The art of breadmaking is ancient. For thousands of years, civilizations all over the world have been milling grain to be turned into delicious bread. There are whole cultures whose staple foods revolve around what pairs well with the bread that generations before them have developed over hundreds of years. Even shortly after the advent of fire, early humans were mashing grain and water and heating it to create foods.
As civilization mastered fire, we refined ways to prepare food. Then, lo and behold, humans figure out fermentation (booze!). Bread is probably one of the oldest fermented foods, most likely discovered by accident (like so many other scientific innovations). Someone probably let their grain and water gruel go stale, and saw that it was bubbling and alive, smelling like the same stuff humans made booze with - this human was innovative enough to attempt to leaven a bread with this fermenting paste - sourdough is born! Fast forward in time, bakeries all over the world have mastered leavening sourdough breads, incorporating sugar, fat, and salt to create the loaves of their dreams.
As the industrial revolution moves into the world of food, food scientists develop shelf-stable forms of yeast so that anyone can bake bread whenever they want! Dry yeast is available to the consumer, and home bakers no longer have to maintain sourdough starters to leaven bread with.
Then there is present-day you. You love bread, we all love bread, and we know nothing is better than fresh baked bread, but getting to the bakery can be hard - and sometimes downright pricey. If you can carve out the time to make a loaf at home, I swear to you there is nothing more delicious than cutting into a loaf of bread that is still warm from the oven, that has been crafted with love and care.
This class is a little bit of history, a heap of science, a pinch of skill-building, and a whole lot of deliciousness. Follow along and learn how to become an amazing home-baker, confident enough to make any bread recipe and shape any loaf.
Step 1: About Your Instructor
I. Love. Bread. I think when I was a little girl my parents called me "bread girl", I wouldn't eat the tomatoes or mushrooms on my dinner plate, but I always made time for more spongey bread.
I started getting serious about baking when I was in college, avoiding homework by 'procrasti-baking', and surprising my friends with tasty leavened goods. Things got really serious when my landlord gave me a sourdough starter with a big creation myth that it was from an Alaskan fishing boat and over 100 years old. All of the sudden I had a pet starter that I had to keep alive with regular feedings and purgings. I killed it pretty quickly, and was able to obtain some more with the promise I would better educate myself on how to bake bread. I'm glad I kept that promise, it has been a delicious journey.
Since college I have maintained a bread making practice at home, finding a lot of peace in the entire process. Most often I start a loaf on days I need to clean my apartment. Each step of the bread making process takes almost no time at all, but there is often a lot of waiting between each step. Taking all day to build a dough and bake bread is a nice way to break up the monotony of an arduous task like cleaning my house. And! I have a delicious treat when I'm done with my chores.
Step 2: What You Learn in This Class
This class goes over critical techniques and processes when it comes to making bread. After completing this course you will have encountered enough doughs to be confident going into any recipe. Kneading, rising, folding, forming - each aspect of breadmaking can be challenging to master. The loaves we learn in this class make these concepts and skills accessible, and build our ability lesson by lesson.
Another key aspect to baking is timing. These lessons provide you with a bake schedule that works for you. By understanding how fermentation in bread leavening works, we learn the factors that affect our dough builds and design a bread bake for any busy schedule.
Step 3: Wheat Is AWESOME!
All the science taught in this class comes back to one core ingredient again and again. Wheat. Wheat takes on various forms once it is milled but let's take a moment to understand the wheat berry and how it pertains to breadmaking.
There are lots of variations in the kinds of flours available to the home baker. The following outlines the flour used in this class and their respective protein content. Wait, protein content? Yup, your favorite carb actually has a fair amount of protein too.
The hard outer shell of the wheat berry is called the bran. We know about bran from fiber cereals and hearty muffins, but the husk of the wheat berry has applications in bread bakes as well, adding a distinctly whole grain flavor to breads.
The endosperm is the greatest mass inside the body of the wheat berry. The endosperm is used alone in the milling of white flours. It is mostly made up of starch but also has the greatest amount of the protein in the wheat kernel.
The germ is the very inside of the wheat berry. The germ of the wheat berry contains a small amount of fat and vitamin E. Wheat germ can be purchased separately from flour, but should be stored in the fridge since it's high fat content makes it less shelf stable until it is cooked.
There are two proteins in the endosperm of wheat called gliadin and glutenin. When liquid is added to flour and undergoes kneading, these proteins bond and are transformed into gluten. This process also enables gluten to form strong bonds with other proteins in the flour mixture. More protein in you flour means more gluten in your dough! Breadmaking at its core is fostering great gluten relationships during your fermentation rises and baking. When the gluten begins to develop, strands of gluten become organized into a meshed network, a continuous smooth and elastic dough.
