14 Steps of Bread Baking

14 Steps of Bread Baking

Learning the 14 steps of bread baking is the best way to improve your bread-baking. They are simple fundamentals that should be applied to every recipe and will turn your bread from average to extraordinary.

 Step 1 – Select Ingredients

Selecting the right ingredients is the most overlooked step in bread baking, especially by beginners. Ingredients change flavor, texture  and other attributes of the dough. Many breads only have 4 ingredients – flour, salt, water and yeast – but are combined with different techniques to create hundreds of variations.

What type of flour, how large the salt is, water vs milk vs other liquid, what type of yeast are all things that need to be considered before baking.  For more help with figuring out how to choose ingredients check out the link on Where to Start.

Step 2 – Weigh Ingredients

Weighing ingredients, instead of volume measurement, is the best way to prepare for baking. Weighing helps keep results consistent and gives a benchmark for comparing results. Always remember, the first five times of baking a recipe, don’t make any adjustments in the amount of flour or water until you have seen the result.

Amateur bakers tend to add water or flour too soon into the process. They think the dough is too dry or too wet before kneading and developing gluten properly and allowing the flour to fully hydrate. This is a great way of getting discouraging results.

Step 3 – Mix

Mixing is the most technical aspect of bread baking. There are different mixing methods that produce different results. Mixing methods affect crumb size, open or closed, color of the crust and crumb and how long the dough needs to ferment.

Hand Mixing

Autolyse is science’s happy gift to bread-baking. Simply mix the dough without salt, in most recipes it is simply flour and water. Let the dough sit at room temperature, covered, for between 15-30 minutes. During this time the flour hydrates and gliadin and glutenin begin to form gluten.

After the autolyse period the dough will have developed a lot of strength and most of the gluten needed for baking. It is a small amount of effort for a great result. it is also what makes no-knead bread possible and provides several benefits to the crumb.

Slap and Fold – This technique was supposedly developed by Richard Bertinet. It isn’t effective on lower hydration dough, but it works very well for dough with around 70 percent or more hydration. I find it is one of the only ways to knead 80 percent or higher dough by hand. To see the technique check out Richard Bertinet’s Method on gourmet.com. This is a great tool to have in the box.

Hand Mixing - This is what most people think of when making dough. Mix your ingredients together until they resemble a shaggy mess and turn it onto a table. Fold the outside edge (the one that is furthest away from you) towards you with your fingertips and use your palms to press that edge into the center of the dough. Rotate the dough 45 degrees and repeat. Continue this motion until the flour is completely hydrated and the gluten is fully developed.

Machine Mixing

Short Mix - This method is exactly what it sounds like. Mix the dough ingredients on low-speed for 5 minutes. Friction from mixing by machine heats up the dough, which shortens the fermentation period. Using the short mix doesn’t heat up the dough as much. The fermentation period is longer letting the gluten develop naturally as the dough sits. Dough mixed by this method usually requires a few folds during fermentation to develop the right gluten strength for baking. This is a great method for creating open crumb artisan breads while still using a machine to do most of the work.

Intensive Mix - This method requires 5 minutes of mixing on low-speed and then 10 or so minutes on high-speed. The idea is to develop the gluten very quickly to produce massive amounts of bread; I.E. Wonderbread. There are two big problems with this method for most home-bakers. Mixing at high speeds with most counter-top mixers tends to burn out the motors, especially on lower hydration dough. The second problem is the oxidation that occurs. The extra air that is literally whipped into the dough destroys flavors and aromas that would have been present with other mixing types. This is why 90 percent of all dough on our store shelves takes like nothing. There are ways to improve flavors using preferments, but most industrial bakers don’t have the space or time to develop preferments properly.

Improved Mix - Because the intensive mix created such a poor product that ended up on store shelves, bakers started to figure out a way to decrease mixing times without losing too many flavors. This led to the improved mixing method. For the improved method, mix for 5 minutes on low-speed. Follow this with a 3-5 minute rest and then mix on medium for 2 minutes. If the gluten doesn’t completely develop at this point fold the dough during fermentation.This method may be used on nearly every dough that I’ll talk about on this blog ; nothing beats hand-mixing though!

