I’ve talked about baking enzymes and sourdough technology before, but today I want to cover a very fundamental topic: How to bake bread. A lot of people online claim that you have to follow baking recipes exactly to get a good result. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The best bread is baked by relying on intuition and not by strictly following a recipe. It’s very hard to write down a baking recipe because there are so many factors to consider that can be very different depending on where you live. Important factors to consider when baking are:
- The type of flour you use. In general, American flour tends to bind more water but is less flavorful than European flour.
- The kneading equipment you use. Kneading by hand or with a less powerful stand mixer takes much longer than kneading with a professional-grade machine. Also, the dough temperature rises during kneading which affects the time you need to bulk ferment your dough.
- The room temperature and humidity. The hotter it is, the faster your dough will rise. If the humidity is very high in the region where you live, the dough might be horribly sticky whereas it can easily dry out on the surface if you live in a dry climate.
- The oven you use. In general, the more powerful your oven the better. Baking in a professional-grade steam oven yields a much airier loaf than if you bake bread in a home oven without any steam. However, there are ways to mimic professional ovens at home like for example baking stones or steels and Dutch ovens.
These factors might sound very discouraging for beginners or inexperienced bakers but if you are aware of them you can easily avoid a lot of the problems that you encounter as a beginner. Because despite these factors, baking bread is, at its core, very easy. If you’ve understood a few simple key concepts, you can bake any bread without a recipe. And it will almost always taste good.
The two main methods of baking bread
If you look at bread from an industrial standpoint, there are several methods of baking bread. However, they usually have no significance for artisanal bakers. Home bakers are not concerned about a continuous process or about increasing efficiency. That is why I will cover conventional bread-making in this post.
I will talk about:
- the direct or straight dough method (in German “direkte Teigführung”)
- the sponge and dough method (in German “indirekte Teigführung”)
The direct dough method is the easiest and least time-intensive method for beginners to apply because all the ingredients are mixed in one single step. There are no pre-ferments. However, bread made with this method is usually less flavorful and dries out quicker than bread made with a pre-ferment.
I am a big advocate for the sponge and dough method. Pre-ferments improve the flavor, shelf-life, and consistency of the bread crumb. However, you also have to be careful to not over-ferment your dough. Over-fermented bread tastes funky and sour and usually turns out very dense because of the weakened gluten structure.
The direct dough method
If you’re making bread rolls or pretzels that are meant for immediate consumption you don’t necessarily need a sponge dough. In the food and baking industry, these are typical examples of bread that can be produced in less than 3 hours. The direct dough method is very straightforward and includes the following steps:
All the ingredients (water included) are mixed together in a large bowl until the flour seems to be evenly hydrated.
2. Kneading (Dough Development)
You can either knead the dough by hand or with a machine. This is the point at which the gluten network in wheat and spelt bread is developed. This three-dimensional network will enable the dough to entrap air bubbles. You should not stop kneading the dough until you can pull it apart very thinly. This is called the windowpane test. If you can pull the dough thin enough without tearing to read the newspaper through it, then it is well developed.
There is a risk of over-kneading bread dough. This risk is very high for spelt bread and mixed wheat and rye bread. Although by hand, it’s almost impossible to over-knead a dough. An over-kneaded dough will become very sticky and tears very easily. If the dough is over-kneaded, throw it out and start over. You cannot save over-kneaded dough. It will produce dense bread that might collapse in the oven or not expand at all.
Pure Rye or gluten-free bread doesn’t need to be kneaded. It can’t form a continuous gluten network. Just mix these doughs and leave them to rise. There is no point in wasting your energy trying to knead a sticky rye dough. However, please ensure that the dough is always mixed well to get an even salt and yeast distribution.
3. Bulk fermentation
Leave the dough to rest and rise. In simple bread recipes, people will often tell you to let the dough rise until it has doubled or tripled in size. But this rule of thumb is not always true. You will have a hard time forming a pretzel if your dough is too airy. Sandwich bread also doesn’t necessarily need to double in size before shaping.
However, for high-hydration bread that is not baked in a loaf pan, it is very beneficial to do a long bulk fermentation. The longer the bulk fermentation, the shorter the proofing time. If you proof a high-hydration bread for too long it might run flat.
If you’re baking your bread in loaf pans, that is not an issue. The shape of the bread is fixed. Half an hour of bulk fermentation is enough for most loaf pan recipes.
The straightforward way to make sandwich bread is to mix all ingredients, let the dough bulk ferment for 30 minutes, divide and shape the dough, and then simply leave it to proof in a loaf pan until it has puffed up nicely before baking.
Now you might ask yourself why do we even need to bulk ferment sandwich bread? Why can’t we just divide the kneaded dough and proof it directly in the loaf pan? There are a couple of reasons why bulk fermentation is needed for most bread:
- During bulk fermentation, the dough relaxes. Tense dough is hard to shape or roll out. You can’t shape a pretzel or braided bread from a tense dough.
- The yeast will start to grow and produce air bubbles during bulk fermentation. However, these air bubbles might be distributed very unevenly across the dough. After bulk fermentation, you have a chance to redistribute the air bubbles while shaping the dough to obtain an even crumb with many small holes. For some bread types, like ciabatta or baguettes, where an uneven open crumb is desirable, you have to be more gentle and try to not destroy the larger air bubbles while shaping the loaf.
- Most of the flavor development happens during bulk fermentation. A quick sandwich bread that is only left to bulk ferment for 30 minutes might not develop much flavor. However, this lack of flavor development during bulk fermentation can be compensated with a longer proofing time and by working with a pre-ferment or sourdough.
