At its simplest and most straightforward, yeast bread is made up of flour, water, salt and yeast. That’s it. Let me list them again: flour, water, salt, yeast.
This page will teach you in detail what you need to know to make great bread at home but if you want to get right into the process, check out my Basic 4 Ingredient Bread Recipe here.
Just four little ingredients, but never have four ingredients sparked such fear and awe. People say in reverential tones, “I would love to make homemade bread like my mom!”
All kidding aside, making bread can be a very intimidating proposition, even for the most seasoned home cook. Someone who doesn’t think twice about putting together a traditional cassoulet with an ingredient list as long as their arm might experience a pang or two of doubt when faced with a bread recipe with those four little ingredients.
It's All In The Technique
Baking bread is really all about technique. It’s about developing a feel for the ingredients. And you can’t do that without practicing. Let’s all swallow our fear and take a closer look at the magic that is yeast bread. Remember, flour is cheap, so if you really want to do this, get ready to practice.
First, we’ll take a brief look at bread’s basic ingredients and find out what makes them tick. Then, we’ll address the necessary equipment and techniques you must master to make great bread. Last, we’ll look at additions and/or substitutions you can make with the basic ingredients to change the taste, texture and look of bread. Take a deep breath, and get ready to get up close and personal with one of the oldest prepared foods known to man: bread.
What's In The Bread
Flour provides bulk and structure to the bread. Wheat flour, specifically, contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin which, in the presence of water, combine and produce gluten, the stretchy protein substance that lets wheat breads rise, rise, rise, and then set, locking in the cells where the air bubbles used to be. The higher the protein content of the flour, the more gliadin and glutenin are in it, and the more gluten will form. The flours highest in protein are made with hard winter wheat. Look for them labeled as Bread Flour or even High Gluten flour.
Water provides for gluten formation and yeast reproduction. Without water (either straight water or as a component of another liquid, such as milk), all you have is a pile of flour, salt and yeast. No amount of tossing together will yield a dough unless water is added to the mix. Water re hydrates yeast and activates gluten formation. For bread making, harder water works better than soft water because harder water will yield more stable dough.
Salt gives bread flavor, and it also inhibits yeast growth. This might sound counterintuitive, but without the presence of some salt, yeast growth will continue until the flour matrix can no longer support it, and your bread will deflate. Too much salt, and your yeast won’t give you enough rise. Too little, and your bread will rise too much. The trick is in getting the right salt to yeast ratio.
Yeast are single celled organisms that live solely to eat sugars, give off gasses, and reproduce. In the US, your choices for yeast are fresh, or cake, yeast, active dry yeast and instant, or rapid rise yeast. For a home baker, fresh yeast is difficult to find, can get moldy if left too long in the refrigerator, and can be temperamental. Many bakers swear by fresh yeast, but there are more standardized choices for the home baker.
Rapid rise, or instant yeast, is a relatively new type of dried yeast. It can be added along with dry ingredients without the need for proofing, and it produces a very rapid rise. However, what you gain in time, you lose in flavor, so the third choice is probably the best.
Active dry yeast is just that—active yeast that are dormant until you add them to water. Active dry yeast does better if you proof it first—add it to slightly warm water with a bit of sweetener (for food) until it gets bubbly and creamy. When using a recipe that calls for fresh yeast, use 1/3 to ½ of what is called for. For example, for 1 oz. of fresh yeast, you will use 1/3-1/2 ounce (approximately 9-14 grams) of active dry yeast.
What Equipment Do I Need?
The absolute essential pieces of equipment necessary for baking bread are two hands and an oven. Honestly. Purists will mix and knead their dough right on the counter—no bowls necessary. For most of us, though, it’s nice to have a large, heavy bowl on a non-skid base (a damp towel will do) and a scale.
If you are going to be baking a lot of bread, you might consider investing in either a baking stone or just lining the bottom of your oven with a clean unglazed terra cotta tile. If you are interested in making homemade bread but not so enchanted with the idea of kneading for ten or fifteen minutes, invest in a very sturdy stand mixer with all metal gearing and a dough hook. Loaf pans of different sizes are nice to have as well, for sandwich bread, but wonderful breads can be made right on a stone.
Steps To Great Bread
There are quite a few steps to making bread. Don’t worry, most steps flow naturally from one to the next. Here they are: scaling, mixing, fermenting, punching, dividing, rounding, benching, panning, proofing, baking, cooling and storing. Whew!
First, you have to measure/weigh all your ingredients, then mix them together. This is where the kneading happens. Then, you have to give the yeast a chance to work, or ferment. (That’s where lots of recipes tell you to “let dough sit in a warm place until doubled in bulk”). After that, you need to gently press out the gasses in the dough and redistribute the yeast.