The main difference in baking between wheat based flours is their protein content. Keep reading to understand why we use certain flours in our recipes:
Bread Flour 14-16% protein
Bread flour is a high protein flour that is intended to be used in yeasted breads. Milled from 'hard wheat', breeds of wheat that have genetically been chosen for their high protein content, bread flour has more potential for strong gluten bonds. An increased amount of gluten allows for doughs to become extremely elastic, and that elasticity leads to a lighter and chewier bread. It is occasionally called for in non-bread recipes when a chewier texture is desired, but this is not very common.
All Purpose Flour 10-12% protein
All-purpose flour is really just that, great for everything. All-purpose flour is milled similarly to white bread flour, but from a 'soft wheat' with a slightly lower protein content. This flour is available bleached or unbleached in every grocery store, and probably every gas station convenience store. A true staple in any kitchen.
Whole Wheat Flour 13-14%
Whole wheat flour is made by milling the entire wheat berry, not just the endosperm. It is darker in color, and has a distinct whole grain wheat flavor. This flour hydrates differently than white flour because the different parts of the wheat berry absorb water at different speeds. Working with whole wheat will also create a more dense crumb in your dough. Bakers recommend storing whole wheat flour in the fridge to extend its shelf life.
00 Type Pizza Flour 12-13%
This kind of flour is very fine. The '00' rating indicates that this is the finest grind a flour mill can produce. These fine flour granules absorb water faster than other flours, which means you can work with less water over shorter hydration (benching) times, and the flour has the same protein content as regular white bread flour.
Beyond these common traits for above flours, different grain millers boast differing protein content and flavor profiles, working with both professional bakers and farmers and even chemists, to bring unique offerings to consumers. If you are curious about the protein content or harvesting of your flour, go to the mill brand's website to find out more information about your desired grain selections.
I used the following brands during this class.
Step 4: Leaveners
All the breads covered in this class, except one dough, is leavened with yeast. What is yeast? Yeast is a living organism used in breadmaking to make your dough rise and develop a gluten network that holds the dough together. Yeast feeds on the starches found within hydrated flour particles, producing carbon dioxide gas as the active yeast culture ferments within the dough. When the yeast feeds, and CO2 gas is percolating inside a rising dough, it is the CO2 gas that expands the gluten network, doubling your dough's volume.
We use the following kinds of yeast in this class:
- Active Dry Yeast
- Instant or Quick Rise Yeast
- Natural Leaveners - in our Sourdough Lesson, we will go over how to leaven bread from a natural leavener like sourdough culture.
Other ingredients used in this class
Rice Flour and Cornmeal
Bakers like using rice flour to coat pans and surfaces to prevent batters and doughs from sticking. There is no gluten in the rice flour for the glutenous dough to bond to, so it acts like a non-stick coating. We'll coat lots of towels, cutting boards and bowls with rice flour in this class. Cornmeal is used for the same reason and we will use it specifically in our Pizza Lesson.
Salt takes on a characteristic that is one of my favorite words in science, hygroscopic. When an element is hygroscopic it means that it attracts moisture. When salt starts hogging moisture from the flour and yeast, it can slow fermentation down, allowing flavor to develop and giving the gluten network more time to create strong bonds. Not enough salt in your dough may result in a dough that rises too quickly and deflates in the oven. An overuse of salt in a recipe can inhibit fermentation, killing the yeast at high concentration.
Salt is a critical ingredient in every bread in this class, and I highly recommend a finely ground sea salt.
Milk and Yogurt
Dairy creates breads that have a softer crumb and richer flavor. Because of the sugar and butterfat in milk, bread recipes that include dairy will brown more quickly than breads without milk. You can add the flavor of milk without the milk fat or sugar by working with bakers dry milk. When making breads for friends that are lactose intolerant or vegan, I often swap milk for a nut milk or rice milk. These milks are not as fatty and will not yield the same textures as dairy milk. Some recipes will call for yogurt or buttermilk instead of a liquid milk, these have a higher amount of fat and will yield an even more tender crumb and crust.
Shortening, Butter and Oil
Shortening, butter, and oil all add fat to our mixtures. Fat serves to add flavor as well as richness. When we add fats and oils to our dough builds, we extend the shelf life of the resultant loaf significantly. When bread bakes, the oil and fat in the dough trap the moisture within the gluten network and tenderize the dough for a much softer crumb and flakier crust.
