If you’re a beginner looking for tips and tricks to take your bread baking to the next level, read on!
Baking bread can seem daunting, even to seasoned bakers. With the right tools however, making your own home-baked bread can be simple and rewarding.
With only four basic ingredients – flour, water, yeast, and salt – bread is the simplest recipe out there. In fact, it is likely that you already have at least three of those ingredients in your cupboard right now.
Still, baking the perfect loaf can take some practice. After reading this, however, you should have a good idea of what needs to happen to make sure your loaves turn out just like you want them to… or better.
Ingredients Needed for Baking Bread
Bread has just four basic ingredients: yeast, flour, salt, and water. However, each of these ingredients are available in different forms.
Yeast is a living organism that makes bread dough rise and creates air bubbles in the crumb. Without it, your recipe would yield tortillas or flatbread but not a nice fluffy loaf of bread.
There are two types of yeast available for baking. They are considered fairly interchangeable, but it is a good idea to choose one type and stick to it so that you can confidently bake with it.
Active Dry Yeast
This type of yeast is granular and dry in texture. It requires proofing to rise. Proofing is the process used to prove that the yeast is alive.
When you proof your yeast, it shows that the yeast is doing what yeast does… eat sugar and emit bubbles of carbon dioxide. Here’s how:
- Mix a little yeast with water that has been warmed to around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (too cool will fail to active the yeast and too warm will kill it).
- Add a tiny pinch of sugar, drop of honey, squirt of maple syrup, or any other sugary substance that will give your yeast a reason to wake up and eat.
- Stir … wait 10 to 15 minutes … if a dense foam head has formed, then you are good to go.
Instant (Rapid Rise) Yeast
This yeast is a finer consistency than Active Dry yeast. Further, it is already activated and thus does not require proofing.
In addition, Rapid Rise yeast has additional enzymes added to it so that it will rise faster. This is why you want to choose a type of yeast and stick to it.
While any all-purpose flour will work in your bread recipe, there are other types of flour that may be better suited for the specific type of bread you are making. Some will add sweetness, density, and/or additional health benefits to your loaves.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour adds all of the above to your loaves. However, it cannot be substituted one to one when a recipe calls for white flour. It is best to use this specific flour for recipes that directly call for it rather than trying to convert a white bread recipe to suit it.
This is a variety of white flour that has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour. This allows for better gluten development and results in an elastic, chewy structure to your bread.
Unlike whole wheat flour, bread flour can be substituted completely for any all-purpose flour. This means that any recipe that calls for flour can instead use specialized bread flour.
These are best avoided until you have a little experience baking basic loaves of bread.
TIP: Sandwich breads do best with a two to one ratio and thus, half the weight of the flour is how much water is needed. As long as the ratio is right, don’t worry if the dough seems to be too sticky.
Basic table salt is fine for baking bread. You may choose a flavored salt later to add additional tastes to your loaves – such as garlic salt – however this should be left for when you are more experienced.
TRICK: Using 25 to 50 percent less salt than your recipe calls for allows the bread’s natural flavor to come through.
TIP: Contrary to some claims, salt does not kill yeast. What it does is retard – slow down – the growth of the yeast and that is just what it is supposed to do.
Tap water is fine for baking bread, however, bottled water may be better. If your tap water is heavily chlorinated (like most city water) or unusually hard (like some well water), it is better to use bottled water as these waters can kill yeast.
While better left for later when you are more confident in your bread baking abilities, adding additional ingredients can take your bread from basic to inspired. These ingredients often include: milk, honey, oil, butter, spices, etc.
Tips & Tricks for Baking Bread
Many of the tools in a baker’s kitchen serve multiple purposes. If you have a well-equipped kitchen then chances are you already have everything you need.
Use a Digital Scale
Instead of scooping, you should weigh your ingredients to ensure that you achieve that ratio. To determine the amount of flour needed in conversion,
- Measure a cup of flour and weigh it. Do these three times, recording the weight of each cup.
- Find the average weight of a cup of flour and multiply this by the number of cups your recipe calls for to find the total weight of the flour in your recipe.
- For example:
- Three cups weigh 4.1 ounces, 4.2 ounces, and 4.3 ounces respectively.
- Thus, the average weight of a cup of flour is 4.2 ounces.
- If your recipe calls for 7 cups of flour, then you know you need 29.4 ounces for your recipe.
The purpose of kneading bread is to develop gluten and further mix your dough. In order to accomplish this, dough should be kneaded for five to ten minutes.
How to Knead Dough
- Pat the dough into a ball and place on an oiled surface
- Flatten the dough into a disc shape and fold towards you
- Using the heels of your hands, push the dough away with a slight rolling motion
- Rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat the fold, push, and turn steps
- Kneading should take four to ten minutes.
- Continue kneading until the dough is elastic, smooth, and passes the windowpane test.
This test will show when the proper amount of gluten has formed in your dough. To perform this test, follow these steps:
- Tear off a small chunk of dough
- Roll the dough into a small ball
- Flatten the dough ball into a disc
- Rotate the dough, stretching it as if making a tiny pizza
- How to know if your dough passes the test:
- If you can stretch the dough thin enough that it becomes semi-transparent before tearing, then it is ready.
