Tips

“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”

Mary F. K. Fisher

Baking bread is tricky.

I started off knowing nothing about bread baking. Below is a list of all the things I wish I had known before I made my first loaf.

MAKING DOUGH

  • Get a scale. They are not expensive, but really valuable! Measuring by volume varies widely depending on the person/method. If you look up conversions for volume vs weight, the standard is 120 grams flour per cup. But Cooks Illustrated tested this, and found most people end up putting 150 grams of flour in a cup. Here’s a conversion chart you can use until you get that scale.
  • A digital thermometer helps too (see “Temperature” below).
  • Instant yeast and active dry yeast are interchangeable – except it might take longer for the dough to double if you use active dry yeast. (Some sites will say you have to dissolve active dry yeast in water. This is not the case!) Although, many folks don’t want to skip the step of “blooming” the yeast in water, and perhaps a little sugar, because it’s a good way to test if your yeast is still active. On the other hand, rapid rise yeast is different Here’s a great article on the different yeasts.
  • Salt is necessary – don’t skip it. A “lean” dough has only water and flour. If you don’t use the salt, it will not have much flavor. (Some sites say salt kills the yeast. This would only happen if you have an excessive amount of salt; the way yeast is manufactured now, it’s not the case).
  • All-purpose flour can almost always be substituted for bread/strong flour. Vital wheat gluten is a handy little addition to doughs that are mostly whole wheat or rye, to encourage a better rise. And, if you can’t find high protien flour flour (good for bagels), use this chart to calculate how much vital wheat gluten you should add according to the protien weight of your bread flour.

KNEADING

  • Kneading is for texture: You knead to strengthen the gluten, so that when it bakes, the gluten strands aren’t too tight to stretch, thus the nice rise. There are exceptions to this: the really wet doughs like cibattas and baguettes, and also the new “no-knead” methods with the bread being baked in a dutch oven type container with a lid. Theres also a gentler method of kneading, which involves stretching the dough out a little, then folding it back over the dough, resting, then repeating, over a set amount of time.
  • From the Kitchen Aide website: Speed 2 is the only speed that should be used. If you use a higher speed, it is harder on your mixer motor, and if you use a lower speed, it will not provide enough momentum to knead properly. Kneading for 2 minutes in your mixer is equivalent to kneading 10-12 minutes by hand. So many recipes, though, call for kneading 8-10 minutes with the mixer, on medium speed. I am trying to get to the bottom of this.
  • You can’t overknead dough kneaded by hand
  • If you can, just use oil for your hands and bench, not flour. You can keep dough from sticking to your hands with water as well. Sometimes, you do want to use flour because the extra flour is to be incorporated into a wet dough as you knead.
  • Things to do if the dough just doesn’t stretch, which means you probably over-kneaded it.
    • Let it sit and rest for double the amount stated in the recipe, or put it in the fridge overnight
    • Be very gentle with it when it comes time to shaping it
    • The second rise might take a little longer as well

KNEADING DURING PROOFING

This is a great video to show the stretch and fold kneading method, and the envelope fold method. This kind of kneading is often done in combination with proofing. Knead, then proof for 30 minutes, knead then proof, etc.

