If you’re venturing into baking bread for the first time, I strongly suggest you bake this generic recipe (white sandwich bread) to get the hang of bread baking. You’ll see magic happen when you mix the flour with yeast, water and salt. Initially a shaggy mess will marry in harmony and transform into a beautiful puffy loaf. Baking this loaf as my first yeast bread taught me a great deal about flour, gluten, kneading, yeast, baking temperature and shaping.
Just like any baker who was confident baking cakes and pastries, I went ahead baking a bread. I was a tad too confident and attempted my first white loaf which was nothing less than a hard brick shaped loaf. It was crumbly, dry and just fell apart on slicing. The next attempt was when I killed the yeast with hot water. The dough never rose and left me feeling bad. Third time, when I thought everything fell in place, upon slicing I saw a tunnel in the loaf. Talk about shaping and scoring :/ It took four attempts for me to nail it right. I understood that bread baking is more than just dumping everything, mixing and shoving into the oven. After baking this basic loaf, I went ahead trying my hand at whole wheat breads, tweaked recipes and customized as per my preference.
What is a perfect white bread? For me, It’s a loaf which is crispy and crusty on the outside and soft, moist and cloud-like on the inside. It should have a proper shape without having an earth quake crack on top. This is what I’d expect as a home baker. Professional bakers follow formula, not recipes. I learned a tip or two from the basic formula. It is Flour 100%, Water 66%, Salt 2%, Yeast 0.6%. I keep this in mind when I tweak recipes.
I’d bake a bread in stages which takes at least 3 hrs to complete. If you’re in a hurry, do not attempt to bake a yeast bread. Yeast does not listen to you, it takes it’s time to work it’s way.
Makes one 9 x 5 x 2.7 inches loaf
- 4 cups All purpose flour * I used unbleached and enriched flour. Depending on the humidity you’ll need more or less flour. But don’t be tempted to add more unless needed
- 1 1/2 cups Warm water * Keep the water temp at 120° F -130°F. Do not use chlorinated water. This will deter dough rising.
- 2 1/4 tsp Active dry yeast or 1 3/4 tsp instant yeast * If using instant yeast, it can be directly added to the dry ingredients without activating.
- 1 1/2 tsp Salt
- Pinch of Sugar
- Oil for greasing
Firstly, get organised and set out the ingredients within reach. If you live in a cold place, make sure to use warm utensils for mixing and proofing the dough. Use ingredients at room temperature. DO NOT scoop the flour. When flour is scooped into the measuring cup from the container, it becomes packed. This will add more flour than the recipe calls for. Spoon flour into the measuring cup and use the flat side of a knife to level the flour.
1. Take 1/2 cup water in a small bowl. Add a pinch of sugar and stir. Sprinkle yeast on top and mix. Let it dissolve completely. The mixture will become creamy and foamy emitting a sweet but beery smell. This is rehydrating and activating the yeast, and takes about 5-10 mins. Do not use hot water, else you’ll destroy the yeast and prevent the dough from rising. Yeast is the catalyst in bread baking. The dough get’s life from this little organism and rises slowly. If this fails, the rest of steps isn’t going to be a success.* If using instant yeast, start with step 2. If you store the yeast in the fridge or freezer, do remember to thaw it and bring to room temperature before adding to the other ingredients.
2. Mixing – In a large bowl mix 2 cups of flour and salt. Stir until combined. Add little water (about a tablespoon) at a time and keep mixing. Do not start kneading now. Keep adding 1/4 cup flour to form a clay like mass. Add rest of the water, flour and yeast to form a dough ball. Finally all flour, yeast and water must be used. I used my stand mixer to knead. By any means, do not dump everything. Mix gradually to form the dough. Adding water to the flour provides moisture for hydration and aids in the development of gluten and gelatinization of starches. Water takes care of the even distribution of ingredients when mixed thoroughly. When the dough is baked, water changes to steam and expands. When all ingredients are mixed a nice dough ball is formed.
3. Kneading – The most important phase in bread making. This where you need to know gluten.
Gluten – The stretchy and strong protein that gives yeast rised dough the structure when baked. When water is added to the flour, the two wheat proteins glutenin (provides elasticity) and gliadin (provides extensibility) combine and form gluten. Adding ample water and kneading, stirring, mixing and folding will form gluten network. No water means no gluten. Gluten will change its shape under pressure, also resists and moves back towards its original shape when the pressure is removed. This allows the dough to expand, incorporating the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast and yet resist to prevent the bubbles thinning to breaking point. This gives the bread a spongy structure. If enough gluten is not developed, you get a dense and heavy loaf. The more you knead, the gluten gets stronger and forms smooth strands that traps gases as the yeast ferments. The amount of kneading and gluten developed will impact the final outcome. Hence, kneading is an important part in making a bread.
Factors that affect gluten are solid fats, oils and egg yolks. These fat coat gluten proteins and prevent them from forming long, strong strands. When using fat, beware of the way it affects development of gluten. Sugar encourages tenderness by attaching to water molecules and tightens the dough. Salt makes gluten stickier and stronger. So when a recipe calls for salt or sugar, do not omit it. These play a role in gluten formation.
Turn the dough ball onto a lightly floured surface and start kneading. As you knead turn, fold and press the dough. The folding traps the air, the pressing adds mechanical energy, warming the dough slightly and aiding the formation of a network of gluten. The turning encourages mixing and gives a more homogeneous gluten structure. Don’t be tempted to add more flour. Knead for at least 8-10 minutes. The consistency will change to smooth and silky. It’s nearly impossible to over knead with hands, but with a stand mixer you can easily over do. Over worked dough will produce a dry loaf. It is a flaw. Watch this video to learn hand kneading the dough.
