The Perfect Loaf of Bread

Chefs guide

As I mentioned on Saturday, I am currently in a baking class.  Before this class began I had a basic understanding of bread and gluten and knew, at least conceptually, how to make a loaf of bread. Though it’s only been one week, it’s amazing how little I actually knew. Many of the techniques regularly used in a professional bakery made sense when I actually stopped to think about them, but for whatever reason, there were a lot of details I just overlooked. That is, until now.

With a little help and know-how, you can make bakery-quality bread at home in just a few hours. There is enough down-time for dough resting that you can get other things done while the bread does its thing, and the results are worth it!

The tools you will need:

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A spray bottle with water and container for the first rise.

You can easily use a large bowl at home, but I plan to do a lot of baking for the holidays so I’ll need something a little bigger than my Pyrex. If you do decide to use a bucket, make sure it is for food-use only. DO NOT USE A BUCKET PREVIOUSLY USED FOR CLEANING PRODUCTS OR CHEMICALS. I cannot stress this enough. If you plan to make a larger batch of bread, buy a new bucket that will be for food use only. It’s a small price to pay for safety.

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A digital scale

As I mentioned on Saturday, measuring your ingredients by weight is the most accurate way to scale a recipe. You can find a good digital scale for around $10-$15 online, and many of these will convert from oz, to grams, to fluid oz for you. They are really handy to have in the kitchen and I highly recommend investing in one. If it’s just not your cup of tea, I will have a volumetric approximation of the recipe below.

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A standing mixer

Also, not a necessity, but these guys take a lot of the work out of bread-making. I was lucky enough to inherit this from my mother, but I understand the financial restrictions so I will also include by-hand instructions.

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A kitchen thermometer

Preferably an instant-read digital thermometer, but this guy came with my knife kit, so it’s what I use. This is a weird one that I didn’t know until class, but as it turns out, you should take the temperature of your bread to assess doneness, NOT color.

Now that you’ve gathered all of the necessary material, here is the recipe for a basic Lean Dough:

BY WEIGHT:

1 lb, 4.46 oz Bread Flour

10.68 oz Room-Temperature Water

0.25 oz Instant Dry Yeast (**Note, this is different than Active Dry Yeast. They are usually found next to each other in the baking aisle. Instant yeast is also known as Fast Rise)

0.33 oz Kosher Salt

BY VOLUME (an approximation):

4 1/4 cup Bread Flour

1 1/4 cup Room-Temperature Water

3/4 tbsp Instant Dry Yeast

1/2 tbsp Kosher Salt

This is known as a lean dough because it does not have added fat, sugar or eggs. Enriched doughs, like dinner rolls or potato bread, will contain butter or oil, eggs, and/or sugar to enhance the flavor and keep the bread from drying out. Because it lacks the fat to keep it from drying out, lean doughs should be consumed within eight hours after it’s removed from the oven. Common lean dough breads include baguettes and other artisan breads.

There are 12 steps to bread-making, so let’s get started!

1) Scale your ingredients

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In a large production kitchen, time is of the essence. Before you do any mixing, you should have your ingredients ready to go so that by the time you head to the mixer, there is no fiddling with measuring cups, just dump and go.

2) Mixing the dough

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This is where the fun begins. Start by adding your yeast and water to the bottom of the mixing bowl. Let it sit for a minute before adding the flour. Salt should always be added last and never come directly in contact with the yeast. Once everything starts mixing up the salt is fine, but if the salt comes in contact with the yeast before it has a chance to distribute throughout the mix, it will begin to kill off the yeast.

I’m using lukewarm water here because the dough will warm up as it’s mixed and kneaded. The ideal temperature for yeast growth is between 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeast will start to die off around 90 degrees and you never want to go above 115 when making bread. The death point of yeast is 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you’ve got a standing mixer, blend the ingredients with the dough hook for about five minutes on first speed, or until the ingredients are completely incorporated and the dough looks smooth.

If you’re working the dough by hand, use a wooden spoon to get the mixing process started, then once all of the ingredients are wet, use your hands to fully incorporate the wet and dry ingredients until the dough is smooth.

At this point, give your dough a squeeze. If it sticks to you fingers, add more flour, about 1 tbsp at a time, until the dough is soft, but not sticky. If the dough feel really stiff, add a tbsp of water and blend it in until it it soft, but not too sticky.

Once you’ve got the right consistency, crank the mixer up to the second speed and let it go for another 5 minutes. If you’re kneading by hand, set a timer for about 8-10 minutes and get to it!

There are three basic levels to gluten development while kneading: Low-level, moderate, and intensive.

Most artisan breads are kneaded to the moderate level, just before the peak of gluten development. The assumption is that artisan loafs will be further punched down, rolled, shaped, rolled again, etc. All of the motions will work the dough even further and develop more gluten.

Low-level mixing is used for pastries and other quick breads that don’t need a lot of gluten development; or laminations that will get extensive kneading through the process of folding and pressing several times before final shaping to make croissants and danishes.

Intensive levels of gluten development involve making a super-tight and springy dough that will hold together well enough to “pull a window” This process is good for doughs that will rest for long periods of time and won’t be worked much more after the initial mixing.

For our purposes today, we’re going to use the moderate level of kneading.

When the dough is soft and springy, like a memory-foam pillow, it’s time for the next step:

3) The First Rise, or Floor Fermentation

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This is the stage when yeast starts to grow and multiply, and as they do, they release CO2 and small amounts of alcohol gas (don’t worry, that will burn up in the baking process!). At this point, you are faced with a choice: Do you want the bread sooner, or later? If you want to go the whole nine yards in one day, let your dough rest in a greased container, covered, for at least an hour, but no more than 2, until doubled in size. If you are planning ahead, you can put this in the fridge overnight for a slower rise and let the flavors develop.

