As with most skills worth learning, bread baking requires a dedicated piece of your time: Time first spent on learning and understanding your ingredients, then on understanding the spectacular organic and natural processes that take place between those ingredients to yield your baking dough. With this understanding, you are then left to pure instinct.
Oddly enough, the instinct is the easy part. Trusting your instincts is where most cooks fear they will go wrong — they won’t. It is the touch of the dough — the way it springs against your touch, and the way the smell of sugars caramelizing promise that the crust is forming properly — that will guide you toward perfection. For your efforts, every sense is rewarded. But beyond those ethereal and aesthetic pleasures, perfectly baked bread will above all else inspire you. Bread is, in every respect, the staff of life.
That’s not to say bread isn’t easy. In many respects it is, particularly when yeast isn’t involved. Quick breads and cake breads instantly come to mind and, of course, every seasoned cook has a small repertoire of recipes at hand. Effortless and essential, quick and cake breads deliver home-baked freshness to your table, without compromising your time to get it there.
There is only one secret to achieving moist, light quick breads. Stop working your dough — or batter, if you prefer — before you think you should. Because there is no yeast to stretch the gluten, and your leavening agent is mostly chemical (in the form of baking soda or baking powder) and mechanical (in the form of creaming butter and sugar or eggs), one stir too many and the irreversible process of hardening the gluten begins. You want your ingredients thoroughly combined, and any nuts or fruits well distributed, but a few good stirs should do the trick.
For wonderfully different cake-like bread that is both sweet and savory, Susan Herrmann Loomis created a dried fig and hazelnut bread (cake aux figues et au noisettes) inspired by a meal in the garden of the Musee de la Vie Romantique in Paris’ 9th arrondissement. She demonstrated it to me during a wonderful week in Louviers, France at her home On Rue Tatin. A quick bread in the traditional sense, this is a delight when served in small slices as an aperitif, with a chilled glass of Savenniere or a flute of champagne.
Recipe: Dried Fig and Hazelnut Bread
The aroma wafting from a kitchen where bread has been set to bake is one that is undeniably intoxicating. Even with a quick bread, your kitchen is a delight to the senses. This is, in large part, due to the multitude of processes that occur beginning with the fermentation of the yeast, and then the development of the dough. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want you first to understand the core components to the bread-baking puzzle. It is upon this that everything else is built. If you miss something, chances are you will miss it here. Technique is, after all, a simple exercise of following instruction. Methode, on the other hand, is the art of building and developing flavor. With the confidence of a basic knowledge in place, and your instincts intact, you will be well on your way to creating fine home-baked breads.
Bread baking, in the truest sense of the word, begins with the most basic of ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water — yet, depending on the methode and technique employed, the flavors will range from delicate to robust
Flour is the essence of bread, and wheat the grain of choice from which bread flour is milled. Wheat contains more gluten than other grains, which is a necessary organic component to the fermentation process.
Designated by the amount of gluten protein it contains, most bread baking flours you will encounter have between 9.5 and 13.5 percent gluten (9.5 to 11.5 percent gluten in all-purpose flour; 11.5 to 13.5 percent gluten in bread flour). Artisanal bakers often select from a variety of flours milled from a variety of wheat. From hard wheat to soft wheat, red wheat to white wheat, winter wheat to spring wheat, each strain contains different qualities, all of which account for the distinguishing flavors and textures of bread from one bakery to another.
As home bread bakers, we are often limited to the types of flours our local grocer carries. Fortunately, most of the recipes you’ll encounter will work well with any brand of commercially available bread flour, and in most instances, with all-purpose flour. The primary difference between brands and types is in the ability of the flour to absorb water, which translates in the amount of time you will have to mix, or knead, the dough.
Unbleached flour is the preferable choice among flours. Its yellowish tint is created by the presence of beta-carotene, which during the baking process contributes to a better aroma and better flavor, not to mention the visually alluring creaminess to the crumb. Of course, any nutritional benefits conveyed by the presence of the beta-carotene are lost with the high heat used in baking.
