There are four major steps to bread making: mixing, rising, forming the loaves, and baking. In this article, we’ll address the first of these steps: mixing the dough.
There are three easy to accomplish objectives to the mixing process:
(1) To evenly distribute the ingredients.
(2) To develop the gluten.
(3) To initiate fermentation.
If you understand how these three processes are accomplished, you understand mixing.
Distribution of the ingredients is accomplished through mixing and is a straightforward process. Mixing the water and the dry ingredients together can be done by hand or by machine—a stand-type mixer, a bread machine, or a food processor. Different ingredients, different water to flour ratios, and different equipment dictate different mixing times. In any of these instances, once the dough has been worked enough to develop the gluten, the ingredients will be distributed adequately.
Gluten is what gives bread its chewy texture and is critical to a satisfactory loaf. Fortunately, with a good high-protein flour, gluten development is easy.
Wheat flour contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin. When these two proteins are hydrated and the dough is mechanically worked, they come together to form strands of gluten. Think of them as tiny twisted ropes.
How that mechanical manipulation takes place is of little consequence. A dough hook in a stand-type mixer works marvelously well. But then, so do the heels of your hands.
Even if you are committed to your stand-type mixer, we recommend that you knead an occasional batch by hand. Mixing the dough by hand is an intimate experience that gives you a feel for the dough as it transforms through the kneading process. You will feel the dough change as it absorbs water and as the gluten strands develop.
Most people knead the dough by pressing the dough with the heels of their hands, folding the dough back over with a rolling motion, and pressing again. (It’s easier to do than to describe.) Depending on how fast you work, it will take about fifteen minutes to develop the gluten.
When the gluten is developed, the dough will be elastic. Traditionally, the “window-pane test” is used to gauge gluten development. Pinch a small piece of the dough and pull it away from the dough ball. It should be elastic, almost rubbery, and pull away into a thin membrane.
With a few batches, you will be able to gauge gluten development by the feel of the dough, if you are mixing by hand, or by the appearance of the dough ball if you are using a stand-type mixer. Again, gluten development is easy.
The fermentation process is initiated with the dissolving of the yeast and the distribution of that yeast through the dough.
Yeast is a living organism. As such, it requires three conditions to sustain itself. The first of those conditions is moisture. The yeast spores are encapsulated in the granules of starch or sugar that you find in your packet. If you are using instant yeast, the yeast granules will dissolve as they are worked through the wet dough. If you are using active yeast, you will need to dissolve the yeast in a cup of water and then mix the resultant slurry into the dough. yeast must be in a moist environment to be active but can stay dormant in a dry environment.
The second condition is temperature. yeast grows (the yeast cells multiply and divide) best at 70 to 80 degrees. At 40 degrees, the yeast becomes dormant. At 120 degrees, the yeast begins to die. Most recipes call for water at 105 to 110 degrees; the real target is to create a dough with a temperature around 80 degrees.
Yeast is very sensitive to temperature. A difference of ten degrees in the dough temperature makes a big difference in how fast yeast grows. Because temperature is so critical, most experienced bakers use a thermometer.
The third condition is food. yeast is capable of converting starches to sugars which are then converted to energy, the carbon dioxide gas that form the air bubbles found in the dough, and by-products–mainly an alcohol that gives bread its yeasty flavor. Sugar or other sweeteners like honey or molasses accelerate the growth of yeast by providing ready food. Incidentally, salt slows down the growth. As little as one-half teaspoon of salt more or less in a two loaf recipe will make a significant difference in the growth of the yeast. Always measure salt carefully.
There are three caveats in the mixing process:
(1) Salt kills yeast. Either mix the salt through the flour before adding the yeast or place the salt and the yeast on opposite sides of the bowl before beginning to mix.
(2) Don’t over mix. You have to mix the ingredients long enough to develop the gluten. Once the gluten is well-developed, stop mixing. If you continue mixing, you will break-down the gluten. It’s not as if there is a narrow window between when the gluten is developed and the gluten starts to break-down; over mixing usually occurs when a stand-type mixer is left running unattended. (By the way, many stand-type mixers will walk off the counter while mixing dough if left unattended.)
(3) Use the right water temperature. We always use a thermometer. Investing in a $12 insta-read thermometer will go a long way toward assuring consistent results.
The bread making process is remarkably forgiving. If the temperature is off a little, the bread still works. If it is under or over mixed, it still works. It may not be perfect bread (and who is to say what is perfect) but most homemade bread is darned good bread.