How to Make a Perfect Loaf of Bread
Talk of joy: there may be things better than beef stew and baked potatoes and home-made bread - there may be.
--Ray Stannard Baker
Words Set the Mood
Last week I had an online conversation with a friend who is a professional author; I told him that he had helped me greatly in my writing by encouraging me to engage all of the senses of those who read my food-related articles.
Don't just tell them how to bake a cookie--describe to them the golden color of the crisp edges, allow them to breath in the sweet, buttery aroma, let them savor the gooey melted dark chocolate chips and feel the crunch of the sugar crystals on top.
. . . I'm just going to pause now to allow that so soak in for a moment.
And now I'm going to give you something else on which to dream . . . imagine a loaf of white bread. No, not the cheap lump in a plastic bag at your supermarket, the tasteless stuff that can be squished and compressed into a cube the size of a stick of butter. I'm talking about homemade bread, warm from the oven, ready to be sliced into a slab as thick as you wish. And as you slice that loaf, the dark golden crust shatters revealing a soft white interior of whisper-soft nooks and crannies just begging to soak up . . . homemade grape jelly, or soft whipped butter, or perhaps a dab of gravy or Italian spaghetti sauce.
You say you've never baked bread? Don't worry, I will guide you step-by-step. What's that, you tried before and your bread was flat and leaden? If you follow my guide you will be rewarded with a loaf of which you can be proud.
So, let's get started.
Such Simple Ingredients
There are some foods that are amazing in their complexity--the layering of flavors and textures, the unique blends of herbs and spices. I'm thinking of French cassoulet, rich Italian bolognese, perhaps a Latin American mole sauce. All of them are bold and elaborate, employ a lengthy list of ingredients, and require long hours of cooking. Each of them, when made correctly, is outstanding, memorable, Heavenly.
And then there is homemade bread . . . so exquisite in its pure simplicity.
Water, flour, yeast, salt.
How They Work Together
Flour is the foundation for a good loaf of bread, and a key component of that foundation is protein (otherwise known as gluten). Despite what you might think, gluten is not a poisonous substance. It is a nutrient, a basic part of many of our foods. When viewed under a microscope, protein looks like a spider web; it is that “web” that traps carbon dioxide bubbles. The other important part of flour is starch. When heated, starch becomes firm and supports the protein webs.
Water, when mixed with the flour starts a chain reaction. Water reacts with starch molecules and creates the gluten bonds (webs) that hold everything together. Water also carries the sugars to the yeast, helping it to bloom and form the gases that make bread dough rise.
Salt adds flavor and it also chemically alters the gluten to make it stronger. Salt also slightly inhibits the work of the yeast; it slows it down so that bread doesn’t rise too quickly. Why is this important? If the dough rises before the gluten strands have become tight and strong, the bread will collapse. (Think of how much sturdier is a balloon than a bubble).
And, yeast. Here’s the really cool part—did you know that yeast is a living thing? Enzymes in the yeast, when mixed with water, break down the starch molecules, converting them to simple sugars. And why? Yeast eats sugar. Sugar goes in, is digested by the yeast microbe, and then carbon dioxide is formed. It’s that gas, trapped in the webs, that makes your dough rise.
Equipment You Will Need
- dry and liquid measuring cups
- measuring spoons
- stand mixer with large bowl
- large sturdy mixing spoon
- large mixing bowl
- baking sheet
- very sharp knife or blade for scoring dough
- cooling rack
- instant read thermometer (optional but nice to have)
- 5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 packages active dry yeast (not quick-rise or bread machine)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups warm water (110 to 120 degrees F.)
Mixing and Kneading
1. In a large mixing bowl combine 2 cups of the flour, the yeast, and salt. Add warm water. Beat at low speed of electric mixer for 30 seconds, scraping the sides of the bowl.
2. Stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can with a spoon. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and begin to knead. At first the dough will appear ragged, but as you continue to knead it will become smooth and elastic. Total kneading time will be about 8 to 10 minutes.
How to Knead Bread Dough
Fold the dough over and push down with the heels of your hands. Give the dough a quarter turn, then fold and push again. Repeat until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Proofing the Dough
3. When you have finished kneading, place the dough in a large, lightly greased mixing bowl. Turn the dough over in the bowl so that the entire ball of dough is greased. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place, away from drafts.
4. Let the dough sit in this cozy safe place until doubled in size, about 1 hour. One way to test if the dough has risen enough is to lightly and quickily press two fingertips into the dough about 1/2 inch. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for the next step.
