This article is adapted from How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking, Chapter 3. If you would like a free downloadable copy of this chapter, click here.
When we started this business, I called a contact in Minneapolis—where General Mills is located– who connected me with the right person in sales. After I explained what we were doing, she said she would send samples. In a week, a truck showed up with 20 different kinds of flour. Several weeks later, we had nailed it down to two that made really great bread. One of these is still our primary flour for bread machine mixes.
Great bread is a matter of using the right ingredients and the right techniques— there’s no single secret that will make perfect bread. But really great bread is readily attainable with:
- The right flour.
- An understanding of yeast.
- A good dough conditioner.
- A baker’s thermometer.
Now, this isn’t everything that goes into great bread but the baker that is armed with these four tools is likely to be baking great bread.
A thermometer is the baker’s secret weapon but flour is the secret ingredient.
Most commercial bread bakers are going to use flours with 10% to 14% protein—bread flour (many pizza doughs and artisan breads are made with flours or flour blends in the 10% range. Chewy breads are made with flours in the 12% to 14% range.)
Commercial bakers have access to dozens of different flours. If you want really good bread, buy a good quality bread flour—even if you have to make a deal with a local baker.
If you buy your flour at the grocery store be aware that all flours are not equal. They will have different protein contents and other characteristics. Name brands are likely to do a better job of holding to a specification and will provide more consistent results.
You can get an idea of the protein content from the nutrition label. Divide the grams of protein by the grams in the serving size to get the approximate percentage of protein in the flour (subject to rounding error).
Yeast is a living organism. The gases expelled by the growing yeast are what leavens the bread. The skilled baker recognizes that with the dough, he or she is culturing a living organism and that the yeast must be growing in the right culture to create the gases to make light airy bread. The right culture is primarily a function of moisture, temperature, and pH or the acidity level.
The Dough Conditioner
Dough conditioner alters the pH of the dough (among other things) so that it enhances the growth of the yeast and it makes the dough more extensible. All else being equal, dough conditioner can make a good bread great.
You can buy dough conditioner (or dough enhancer as it is sometimes called) in some grocery stores or you can get our dough conditioner. Ours is a commercial dough conditioner that we have found to be very good.
We would not think of making bread without a thermometer. We use it to measure water temperature (when we use our bread machines, we measure the water temperature to exactly 80 degrees—not one degree off. When we make bread in our stand-type mixer or by hand, we use water between 100 degrees and 110 degrees). We nearly always measure the temperature of the bread when it comes from the oven. And you can use a thermometer to measure the temperature of the dough to make sure that you have the right temperature for your yeast to grow in. You can buy an insta-read thermometer at most department stores and we offer a larger-face baker’s thermometer on our site.