The Kitchn's Baking School Day 12: All about basic yeast breads.
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A loaf of homemade bread is a beautiful thing. Soft, springy, and fresh — it's perfect for slathering with some nut butter or turning into amazing sandwiches. Bread baking is a craft for sure, but something you certainly can (and should try to) do at home. It might take you some time to develop your bread-baking techniques, but it does not have to be scary or seem unachievable. Consider the time it takes to measure, knead, and proof as moments of calm and comfort rather than stress. Let's get to it!
What makes a perfect loaf of bread? There are really only two parts: the crust and the crumb. The exterior, or crust, should be relatively dark, but not burnt. The crust adds flavor. Depending on the type of bread, the crust will vary in crispness.
The crumb refers to the inside of the bread. In baking terms, it usually describes the interior texture of anything from breads and cakes to cookies and muffins. For bread, the crumb should be tender, soft, and porous. Depending on the type of bread, it may either be tight and uniform (like sandwich bread) or inconsistent with various holes (like sourdough or artisan bread).
Because bread requires only a few simple ingredients, every little detail counts. From the type of flour used to the way it is carefully measured, variation in ingredients and the way they are treated yields different types of bread.
All bread must have flour, water, and yeast. It should also have salt (or else it will taste flat and bland). Adding sugars, changing up the grains, and adding milk transforms those basic ingredients into the array of different types of breads that are available.
Types of Flour
Different types of flour absorb moisture at different rates and have different amounts of protein — flours with a lot of protein form doughs strong gluten structure, flours with less protein form more delicate doughs with less gluten structure.
Flours like all-purpose and bread flour have higher protein contents than pastry and cake flours. All-purpose flour is a blend of hard and soft wheats and should be used for tender, airy bread. Bread flour has a higher percentage of protein than all-purpose flour. It is made of hard (or strong) wheat, making it a good choice for more rustic breads with a chewy texture. Try mixing a portion of both all-purpose and bread flour to create a crumb to your liking.
In terms of protein content, whole-wheat flour is similar to bread flour. It uses both the wheat bran and germ, resulting in a chewier, slightly nuttier bread. Despite its high protein, using a whole-wheat flour creates a fairly weak gluten structure. Using a portion of all-purpose flour mixed with whole-wheat flour will help keep the bread from ending up dense and crumbly. A bit of oil will keep this heartier flour supple and easier to work with.
Looking for a soft, pillowy loaf? Substitute some of the water for milk to keep the bread nice and tender. A bit of honey or simple sugar will add a mild flavor, but be sure not to add too much in a lean dough recipe.
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While each recipe may vary from loaf to loaf, the general method for making bread involves one of two basic bread-making formulas: For more artisanal breads, you will begin with a starter or pre-ferment (more on this tomorrow!), while other straight-doughs will just jump right into it.
Generally speaking, throw in the flour, water, and yeast (reserving a small portion of the flour and only adding it in as needed). Add in any salt or sugars and mix all together. Before kneading, add any oils or butter that a recipe may call for. The dough should be rough and shaggy. Knead the dough until that shaggy mess become soft, springy, and smooth — 8 to 10 minutes in a stand mixer, or 10 to 15 minutes by hand.
Allow the dough to proof by placing it in a well-oiled bowl. Cover and keep in a warm corner to allow the yeast to ferment. Remember, yeast ferment the best between 70 and 80°F. Here, the yeast gets to work, feeding off the sugars and excreting gas — making the dough rise! Let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume.
After the dough rises, turn it out on a lightly floured surface. Gently knead the dough to redistribute the air, then shape it. Allow the dough to rise again, or bench proof. Halfway through, preheat the oven. Slash the tops as necessary and bake until done.
We are constantly warned not to overmix our baked goods, but yeast-risen doughs require an adequate amount of mixing and kneading. As briefly discussed yesterday, kneading is required to strengthen the gluten network required for certain loaves of bread. The more the dough is mixed, the more protein surfaces are exposed, allowing for further water absorption and gluten development. The main goal is to stretch, lengthen, and strengthen the gluten so it can support the leavening and rise from the yeast and give the bread great structure and texture.
Different flours require different amounts of kneading. Flours with a higher percentage of protein, like bread flour, can require longer mix times than softer flours. Only use as much flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Try reserving a bit of the flour from the initial recipe and only add in if necessary. Keep it in a bowl and dip your hands into the flour when kneading to keep from sprinkling too much on the dough itself.
An adequately mixed dough will be smooth, soft, and not sticky. If the gluten is strong and tight enough (as it should be), the dough should be able to hold its shape. When stretched, the membrane should be thin without tearing. Holding it up to the light, better known as the "windowpane test," light should be able to pass through the dough.
