When it comes to making bread, I believe it is an art, and like all art forms, there are a few essentials that I would never go without. Here are a few tools that I consider essentials in my kitchen for making bread.
But first, consider the Art and Science of Baking.
The Art and Science of Baking
Baking bread is not hard, but it pays to know the essentials and the science about baking. We’ve written a book by that title: How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking. If you are serious about baking, read that. But it’s over 200 pages. This is a five-minute read, a good refresher.
Bread- Making Essential #1: A Kitchen Thermometer
You cannot bake bread without a good thermometer.
Getting the Right Temperature for Yeast
Yeast is very sensitive to temperature; you have to create the right environment for it to live and grow.
Most recipes are going to tell you to add water at 110 degrees. In a bread machine, it’s a closed environment with heat coming from the motor and for our bread mixes, we tell folks to add water at exactly 80 degrees. But the goal is not to have bread dough at 110 degrees—that’s way too warm.
The ideal temperature for the yeast to grow in bread dough is 79 degrees. Water at 110 degrees mixes with cooler ingredients and cools in contact with the air and, ideally, you have bread dough somewhere around 79 degrees. How sensitive is yeast to temperature? A ten-degree difference in temperature can change the rate of yeast growth by 100%.
But dough is not the only thing you will measure with a thermometer. You’ll use a thermometer to tell when the bread is baked.
Getting the Internal Temperature Just Right
For the bread to set properly, the internal temperature needs to reach 190 degrees for most breads. The color of the bread isn’t going to tell you that. Thumping the loaf will not tell you that.
To measure the inside temperature, turn your baked loaf out into your gloved hand or a kitchen towel. Turn the loaf and from the bottom, stick the temperature probe into the center of the loaf. It should read 190 degrees. If not, set it back into the pan and bake it for another 5 minutes.
Bread-Making Essential #2: Dough Conditioner
A good dough conditioner does three things: It “conditions” the protein strands so they are longer and more elastic, it then holds more gas and makes the bread lighter and taller. Your loaves should be an inch taller.
It makes the dough more acidic. Yeast grows better in a slightly acidic environment. (There is a reason that our grandmothers added a tablespoon of lemon juice to their bread. Not very precise, but the idea works.)
Dough conditioners are hygroscopic. Hygroscopic materials attract moisture. It tends to retard staling.
Bread-MakingEssential #3: An Oven Thermometer
Ovens drive me nuts! The temperature is all over the board. In my experience, they’re not very precise even when new. But the mechanics of the heat and cool cycle means that they are too cool at one point and too hot at another. They heat until they’re above target and then cool until they’re below target.
The solution is an oven thermometer. Hang it off the rack with the provided hook and you know what the temperature is every time you open the oven. Pretty soon you get to know your oven and your recipe, and you’re a better baker as well as a pro at making bread.
You’ll be surprised how long it takes your oven to recover between batches of cookies.
It’s worth a few bucks to know how hot your oven really is when you stick your bread in.
There you have it, what we consider the three essentials in our bread making.
What About Other Bread-Making “Essentials”?
I love proofing bags. Sticking my bread dough in a giant, oversized bag beats the dickens out of stretching plastic across the top of a bread bowl. It creates a greenhouse without restricting the dough. I love it but it’s not essential.
I use a high protein bread flour, at least 11% protein. I don’t need to add more protein with wheat gluten. If I’m using mostly whole wheat flour, I add wheat gluten. Whole wheat flour is lower protein to start with and the bran tends to cut the gluten strands making it less effective in trapping gas.
Don’t use it to bake loaves. It relaxes the gluten and makes the dough more pliable and eliminates springback. It’s wonderful for pizza dough and flour tortillas but not loaves.
(Updated from February 3, 2016)