After that, you’ll divide the dough in pieces the weight that you need (if you’re just making one loaf, you’ll of course skip that step). Next, you’ll round your dough and let it hang out, covered for a few minutes. These two steps are optional, but follow them, if the fermentation has really heated up your dough.
The rest period gives the dough a chance to cool off a bit—you don’t want to kill those little yeasties by getting them too hot before they’ve given you all the rise that they can. After that, you’ll pan up your dough, and let it proof in the pan. Last, you’ll bake, cool and then store (or eat) your creation.
The step that most of us have the most difficulty with is mixing. Two questions come up:
“How do you know when you’ve put in enough flour?” and “How/how long do I knead?”
I’ve seen the same recipes you’ve seen. Ones that say “5 to 6 cups of flour.” How frustrating is that, not to know exactly how much of an ingredient we’re supposed to put in something?! It kind of makes you get a little hot and sweaty as you slowly keep adding flour, hoping that the dough will eventually look “right.” The sweating continues as you frantically knead, eyes on the timer. When it goes off, you still wonder, “Have I done enough? How do I know if I have done enough?” Let’s look at these techniques one at a time.
Mixing the Dough
First, almost any bread recipe will give you a range for the amount of flour called for. This is because, on any given day and depending on the protein content of your particular flour, it will accept more or less water depending upon the humidity and temperature in the air and the humidity and temperature of your flour.
If making a standard, four ingredient bread in a stand mixer, a good rule of thumb is to add the last few ounces of flour a bit at a time, stopping when the dough doesn’t stick to the sides or bottom of the bowl when kneading. If you’re making the dough by hand, knead in the last few ounces a bit at a time until the dough is no longer sticky. Even that is a vague instruction: add flour until the dough is soft and smooth, not wet and sticky, but not completely dry, either. (See why I say that this takes practice)?!
To get a better feel for this, make your dough with a stand mixer, and then take it out of the mixer bowl when it clears the sides and bottom. Now you can examine it for feel and texture before you knead.
Here’s another rule for you: never add more than the maximum flour called for in the range. If you have to err, err on the side of too little flour rather than too much flour—a bit too little flour will give you a very good rise; too much flour will yield a dense loaf.
Now, on to kneading.
First, here’s a quick definition: kneading is the process by which you align and elongate gluten strands to develop them to the point that it can hold the gasses that the yeast give off. This makes your bread rise and then set in the oven. The more well-developed your gluten “web,” the more gasses your bread will hold, the higher it will rise and the more open and airy its texture.
Kneading also helps to evenly distribute the yeast and the gasses it creates throughout your dough. This will result in a more even crumb in your finished loaf. Everything you try so hard to avoid doing to pie dough, you try to do when making bread.
Pie dough = minimal mixing.
Bread dough = long mixing time.
Pie dough = short, weak (or no) gluten strands.
Bread dough = long, tough gluten strands.
You can accomplish kneading in a variety of ways. As long as you have enough water in your dough and work it well, you’ll get good gluten development. The most-often described method of kneading is to push the dough away from you with the heel of your hands, fold the dough over, give it a quarter turn, and do it again. I’ve seen people lift the dough up and slap it on the table to develop the gluten.
The trick is to work the dough as a continuous mass - if you tear the dough into little pieces, you break the gluten strands you’ve worked so hard to form. So, however you choose to knead, put some muscle into it, put on some good music, and develop a rhythm.
The next trick is in knowing when you’ve kneaded the dough enough. When your dough is well kneaded, it should be very smooth and springy—it should bounce back when you pull on it or poke it.
You can also double check to see if you’ve got good gluten development by doing the “windowpane” test. Take about a one ounce piece of your dough, shape it into a ball and then start pinching it flat like a little pizza. Once you’ve gotten the dough thinned out, spread it out with your fingers. If the dough stretches until translucent, and you can see the gluten strands, you’re done. If the dough tears or doesn’t stretch to the point of translucence, keep kneading.
Some cookbooks warn you not to over-knead to avoid breaking the gluten structure down, but if you are using bread flour and kneading by hand, you shouldn’t have to worry about that. If using a stand mixer set on low for kneading, check your dough after 5 minutes and every minute after that to guard against the possibility of overworking it.
Now that you have an idea of the function of the basic ingredients of bread as well as the fundamentals of making it, check out this basic 4-ingredient bread recipe. It will walk you through the entire process in simple step-by-step instructions.
Substitute Ingredients To Make Different Types of Bread
There are many kinds of breads on the market as well as products made similar to bread but are know as something else like bagels, pizza, croissants, cinnamon rolls, etc. They may all be based on the basic four ingredients in classic yeast bread, but these substitutions are important for the final end product.
To learn more about these bread ingredient substitutions and how they change the characteristics of the bread, click on the link.