Welcome to the world of Homemade Breads….
Bread baking is an art. You master this art, like any other art, only with practice.
But for practicing, you need to undergo through theory lessons first.
Bread making involves series of steps to be followed in order and with proper understanding. Initially it may seem somewhat confusing but after 2-3 bakes only you will get into it. Therefore before starting bread it is better or in fact necessary to learn properly about it and have a thorough understanding about bread baking.
Trust me, the more you will bake the better it will get. You will see that each subsequent loaf is better than the previous one. And it is so simple that after few bakes only you will start doing it your way.
While baking bread you come across many terms in the recipe like proofing yeast, window pane test, knock down, final proofing etc. which you have never heard of. Or if heard, then don’t know their meaning in context to baking breads. These terms are very peculiar and when used in bread baking have a specific meaning. When I started baking breads, I really had a tough time understanding these terms. But thanks to internet and slowly and gradually with practice, understood these and today even I find difficult to talk without these.
Still not an expert, learning something new with my every bread, be it loaf or any other form of it.
Have tried to explain with the best of my experience, knowledge and inputs from various websites.
Let us start one by one.
In very simple words, proofing yeast means to activate yeast. It is done by adding yeast to warm water along with sugar. After 10 to 15 minutes (even longer in cold weather), yeast swells or blooms and this water becomes frothy and bubbly.
Ensure that the water you are using to proof yeast is warm. Hot water kills yeast and even in less warm water yeast does not activate. Some people use thermometer to gauge temperature but everyone doesn’t have it. Even I don’t have it. So to check whether the water is sufficiently warm or not, just dip your finger in it. As long as it feels warm and comfortable to you, it will be warm and comfortable for the yeast too.( Another test is, if asked to take bath with it, will it be okay for you?)
Take the warm water in a bowl and add sugar and yeast in it. Sugar is yeast’s food. So, sugar is added (or honey or maple syrup) just enough to give the yeast a reason to wake up and eat. You may give it a light stir but do not mix it. Cover it with a lid/plate and leave it for at least 15 minutes. During this time the yeast will eat up sugar and emit carbon dioxide. Hence the water will become frothy and you will also see some bubbles in it. Time may vary according to weather, therefore keep an eye on it. It might take upto 20 or 25 minutes. So, wait for it too become frothy.
This shows that the yeast is good and also that it is ready to make bread with it.
In case, it does not swell and the water does not become frothy, it means that the yeast has either expired or is not of good quality. In that case discard it and start afresh after getting a new yeast.
Thus it is a way to prove that the yeast is good enough to be used and hence the name given Proofing Yeast.
Normally, only dry active yeast is proofed. But it is better to proof instant yeast also as it ensures that the yeast is good. Otherwise, if by chance, your yeast has expired/not of good quality then you will come to know only when your bread doesn’t rise. Your efforts will be wasted and you will keep blaming the recipe or your own self. Therefore it is better to proof yeast, whether dry or instant, both.
To know about yeast, what it is and what are the types of yeast, click here.
Kneading the bread dough
Though now a days we have no knead breads also but that depends on the recipe. If the recipe asks for kneading the dough then you have to.
Why do we knead the dough ?
Well, kneading is essential to strengthen the gluten.
And what is gluten ?
Gluten refers to the stringy bands of proteins that give bread its structure and texture. As we knead the dough, either manually or in stand mixer, those strands of gluten are tighten up and get into line.
Knead the dough for 12-15 minutes by hand or 8-10 minutes in a mixer.
Once you mix everything and start kneading, then initially it is very tough. The dough is very heavy and sticks badly to your hands.
When you start kneading the dough it is like a wild animal totally out of control. But don’t worry its just a matter of few minutes. You just keep kneading it, preferably on the kitchen counter as then you can use both your hands. Knead it using stretch and fold method (like that of washing clothes by hand). You may lightly grease your hands in between. Soon you will be amazed to see your clean hands and also that how easily you can handle the dough the way you want. Now it is like your tamed animal, who will obey your command. Roll this dough in your bowl (with dough sticken all over) and once again you will feel happy to see your clean bowl.
My tip : After mixing everything, cover it and just leave it for 6-7 minutes. As they say time is a big healer, same way time plays its role here and the dough becomes manageable. Then I gather it roughly into a ball and just flip it between my hands, from one hand to other and after 8 to 10 flippings it stops sticking, then I put it on counter/food processor for kneading.
I don’t have a stand mixer but, I sometimes knead it in my food processor using the kneading blade (the one of plastic). Results are beautiful with less labour. So, you may knead it by hands for 15 to 20 minutes or in the food processor for 5 minutes.
How do you know that you have kneaded enough?
Look for following indications to check whether or not your dough has been sufficiently kneaded….
Smooth Dough : First of all, the dough will now look smooth and shiny.
Poke test : The simplest way to know that you have kneaded enough is to poke your finger in the dough. When taken out, the dough will immediately bounce back.
Hold its shape : The dough should form a ball without sagging. It means that when you lift the ball of dough in your hand and hold it in the air for a second then if it holds its ball shape then the gluten is tight and strong. If it is sagging sideways between your fingers then knead for some more time.