5. Punch down the dough by pushing your fist into the center of the dough. Pull the edges of the dough to the center, and then place the dough on a lightly floured surface. It will be smooth and bubbles will be visible under the surface.
What is Proofing?
Proofing is what happens when you allow the yeast in dough to ferment, thus causing gas bubbles which inflate the dough. Why do we want "inflated" dough? It is the inflation, the formation of bubbles that create a sturdy crust, a tender crumb, chewiness, and flavor. If proofing (rising) does not occur, you will have a flat, and probably very dense and hard loaf of bread--something more akin to hardtack than bread.
Shaping and Preparing for the Oven
6. Divide the dough in half. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes. (This is to allow the gluten strands to relax so that the dough is easier to shape).
7. Lightly flour your hands and the top of the dough. Pick up the dough with both hands, thumbs on top and fingertips underneath. Use your thumbs to smooth the surface of the dough, moving from top to the underside. Rotate the dough and repeat 3 or 4 times until you have a round of dough that is perfectly smooth on top.
8. Place the dough smooth side up on a greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled in size (about 45 minutes).
9. While the dough is rising, preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
10. When your dough is risen and ready to place in the oven, score the top with a sharp blade. The purpose for this is two-fold -- it creates a decorative top and (more importantly) releases the pressure inside of the dough so that it expands evenly while baking.
Baking and Testing for Doneness
Bake in 375 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Not sure the bread has baked long enough? Turn a loaf over and tap the bottom with your thumb. If it sounds "hollow", your bread is done. You can also use an instant-read thermometer. The internal temperature of the bread should be 190 degrees F.
Immediately after you take your loaves from the oven, remove them from the baking sheet and place on a wire rack to cool. If they remain on the baking sheet the bottoms will steam and become soggy. Setting the finished loaves on an elevated cooling rack allows for air circulation and insures that the crust will remain "crusty".
Now, All That is Left to Do...
...is eat a warm slice of freshly baked bread.
Questions & Answers
I love to bake and have tried adding eggs, sugar, and milk and baking at 375 for 35-40 minutes. I have used combinations of bread flour and white wheat. The bread breaks apart when cutting it into pieces. Why? Any suggestions?
I’m sorry that you’re having difficulties. Some bakers use milk in place of water to create a loaf that will have a longer shelf life. And the use of sugar in bread will increase browning. However, there are down-sides to using milk and sugar. Fat (in milk) and sugar slow gluten development and weaken it.
I suspect that the reason your bread is not holding together is because your dough did not form enough gluten and/or needed to be proofed (allowed to rise) for a longer period of time. Some things to keep in mind:
• Knead your dough for 8-10 minutes and then test to see if it is done. If it holds a ball shape and springs back when you poke it, it’s ready.
• If your loaf has not proofed enough the heat of the oven will cause it to raise in one big burst of energy, but not have the elastic structure to hold it together.
• Loaves that have proofed long enough will be doubled in size. Also, use the finger test. Gently prod with your finger in the side of the loaf. If the indentation remains, your bread is ready to go into the oven.
Find a recipe that you like and stick to it. Be precise with your measurements. While cooking is an “art” I feel that baking is more science. If you have other questions please feel free to write again.
Can I use this recipe to make yeast rolls?
Generally speaking, to make rolls instead of a loaf of bread, divide the portion of dough for a single loaf into two, roll each half into a long strip (18" or so), and then divide into rolls. I usually divide strips into 10 to 12 rolls, so one loaf is equivalent to 20 to 24 rolls. I use a bench scraper to divide my dough, and if you bake and divide dough often it's definitely worth getting one, but you could also use a knife. Bake at same temperature for 15 to 20 minutes, or about half the baking time for a loaf.
Why does my bread dough deflate when it goes into the oven?
Without knowing more (for example, what type of flour are you using, how long did you knead the dough, etc.) it is difficult to troubleshoot your problem. My guess is that the dough was allowed to proof (rise) for too long. Think of the raw dough as a balloon that needs to be inflated. The yeast gives off gas which inflates the dough, but it is possible to allow TOO much gas, creating an environment that stretches the gluten strands beyond what they can reasonably support. Be sure to use the two-finger method of testing your proofed dough. If the dough has been allowed to proof for too long (I understand, sometimes life happens), gently punch down the risen dough and start over, allowing it to proof a second time.
© 2016 Linda Lum