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Bread is one of the most ubiquitous forms of food in the world, and it appears in in nearly every culture. Bread takes many different forms and can include a vast array of ingredients.

Bread also serves several functions as part of a meal, which often determines the ingredients and form. It can be a “palate cleanser” between courses, which is the main function of dinner rolls. It is often an edible vessel or container for other food items: sandwich bread, hamburger or hot dog buns, pizza and other flatbreads, soup bowls, crackers, dumplings, and of course toast. Sometimes it’s a utensil, used to push sauces, stews, and other wet foods onto a spoon or fork – or to sop them up directly.

Bread has an unfortunate and largely undeserved reputation for being difficult to make, something you need to spend years to master. Go into any used book store and you will find a whole shelf of books on baking bread. If you watch any TV baking shows then you have seen bakers stress over whether their loaf has risen just the right amount, or has baked all the way through.

In practice, most bread is easy. It is a straightforward application of some basic chemistry and biology. You can make a basic loaf of bread with just 4-6 ingredients: water, flour, yeast, sugar, salt, and oil. Making bread is 95% knowledge and 5% skill; you need to know a bunch of things to do it, but anyone who knows those things can consistently make very tasty and edible bread.

That said, breadmaking does go wrong sometimes; it happens to all of us, and often it’s because of some environmental factor we didn’t anticipate. An airplane pilot will tell you that most of learning to fly isn’t about what to do when everything goes right; it’s about learning what to do when something goes wrong. In a similar vein, much of the knowledge you need for breadmaking is about controlling your environment enough to eliminate most of the reasons why something might go wrong. Again, it’s not difficult and it rarely involves any specific skills; most of it is simply knowing what to look out for. Every failed loaf of bread (and I’ve had plenty over the years) is a lesson in how to prevent that from happening with the next loaf.

The basic chemistry and biology of making bread is pretty simple:

  • Make a wet dough by combining flour and water. The proteins in the flour combine with the water to make long threads called glutens. Over time, the glutens form a structural network; you can think of it as something like a three-dimensional fishing net, or perhaps like construction scaffolding. Kneading the bread – repeatedly stretching and folding it – helps to develop the gluten network faster.
  • Yeast – a microscopic fungus — eats sugars and starches and produces carbon dioxide gas, alcohol, and other chemicals that impart flavor. The longer the yeast does its thing,  the more gas, alcohol, and flavor your bread has, and the less sugar it has. This process is called fermentation, and it’s the same process used in making beer and wine (though with different ingredients and different kinds of yeast).
  • The wet dough traps the gas released by the yeast. The gluten network provides enough structural strength for the dough to rise as the gas accumulates as bubbles.
  • Baking the dough dries it out, hardens the gluten network in place, kills the yeast (ending fermentation), boils off the alcohol, and caramelizes the outside into a brown crust.

Almost all breadmaking follows these steps. The differences between bread recipes lie in the ingredients, the shape and size of the loaf, how much it’s allowed to ferment, and how it’s baked. And that’s where the rest of the breadmaking knowledge comes in.

