Things I do with ANY bread I Bake!

What makes you a master in any subject is when you can royally screw up and still have an amazing outcome.

I have been baking since I can remember. I’m not sure if all those youth years really mean I can boast my baking career has been going on for 25 years… what I do know is that I have made lots of mistakes.

I have cried over angel food cake and said “Fuc* off” to my mother when my crepes didn’t turn out. I have cried snotted over bread dough, more than once. I have burned, curdled, and mistook salt for sugar endless times. I say this because my sweet friends see me in the kitchen and think I have it figured out, as far as the menu goes. What’s forgotten is all of the learning and trial and many errors. 

It is safe to say that everyone has made mistakes and everyone has had some help along the way. These bread baking tips and tricks are a culmination of what I have learned from my own experiences and from the experiences of masters that I have been fortunate enough to work beside.

At the end of the day, baking is following directions. There are small tricks to remember in a process that can help the whole experience flow together. 

YEAST

Most bread you’ll encounter will have some form of yeast in it. Yeast is what makes bread rise, it gives it that “bready” flavor and makes a dough come to life! Since yeast is a live thing, it needs to be taken care of. Especially if you are sourdough baking, your starter is like your baby. Since yeast is alive, it means it can also die. 

Dried yeast from the store can unfortunately sometimes already be dead. You can even accidentally kill your yeast while in the process! Keep these temperatures in mind for yeast projects and you’ll never have to wonder if the yeast was the problem!

  • Happy Place for yeast: In the dough assembly process yeast likes to be dissolved or mixed with warm liquids anywhere from 80℉ – 100℉. In the proofing (rising) stage yeast can do it’s work anywhere from 75℉ – 110℉.
  • Resting place for Yeast: for long term storage, you can put your yeast in the fridge (40℉) for 4 months. You can freeze dry-yeast forever! 
  • Death place of yeast: If yeast gets mixed with doughs or liquids hotter than 120℉ then it will start to die. It will be completely dead by the time it reaches 140℉. When recipes specify temperatures, it’s best to follow. Have patience, cool your liquids!

Not sure if your yeast is alive? Dissolve 1 tsp of sugar, one packet of yeast (2 1/4 tsp) in 1/4 cup of warm water. Wait for 10 minutes. If the yeast mixture bubbles and looks active then you’re golden!

ADDING INGREDIENTS

There is a solid reason why recipes have directions to follow. There is usually a very good reason as to why things are done in a certain order. When you bake you are a chemist. If you add an ingredient that activates with moisture and you plop that in first, it may be too tired to do its job in the oven. 

Chefs and writers would have to type out trilogies just for a recipe if they went into the background of why. In some cases, the why is why a recipe might fail or prevail. So, best to always follow the directions and read them multiple times all the way through.

When it comes to bread, especially sourdough, I recommend adding your water or moisture additive slowly. In some cases, I’ll add half upfront and add as the dough comes together. 

Doughs can be finicky sometimes, it often depends on the moisture levels outside or the mood. Results are still undetermined, but the reality is true. Some days your favorite recipe may want more or less water/flour. This is so true for sourdough starters. Add water slowly! If you plunk it all in, not to worry. You’ll probably be just fine, or you’ll need to add a little more flour.

PROOFING

(The rising & resting of dough)

The proofing process or rising time of bread is so important. This is something that can sadly show in a final product if your dough is not fully proofed. The yeast needs time to work its magic. This is no baking soda we are working with here. If you try to bake before the yeast has done its job, it’s basically like dragging a teenager out of bed at 5 am on a Saturday. It’s rude and uncalled for. 😉

In many recipes, you’ll see that they call for folding in the corners or turning the dough. This is totally on purpose. When you “fold in the corners” or turn the dough you are also ensuring that the yeast is mixed and stretched all in over the dough. This creates a better rise in the end.

The question remains, how to know when the dough is proofed enough? Bakers have a little trick where we press out knuckle into a dough. If it bounces back then your dough still needs more time. If the indention remains then you’re ready to bake! 

