So what is bread, actually?
Well, the way I see it, bread is basically a baked dough that develops bubbles in it and acquires a spongy texture that can take on different consistencies and flavours. There can be acid breads and rich breads, dense or soft, but they all have bubbles in them or otherwise they would be too thick and chewy to eat.
In order for the bubbles to be trapped in the bread we need an elastic protein that holds the air inside, which is gluten. This protein is found in wheat, rye and barley, which is why bread always contains flour from at least one of these cereals, with white wheat flour having the highest content, and which also explains why in corn-eating countries they usually make flat tortillas instead of thick loaves, because corn flour does not trap the air bubbles inside and any loaf would end up like a brick. In order to have the gluten in the bread trap the bubbles inside it, its fibres must be stretched and aligned, which is done by kneading and/or letting it ferment and rest.
For the bubbles to be formed we can basically use one of three techniques: chemical substances that produce air when exposed to the heat of an oven, such as baking soda; commercial yeasts that typically consist in a single strain of yeast, such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as brewer’s yeast; or natural leaven or sourdough, which is a mixture of different wild yeasts and bacteria that usually results in more flavourful and longer-keeping breads, although they rise much slower and require special treatment.
The ten steps of baking bread:
So, according to the research I’ve been doing on baking bread, the whole process can be divided into ten steps, from preparing the mixture to finally baking the bread in the oven.
- Mise en place
- Stretch and folds/Degassing
- Final Proof/Panning
I shall try to provide a brief description of each step.
- Mise en place – This is where we prepare ourselves for the task at hand, gathering all necessary equipment and weighing all the ingredients
- Mixing – As you might have guessed, this where the ingredients are combined together into the dough. Care should be taken not to take too long during mixing, since the flour may oxidise and the dough become much denser and brick-like
- Fermentation – This is where the dough is left to rise in a warm place by the action of the leavening agents of our choice (not necessary when using chemical leavening agents), and is one of the most important steps since 75% of the flavour of the bread is developed during this stage
- Stretch and folds/Degassing – Many doughs benefit from a series of stretches and folds during the fermentation process, which help to stretch and align the gluten proteins and give the bread better texture
- Dividing – This is where we divide up large batches of dough into their respective individual shapes
- Preshaping/Shaping – Once divided, the dough is gently coaxed into the final shape we want it to have, creating surface tension so that it doesn’t just flatten out against the tray as it grows
- Final Proof/Panning – The dough is allowed to rise for the last time before hitting the oven, and a good rise is what proves that the yeast is still alive in the dough (thus the name proofing). A good test for “doneness” is to press into the dough with your finger. The dough should push back but not completely recover its original shape
- Scoring – The decorative cuts made into the dough before putting them in the oven create a weak spot in the tense surface, which will become a place through which the bread can rise and take its final shape. The best way to do this is with a sharp knife (could be your bread knife), cutting half an inch into the dough and at an angle. This is much better than cutting in vertically into the dough. Try it out!
- Baking – The final firing of the bread, where the heat of the oven creates a crust that seals the outside (thus the importance of scoring the bread and using steam to delay the process, allowing the bread to rise) and caramelises the sugars in the dough, creating yet more flavour
- Cooling/Storage – This is also an important step, since freshly-baked bread has not yet developed all of its flavour. It should be allowed to cool down to finish the process. Once baked and cooled, bread can be stored cut side down on a chopping board or in a paper bag if it is to be stored longer. Enriched breads can be wrapped in plastic or frozen in plastic wrap
Well, and after this overdose of information, here comes a bread recipe:
Classic French Bread (from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day)
(makes 2 large loaves, 4 small loaves or many rolls)
5⅓ cups (24 oz / 680 g) unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons (0.5 oz / 14 g) salt, or 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
2¼ teaspoons (0.25 oz / 7 g) instant yeast
2 cups (16 oz / 454 g) lukewarm water (about 95°F or 35°C)
The day before baking, combine all ingredients and mix for 1 minute (on lowest speed with a mixer or by hand) until well blended and smooth. Let the dough rest, uncovered, for 5 mins. Mix again with a mixer or by hand for another 2 mins, adjusting with flour or water as necessary. Knead the dough by hand for 1 more minute, then transfer it to a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then immediately refrigerate overnight or for up to 4 days. If the dough feels too wet and sticky, do not add more flour; instead, stretch and fold it one or more times at 10-minute intervals, before putting it in the refrigerator. (If you plan to bake the dough in batches over different days, you can portion the dough and place it into two or more oiled bowls at this stage.)
On baking day, remove the dough from the refrigerator about 2 hours before you plan to bake. Gently transfer it to a lightly floured work surface, taking care to degas it as little as possible. For baguettes and bâtards, divide the cold dough into 10-ounce (283 g) pieces; for 1 pound boules, divide the dough into 19-ounce (53 g) pieces; and for freestanding loaves, use whatever size you prefer.
Form the dough into bâtards and/or baguettes or boules. Mist the top of the dough with spray oil, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and proof at room temperature for about 1½ hours, until increased to 1½ times its original size.
About 45 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 550°F (288°C) or as high as it will go, and prepare the oven for hearth baking (placing a baking stone and steam tray inside the oven).
Remove the plastic wrap from the dough 15 minutes prior to baking; if using proofing moulds, transfer the dough onto a floured peel. Just prior to baking, score the dough ½ inch deep with a serrated knife or razor. Transfer the dough to the oven, pour 1 cup of hot water into the steam pan, then lower the oven temperature to 450°F (232°C). Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 25 minutes, until the crust is a rich golden brown, the loaves sound hollow when thumped, and the internal temperature is about 200°F (93°C) in the centre. For a crisper crust, turn off the oven and leave the bread in for another 5 minutes before removing.
Cool the bread on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes before slicing or serving.
By simply varying the method so that the shaped loaves undergo cold fermentation, rather than the freshly mixed bulk dough, you can create a spectacular loaf with a distinctive blistered crust. After the dough is mixed and placed in a clean, oiled bowl, let it rise at room temperature for about 90 minutes, until doubled in size. Divide and shape as described above, mist with spray oil, then cover the shaped dough loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight, away from anything that might fall on it or restrict it from growing.
The next day, remove the dough from the refrigerator 1 hour before baking. It should have grown to at least 1½ times its original size.
Prepare the oven for hearth baking. While the oven is heating, remove the plastic wrap and let the dough sit uncovered for 10 minutes. Score the dough while it’s still cold, then bake as described above.
so, some things I think worth mastering to improve your understanding of the bread-making process are: a couple of different recipes, one for lean bread, one enriched bread; introducing different flours in your breads; and dealing with different dough consistencies, such as firm and wet.
links for more in-depth info about bread and bread-making:
· For beginners:
http://tequedasacenar.com/como-hacer-pan/ (in Spanish)
· For simple, delicious, “quick” recipes baked the day after preparing the dough:
Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day – Great recipes for cold-fermentation breads (where the dough rises in the fridge overnight), from lean breads to enriched breads
· For experts or people who wish to become more involved in bread making:
http://www.elforodelpan.com/ (in Spanish) – a forum for people passionate about baking
Baking Artisan Bread, by Ciril Hitz – A good guide on baking bread, detailing the steps described above and with all kinds of different recipes from lean to enriched breads.
Dan Leppard’s The Handmade Loaf – Advanced Techniques and breads using lots of different ingredients