For more thorough information and a thorough explanation about these mixing methods check out Mixing 101 on modern-baking.com.

Step 4 – Bulk Fermentation

After mixing, the dough starts its first fermentation period, called the bulk fermentation. This is where most of the flavor in your bread will come from. The dough sits, covered, usually until it doubles in size. At this point yeast and enzymes are developing flavors and aromas. The gluten in the dough also becomes stronger, as mentioned in step 3.

The most important aspects of bulk fermentation are time and temperature. That is where professionals make their bread and butter; pun intended. Recipes are designed around time and temperature regardless if they say it. According to Peter Reinhart “Yeast will double its rate of fermentation for every 17F increase in heat, up to the killing point.” What this means is that if a recipe calls for the dough to double in two hours at 72F, but your apartment is at 89F, than it will ferment and double twice as fast than the recipe states – 1 hour instead of 2.

Why is this important? Why not just crank up the heat and let it go faster to save time? Flavor. Flavor comes from long regimented bulk ferments. If you speed things along, you lose flavor and texture. If you slow things down you can let enzymes do too much work on the dough and lose flavor and texture. It’s all a give and take and understanding this process is one of the biggest things that separates pro’s from joe’s.

There are many misnomers when it comes to bulk fermentation. Most recipes say to lightly grease a bowl – fold your dough into a ball and roll it in the grease – cover with a wet tea towel – that is one of many. I’m not sure where all these myths came from, but they are wrong and you shouldn’t listen to them. You don’t need oil or butter or Pam and you shouldn’t use a wet tea towel to cover your bowl. You simply need a container that can hold easily hold the dough if it doubles in size and a cover that will help keep moisture close to the dough surface. Personally, I like tall rectangular clear plastic containers so I can judge how much volume the dough has gained. I usually use containers that come with lids, but I always keep a clean trash bag handy if I need it. Fats and oils for the container are completely unnecessary and will alter the outcome of your bread. If you are trying to develop delicious artisan bread at home, do it like the professionals and leave the oil in the pantry.

Step 5 – Fold

Usually written as “punching,” folding is another step that tends to be misunderstood by home-bakers.

Folding is a way of strengthening the dough, redistributing food for the yeast and evening the temperature throughout the day. It is one of the easiest ways to take your bread to the next level and is always overlooked because of the silly name “punching” that most recipes use.

Folding may be done inside or outside the bulk fermentation container. Lightly wet your hands and grab one edge of your dough. Fold it towards the center and gently press the fold into the body of the dough. Grab the opposite side and repeat. Repeat again for the top and the bottom. you are folding the dough on itself. Honestly, there is really no way to mess this up if you are just folding the dough into itself. It doesn’t have to be in fours. Just be a little gentle, don’t punch it with your first and mix the dough into itself to even it out.

To see exactly what NOT TO DO look at this video.  This guy breaks every rule for making good bread. Punching the dough, oil in the bowl, tea towel on top. Such a shame. 

Step 6 -Divide

After the bulk fermentation we must divide the dough into the right size for baking. If you are making two loaves, simply divide the dough evenly and continue on. For three or more, use a scale to accurately way the dough to help the loaves cook evenly and uniformly. It’s not necessary, but it helps to divide the dough in even shapes. It will help during pre-shaping and with final shaping.

Step 7 – Pre-Shape

The pre-shape is the beginning of the hardest technical parts in bread baking. Pre-shaping and shaping can take your homemade loaves from meager to magical. I’m not going to get into the details of shaping, it is a post in and of itself so check out Ciril Hitz’s video on bread shaping.  I literally couldn’t show you better myself.

Step 8 – Bench Rest

After pre-shaping, the dough must go through an “intermediate resting period.” This lets the gluten in the dough relax so it can be properly shaped for baking. It also adds slightly more flavor to the dough as it is continually fermenting during this entire process.