We can add sugars to our dough to expedite the rise of our dough. The yeasts that feast on starches from the flour also feast on sugar, creating an abundance of carbon dioxide in our dough rises.
Step 5: Appendix
Everything in the rest of this first lesson includes this section as a reference tool to guide you throughout your bread making journey. I encourage you to read over it now, even though some of the terms and concepts may not make sense yet. When you encounter them later in the course and need potential clarification you can come back here for a broader understanding of the tool or skill.
Bread recipes can be listed in two ways, in conventional recipe format OR in a system of bakers percentages. Figuring out how to read a baker's percentage recipe can be tricky, but here's a method to better understand them.
When you see a recipe listed with the baker's percentages, specifically in bread recipe books and sometimes older cookbooks, the quantity of each ingredient is expressed as a percentage of the total amount of flour you will be using. We measure all of our ingredients on a scale in grams so that we can have consistent ratios for ingredients.
When you see a recipe that is listed to have:
- 100% flour
- 65% water
- 2% salt
- 1% yeast
A simple conversion of this recipe calls for:
- 1000 g flour
- 650 g water
- 20 g salt
- 10 g dry active yeast
That's almost 2000 grams in total dough weight, a fairly large dough that would need to be split in two before baking.
To shrink the recipe, if you wanted a single loaf you could interpret this recipe as:
- 500 g flour
- 325 g water
- 10 g salt
- 5 g dry active yeast
Remember, all of the percentages are measured against the total weight of the flour. This system allows bakers to scale their recipes easily and experiment with doughs and ferments like true food scientists.
Step 7: Glossary
Benching: - time allowed for dough to rest in a bowl or on a work surface. Benching most often refers to the time period immediately after kneading, giving time for a gluten network to relax and ferment.
Bulk Fermentation: - Most often, bread has two sessions in which it is allowed to rise. The first fermentation sometimes referred to as 'primary fermentation' or 'bulk rise', occurs before the dough is shaped into a loaf, immediately after mixing or kneading. Scientists and bakers agree that most of your flavor is established by the activity during primary fermentation.
Bulk Mix: Mixing of all our ingredients before bulk ferementation begins.
Fermentation: The event of yeast consuming sugars and producing carbon dioxide gas and alcohol as a byproduct. Our dough is fermenting when it rises. The yeast activity inside our doughs is what expands the gluten network creating delicious nooks and crannies once we bake our breads!
Folding: One of the best ways of encouraging gluten development in high-hydration doughs. This technique is covered in our sourdough lesson.
Hydration Percentage: - the ratio of liquid ingredients to flour in the dough. Bakers can observe hydration percentage to anticipate how a dough will feel. Higher hydration doughs will be tacky and ferment more quickly, while lower hydration doughs will be mealy to knead, and require more time to rest, or bench, during bulk fermentation, or an adjusted yeast supplemented to the dough. A dough with 500g of flour and 325g of water has a hydration of 65%. You will see hydration percentage listed in every recipe in this class.
Leaven: (sometimes seen as 'Levain')- A preferment mixture used to leaven bread. Often this can be used interchangeably with sourdough starter, but check your recipe as some leavens require for special hydration and flour combinations.
Poolish: A pre-fermented flour mixture used to leaven bread made from combining white bread flour or all-purpose flour with active dry yeast and allowed to sit overnight before integrating into a bulk mix.
Oven Spring: refers to the final fit of rising a loaf undergoes just after it goes into the oven. Before the crust hardens, the yeasts are heated and go into a fermentation frenzy expanding the gluten network one last time before it coagulates into delicious baked bread.
Proof or Proofing: A time allotted to a dough or yeast to 'prove' that fermentation is occurring. We proof our yeast to verify our dough fermentation is happening according to plan and schedule.
Over-proved: When a dough has fermented beyond it's elastic ability, and carbon dioxide inside the dough begins to deflate out of the dough. The dough needs to be fed and kneaded before baking if this happens - see our baguette lesson.
Scoring: Loaves are sliced prior to baking with a sharp knife along the crusts surface to control expansion or oven spring while baking. If loaves are not scored, they will most often rupture creating their own vent in which steam is able to escape during baking. Scores should be made with a lame, like listed in the Tools section above, or with a sharp razor or very sharp paring knife.
Step 8: What's Next?
The next lesson outline s every tool you will need to be a successful home baker, where to source those tools, and an overview of all the ingredients used in this class.