Instant yeast or active dry yeast are probably the two most widely available yeasts, and absolutely suitable for home bread baking. Instant yeast has 25% more living yeast cells per teaspoon than an equal amount of active dry yeast. Instant yeast, though you may see it packaged as “rapid-rise” or “fast-rising” is, contrary to its name, rather slow to awaken. And in bread baking, in most cases, slow will better suit you.
Active dry yeast is grown on larger grains of nutrients that have to be dissolved first in warm water. For most, this extra step is simply a nuisance. But it is quite easy: warm water, sprinkle the yeast on the water, wait 2 to 6 minutes and then move on. Instant yeast, on the other hand, comes in such small grains that it instantly hydrates when the dough hydrates. Consequently, it can be added directly to the flour.
The yeast cells go to work digesting the sugar present in the flour. This process creates carbon dioxide and ethanol as by-products. The carbon dioxide molecules attach to the gluten in the flour, stretching the proteins as the gases expand. The number of viable yeast cells, along with the temperature and dough environment (warmth and moisture) determines your rate of fermentation. The process of fermentation is commonly known as the first rise.
What you must understand about yeast in the fermentation process is that yeast feeds on the sugars present in the dough, converting the sugar to carbon dioxide and ethanol as a digestive by-product. The ethanol evaporates during baking, while the carbon dioxide leavens, or raises, the dough. Too much yeast will leaven the dough too quickly, exhausting the available supply of sugars. This leaves you with an alcohol aftertaste, as the yeast turns on itself, creating a less desirable by-product, glutathione, which is responsible for the ammonia-like taste in the dough.
Instant, as well as active dry yeast, will keep best in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Once the package is opened, the yeast will begin to absorb moisture from the air and slowly come to life. The longer it is exposed to air, the more potency the yeast will lose. If necessary, you can freeze yeast in an airtight container. The freezing will not kill the yeast, and most likely any reduction in potency will be minimal.
Though I have a penchant for any tool or piece of electronic wizardry that reduces the time of manual labor for me, when it comes to bread baking, they are little more than a luxury. Kneading is one of the most time-honored aspects of the bread baking process, and it is the only way to understand the feel of the dough. While electric stand mixers work equally well, and only in some cases does a food processor suit the task, in the end, you will turn out the dough onto a floured surface and complete the task of kneading.
The tools you select to do your kneading or mixing may vary from recipe to recipe, depending on the type of bread dough and the additional ingredients you plan to add. Regardless, kneading has three primary functions: distribution of the ingredients, development of the gluten and initiating fermentation.
As for the other tools you might want to have, the most basic of kitchens will be well-equipped. Shaping and proofing baskets, bowls and cloths are wonderful luxuries to have, but they are absolutely unnecessary. From the most expensive French bannetons (bentwood willow baskets popular for shaping breads during the proofing stage) to the dollar store bread baskets, or to the stainless-steel and glass mixing bowls you may have on hand, adapting a basket or bowl for proofing needn’t consume you with worry.
The same goes for couches, or the linen proofing cloths for freestanding loaves. You can adapt a white, old tablecloth by lightly misting it with spray oil and dusting with flour to prevent your dough from sticking.
Much has been written about the virtues of baking stones. Logically, yes, they do retain and radiate heat much more effectively than sheet pans, and are most likely to replicate the hearth ovens of artisanal bakeries. Are they necessary? No. Will they make a difference in the resulting quality of your bread? Perhaps, but only marginally.
Flavor is developed in the fermentation process, which a baking stone will never improve upon. At best, a stone will promote more even baking and give you a slightly more crisp crust. Depending on the quality and performance of your oven, a stone may be a good investment. In most cases, you can improvise to accommodate for your oven’s shortcomings.