Windowpane test : The third one is window pane test.For this take little dough in your hand. Folding it with both the hands stretch it slowly into a thin sheet. Without tearing if it stretches so much that light passes through it then the dough is sufficiently kneaded. If it tears, then keep kneading. It requires practice so don’t be upset if you cannot perform this test initially.
Once you are satisfied that the dough is sufficiently kneaded then take a bowl. Grease it with oil. Now put the dough in it and flip the dough so that it is greased from both the sides. If the dough remains dry, it may develop cracks. This is important or else the dough may dry up and form cracks while rising. Cover the bowl with cling film or plate or damp cloth.
Now after so much of exercise, the dough needs to take rest. It is left undisturbed for an hour or so and it is called the rising time.
During rising, the yeast ferments (eats) the sugar and develops the dough. Rising also improves the flavor and texture of the bread.
Proofing means resting the dough for an hour or so during which gases ( carbon dioxide and ethanol) are released and makes the dough rise.
For proofing it is advised to keep the bowl of dough in some warm place. Ideal rise temperatures are between 80°F – 90°F; higher temperatures may kill the yeast and keep the dough from rising; lower temperatures will slow the yeast activity which will increase your rise time. Best place is to keep it inside your oven, yes closed oven. In winters you may just switch on the oven’s light. Dough will rise beautifully just in the warmth of light.
The dough will rise in how much time ? Well, no fixed answer for this question.During summers it may rise in 45 minutes to 1 hour. Whereas in winters it may take even up to 2 hours. Rising of the dough depends on many other factors also like the recipe, room temperature, humidity, quantity of yeast used etc.
So timing is just a rough guide. Observe the dough as to when it becomes double in volume
How do you know that the dough has risen enough ?
The dough has risen enough when it becomes double in size. Also perform the Ripe Test. The ripe test determines if the dough is ready to be punched down and shaped.
To perform Ripe Test, poke two fingers in the risen dough up to your second knuckle. If proofed well, then the you will see dents that will rebound slowly. If it does not rebounds, it means the dough is over proofed.
If the dough is over proofed, the yeast runs out of readily available food and goes dormant or dies off. When that happens, you don’t get a good rise the second time because the yeast is no longer eating and creating the CO2 that forms the bubbles in the bread.
Time to knock down the dough. The term knock down/Punch down means to deflate the dough. Make a fist and press the risen dough with it. You will see that it has returned more or less equal to its previous size.
Why do we deflate the dough. Well, this is very important. There are two reasons for this. First is that the gluten which developed during kneading gets a chance to relax. The other reason is to release the alcohol built up during the first proofing. If it is not released then it creates a toxic environment that subsequently kills the yeast.
After the knock down, knead it just for a minute or so, that too very mildly.
Now is the time to shape up. Be gentle with the dough and shape it according to the type of bread you are going to bake. If you are too harsh with the dough then you may destroy the gluten developed therein.
But wait… after shaping it do not put it in the oven. Its time for second rise or final proofing.
Final Proofing (Second Rise)
Final proofing takes place in the shape you want to see your bread in. If making loaf then after shaping keep it in the loaf tin. Don’t forget to grease the loaf tin before keeping the loaf in it.
The second rising, or proofing, gives a better volume, a more mellow yeast flavor and a finer texture to breads.
Again, cover it with damp cloth/cling film/lid and leave it to rise in some warm place for half an hour to 45 minutes or as the recipe says.
Keep observing the dough and after around 30-35 minutes, start preheating your oven.
To determine if a risen loaf is ready for the oven, lightly touch the side of the loaf; if the imprint remains, it is ready to be baked. Expect a beautiful oven spring!
You must have seen beautiful patterns on some breads like on baguettes or boule or even on Domino’s Garlic bread. Are these really patterns to beautify the bread? Well, these cuts are called Slashing in the baking world.
Slashing the dough before baking does more than just make a pretty pattern on your bread. It also helps direct how the bread will rise in the oven. Have you ever baked a loaf of bread and ended up with a large air pocket right under the crust? Well, slashing your loaf helps prevent this.
For a sandwich loaf, one long slash down the center of the loaf is a nice finishing touch.Prior to slashing, you can brush the dough with egg wash, water, milk or egg white. Lastly, if you wish, you can add some poppy seeds, sesame seeds etc. You can also leave the bread plain.
Bread making is simple, requiring only 4 basic ingredients- flour, yeast, water and sugar but… it requires lots n lots n lots of practice. Perfection will come with practice only. Just like swimming or driving or making perfect round chapati. The more you do the better it becomes. Go thoroughly through your lessons, understand the steps involved, learn to read your bread dough through your eyes also rather than just going by time, follow the recipe and very soon you will start making bread, your way….no recipe, no clock, no measurements.
Till then, don’t stress about your bread being perfect. Don’t compare your loaf with the one you get in stores or you see in pics. As long as it tastes good, continue baking. One day, your loaf will be better than the ones shown in pics.
There’s no point in baking at home if it doesn’t bring you joy. If a part of the loaf burns, don’t worry. People like the crispy parts. If one part isn’t as firm as the rest, that’s cool. People like the soft parts. The ultimate thing to keep in mind is that if the bread is fresh and warm, people will pick it apart the second it hits the table.
Wishing you all the very best.
My heartfelt acknowledgements to the following links for the valuable inputs,
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Happy Bread Making…
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