  • There are dozens of different kinds of flour. They have different densities; a denser flour will require a stronger gluten network to support the dough as it rises.  Flours also have different amounts of gluten, which will determine how well the gluten network develops in your dough. You can buy “bread flour,” which is flour with a higher amount of gluten than “all purpose flour.” Whole wheat flour also has high gluten, but it is a heavy, dense flour that doesn’t rise well on its own. Flours made from grains other than wheat tend to have much less gluten, or in some cases none at all. You can actually buy “vital wheat gluten” separately (you can find it with the specialty flours in most grocery stores) and add it when you are baking with whole wheat flour (one tablespoon of gluten for every cup of flour) to ensure that you get sufficient rise on your bread.
  • Getting the amount of water correct is a bit of a balancing act. In most cases you want your dough to be smooth and soft: not sticky to the touch, but also not so dry that it’s rough or flaky. Also, it takes a bit of time for flour to fully absorb water, so fresh, sticky dough that’s left to sit for thirty minutes may not be sticky anymore.
  • When you’re mixing together bread dough, always err on the side of making the dough slightly too wet to start and then slowly adding more flour until it’s the right consistency and texture. It’s far easier to add flour to dough that’s too wet than it is to add water to dough that’s too dry.
  • The speed at which yeast ferments sugar is closely tied to temperature. The warmer your kitchen is, the faster the fermentation (and the faster your dough will rise).  The optimal temperature for a quick rise is around 80-90 degrees F. If your kitchen is cooler than that, your dough will still rise; it will just take longer. Some recipes recommend long, slow rises in the refrigerator,  up to 24 hours; the philosophy behind this is that if you have the time, a long, slow rise will generate much more flavor than a short, fast one.
  • Generally speaking, the optimal amount of rise is about double the volume of the unrisen dough. Less than double and bread tends to be too dense (and is harder to cook through). But you can also over-rise your bread: there’s a limit to how much your dough can rise before the gluten network simply isn’t strong enough to support it. If the bread over-rises, then it tends to collapse in on itself as it bakes. Many bread recipes will instruct you to let the bread rise, “punch it down” (i.e. knock all the air bubbles out of it), and then let it rise a second time up to double the volume; this gets you more rise time (and flavor development) without letting your dough grow too big.
  • Bread can be a bit sensitive to the environment in your kitchen, including the temperature and the humidity. The temperature will control how fast dough rises. The humidity will control how much liquid needs to be added to dough.
  • Being able to tell whether a loaf of bread is done baking is often presented on TV as a scary mystery: will Paul Hollywood press his thumb into it and tell you that either it’s “under-proved” or (God forbid) “raw”? Chefs will instruct you to tap the underside of the loaf, and if it sounds “hollow” then it’s done – advice so ambiguous and relative as to be nearly useless unless you’ve baked the same loaf dozens of times and are deeply familiar with it (and it also involves both taking the loaf out of the oven AND picking up and handling a hot loaf of bread to get to the underside). But determining when your bread is done doesn’t have to be a scary thing at all, because there is a sure-fire way to know: take the internal temperature by sticking a thermometer into it.  The center of your loaf should be in the 180-200 (F) degree range. Lighter bread will be 180-190, and heavier bread 190-200. You may think that having a range is bad, but it’s actually good: it allows you to manage other things like the brownness and crispness of the outside crust. But take care, because bread, like most meat, will have carryover cooking.
  • People also are quick to get scared off by the vagaries of yeast. Don’t be. In our grandparents’ time, yeast was far less reliable; these days it’s manufactured and sold through processes that make it highly consistent and reliable. Still, there’s a reason most recipes call for proofing the yeast before you mix it into your dough. Mix the water (at about 105F), sugar (or honey, molasses or syrup) and yeast together for a full minute until it’s completely dissolved, then let it sit for five minutes. If you have a layer of bubbles on top, you’re good to go. If you don’t, then its time to troubleshoot. Things to check:
    • Is the water too cold?  Yeast can ferment at lower temperatures, but it will take much longer.
    • Is the water too hot?  Above 120 F or so, the yeast can’t survive.
    • Did you add enough sugar for the yeast to eat?
    • Did you add something else that is inhibiting the yeast?  Salt inhibits fermentation, which is why in most recipes it’s mixed in with the flour, not with the yeast and water. And in some recipes the salt is added even later.
    • Is there something wrong with your tap water?  If you’ve traveled around the United States then you know firsthand that tap water can be very different from one town to the next; even neighboring towns can have different water supplies and/or treatment systems. If your city water is more metallic, that might be the problem. Also, a variety of chemicals are added to tap water to make it safe to drink, and some of those chemicals can inhibit fermentation.  If you’ve run the course of other possibilities and still can’t figure out why you can’t get yeast to properly ferment, try buying a bottle of water at the grocery store and using it instead; better yet, do a head-to-head comparison of store-bought bottled water versus your tap water, keeping everything else equal. I lived for years in a city where I couldn’t use the tap water with yeast; instead I kept a gallon-bottle of store-bought “spring water” on top of my fridge that I used instead, and it worked great. It cost 99 cents, and I never had a problem with yeast after that.

Baking bread is a joy of life. You can make it as simple or as complicated as you like, and there are infinite variations that you can spend the rest of your life exploring. Sometimes you will mess up some of your bread loaves, both the experiments and the tried-and-true recipes; that too is part of life, and it happens to all of us. In the end, that’s just a good reason to make more bread.

Practice recipes:

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