Forkful Food’s Guide to the Basics of Breadmaking
Like most people, I’m trying to put my Corona downtime to good use, learn some new skills and brush up on some old ones. Top of the list is breadmaking and given that you can’t get bread flour or yeast for love nor money at the moment, I’m clearly not alone in planning to become a part time baker. So hopefully my GUIDE TO THE BASICS OF BREADMAKING will be timely aid to help you (and me!) navigate our way through the mysteries of rising, proving, kneading and knocking back.
I’ve taken the basic ingredients that make up a loaf of bread, and explained what they do, how they act and given outline quantities where possible. Then I’ve looked at the basic breadmaking technique and gone through each stage, explaining how to do it, what it’s for, and most importantly, how you can tell each stage is successfully completed. I haven’t included any recipes as this is general information which you should be able to apply to whatever recipe you are following. I hope it helps demystify the simple yet complex process that is bread making.
A basic loaf is made up of flour, yeast, salt, liquid and fat. Understanding a bit more about them will help you on your bread-making journey:
YEAST: A living organism that needs food (in the form of sugar in the flour) and warmth to grow. As the yeast grows it produces carbon dioxide which gets trapped in the dough creating bubbles (think bubble gum). Heat will kill yeast, and its action can be slowed down by excess salt, sugar or a cold environment.
There are different types of yeast which all need slightly different quantities and treatments:
- Fast action yeast: very easy to use as it can be added directly to the flour and doesn’t need to be activated. Use 1tsp/7g per 450g of flour
- Dried yeast: needs to be dissolved in a little water before it can be added to the flour with the rest of the wet ingredients. Use 15g dried yeast per 450g flour
- Fresh yeast: needs to be “sponged” before use – stir it together with a little water and 1 tsp of sugar, leave for 5 minutes until frothy, then add to the rest of the liquid and mix with the flour. You can buy fresh yeast from bakery counters and it freezes well. Use 30g per 450g of flour.
- Wild or natural yeasts – these form the basis for sourdough bread made from a “starter” created from the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in flour and the environment. Next level breadmaking!
FLOUR: Bread, or “strong” flour is made from wheat with a higher proportion of gluten than ordinary flour. Gluten is what makes bread dough stretchy and elastic. It is formed when liquid is added to the flour, and developed when the dough is kneaded.
LIQUID: Most recipes call for tepid (ie blood temperature) water (or other liquid); cold water/liquid will also work but it will take longer for the dough to rise. If your liquid is too hot, however, it will kill the yeast and your bread will fail. It’s really important to understand that every batch of flour will absorb water differently, so be prepared to add more water than stated in your recipe, and remember, when it comes to bread dough the mantra is “the wetter the better”.
SALT: You need a good amount of salt for a good flavour – generally around 1tsp of fine salt per 250g of flour. But beware, too much salt will slow the yeast down and could result in a dense, cakey-textured bread.
FAT: most breads have fats added to make a softer loaf – oil, melted butter or hard butter are most often used.
MIX – KNEAD – RISE – KNOCK BACK & SHAPE – PROVE – BAKE … EAT!!
MIXING: Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, add the oil and water, and mix well (with your hand, a wooden spoon, table knife. You can also use a stand mixer with dough hook or food processor – follow the manufacturer’s instructions). If the dough seems stiff or tight, add 1-2 tbsp water.
KNEADING: continues the mixing process and helps the gluten develop. There are many different kneading techniques, so find the one that suits you best (YouTube is full of videos). Alternatively, you can use a stand mixer and dough hook. Generally, it takes 10-15 minutes to knead by hand, 5-10 minutes in a mixer. Your dough will be sticky to start with, then gradually become smooth, elastic and satiny in appearance.
TEST: You can tell if you have kneaded your dough enough by rolling it into a ball and giving it a firm prod with your finger. If the indentation springs back quickly, you’ve done enough.
RISING: Rising is the stage when the dough is allowed to stand in order for the yeasts to reproduce, emitting carbon dioxide which stretches the gluten in the dough and makes it expand. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl cover with oiled cling film or a clean cloth and leave to rise until doubled in size. This will generally take an hour at an ambient temperature of 22°C – but it will take a bit longer in a cooler room. You can also rise your dough in the fridge, in which case it will take about 8 hours or overnight and should result in a more complex-flavoured bread.
TEST: When it looks like the dough has doubled in size, test to see if it has risen enough by using your fingers to make an indentation about ½ an inch into the dough. The indentation should remain, indicating that the gluten has been stretched to its full capacity.
KNOCKING BACK AND SHAPING: Once your dough has risen sufficiently, you need to give it a good punch (this is knocking back) until the dough is flattened, and then knead it for a couple of minutes. This process knocks out the bubbles that formed during the rise, re-distributes the yeast and evens out the final texture of the bread. It can now be shaped. Line a baking sheet with parchment and gently shape the dough into a ball. Place on the baking sheet, cover loosely with oiled clingfilm. Alternatively, shape your dough and place in a greased loaf tin. These come in 2lb/800g and 1lb/450g sizes and refer to the weight of the dough. As a rough guide, a 2lb (900g) loaf tin is about 21cm long, 11cm wide and 7cm high (8 x 4 x 3 inches approx) and a 1lb (450g) loaf tin is 16cm long, 11cm wide and 7cm high (6 x 4 x 3 inches).
PROVING: Proving is the final rise of the shaped dough before baking – make sure to cover the dough loosely with oiled cling film to stop it drying out. During this “second rise” the dough will assume its final shape and grow almost to its final size. Proving takes 30 minutes to one hour when the dough will have pretty much doubled in size again. It’s important to get this stage right – an under-proved dough will result in a heavy, close textured bread, and an over-proved dough will develop large bubbles under the crust and may even collapse altogether.
TEST: the proved dough should feel soft and pillowy. Use your finger to make an indentation along the side of the bread; if the indentation bounces back halfway that means the bread is proved and ready to bake. (If it bounces back completely without any indentation left, the dough is under-proved and needs a bit longer. If the indentation remains and the dough doesn’t bounce back, it’s been over-proved.).
BAKING: Baking cooks the dough and sets it in its final shape. During baking the dough will continue to rise for about 10 minutes until it hardens and the yeast dies. Make sure you pre-heat your oven properly before baking. Whatever the cooking temperature and timing of your recipe, the way to test for done-ness is the same:
TEST: the baked bread should be golden brown, and loaves cooked in tins should have shrunk slightly from the sides of the pan. Remove the bread and tap the bottom of the loaf – if it sounds hollow when you tap the bottom, it is done. If not, give it another 10 minutes. Cool your loaf on a wire rack – it will continue to cook during the cooling process, so no matter how tempted you are to take a slice and slather it in butter, you need to leave it to cool completely.
Which goes to “prove” (geddit!!!) that the best things in life are worth waiting for.
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