Source – allrecipes.com
To check if the dough is kneaded enough, take a piece of dough and stretch like a bubble gum. If the dough tears easily, then you need to knead more. If there is a translucent membrane when stretched, then the dough is ready. This is the window pane test to determine the readiness of the dough.
4. Fermenting and the first rise – Now the gluten should be aligned into neat strands and let the yeast work on the dough. Grease a bowl. This prevents the dough from sticking at the bottom. Put the dough and cover with a plastic wrap or damp tea towel or bowl, leave it in a warm place to double in size.
I used 2 glass bowls so as to monitor the rising and see the difference in size when photographed. Normally I use a large steel bowl and a plastic film for the first rise. This takes about 45 mins to an hour depending on the atmospheric temperature in your place. It was 65 F in my Apt. Hence, I used the unheated oven to rise the dough. I pre-heated the oven at 350°F for 2 mins and placed the bowl for the first rise. The ideal temperature for the dough to rise is 80° F-85° F.
You’ll see the dough grow in size, doubling like a balloon. It grows bigger with thousands of tiny bubbles inside. I learned that the bubbles interrupt the network of gluten and starch granules, dividing it into millions of very thin sheets that form the bubble walls. Yeast feeds on the simple sugars in the flour and produce carbon dioxide that diffuses into tiny bubbles and enlarges the dough. This is what happens during the first rise.
If the dough is kneaded properly, there will be long strands of gluten which allow large air pockets to form in your loaf. If not there will be numerous smaller holes. No holes in your dough simply means the yeast failed to activate. That’s a big boo boo in bread making.
How do you know that the dough has rised enough? The ripe test determines rising time. Push two fingers into the dough upto the second knuckle. If the indent remains when you remove the finger, then the dough has risen enough. If not let is rise longer. Now the dough is ready to be punched down and shaped.
5. Punching – This does not mean you have to treat the dough like a punch bag. Simply squeeze (degassing) out the air and deflate the dough. This paves way for the yeast to feed on more on the flour and develop complex flavors in the bread.
Finally when the dough is shaped to a loaf, pinch to seal and close. Fold the extreme ends and make a loaf that will fit your pan. Some prefer to fold the dough like a towel. I stick to the rolling and shaping so as to avoid a tunnel in the loaf when baked. You can shape it either way.
7. Second rise or proofing – Now let the dough rise for the second time. The dough rises in the same amicable draft free environment as before. So I placed the loaf pan in the unheated oven. This takes about 30 mins. Do not let it rise too much or spill out.
The dough is ready for baking when it rises just above the pan. Remember the dough will continue to rise in the oven when baked. So, beware not to over proof. I check the dough @ 15- 20 mins and start pre-heating the oven at 375 °F. My oven takes 8 mins to pre heat, by then the loaf pan is ready to stick into the oven. To check if the loaf is ready for the oven, lightly touch the side. If the imprint remains, it is ready to be baked.
*Creating steam – I place a steel bowl with half an inch of water on the oven floor while pre heating the oven. This is to create steam in the oven. I do this while baking yeast breads. This helps prevent cracks on the crust which may be due to faster surface gelatinization while the center is still rising. The steam slows the gelatinization of the surface, allowing the dough more time to finish rising before the surface hardens. The steam is needed only during the ‘oven spring’ or the first five minutes. If there is a lot of steam, it will delay the caramelization of the crust and the bread will become chewy. This step is not mandatory but I play it safe. You can also throw in a couple of ice cubes on the floor of the oven to create steam.
8. Baking – This is the step that turns your hard work into a beautiful loaf. Place the loaf pan in the center of the middle rack. Bake for 40-45 mins at 375° F or till the crust turns golden brown. The bread is ready when the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
When the dough heats up it becomes fluid-like and the gas expands and the dough rises. The alcohol is vaporized and the water turns to steam (gases). These fill holes in the gluten network and expand the dough. The first five minutes will produce one last growth spurt. This is called ‘Oven Spring’.
The yeast feeds itself quickly and the rising temperature finally kills it. The oven spring stops when the crust becomes stiff and firm. The interior temperature of the loaf should register between 200-210° F. This is when the gluten proteins form strong cross-links and water-laden starch granules swell and set. The grains become bread. The walls can no longer stretch and the gas pressure in the holes builds, popping the walls and creating the network that you see when you slice a loaf.
9. Cooling – Unlike cakes, bread has to be removed from the right away from the loaf pan. This is to prevent condensation resulting in a soggy loaf.
10. Slicing and Storing – Wait at least 30 mins before cutting through the loaf. To get even sized slices, roll the loaf to the side and start slicing using sawing motion with a bread or serrated knife. If you cut through the top of the crust you’ll deflate the loaf and have an ugly sliced loaf. Been there, done that. Hence, this suggestion. If you find the top to be crusty, do not worry. It’ll soften after a few hours.
It’s best used the same day. The loaf remains fresh for 2 days @ room temperature if wrapped and stored properly. For later use, I slice and freeze the loaf to retain freshness. I don’t put the loaf in the refrigerator as it becomes stale. This bread is good for sandwich and toast with a dollop of butter and jam. That’s how we have this freshly baked bounty. Enjoy yours!