So how do you knead exactly? On a lightly flour-dusted surface, push down in the middle of the dough with the palm of your hand and then out. Stretch and lengthen the dough away from you, then fold it back on top of itself. Rotate and repeat; the entire process should take 10 to 15 minutes. Getting sticky (the dough)? Getting tired (you)? Let the dough rest for a few minutes to allow the flour to absorb some of the moisture before resuming.
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How To Knead Bread Dough: The Video
Instead of kneading by hand, bread dough can come together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Start by mixing the ingredients with the paddle attachment or by hand with a sturdy spatula until they are incorporated. Switch to the dough hook and let the mixer do the work — only knead 8 to 10 minutes in a mixer . If the dough is sticky and starts creeping up the dough hook, add a little flour to make sure it stays in the bowl.
A Note on Over-Kneading
If the dough feels dense and becomes difficult to work with, you should probably stop. Once a dough is mixed beyond a certain point, the gluten begins to break down and the dough becomes stringy and sticky. This is pretty uncommon to do by hand, since exhaustion would typically set in before this happens.
Skip the doughy mess, energy for kneading, and careful measuring! Simple and extremely forgiving, no-knead bread is like bread baking with the training wheels on; and there ain't nothing wrong with that! Baby steps, and you still get tasty bread at the end.
Instead of the muscle required for kneading, all you need here is time. Basically, the yeast will be doing all the work for you; it needs plenty of time to rise, at least eight hours or overnight. Combine all the ingredients together. Instead of being smooth and soft like our other kneaded doughs, the dough with look rough and shaggy. Coat it well with oil, tuck it in with a tea towel in a warm kitchen, and leave it alone to do its thing.
Once the dough rises, turn it out and gently shape and bring it together. As with kneaded bread, let it rest before preheating the oven. Pop it into an oven-safe or enamel pot and bake until done!
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How To Make No-Knead Bread
What's the Deal with Proofing?
Proofing refers to the process where the yeast do their business. Typically for the first proof (or fermentation), a dough proofs for a couple of hours, or until it doubles in size, in a warm, draft-free corner. Here, the yeast get to work — feeding the sugars and expelling gasses that expand the dough. This all happens before the dough is punched-down or shaped.
On occasion, the dough is moved to the refrigerator. This slows down the fermentation process even more (as we know that temperature plays a big role in fermentation), but it also allows the flavors in the dough to develop and become more complex.
After the initial proof, the dough is either punched-down or turned out and given a quick knead to redistribute the gases produced by the yeast. The dough is then shaped into whatever form it will be baked in.
Before heading into the oven, the dough will need to rise one last time. This final rise is another opportunity for the yeast to work. We've just knocked out a ton of air by shaping it, and this is a chance to build up those gasses one last time before hitting the oven. Giving your dough a second rise will result in even fluffier and more flavorful breads.
Checking for Doneness
Sure the crust had browned, but how do you really know when your bread is done baking? At first glance, the outside should be golden, dry, and firm. If you take it out of the oven and give it a good thump on the bottom, a fully baked loaf should sound hollow.
Ultimately, the bread should have an internal temperature between 190 to 210°F (depending on the type of bread you are making). This means there is still some water in the bread. If it is too hot, then there is no moisture left and the bread will be dry.
Waiting for the Bread to Cool
Tempted to take a bite of that warm, steamy bread right out of the oven? Don't! Trust me, it's worth the wait.
You will want to wait about 30 minutes after the bread exits the oven before slicing it open. As it cools, you are allowing the starch and protein structure to set and firm up. If not, the inside will still be a bit gummy and will tear instead of being sliced. Cool the bread on a wire rack to allow air circulation around the entire loaf.
Troubleshooting, Tips, and Tricks
There is nothing more heartbreaking than a bread you've put so much love and care into that comes up short. Thankfully the ingredients used are fairly cheap, but that time is hard to buy back. Instead, let's try to understand what went wrong before trying again.
Bread Did Not Rise
Be certain your yeast is fresh and viable. The fermentation may have been cut short or the environment prohibited the dough from proofing to its fullest. Remember to let it rise until doubled in volume in a warm corner.
Crumb Is Too Dry
There may have been too much flour or not enough kneading. Although not as likely, it may have been overbaked.
Crumb Is Gummy
The bread might not have been cooled properly. Remember to let it cool on a wire rack to promote circulation.
Crumb Is Dense
Check to make sure your yeast is fresh, and try experimenting with part all-purpose and part whole-wheat flour — making sure not to add too much of a whole-grain flour. Let the dough rest a bit before kneading to allow the flour to absorb more of the moisture and soften the grains.
Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnbakingschool on Instagram or Twitter.
Watch this video of all kinds of breads rising.
Make a loaf of no-knead bread.
Make a new-to-you yeast bread. Share how it went on Instagram and use the #kitchnbakingschool hashtag.