You can certainly over-proof bread, and this is always a little heartbreaking, seeing your exhausted dough all flopped out. I suppose you could re-knead and shape your dough (if possible), however, I prefer to punish myself by baking and then grumbling at the over-proofed result. 

GLUTEN DEVELOPMENT

Bakers go back and for on this subject, and for some types of bread (looking at you biscuit) it doesn’t matter, but there is a bread flour for a reason….

Bread flour is exactly the same as your all-purpose except when it comes to the protein content.

Bread flour typically has anywhere from 11- 13% protein. With more protein, gluten can develop more. This means your dough can stretch and stretch without ever baking. You can produce a large light and fluffy dough with that stretch. This is why gluten-free baking is so challenging!

There’s a fun thing you can do to test to see if your dough has developed enough. It’s called “the window-pane test”. After you’ve been kneading your dough for some time you take a small piece of the dough, roll it into a ball and gently stretch it open. The goal is to be able to stretch the dough so fine that it becomes transparent, like a stained glass window pane. If the dough tears or rips “chunky-like” then you need to knead your dough more. 

If you are using your AP flour for bread you will probably never reach this stage. 🙁

Why does this matter? For one, the dough will hold together through proofing, shaping, and baking. The more you work a dough the tougher it will become. In some bread cases, the goal is a crunchy crusty bread. This is all doable when the dough reaches window-pane. 

As first mentioned, experts and home experts all have varying opinions on this. This is mine.

DECORATING!

One of the biggest reasons (besides my sweet tooth) that I started baking was for the decorating. 

Pinterest can explode your mind on scoring designs and stencils to dust flour over. Though pretty, these cuts and slashes are actually purposeful. When the dough is placed in the oven it’s bound to expand and that expansion can find its own way in an explosive manner, or follow your guidelines and expand into a pretty design. 

Rustic style bread look really sexy flour-dusted, sweetbreads prefer a wash for a shinny outcome, and maybe you feel like coating the bread in everything mix. Typically the coating happens and then you score.

The depth of the score will be determined by how proofed your dough is. If your bread is more towards the under proofed direction then you’ll want deeper slashes. The bread that is closer to over-proofed would greatly prefer lighter and shallower scores. 

STEAM

Now here is a secret that some bread recipes may forget to tell you… you want to steam the bread. This is true for most rustic style bread like baguettes, Italian bread, etc.. 

Steaming helps the bread transition into its time in the oven. The steam gives the yeast a few more minutes to grow (so those pretty scores will open up!). The steam also allows for a crunchy crusty bread by melting sugars that are in the bread, leaving you with a brown glossy crust.

When I had fancy ovens at the bakery I had a dial where I could open or close the vents to keep steam in or out. In my current electric oven, I roll up a towel and stuff it in the crack of the “extra pan drawer” to keep the steam in. There are many ways to steam your oven/bread.

Some like to use a pan or cast iron with some water in it that slowly steams the whole time. At another bakery I worked at, we only steamed for the first 10 minutes. They had a professional set up, but ay home I either use a spray bottle, or my preferred method, throwing in a cup of water at the bottom of the oven. Suggestions of ice cubes tossed in and other variations can also be fruitful. 

FINISHING BREAD

The worst possible thing that can happen at this point is having underbaked bread. Novice and wonderbread lovers may enjoy raw dough, but it’s not good for the gut or your expanding baking exploration.

I highly recommend purchasing an instant-read thermometer, or a thermometer that you can probe bread with. Most bread is done at 200℉. Stuffed bread may want a higher temperature like 240℉. Many blogs and books will say “knock on the bottom of the bread. It should sound hollow”. Yes, this works, but if you’re after assurance that your bread is baked, then get a thermometer.

One of the hardest parts of bread baking is letting your finished bread cool. AT least 10 minutes after getting it out of the oven. Bread finished the baking process in the cooling stage. If you slice into it too soon then your bread could remain unbaked. It is also harder to cut through the soft inner part of the bread as it mushes all together.

If you keep these key ideas in your mind while you are experimenting with bread, you’ll end up on top! Remember, a pro isn’t a perfectionist. Make a few mistakes and who knows where the learning will take you!