- If the dough tears before it becomes thin enough to see through, then your dough needs more kneading.
TIP: The windowpane test works best with white breads. Whole grain breads tend to not rise has high as white breads and thus the dough does not need to be worked as much as they do.
TIP: Although many recipes call for you to turn your dough out on a floured surface for kneading, DON’T DO IT! Using flour to knead your dough will add flour to the recipe itself. This results in a dense loaf that does not rise as it should.
TRICK: Use a few sprays of olive oil or other pan spray to your hands and counter to prevent sticking as you work and shape the dough. As an added bonus, this may help keep your bread from going stale as quickly.
TIP: Use a bench scraper to get all the dough off.
Brushing the top of your loaves with different substances can produce different crusts. Brush your crust with:
- Milk: Using a light coating of milk before baking will give your bread a tender crust with a slightly dull shine.
- Butter/Margarine: Apply this immediately after baking to give your crust a deep, golden brown color and extra flavor.
- Egg wash: Brushing your crust with a mixture of egg whites (one or two) beaten with a little water before baking will produce a nice, shiny crust. This can be done as late as five minutes before baking is done.
Spraying your crust with water while it bakes will produce a crisp, flaky crust as well.
This is an essential step in making your own bread and often the one that causes problems. It can’t be rushed, and it can’t be skipped.
TRICK: Warm places cause dough to rise more quickly. In turn, this allows you to enjoy your bread sooner.
TRICK: Cooler places allow for a slower, longer rise. This creates a better flavor.
As Chef Sim Cass, Dean at the Institute of Culinary Education said, “the biggest challenge is impatience. You just have to slow down and give the yeast time to work.” To allow your dough to rest and rise, follow these simple steps.
- Place your kneaded dough into a bowl that is large enough to allow for expansion.
- Loosely cover the bowl with a clean, damp cloth or plastic wrap sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
- Set the bowl in a warm, draft-free place.
- With Active Dry yeast, keep the dough covered until it doubles in size – roughly one to two hours.
- With Rapid Rise yeast, let the dough rest for 10 minutes. It does not need to double in size.
- Most recipes call for two rises:
- In the bowl after kneading.
- In the pan after shaping.
TIP: Don’t let the dough get too warm as this can cause your bread to over-rise and over-proof. This, in turn, causes the bread to collapse and flatten in the oven.
TRICK: Allow your dough to sit overnight in the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature the next morning before baking to give your dough the best flavor and ensure a full rise.
The type of bread you are making can alter this process but for now let’s focus on a standard loaf.
- Spray your work surface with nonstick spray and shape the dough into a ball.
- Use a rolling pin to form your dough into a rectangle.
- Beginning with the short end of that rectangle, roll the dough tightly to make a loaf shape.
- Pinch the seam and both ends to seal the loaf closed.
- Place the shaped dough – seam side down – into a greased baking pan.
- Follow the recipe, preheating, and baking instructions precisely.
- Use an oven thermometer to ensure exact baking temperatures are achieved.
- Place your baking pans several inches apart on a centered oven rack.
- Check your loaves 10 minutes before the recipe predicts your loaves should be done.
- The internal temperature of your loaves should be between 190 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.
TRICK: If your loaf seems to be browning excessively, remove it from the oven and make a foil tent over your loaf before returning it to the oven.
TRICK: When you turn your loaf out of the pan, tap the bottom or the side of the loaf. If it sounds hollow then you know the bread is done.
Commercial bakeries use convection ovens that allow for hot air to surround each loaf and ensure even baking. According to Chef Cass, “The best thing you can do is mist the bread with water from a spray bottle before putting it in the oven – get the surface of the bread wet.”
To mimic this at home, bake your bread in a Dutch Oven following these steps:
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Mist with water.
- Cover the Dutch Oven and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove the cover and bake until the bread is done, approximately 15 minutes.
- Place your loaves on a wire rack to cool. This prevents steam from accumulating which causes your loaves to be soggy.
- Keep loaves wrapped and stored in a bread box at room temperature to slow the staling process.
- Don’t put loaves in the refrigerator as cold dries out the bread and speeds up staling.
- Freeze your loaves in airtight plastic bags or foil to keep them longer.
This step will add a decorative, professional look to your loaves and help direct how they will rise in the oven. Simply slash and glaze the top of your loaf after the dough finishes rising with a sharp knife or single edged razor.
This step also helps prevent large air bubbles from forming under your crust. How you slash depends largely on the type of loaf you are baking.
- Sandwich Loaf: One long slash down the center of your loaf will produce a professional looking loaf for your sandwich making needs.
- Round Loaf: This type of loaf benefits from a tic-tac-toe style slashing that allows for the bread to rise evenly all the way around.
- Long, Slender Baguette-style Loaf: A series of angled parallel slashes down the entire length of the dough will give your bread that classic Baguette look.
Wrapping It Up
Home baked bread is one of the simplest recipes you will ever find, just four ingredients. By following some of these tips and tricks, it will also become one of the easiest for you to complete successfully.