Fermentation and Proofing:
Most breads are fermented and proofed at room temperature. You would do well when you read “room temperature” in a bread recipe to think “warm place”, and by “warm place” think about 73 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature promotes a slower rise, than say a commercial proofing oven or the proofing function of a professional-grade home oven appliance. But, in the case of bread making, a slower rise will do more to develop the flavor of your bread, allowing the organic process of fermentation to slowly take place.
I find my kitchen environment — indeed, my home — to be too cold. During the winter months, I place my proofing bowl (a glazed ceramic pottery bowl I found at the National Apple Harvest last year) on my counter beneath my under-cabinet lights. These lights produce a nice warm bath for the bowl. The proofing bowl, tucked back on the counter under the lights, keeps the bowl out of any drafts circulating about the kitchen. A small room, with a sunny window and a door to close the heat in, will often warm to a desirable temperature, and is another option for the home baker.
In the summertime, when warmth isn’t necessarily the problem so much as humidity, I’ve had my best results when I turn my oven on to the “warm” setting just until preheated. This allows the oven to warm generously. Then I turn it off, and keep the door closed. Done about an hour before I am ready to begin my bread, I find that when my dough is ready for fermentation and the first rise, the oven is warm and the perfect environment for proofing.
Many processes take place during the baking stage. The critical piece, however, occurs in the oven where three elemental processes occur: the gelatinization of the starches, the caramelization of the sugars, and the coagulation and roasting of the proteins. Each will affect the quality of your final product.It is the baking process where heat must be directly radiated into the bread to facilitate these processes, which is why so many advocate baking stones. Steam is the other functional component. Whether you choose to use a baking stone is a personal decision. However, when it comes to baking hearth breads, the use of steam is not optional.
Steam delays the onset of gelatinization (or the thickening of the dough mass transforming it from dough to bread), allowing the bread additional time to rise in the oven (also called oven spring). It also provides an attractive glaze or shine to the bread. Steam is valuable to the baking process only in the initial stages, during the first half of baking time. After that, the bread needs a dry environment in order to develop a properly crisp crust.
To steam, many advocate pouring water onto the oven floor or misting the walls of the oven. For a variety of reasons, including the damage you can cause to your lights, glass doors and the oven floor itself (in a gas oven, of course, you may dowse the pilot) resulting from the severe temperature differentials, I have learned to avoid misting all together. A better method is to place an empty heavy duty pan or cast iron skillet on a lower shelf or oven floor during the preheating process. Before placing the bread in the oven, add hot water (the hotter the better so as not to rob the oven of its heat) to the pan. Added care is required here to prevent being burned from the steam it will create.
Once the steaming is underway, keep the oven door closed. Opening will cause the heat and moisture to escape, affecting the outcome of your bread. Once you are halfway through the cooking process, you may want to rotate your bread to get an even bake. At this point the steam will have evaporated; it is safe to open your oven door.
I hate this part. Unfortunately, it is critical to the baking process, and rendering of a quality loaf.
When a loaf comes out of your oven, the internal temperature is (at a minimum) 180 F. Depending on the size of the loaf, it may take several hours to cool to room temperature. During this time the bread will continue to evaporate moisture, drying out and correspondingly elevating the flavor. Above 160 F the dough is still technically gelatinizing, which is why cutting into a properly baked, but still hot loaf will seem doughy or under-baked. The starches, though fully saturated and swelled with moisture, still need to set. The trapped steam, evaporating through the crust or reforming as moisture and absorbed by the crumb of the bread, must be allowed to dissipate for outstanding results. Interrupting this process will produce a soggy, seemingly improperly baked loaf.
[Ed: But it’s just so hard!]
As difficult as it is to wait, patience here is greatly rewarded. A cool loaf will yield its maximum flavor and a rich crumb texture, with a crisp crust to deliver that sumptuous divinity as old as creation. If it is warm bread you prefer, gently reheat cooled slices of bread wrapped in aluminum foil in a preheated 350 F oven.
