Towards the end of the kneading process, you can use moist rather than floured hands to knead the dough. Rub your hands briefly in water as soon as they begin to stick (I generally use the water soaking the dough mixing bowl). This can be particularly helpful if the dough feels a bit dry.
Rest & Rise
Higher temperature (both ambient and of the ingredients), humidity, and altitude speed up rising, while whole grain flours and the addition of “richer” ingredients and sweeteners slows down rising.
On a cold day, placing the rising container in a pan of warm water can help with rising. The back seat of a car in a sunny spot, the top of the fridge, on a towel over a hot water bottle, or a lightly warmed oven can also provide warm spots for rising. If it’s hot, you can keep dough cool by placing bowl in a cooler or ice chest with cool water around it, or consider a longer refrigerator rise.
If dough refuses to rise, it may be the result of too much flour, particularly whole wheat or low gluten flours, or that the liquid used to activate the yeast was too hot or too cold.
Lightly grease the surface of the dough by flipping it in an oiled bowl before leaving it to rise. This enables the dough to stretch more evenly and not form a dry crust.
Each rise generally takes about half as long as the previous rise.
Rich doughs (particularly with egg) and low gluten breads (such as rye or spelt) are shaped when not quite doubled, while lean doughs should be left until double or even triple in size.
A more reliable guide as to whether a dough is properly risen, on the first rise, rather than merely the amount it expands, is inserting a damp finger about a half inch into the dough. If the imprint does not refill, the dough is ready. If the dough sighs or has visible bubbles, it is overproofed, and you must be extra careful not to leave it too long on the next rise. If dough overproofs to the point of collapsing, knead briefly, form into loaves, and bake immediately with fingers crossed!
Don’t “punch down” dough, but rather, turn it out only a lightly floured board and gently press it down evenly with damp hands to deflate it and remove any trapped air bubbles. Then divide if necessary, fold the edges under to form a ball, and let rest for up to ten minutes before shaping into loaf.
On the final rise, one way to test for when the dough is properly risen is to cut off a small piece of the dough at the time that you shape the bread. Place the sample in lukewarm water at the same time you leave bread to rise. When it floats, the bread is ready to go in the oven.
Shaping & Baking
Scoring: Kitchen shears or a sharp serrated knife are best for scoring loaves. Slashing helps provide a vent so that built up steam doesn’t split the loaf. Slash quickly and at a slight angle, after any glazing and right before placing in the oven. Slashing is particularly important for steamed lean breads containing no milk. Don’t slash overproofed or very soft dough.
Glazes: An egg glaze (1 egg + 1 tablespoon water or milk) gives a shiny and brown color, while brushing with milk provides a soft, dark, shiny finish. Brushing the dough with oil or butter, before or after baking, results in a soft, shiny finish but does not affect the color much. Brushing with water, meanwhile, results in a firmer, crisper crust.
Steaming (mainly lean breads): Wet the loaves by painting or spraying with water every 3-5 minutes while bakes at 450ºF, for the first 20 minutes or so, until begins to brown. Then lower the oven to 350ºF and leave to bake until done. When baking in loaf pans, can invert one loaf pan over another to steam the bread. Can also bake lean loaves in a covered casserole dish (ceramic will need to be gently preheated) or dutch oven. Press loaf into the pan, then spread 2-4 tablespoons of warm water over the surface of the dough, slash, cover pan, and immediately place in pteheated 450ºF oven. After 20 minutes, reduce heat to 350ºF to finish baking.
To form a rectangular loaf – press or roll out dough to about 1 inch thick, fold almost in half, so that bottom edge “smiles” at you. Press out the air, then fold in the sides, until roughly the size of the loaf pan or desired dimensions. Roll up snugly so no air pockets, pull dough taut, and pinch together seams. Place in loaf pan, if using, and press dough gently into pan so that all of the bottom surface is covered.
If bake with glass or black finish pans, lower temperature by 25ºF and remove immediately after baking.
When using baking sheets, particularly at high temperatures, stack two sheets together to prevent scorching or warping the pan or burning the bottom of the bread.
Make sure there is room between pans for air to cirulate.
