If You Want to Make the Best Bread, Here’s How It’s Done!
Books have been written about baking bread but we’ll give you the essentials so you won’t have to read a thousand pages. This guide will make you a better bread baker. Ready? Here we go!
The Bread Making Essentials
Use Only the Best Bread Flour for Making Bread
Flour is specialized. Bread flour is for making bread and pastry flour is for making cookies and cakes. Professional bakeries rarely use all-purpose flour which is a compromise.
Do not use all-purpose flour for bread; it doesn’t have enough protein to form the gluten.
We recommend bread flour with 11% or more protein. After trying many bread flours, we use Harvest King by General Mills nearly exclusively in our white breads. Use it if you can find it.
For “whole wheat” we use General Mills Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour. If over 40% whole wheat, we add more wheat protein (marketed as “gluten”) to the flour. We never exceed 40% rye flour in our rye breads and usually add wheat protein to the flour.
Gluten is formed from the protein in the flour. The more protein, all else being equal, the more gluten your bread dough will have and the more capacity it will have to capture gas expelled by the yeast. Gluten causes the elasticity of the bread dough and creates the chewy texture we love in bread.
Kneading the Bread Dough: How Gluten is Formed
Now for a little nerdy science. Wheat flour contains two important proteins: gliadin and glutenin. When these proteins are hydrated and worked mechanically–kneaded–the two proteins combine with water to form tiny strands of gluten that link and crosslink to form a microscopic mesh that captures gas causing the dough to expand.
Making bread is all about maximizing gluten formation. A good dough conditioner will assist by improving extensibility and the ability to capture gas. A good dough conditioner will also make the bread more acidic, which yeast prefers, and is slightly hygroscopic, slowing the staling of the bread.
Dough conditioners are proprietary products and not all are equal. We add dough conditioner to all our bread mixes and have found that dough with conditioner adds another inch in loaf height and therefore lighter, airier bread.
How to Knead the Dough
As explained, kneading the bread is important to maximize the gluten in the dough. It’s an essential step in making bread. You can knead the bread with the dough hook in your stand-type mixer, in a bread machine, or by hand. I grew up kneading bread by hand. It takes about 15 minutes to knead bread by hand. It’s easier to show than to tell, but to knead your dough by hand, you press the heels of your hands into the dough and pull the dough back over itself to press the heals of your hands back into the dough again.
Depending on the speed of the machine, it takes six or eight minutes to knead the bread with your mixer and dough hook. The gluten is formed sufficiently when it becomes stretchy and elastic. Grab the dough between your thumb and forefinger and pull. It should be stretchy enough that you pull the dough into a thin band before it breaks.
I love kneading the dough by hand–when I have the time. There’s something about doing it by hand that is personal and brings you closer to the bread-making process with more appreciation for your bread.
Of course, your bread machine will do the kneading for you.
Let the Bread Dough Rise Until Nearly Doubled
Bread is organic; cookies and muffins are chemical. Yeast spores are alive and like most other living organisms; they multiply, feed, and expel waste. In the right environment–warm and moist–the number of organisms will double about every ten minutes. At the end of the rise, there is a lot more yeast in your dough than at the start. The ideal temperature for yeast growth is 79 degrees.
Yeast has the ability to convert the starches in the dough to sugars for energy. That’s why breads without sugar, such as French bread, work. The yeast expels a liquid which converts to a gas, carbon dioxide, and alcohol. The alcohol gives bread it’s yeasty flavor and the gas makes the dough expand and rise.
So this first rise gives the yeast a chance to become active and multiply and allows the gas and the alcohol to disperse through the dough. Generally, you want to let that process work until the volume of the dough as nearly doubled. How long that takes is a function of how warm your kitchen is.
It is important to cover your dough while it rises so that the surface does not dry and become inelastic. It is common to stretch plastic over the top of the bowl. But if the bread rises up to the plastic, it will impede the rise of the bread dough.
A better answer is to use a proofing bag. A proofing bag is a large plastic bag in which you place your bread bowls or pans, close, and let your dough rise–a mini greenhouse. We sell proofing bags. They are 32 inches long, so you can slide a baking sheet of rolls into one.
Forming the Loaves, the Second Rise, and Knowing When to Put the Bread in the Oven
Whether you’re making a free-standing loaf, dinner rolls, or a loaf in a pan; it’s all the same for forming a basic loaf.
Pull the dough around its center— as if it has a ball in the middle, tuck the seams into the bottom of the loaf, and place the dough into the pan.
The Second Rise
This is the rise that counts. This determines how good your bread is going to be.
Don’t worry about the time. Let it rise until the dough is full of gas. It will be puff and soft. If you gently poke it with your finger, a little dent will remain.
Watch for air bubbles rising to the surface. They will continue to expand until they become blisters. As soon as you see bubbles under the surface of the dough, it’s time to bake. If blisters have formed, poke them with a toothpick and hurry your loaves to the oven.
Our test kitchen is air-conditioned. It’s too cool for optimal yeast growth and we have to be patient or find a shortcut. Often we will set dough in proofing bags in front of the south-facing windows in the kitchen.
“Last week we were making hamburger buns. (Jalapeno-cheddar burger buns are out-of-this-world good.) But they weren’t rising fast enough. So we were running baking sheets with rising buns down to the parking lot.
“If the sun is shining on a car, the car acts like an accelerated proofing box. Don’t leave the dough there for over about 20 minutes or the dough will take over your car. Use the car for only a kick start and then finish proofing in the kitchen.”
Here are more articles on how to get the perfect dough rise:
Bake Your Bread to the Right Internal Temperature
At 350 degrees, most loaves will be baking in about 25 minutes, and rolls will bake in 15 to 20 minutes. But don’t count on the time; It’s the internal temperature that is important. Your bread will be done when the internal temperature has reached 195 degrees for regular loaves or 210 degrees for some crusty artisan loaves.
Checking to see if your loaf sounds hollow or if the crust is brown enough are not good indicators of whether your bread is done. Using a kitchen thermometer is the only reliable way to tell if the bread is done. Stick the probe to the center of the bread in two places and check the temperature. You can stick the probe through the side of the loaf so as not to mar the top.
If the top is browning and the bread is not baked, cover the top of the bread with aluminum foil and continue baking.