The Fundamentals of Making Yeast Bread

The Fundamentals of Making Yeast Bread

Making bread is not an instant process by any means, but the actual hands-on time involved is minimal. All it really takes is a series of pauses throughout an afternoon.

The Science Behind It : The structure of yeast-leavened breads is formed by wheat flour. When water is stirred into wheat flour, two unique proteins in the flour connect with each other and overlap, forming elastic sheets known as gluten. If you've ever watched someone spin a ball of dough into a flat disc for pizza, you've witnessed the magic of gluten. One type of protein in the gluten allows the dough structure to stretch, while the other provides the snap, so that the dough doesn't just fly out into the room. To give it lift, the dough needs yeast, a living, single-celled organism that releases carbon dioxide as it feeds on the dough. As it feeds, it multiplies. As it multiplies, more and more gas is released into the dough, pushing against the gluten mesh so that the dough's volume expands. Yeast also releases alcohol and organic substances that lend flavor to bread.

Getting Started : Typically, the first step to making yeast bread is activating or "proofing" the yeast. (The exception is quick-rising yeast, which does not need proofing). This is done by dissolving the yeast in warm water and sometimes in sugar or in with the flour. Avoid hot water, which will kill the yeast. The water needs to be only about 98oF, the same as human body temperature, so if it feels hot to the touch, the water is probably too hot. Proofing takes only 5 to 6 minutes, at which time the yeast will wake up, bubble, and start to smell yeasty. If, after 5 minutes, the yeast still shows no signs of life, you likely need to purchase new yeast.

Working the Dough : Once the basic ingredients of flour, water, salt, and yeast are mixed, you can knead bread dough by hand or with a standing mixer or food processor. Kneading is vital to developing the gluten in the dough as well as to incorporating air into the dough. But take care not to add too much flour while kneading. The goal is to create a dough that is somewhat sticky. If you need to add flour, dust the dough and work surface with no more than a tablespoon at a time, and knead it into the dough. To keep your hands from sticking to the dough, oil your hands rather than adding more flour. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Pull on it every so often to test its elasticity. Also, press your fingers into it. If your finger indentations rise slowly, the gluten has been properly developed.

Rising : Form the dough into a ball and place it in a bowl or container large enough to hold the dough once it has doubled in size. Misting oil on top of dough will keep it soft and moist so that it doesn't resist expansion. Cover the container with a warm, damp dish towel or loosely with plastic wrap. Place it in a warm, draft-free spot. The dough should rise until it is no more than double in size. This takes about 2 hours. If you press your fingers into the dough and the indentation comes back slowly, the dough has amply risen.

Punching and Pulling : Once risen, bread dough is bloated with large pockets of carbon dioxide. By punching down the dough, you will break the large gas pockets down into numerous smaller pockets for a more even rise. Often, recipes will direct you to then briefly knead the dough, which further works out any stray bubbles and evenly distributes the multiplied yeast in the dough. Some recipes many also call for a second rise, which helps develop numerous little pockets of gas that contribute to an even, tender crumb in the finished bread.

Shaping, Slashing, Stones, and Steam : The next step is to let the dough rest for 5 to 10 minutes to relax the gluten so that it is easy to shape. Then, divide the dough and shape as desired. Once shaped, let the dough rise briefly to regain some of the volume lost through shaping. Then slash the top with a serrated knife or razor blade to relieve some tension on the top crust during baking. Many recipes call for placing the bread on a preheated bread or pizza stone. While it's not absolutely necessary, a stone provides a hot surface to speed the warming of the dough as well as help develop a crisp bottom crust. Some recipes may call for steam within the first 5 minutes of baking. Steam delays the setting of the crust and gives the bread time to rise to its full expansion, which occurs mostly within the first 15 minutes of baking.

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