There is something about the smell of food that welcomes people into a home. The smell of dinner cooking as you come in after a hard day’s work is good motivation to put a crock pot meal on to cook before leaving in the morning. Other smells also draw people happily into the home, but the smell of baking homemade bread stands alone as a delightful aroma.
Many a person will admit that they could cheerfully make an entire meal out of fresh, homemade yeast rolls or bread and skip most of the rest of the food. Making really good homemade bread comes from a combination of science and experience, and both can be acquired through a bit of study and some practice.
Nearly all kinds of yeast breads have three things in common: yeast, flour and liquid. The steps for making the breads are also pretty much the same. By adjusting the amounts and the sources of the ingredients, you can make a huge variety of breads. The skills of bread making are very useful in many applications.
Measuring the ingredients is the science of bread making. The proportions of the ingredients in a recipe must be consistent to get a consistent finished product. You can measure by volume (cups or teaspoons) or by weight (ounces or grams). Weighing is the most consistent, particularly when measuring flour because it can be packed down or fluffed up to fill different volumes. However, the same weight of flour will always give you the same amount regardless of the amount of space it fills.
Most of us don’t have cooking scales. However, do your best to keep volume measurements accurate. Stir flour before you measure it to keep it from compressing. One step in bread making that is not always used is to get the yeast started growing by making a “sponge.” This is optional, but can help develop the flavor of bread and encourage it to grow actively, making the bread light.
You can also use less yeast at the outset because it grows as it sits. To make a sponge, mix all the water and half the yeast with a third to half of the flour to make dough the consistency of pancake batter. Cover the sponge and let it sit for one to four hours at room temperature. Next, mix it with the rest of the dough. There are other types of prefermented doughs that fit with specialty breads, but the sponge is the most commonly used one.
There are recipes for breads that do not require kneading. They tend to have a yeastier flavor, a coarser structure, and they require a longer time to ferment using less yeast. However, typical yeast breads require kneading. I have discovered that bread failures are most often caused by problems with kneading the dough sufficiently and effectively. If you have a bread maker, the process is taken care of automatically. If you have a mixer or food processor that will knead bread, it is not quite automatic, but can be timed to get the right result. Mixing by hand is very effective and is the time-honored method used for centuries. However, knowing how to do it and when it has been done enough is a matter of experience. For most breads any of the methods will work but with very sticky dough, bread mixers or stand mixers are the easiest to work with.
The reason for kneading is to develop the gluten into long, strong, stretchable strands. Gluten is found in wheat flour and is a protein in the bread that gives it its structure. The strands of protein stretch to accommodate bubbles that form as the yeast ferments, allowing the bread to rise.
The ingredients used in bread making are part of a scientific formula. The warm water dissolves the yeast and provides it with a good environment to grow. Added sugar feeds the yeast and helps it to grow. Salt is not just a flavoring — it keeps the yeast from developing too much and helps keep the bread at a good size. If you make bread and forget to add salt, you will notice its absence. The resulting bread tastes very yeasty and will have a coarser texture and larger holes between the gluten strands.
Water should be warm to the touch but not very hot or very cold. If it is room temperature or a little cool, the yeast will still grow but more slowly.
Knead bread according to the kind you are making. Bagels, which are very dense, are kneaded longer to develop stronger gluten strands, while ciabatta breads require less kneading.
When kneading by hand try to work with soft dough. Holding back about an eighth of the flour, mix together the ingredients using a wooden spoon until it is well moistened. Next, dump the dough onto a work surface lightly dusted with some reserved flour and sprinkle more on top. Take hold of the dough on the side away from you and pull it up and over the front. Use the heel of your hands to push the dough against the work surface and away from you. While most recipes say to knead for about five to 10 minutes, less experienced cooks may want to knead longer. The dough gradually becomes more resistant to the pushing and stretching. You can put it into a bowl and let it rest for about 20 minutes, then put it back on the board to knead it for another five to 10 minutes. When it has been kneaded enough, the dough will become smooth and elastic. You can see small bubbles forming under the surface of the dough.
As a beginner, I would knead the dough until I was sure it was developed enough and then knead it for about five minutes more. Under kneading is a common problem with hand kneaded dough. While it is possible to over knead dough, the chances of doing that when kneading by hand are practically non-existent.
Kneading with a stand mixer makes the process much faster. It only takes about five to seven minutes to finish the kneading. In a bread machine, it is even faster. Food processors are the fastest of all because the blades mix everything together very quickly. Food processors are especially good for stickier dough. Start the process with cooler ingredients because the friction of the processor blades can heat the mixture.
Many newer recipes recommend letting the dough rise only once. These use quicker rising yeasts and are designed for our busier ways of life. However, the yeast and gluten are better developed and the flavor is better when the dough is allowed to rise, then punched down and allowed to rise again.
Cover the dough when it rises to keep the surface soft and moist. Put it into a large bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. If you kitchen is warm (75 to 80 degrees) cover it tightly with plastic wrap and let it sit out. If the kitchen is cooler, put very hot tap water near the rising dough and cover with a large bowl or plastic wrap, or put it inside a standard oven with the heat turned off. Let it double in bulk. Whole wheat is more fragile and should only rise one and a half times its size. When it is adequately raised, you can poke it with a pinkie finger and it will hold the depression. Punch down the dough to prevent the gluten from stretching to the point of collapse.
When the raising process has finished, divide and shape the dough into loaves, rolls or fancy shapes.
After the dough has been shaped, let it rise again. It should be transferred to the pan it will be baked in or on. Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm, moist environment. The final rise can take place in the refrigerator overnight but it must be brought back to room temperature before it is baked.
The formed dough should also be allowed to rise to double bulk. If you press the side of the formed product, it will leave an impression that slowly fills in. Don’t let it rise further than that. You can change the bread crusts with various glazes like water or beaten egg white. It makes a shiny, golden crust. Egg yolks produce the brownest crust. You may want to put foil over the bread to keep it from becoming too brown. An egg yolk and cream makes a very shiny deep-brown crust.
Melted butter or oil makes for a soft, velvety crust. Glazes can also help hold on seeds or other coatings to bread before baking. Sometimes bread recipes will call for putting the bread into a cold oven and preheating and cooking it there. This, again, is a convenience. Preheat the oven in order to provide a quick stroke of heat just as you put it into the oven. Bake at the temperatures called for. These will vary according to the kind of bread you are making.
While the traditional test for bread baking is to tap the bottom to see if it sounds hollow, a better method is to insert a hole in the bottom of the crust using a thermometer. Most bread should be baked to 190 to 210 degrees depending on the kind of bread you are making.
Cutting hot bread is a delicious treat — but it will probably make the rest of the loaf soggy. If the loaf is allowed to cool first it will be more stable. You can reheat the bread by putting it into a preheated 350-degree oven for five to 10 minutes before serving.
Cut with a serrated knife with deep serrations to make it easier and neater to slice. Store bread in a brown paper bag at room temperature. If you store it in the refrigerator it goes stale quickly. Bread freezes well if it is well-wrapped for at least three months. Wrap whole loaves in plastic wrap and put them in resealable plastic freezer bags. Lightly toasting frozen bread helps restore its texture and brings out its flavor.