Seven Steps in Making Bread

What’s most important when making bread? Here’s another post for newer bakers.

If you’ve read multiple bread recipes or looked at a couple hundred posts – you’ve likely noticed that there are a lot of different ideas out there about how to make bread –

No knead – stretch and folds – slap and fold – rubaud – coil fold – cold retard – autolyse – fermentolyse – low inoculation – high inoculation – young starter – mature starter – high hydration – starter hydration – bassinage – whole grain flours – fresh milled flours – ancient grains – vital wheat gluten – open crumb – Dutch ovens – lava rocks – scoring – shaping – ears – blisters -bake cold – bake at RT… weigh – measure… and much more. So many things! Why so many? Seems bread bakers are a generally creative group who seem to find countless ways to do some pretty specific things. At least we will never be accused of being boring!

I’d like to break bread baking into seven steps (lucky 7) that every method listed above attempts to accomplish.

Step one: Mix Ingredients Together.

hat sounds pretty simple. Well… apparently not. We do have to add water to flour to get things started. Beyond that – we can mix the flour and water and autolyse first – we can delay adding salt – delay adding starter – we can even add water in increments – we’ve found a lot of variations to get 4 ingredients mixed together. Pick almost any variation of how to mix four ingredients and you’ll find a method that uses it.

Step two: Develop Gluten and Dough Strength.

Despite all desires to touch and handle dough in a myriad of ways – gluten actually forms all on it’s own. That’s why no knead breads work. Weaker gluten flours, whole grain flours and higher hydrations will require a bit more effort.

There are methods – using a mixer – traditional kneading or slap and folds, for example, that are intended to develop gluten within a few minutes of mixing ingredients- these methods all depend on continuously manipulating the dough to allow gluten to link and develop a gluten network in a shorter period of time. They all take energy. There are a variety of ideas of how long each should be done for.

The second group of methods involve time as the primary component for allowing gluten to develop. The most common may be stretch and folds and/or coil foils. How many and how often then becomes the question. How often is seemingly easy – since we are using time to our benefit – we need to give gluten time to form – likely at least 20-30 minutes between folds. We still seem to pick a wide variation in times between folds including times under 20 minutes.

How many will depend on the flours and the hydration. The gluten will strengthen and tighten at each fold. It will subsequently relax. As the gluten network is developed – the dough will become smooth and hold shape longer. This is where you can check a windowpane if you are so inclined. Worth noting is that gluten is not a static thing – there’s not an end point – it’s constantly changing. It also does not trap all of the gas – it’s leaky… more so when stretched. A little more on this in the next step.

And I guess we can’t leave this step without an honorable mention to the autolyse process and all of the variations now associated with it. It’s a rest period – just like in between folds. It didn’t originally have starter and wasn’t fermentation based. It now sometimes does. We’ve also tried almost every imaginable time for this. The good news – if you let
It go long enough – you’ll begin a new starter.

Step 3: Ferment the Dough.

This is both the most critical step and commonly the step where many mistakes are made. Fermentation serves multiple purposes – but maybe the two most noteworthy are crumb development and flavor development. Fermentation begins as soon as we add starter to a dough and it continues until baking. Despite the fact that SD breads include both yeast and bacterial fermentation- we really only pay attention to the yeast portion.

This is what causes a dough to rise.
There are 4 things that influence the rate of yeast fermentation:
1. Yeast populations – this includes how active the starter or levain is and how much we add to the dough. Higher populations means faster fermentation and more gas production.
2. Temperature – this has a HUGE influence with warmer temps increasing the rate of fermentation. Temperatures below 40f/4c will stop yeast fermentation but not bacterial fermentation. A good practical upper limit is likely ~85f/29c though there will be bakers who use warmer temps. Technically yeast dies at ~137f/58c so as long as you stay under that temp – fermentation will happen. ~78f/25c is the yeasts happy spot. As a side note – if you’re beginning a starter – stay close to this temp – it will improve the success notably. And you’re right – I didn’t talk very much about bacterial fermentation – it’s there – it serves some very useful purposes but it’s not usually a deal breaker unless you really dislike sour breads – then you need to figure it out.
3. Hydration – to a little lesser degree – but higher hydrations will ferment faster. Too high and… well a different set of problems.
4. Flours – whole grain flours will generally ferment “faster” than white flours. Lower gluten flours will be much more sensitive to fermentation and typically work better with less fermentation. BTW: WW flours are lower gluten flours than their white flour counterparts.

So how much fermentation is needed?
This is the all important and seemingly elusive magic question… understanding this is why experienced bakers get paid so well ; )
The challenge is to provide a measure that potentially works for every baker under a myriad of conditions. Time is likely the worst possible measure to use unless you are making the same dough you’ve made multiple times and generally know the timing.

The best measure is likely the dough itself – I would suggest the minimum is that a dough should increase 40% in volume before proceeding. This is a little complicated by S&Fs as each one potentially degases the dough to some extent. Assuming they are done within the first 2 to 2 1/2 hours – let the dough rest and look for the dough to at least rise by 40-50%. You can go further if desired. And of course – someone we’ll go less. A dough can maybe double or more if the dough has enough gluten strength. This will impact the crumb. If you like air more than bread – you may not want to do this.
If you’re all about nutrition – you should seriously consider it.