PROOFING

  • Proofing is for flavor. The longer the dough ferments, the better it tastes. So, if you hurry it up, by putting it in an unusually warm place, it’ll rise quickly, but might not have time to develop that great flavor.
  • Even if you use a timer, always write down the time you set dough aside to proof. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set a timer (usually on my phone), then didn’t press start, or was in another room when it went off!
  • For the first proof, dough is typically ready when it has “doubled in size”, which is a better way to tell if it’s proofed enough rather than by the time recommended. I couldl never really tell what doubling meant if the dough is in a bowl witha small base. So, I started using this plastic container with straight sides, measurements and a lid.
  • I proof my dough in the microwave, after I’ve warmed it up for 30~60 seconds – EMPTY – because the house in the winter is rarely “room temperature”, i.e. 72 degrees
  • To test if your dough is ready, gently poke a lightly dusted fingertip into the surface for 2 seconds.
    • If it immediately springs back without any indentation left, then give it more time
    • If the indentation slowly springs back half-way, it’s ready to bake.
    • If the dent remains, and doesn’t pop back, then it’s over-proofed. Press it down to deflate it and release the gas, then reshape, and try again!
  • If unsure, it’s best to have underproofed dough – the bread will continue to rise in the oven. Over-proofed bread will rise, and then fall flat, because the strands aren’t strong enough. This has happened to me many times.
  • Lots of recipes call for using a banneton for final proofing, which helps retain the shape of the dough, and dries the surfact so it’s bakes up nice and crispy. Don’t have/want one? Here are some ways to make substitutes.
  • Do use rice flour, if you can, for dusting the container, dough during final proof. Two reasons:
    • For astheticis, because it doesn’t brown. Some breads are cooked at really high temperatures, and it took me awhile to figure out why my flour dusting was brown, but everyone else’s, in their photos, was still white.
    • if you are using a cloth liner, it doesn’t hydrate like wheat flour, so isn’t sticky

SHAPING

  • There are methods for shaping that should be followed, as it effects the way the loaf will react when being baked.
  • Sometimes it helps to use a bench scraper when shaping smaller doughs, like dinner rolls.

SCORING

I have no tips on this, because I still haven’t gotten the hang of it! I’m starting to think, though, that perhaps you don’t have to go SO fast, and you can cut deeper than the 1/4″, and you can wet or lightly oil the blade.Cold dough is easier to score, as is a stiffer dough

BAKING

  • A lot of breads need to be put in a really hot oven, so the moisture escapes, making the surface crack and open up. My oven loses SO MUCH heat just by opening the door, so I preheat it to a much higher temperature than needed, and by the time I get the bread in and shut the door, the temperature has dropped down to where it should be. Just don’t forget to adjust it, so it doesn’t go back up to the higher temp.
  • You can create steam by placing a pan on the bottom rack and filling it with hot water. I saw someone put an ice cube in their dutch oven, so I am going to try that.
  • Even if you use a timer, always write down the time you started baking, you might miss the timer notification
  • Temperatures: Recipes often say to bake until it’s a golden brown, and sounds hollow if you tap the bottom. My preference is to take it’s temperature. Here’s a good guide from King Arthur Flour on different breads and different temperatures, and here’s a great, detailed explanation of prefered temperatures of dough and bread during kneading, rising and baking!
  • Egg washes help to brown the crust. Here’s how they work:
    • egg white = slightly less brown than whole egg, very little shine
    • whole egg + water = light brown, slightly glossy
    • whole egg + milk = light brown, more glossy
    • egg yolk only = brown and shiny
    • egg yolk + cream = very brown and glossy (difficult to spread)
    • egg yolk + milk = darkest brown, less shiny than yolk + cream

EATING & STORING

  • As stange as this might sound, let your bread “cool” in the oven. Turn it off, keep the door ajar, and put the loaf back in (not on a tray, or in a pot). This helps to keep the crust crisp. As the bread cools, moisture inside travels out to the surface. migrates to the surface. If it hits cool air, it condenses on the outer crust, making it soggy. If it hits warm air, it evaporates!
  • As tempting as it is, don’t slice while still warm! This can create a gummy interior that won’t go away. Here’s why.
  • Enriched breads (breads with eggs, milk, and/or butter) last longer than doughs made with just flour, water and salt
  • I’m still trying to figure out the best way to store my breads. They either lose their crisp crust by absorbing moisture in the air, or the opposite happends, and they dry out and become rock hard. I honestly think that the only real option is to eat it day of, and then make bread crumbs or croutons if there’s any left. I often cut recipes down to just make one loaf, because we don’t have room in our freezer — especially since I”m making breads weekly!
  • You can store your artisan-type breads cut side down without wrapping.
  • If your baguettes have dried out, and are a little too hard to eat, sprinkle them with water and bake

Want more tips? Check out this Baking SOS guide from Great British Baking Show contestant, Luis Troyano. Below are some favorite instructional videos.

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