The ideal temperature to bulk ferment and proof wheat and spelt based bread is at around 75 to 78 °F (23-25 °C). For rye bread, it is best to bulk ferment and proof the dough at around 80 to 83 °F (26-28 °C). You can speed up the process by increasing the temperature further. However, this will result in a less flavorful loaf because there is not enough time for the formation of flavor compounds.
The longer proofing time for loaf pan bread or pretzels makes up in terms of flavor development for the shorter bulk fermentation. Even if a recipe for loaf pan sandwich bread tells you to bulk ferment the dough until it has doubled in size, you don’t need to follow it. Half an hour of bulk fermentation is enough. You just have to remember that the bread will take longer to proof to make up for the lack of gas and flavor development during bulk fermentation.
4. Dividing and shaping the dough
If you’re only baking one loaf of bread there is no need to divide the dough. But for bread rolls or multiple loaves of bread, it’s always best to use a scale to divide the dough into pieces of even weight. Be gentle when dividing the dough so that you don’t lose all the air bubbles that were created during bulk fermentation.
For weak and very soft doughs, it can be helpful to pre-shape them and then let them rest for a few minutes before the final shaping. That way the dough will have more strength and not run flat. However, if your dough is well developed, and you’re only baking one loaf of bread at home, pre-shaping the dough is often not needed. For baguettes, yes. For simple farmer’s bread, usually no.
The thing that is very important is that your dough feels tense after shaping. It should hold its shape and have a smooth surface. Make sure to seal the seam tightly and that you don’t incorporate any excess flour into the loaf. Only dust the dough with as much flour as is necessary. Excess flour will not hydrate and leave dry flour spots in the bread crumb after baking.
Proofing is one of the trickiest parts of bread baking. You need to use your experience to judge when the bread is ready to be baked. If you bake the bread too early, it turns out dense or it might burst open everywhere. On the other hand, if you proof the bread for too long it will be dense and flat.
Rye and sandwich bread are often baked when fully proofed whereas bread rolls, baguettes, and airy wheat bread are usually baked when slightly under-proofed so that they burst open in the oven and expand.
You can use your finger to determine if wheat or spelt based bread is ready to be baked. Make an indentation with your index finger. If it springs back quickly and completely, the dough is under-proofed and not ready to bake. If it springs back slowly but incompletely, the dough is slightly under-proofed and ready to be baked. It will burst open in the oven. If the indentation only springs back very little and slowly, then the dough is fully proofed and won’t expand anymore in the oven.
If the indentation doesn’t spring back at all or the dough collapses, then it is over-proofed and you shouldn’t bake the dough anymore. Instead, deflate, shape, and proof it again.
Rye bread doesn’t have a good oven spring. Therefore it is usually baked with full maturity. Once you can see many small cracks on the surface of the rye dough, then it is time to bake. The finger-dent test doesn’t work for rye flour. You have to look for the cracks which will start to appear on the dough surface. Other than that, you can also look for the volume. A dough that has expanded about 90 % is usually fully proofed and ready to be baked.
6. Scoring and baking
Fully proofed bread doesn’t need to be scored. All slightly under-proofed bread can simply be baked seam side up for a rustic look. Or you can score your bread. Scoring is crucial for under-prooved doughs as these will expand in the oven. If you don’t score or invert them, they will burst open in weird spots and the bread will look ugly.
For most types of bread, it’s best to bake them in a steam oven at the highest possible setting if using a home oven. The more heat, the higher your bread will rise before the crust sets. After about 15 minutes you can then turn down the heat and let the loaf brown and bake through.
I don’t want to go into the details of how you can mimic a professional oven at home. In general, the best solution for home bakers is to either bake the loaf in a Dutch oven or on a pizza stone. The steam can be generated by using a spray bottle or by placing a pan filled with water on the bottom of your oven. If you google for methods to mimic a steam oven, you can find plenty of ways to do that.
In Germany, we don’t like blonde bread. Bread should be baked until crispy and brown. But that is really your choice. I always recommend baking bread a little darker than you are comfortable with for the best flavor.
The sponge and dough method
Baking with a sponge dough is not much different than the direct dough method. You simply add a pre-fermented dough to your other dough ingredients before kneading. The pre-ferment can be anything from a liquid sourdough to a very firm yeast dough that is left to ferment overnight. The advantages of using a pre-ferment are:
- The bread tastes better because the sponge can be fermented for a long time. A well-fermented sponge is full of aromatic flavor compounds.
- The bread has a longer shelf life because it is more acidic. A lower pH-level inhibits the growth of mold and makes the bread retain more moisture.
- The bread is easier to digest because anti-nutrients like lectin get digested by the microbiota before baking.
Now you might wonder, why don’t we just mix all the ingredients, use less yeast, and then let the entire dough ferment for a long time? You could do that but it has its downfalls. First, you might want to eat a mild sourdough bread that is not too funky. If you bake bread just out of sourdough it will taste bad. Typical sourdough bread has a sourdough content of around 20-40 percent.
Second, the gluten structure gets damaged by a long fermentation. Your dough might taste great after 2 days in the fridge but it might also be very weak if it is over-fermented. Especially spelt bread is horrible in this regard. If you over-ferment a spelt dough, it will turn into a flatbread. However, if you over-ferment the pre-ferment that is usually no problem because you will add 80 percent fresh flour to your dough which will form a strong gluten network.
So by using a pre-ferment in the range of 10-40 percent of the total flour weight, you can reap the benefits of a long fermentation while also avoiding the downfalls. I don’t want to describe all the pre-ferments you can use in this post. If you are inexperienced, it’s best to follow the recipe you are using. If the bread tastes too mild, you might want to increase the amount of pre-ferment in your dough or let it ferment for longer. If the bread tastes too strong, you might want to cut down on the amount of pre-ferment or shorten the fermentation time. There are no hard rules when it comes to pre-ferments.