Step 9 – Final Shape

If your pre-shaping is successful, final shaping won’t be difficult. The main objective in the final shape is to develop a tight skin on the outside of the loaf. This helps control the rise of the dough while baking and makes it easier to score loaves, if need be. Again, check out Ciril Hitz’s video on bread shaping. 

Step 10 – Proof

After shaping and working the dough, most of the CO2 from the yeast has been expelled from the dough. Proofing lets the dough come back to life, develop more flavors and gain the texture we recognize in professional bread. Some recipes call for a 10 minute proof, others, like bagels, may take all night. The main requirement I’ve found in proofing is the presence of moisture in the air. If the air is too try a skin develops on the outside of the loaf that prevents the dough from expanding in the oven. I usually proof my dough on a floured linen towel resting on a wooden board. I cover the board with a plastic bag to keep the moisture inside. It is very effective in preventing the skin.

Step 11 – Score

Scoring does more than just look nice, although it really does look nice. It creates weak spots in the gluten structure which encourage the dough to spring in certain directions when in the oven. “Oven spring” is the term used to described how the dough jumps in volume when put into a warm environment.

Step 12 – Bake

Baking bread has two general temperature ranges. 300F-400F and 425F-500F plus. Enriched dough, or dough with with sugars, eggs, milks etc are usually baked in the lower range. Straight dough, or dough with only flour, water, salt and yeast, bake at the higher temperature in order to gain a deep brown crust and increase oven spring. If a recipe with at least 50g of sugar calls for being baked at 450F or higher, I recommend you pay attention to the crust to see how dark it gets. A lot of times the crust will darken before the interior is cooked.

Another rule of them is that the interior temperature of the bread should end up between 200-210F when the bread has finished cooking. Many resources describe how only a few degree difference at the end of baking can change texture, flavor and shelf-life.

Steam is a very important part of bread-baking. Professional ovens inject steam into the baking deck. The steam acts similarly to what happens when you baste a turkey. The extra moisture causes something called evaporative cooling. Evaporative cooling slows down the browning and stops the crust from forming too quickly. This is how hearth breads from straight dough rise and expand so drastically while baking.

It’s very difficult to replicate the steam injection from professional ovens, but a few simple techniques can still give great results. The goal is to create steam for the first 10-15 minutes of baking. If you have a cast iron or heavy duty pan, place it on the bottom shelf of the oven as it preheats. When you place the bread in the oven pour about 1 cup of water into the pan. It should instantly spatter and boil and begin to release steam. Close the door and wait 1 minute before checking to see if the pan has gone dry. Try to keep water in the pan until the ten minute mark. At that point you can either remove the pan or, if the pan is dry, open the door and let any remaining moisture dissipate. The bread should rise drastically and then begin developing a beautiful brown crispy crust.

Step 13 – Cool

The easiest step in the 14 steps of bread baking to accomplish, but the hardest one to obey. When bread comes out of the oven it isn’t close to being done. The center of the bread is most likely very gummy and moist and will continue to cook as the steam on the inside of the loaf cools. Breads need to fully cool before being cut into. If you would like to serve warm bread, bake the bread and cool it properly, then reheat the bread to serve. Many amateur bakers get disappointed when their bread has a wet and chewy crumb and the flavors are off because they break their bread too soon.

Step 14 – Store

Storage is another important part of enjoying bread properly. There are three great ways to store bread, plastic, paper bags and a bread-box. Enriched breads should be stored in plastic. It helps retain moisture and keeps breads soft. Paper bags work best for artisan breads, straight dough breads that are meant to be enjoyed with a crisp crust.

Bread-boxes are ideal for long storage. They keep light away from the bread and stop air from circulating around the bread allowing for a longer shelf life and better texture.

The worst way to keep bread is in the refrigerator. Refrigerators are very moist environments and the low temperature cause starches to harden and completely lose their texture. You can see the obvious affects by placing a soft sandwich loaf in the refrigerator. Within a few hours the crumb becomes crumbly and hard rather than moist and soft.

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