If you ignore all of this the dough will eventually lose it’s happy domed shape and flatten out. This is too far. Degas and restrengthen the gluten and try again. This should work most of the time.
And please – no more of the “will run out of food” talk. Enzymes are constantly busy converting starches into sugars throughout the fermentation. It’s as if the yeasts and bacteria have their own personal chefs constantly serving up food.

Step 4: Dividing (if needed) and Shaping.

Dividing seems obvious – we want to divide into however many equal pieces of dough we planned. If you made only enough dough for one loaf – you can skip this step.

Then comes shaping. Shaping is our last real touchy feely interaction with the dough. Our goal is twofold… rebuild some gluten strength and create surface tension. We want the dough to hold shape when we bake. This is the last chance. Preshaping builds strength and then allows the dough to relax some. We then rebuild strength and tension in a final shape. As bakers – we’ve likely also explored every conceivable way to shape dough (Envelopes – stitches etc.). This is without even considering some of the more elaborate shapes possible.

The more you handle it – the more you will degas the dough and impact crumb openness. Most “errors” occur at the extremes – not enough effort to create structure with a slack dough or simply just too much handling.

Step 5 Final Proof

The dough is still happily fermenting away – it has no idea what shape it is or what you choose to call what is going on. But – now there are some decisions to make – what is your baking objective – gently filled in scores or dramatic oven spring with bursting open scores and maybe even an ear. Once again – our dough will begin to increase in volume – how much do we allow? Do we fridge?

If you want gently filled in scores – allow the volume to increase close to the final volume. If you’re feeling more dramatic – stop earlier and allow the rest of the rise to occur as oven spring during baking. For dramatic – you can bake when the dough has increased from 0-40% in volume. You can still play with temperature to change the rate of fermentation.

If you choose to fridge or retard – things will change. Once again a cold fridge introduces an opportunity for variability and we try them all – 1 hour, 12 hours, 3 days – everything imaginable. We also stick in some RT time before or after the fridge. Under 40f/5c yeast will stop.

Since we are usually measuring progress by the results of the yeast fermentation – we can no longer use volume as a guide. It won’t really change. It will rise while cooling and then just stop. This is normal. If it’s stopping – you should really check your fridge for food safety reasons. It will keep producing sugars and acids – though in super slow motion. If you retard above 40f – you will still need to pay attention to volume. It will increase – though much more slowly.

Making dough cold will change the flavor profile and will stiffen the dough – which can make scoring and loading into the oven easier. There are some risks of pushing SD too far at this point as gluten will also continue to degrade and you will eventually loose structure. This is bad – pans and focaccia often come into play when you get here.

Step 6 Scoring
Ok – it’s time to for this labor of love (or frustration) to actually become edible (hopefully) bread.
Scoring is another area where artistic creativity can run wild. If you want to be elaborate – pick a little lower hydration for the dough, maybe use a cold dough and you need the final proof to be close to the final loaf volume – but don’t push the final proof too far. You want the score to stay and not burst open – it’s not time for the dramatic. Otherwise scoring serves a very valid purpose. Especially when we are targeting oven spring.

If you score low off center and especially edge to edge – you will encourage the dough to expand sideways. In some cases – like Neil Allsop with Batards – this has become his signature appearance. If you center scoring around the center point of the top of the dough and don’t score too low – you will encourage up.

Ears work better a little off center – basically just score at an angle – think of separating the top edge of the score from the main dough body – that is what an ear is after all. Bottom line – Cut under the top surface of the dough.

Step 7 Baking
For basic lean SDs – bake hot and ideally with steam. We’ve also discovered a lot of creative ways to make steam – water trays – lava rocks – chains – wet towels – ice cubes – spray bottles – a cup of water tossed in the hot oven. For home bakers – these all work – but most also confront a basic component of most home ovens – they are designed to vent out steam. It’s doing its best to undo what you’re doing. Not all ovens do this.

Enter the Dutch Oven or the myriad of other ways we have figured out how to create a closed self contained baking environment within the oven. They do work.
And alas – bread happens to be full of water – which happily turns to steam when heated during baking. Trapped by the DO – the bread basks in a steam rich environment. This slows crust formation and allows dough to fully expand. We then remove the lid to release the trapped steam and allow the bread to finish baking. For most doughs, steam is critical for the first 6-10 minutes.

Especially helpful for the baker looking for dramatic oven spring – much less so for the baker who has allowed the final Proof to continue longer. As always – we have tried every conceivable combination of lid on / lid off profiles. And of course we’ve tried every oven temp- even starting in a cold oven and/or cold Dutch oven.

Then there is how long to bake- it depends. Do you like dry or moist breads, how wet is your dough aka how much moisture do you need to bake off. Light, dark, bold and every where in between.

All of this seems to make breads seem overly complicated. The irony – they almost want to just make bread all by themselves – we just like to create a thousand variations.


Happy Baking

Mark Gunderman

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