Aromatic yeast breads can be made with relative ease and only a small amount of actual hands-on time. I’ve selected a Ciabatta as a terrific example of basic bread baking technique. Basic technique, yes. Anything but ordinary results.
Another delightful experience with a commercial yeast dough is found in Armenian-style flatbread. Developed from an enriched, stiff dough and using commercial yeast rather than natural yeast, a relatively simple formula makes bread and crackers that are perfect for your table’s breadbasket.
Lavash, though usually called Armenian flatbread, also has Iranian roots, and is now eaten throughout the Middle East and around the world. It is similar to many other Middle Eastern and North African flatbreads known by different names, such as mankoush or mannaeesh (Lebanese), barbari (Iranian), khoubiz or bhobz (Arabian), aiysh (Egyptian), kesret and mella (Tunisian), pide or pita (Turkish), and pideh (Armenian). The main difference between these breads is either how thick or thin the dough is rolled out, or the type of oven in which they are baked (or on which they are baked, as many of these breads are cooked on stones or red-hot pans with a convex surface). Some of the breads form a pocket like a pita bread, and some, like the injera of Ethiopia and Eritrea, are thicker and served as sponges to soak up spicy sauces.
The key to crisp lavash crackers is to roll out the dough paper-thin. The dough sheet can be cut into crackers in advance or snapped into shards after baking. The shards make a nice presentation when arranged in baskets. Because the dough is so stiff, it is easier to knead by hand than in a machine.
Recipe: Lavash Crackers
The most common technique for developing deeper flavor and better texture in the finished loaf is to start with a sponge or a sour — a starter. A starter is typically a mixture of flour, liquid, and commercial (store bought) yeast that is allowed to stand for anywhere from a few hours to overnight before it is mixed with the balance of the dough ingredients.
Starters are where most people stop. They see hours or days and think ‘too much work’. But, as in bread making, the actual hands-on time is minimal. Starters are no different. And, here, with this seeded rye, the 15 minutes of effort transform this bread into a remarkably complex and deeply flavorful bread. The aroma is heavenly; the flavor is endless.
Whatever you do, don’t read up on rye bread and rye starters until after you’ve tried this recipe. Rye flour and rye starters are deemed to be the trickiest of all in the bread baking world. But before you buy into that notion, bake this bread first. You’ll never understand what the fuss is all about.One note about the rye starter: If you’re not going to make rye bread on a regular basis, it is best to build a new starter every time you want to bake it. Retarding a rye starter is more difficult than a white starter. More than a week in the refrigerator, and it will become too sour.Rye ferments much faster than other flours. Though this is a joy to experience — watching the bubbles and the seething sticky goo and enjoying the slightly sour aroma even dormant — it will continue to ferment. This requires constant attention, feeding, stirring and restoring. Trust me; I’ve tried. It’s not easy. You can freeze the starter, but once it thaws, you must be prepared to tend to it for 1 or 2 days until it is ready for use. Trust me when I say, just start with a new starter!
Recipe: Seeded Rye Bread
Inevitably, baking bread loaves or even buying an expertly made artisanal specimen results in leftovers. Even the fiendish of bread lovers will rarely finish an entire loaf. And, while breadcrumbs are always an appropriate option, why settle for crumbs when you can have a whole course? This savory bread pudding is the ultimate culmination of your bread baking efforts: leftovers transformed into savory elegance. Use this dish as a side or as a main course vegetarian meal.
Recipe: Savory Bread Pudding
Resources and Sources:
Breads from the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton. Copyright 1996 by Nancy Silverton (Villard Publishing)
Essentials of Baking. Copyright 2003 Weldon Owen Inc. and Williams-Sonoma, Inc.
Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads by Bernard Clayton, Jr. Copyright 1995 Bernard Clayton, Jr. (Simon & Schuster)
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. Copyright 2001 by Peter Reinhart (Ten Speed Press)
Dossier by Donna Marie Zotter
Originally Published in March 2005