Lean breads generally bake at around 400 to 425ºF, while rich or whole grain doughs, loaf pans and rolls are generally baked at 350 to 375ºF.
Really rich breads often don’t sound hollow when they are done. Can test instead by inserting a thermometer the bottom of the loaf — done when internal temperature reaches 190ºF.
When ready, loaf pan bread should spring back when gently squeeze sides, and slide out of pan easily with a light tap.
The first time you bake a new type of bread, especially if you are making adjustments or are not sure you fully trust the recipe, check the crust after 30 minutes. If it is already very brown, lower the temperature by 25ºF. If it is still very pale or pinkish, raise the temperature by 25ºF.
While the inclination when trying to fit an involved process like breadmaking into a busy schedule might be to find ways to speed up the process (adding more yeast, warmer ingredients and rise, etc), it can actually be useful to stretch out the process so that you can work on the bread in the windows of time you are available over the course of a few days. These methods are also useful for having fresh bread ready just before a meal, especially with lean breads that stale quickly. A slower rise or fermentation period also generally results in a higher quality, deeper flavored, more nutritious, and longer-lasting bread.
Look for recipes for slow rising breads containing little yeast, which can be left to rise for a day or overnight, no-knead recipes, or recipes involving a “sponge,” where the yeast is left to pre-ferment with a small amount of flour and some or all of the liquid. The “sponge” starter is then combined with the remaining ingredients in the recipe to form the dough. Sponges also make it easier to make a larger amount of dough, or even a few different types of bread at once, so that you can make extra to freeze.
If you find yourself having to leave in the middle of the process, deflate the dough, coat lightly with oil, cover, and refrigerate. Any yeast bread containing at least 1 tablespoon of sugar for every cup of flour can be refrigerated for up to three days. Punch down dough when it begins to arch out of the bowl – as frequently as every two hours at first with faster rising breads until the dough is chilled enough for the yeast to go dormant. Remove dough 1 1/2 to 2 hours before baking, deflate, shape loaves, and leave them to come to room temperature and complete final rise. When doubled, bake according to recipe.
You can also refrigerate loaves right after shaping, for 2 to 24 hours. Let stand for about 20 minutes while preheating oven, or until completes final rise, then glaze and score if necessary and bake according to recipe.
You can also shape and freeze loaves for up to three weeks, take out three hours before baking to thaw and complete final rise, and then bake according to recipe.
Refrigeration can sometimes be used to slow down the rise of sourdough breads for short periods of time, but sourdough can be prone to over fermenting, resulting in a gummy, grey, and extremely sour loaf if the rise is extended for too long beyond what the recipe calls for (especially if there is little or no sweetener).
Increase yeast by one third each time multiply recipe. (For example, if original calls for 1 tablespoon of yeast, use 4 teaspoons when double the recipe, or 2 tablespoons if triple the recipe. Reduce by one third if half a recipe.
To substitute honey or male syrup for sugar, use 3/4 cup of sweetener and reduce liquid measure by 1/4 cup for every cup of sugar you replace. To use molasses, use half the amount of sweeter and reduce the amount of liquid by 1/3 cup for every cup of sugar you replace. Note that blackstrap molasses is what a by-product of the third extraction of sugar, and so offers flavor and nutrition but does not act as a sweetener for bread.
Lean breads stale within 24 hours. However, breads with a slower rise or fermentation process keep longer. The addition of other “richer” ingredients, such as milk, sweetener, fat, and egg also help bread to last longer. Egg breads tend to dry out faster, but the addition of fat helps counteract this tendency.
To reheat or refresh stale bread, bake bread for 15-20 minutes at 350ºF, wrapped in foil or a moist paper bag if don’t want crust to crisp.
To store breads longer (especially lean breads), breads can be frozen as soon as they are fully cooled, warapped tightly in thick or double layer of plastic, for up to three months. Can also use foil for theouter layer when freezing. To serve, let defrost and reheat (wrapped in moist bag or foil if don’t want crisp crust) for about 8 minutes at the temperature they were originally baked at. Or bake for 20-40 minutes at 325ºF if not yet fully thawed. If bread is sliced before freezing, it can also be defrosted by the slice in the toaster.