4) Punch down the dough

DSCN3064As the dough was fermenting, a lot was going on. The gas puts a strain on the gluten frame-work, or gluten matrix, and you’ll need to de-gas the bread to relax the gluten a bit. If you don’t, the matrix will tear and your dough will not rise efficiently.

In addition, the fermentation process was not happening at equal rates throughout the dough and punching it down helps to equalize the temperature of the dough. Yeast toward the center of the dough is more active because it’s warmer. More active yeast, means more sugar breakdown, so punching the dough also helps redistribute the yeast and ensure all the yeast has enough to eat.

5) Scaling the dough

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If you measured your ingredients by weight, you should cut your dough in half to obtain two, 1 pound dough pieces. If you measured by volume, cut the dough into approximately two equal-sized pieces.

6) Shaping the Dough

DSCN3068Now that we’ve relaxed the gluten a bit, we need to reinforce that matrix. Shaping the dough into rounds creates a tight skin on the top of the dough that stretches the gluten matrix that will better trap the CO2 gas bubbles and give your dough a better second rise. If you were to do further shaping, such as a braid or baguette, pre-scaling and shaping your dough has the added advantage of convenience when working with multiple rolls.

DSCN3070This is where the spray bottle comes in. Once you’ve pulled all the edges of the dough to the bottom to create a round-ish roll, spray a small puddle of water on your work surface and get the bottom (edge-side) of your round wet. This provides a bit of leverage for when you start to roll the ball. Hold the roll of dough as shown above, then keeping the edges of your hands on the work surface, move your hands around an imaginary circle on your work surface to roll and tuck the edges on the bottom of your roll.

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The bottom of your dough will look something like this when you’re done, and the top will look perfectly round and smooth.

DSCN30777) Resting the dough. 

This step is a little different than the “second rise” we’re all used to. If you refrigerated your dough overnight, this is its chance to warm up. If you’re doing everything in one shot, this is the dough’s 10 minute time-out to relax before the final shaping process

8) Shaping and panning.

This is the step where, if you were to make anything other than a roll, you now have a chance to do so. We’re stopping at a round loaf, so we’ll jump right to the next step

9) Proofing, or second rise.

In the bakery, we have a special humidity box that is warm and steamy to help the bread rise, and to keep the dough from drying out and rising unevenly. At my house, I had a bathroom.

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After resting the dough for a minute or two, I placed my roll into a greased Dutch oven and set it in the bathroom. I turned on the hot shower and closed the door. Home-made proof box.

If you own your home or pay for your own water, you may not want to do this. Just spray the dough with 2-3 spritzes from the water bottle, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm spot for about 45 minutes.

While the bread is proofing, set your oven to 400 Fahrenheit.

Once the dough has doubled in size, use a sharp knife or razor blade to slice across the top of the dough.

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Whatever instrument you decide to use, make sure it’s sharp or you’ll tug too much at the dough and collapse that precious gluten matrix that is maintaining a beautifully risen loaf. These slices give the bread room to rise in the oven without it developing weird lumps where the gas can’t escape.

10) Baking

When testing methods for this post I tried two methods: The Dutch oven method and the pan of water in the oven method. In the end, I found that the Dutch oven had better steam to create that crispy crust. If you don’t have a Dutch oven, you can use the water pan method. The taste is the same, but the crust isn’t quite as crunchy.

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For the water pan method, spray your loaf with water, and place a pie pan full of water on the bottom of the oven to create steam. It’s best to do this with already boiling water rather than cold, so the steam develops the crust early.

If you’re using the Dutch oven, spray the loaf 2-3 times with the water bottle, place the lid on top, and stick it in the oven for 45 mins-1 hour, or until a kitchen thermometer reads 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

So here is the interesting science part of baking I never understood. It may seem bizarre to stab your bread with a thermometer and check its temperature, but 200 Fahrenheit is the temperature at which the gluten proteins sets and stabilizes. Any cooler, and you can end up with a collapsed, mushy bread. Anything above that is overkill and will start to dry out your bread.

You can’t trust the color of the bread because depending on the temperature of your oven, the bread could brown before the internal temperature has reached its peak. If this happens to you, just turn down the temperature of your oven by about 25 degrees and keep baking until the internal temp is 200. Once you’ve reached 200, it’s time to cool.

11) Cooling

This is a crucial step for artisan breads with crunchy crusts. As soon as it comes out of the oven, you should turn your bread out onto a wire rack to cool. If done right, you should hear a slight crackling sound. The steam from the baking created a tight, crispy skin and as the bread cools, steam inside the bread is breaking through that crust, creating a rice krispies cereal effect.

If your bread is sitting on a solid surface or sitting in the Dutch oven, there is nowhere for that steam to go except back into the crust. This makes the crust tough and chewy. Once the bread has cooled, you’re down to the last step

12) Consuming the bread!

DSCN3118This is the best part of bread-making. I made two loaves this day and both of them were done within hours. The crust was delightfully crunchy and the inside was so soft and flavorful. I used to have a lot of trouble with bread, but now that I understand the processes a bit more, I’ll definitely be making as much of my own bread as possible. It’s immensely satisfying, and I can have excellent bread for practically pennies compared to what I would pay at a grocery store or bakery.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Stephanie says:

    This post is so helpful. I’ll have to try it during the holidays!

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