Why It Works
- Spraying the bread and keeping it covered for the first part of the bake has a twofold effect, both keeping the crust from forming too early in the process and ensuring that once it does form, it's as crisp and burnished as can be.
- Proofing the bread in flour-dusted, cloth-lined baskets or bowls protects against sticking and keeps the dough intact.
Hi everyone, and welcome to the bread-baking club. Think of this as a safe space, committed to talking about—and demystifying—your breads and doughs. It's a vast world with a whole lot of potential for experimentation, but the root of the problem is this: Yeast, mysterious and giving, seems to scare the crap out of people.
This kneads to end! (Please don't stop reading. I had to, just this once.) But in all seriousness, why should it be so scary? People started making bread a long time ago, before computers, bicycles, and shrink-wrapping existed. Our grandparents knew how to make it, and theirs too. Bread is one of humanity's oldest crafted foods, after all, and making great bread for yourself isn't just possible, it's often relaxing and delicious...plus it just so happens to keep your apartment nice and toasty come wintertime.*
*This is not an endorsement of using your oven to heat your home, which would be bad. Please don't do that.
Our goal is to break down some of the basics of the techniques, chemistry, and superstition behind great bread, and make the whole idea of getting your hands in some dough a little less intimidating. This column isn't about baking the right way so much as it is about acquiring the fundamental skills and know-how to bake phenomenal bread your way.
The Basics of Baking Bread at Home
I want to start with a look at the four major stages of bread baking that we're going to be working with throughout this series:
- Mixing: That thing we do when we take our raw ingredients—in this case, flour, water, salt, and yeast—and combine them into a dough.
- Proofing and shaping: Proofing is about letting the yeast eat up the sugars from the flour, and burp out gas and alcohol, which makes the bread rise and gives it a nice flavor. As bakers, proofing is about nurturing and caring for the dough, little-engine-that-could that it is. When shaping, we teach the dough what we want it to look like when it's a full-grown, fully baked loaf of bread.
- Baking: We start by stabbing the dough we've nurtured and loved, usually several times, and then fling it into a screaming hot oven. Fire, brimstone, and Maillard reactions galore! What comes out of the oven should be airy, crusty, and delicious.
- Storing/eating: Eat the bread. We made it, we deserve it. Are you going to try not to eat the whole fresh loaf right away, slathered in butter? Well fine, be that way. We'll talk about storage.
These pillars are going to be our template, and as we work through bread formulas together, they're all going to fit roughly into this framework, or we're going to demand to see their hall-passes. Along the way, we're going to talk about some of the vocabulary bakers use to talk to each other in the wee hours of the morning. WTF is a bread formula and who-the-sh*t is proofing? You'll know the ins and outs soon enough.
And speaking of formulas, our first formula is going to be our workhorse: a tasty, crusty, airy, middle-of-the-road loaf that's so versatile you can shove seeds into it or make it into a rye. This bread is delicious as-is, and it'll be a great starting point for trying out your own ideas, making pan loaves or hearth loaves, French toast, bread crumbs, garlic bread, or a classic PB&J.
The Workhorse Loaf: An Introduction
The Workhorse loaf is white bread done plain and simple, with no frills. The following, four-ingredient formula yields two crusty hearth loaves with a nice, open crumb. It uses all white flour, and only calls for commercial yeast...for now. We'll get into the weird stuff in later posts.
- All Purpose Flour: 1,000 g (100%)
- Water: 700 g (70%)
- Salt: 22 g (2.2%)
- Yeast: 10g (1%) if using fresh; 5g (0.5%) if using active dry yeast; 4g (0.4%) if using instant
- Total Dough Weight: 1,732g (173.2%)
But before we start baking, what is a formula? Is it the same as a recipe? Almost. It's like a recipe, but it's based on ratios (the percentages listed next to our weights above), not finite amounts. Why is this helpful? It's important for two main reasons. First, it makes scaling a recipe up or down really easy. Some days at work, I need to make two loaves of this bread; some days I might need a dozen. Memorizing the ratios in a formula allows me to easily make the amount of bread I want. Second, if we think of bread recipes in ratios, as formulas, it makes it easier to compare different kinds of bread with each other based on how much of each ingredient is present relative to the others—regardless of how many loaves we're making at once. As we get more practice looking at these ratios, it will allow us to alter a bread's formula to achieve certain qualities in the bread. It will also allow us to look at new formulas and have an idea of what it should feel and look like as we move through the process before we even start baking. That means fewer failed experiments.
And that's just about all you need to get started—well, that and some essential bread-baking equipment, including a stand mixer, bench scraper, and some kind of oven-safe, lidded dish to bake it in.
1000g all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
700g room-temperature water, divided if using active dry yeast
4g instant yeast, 5g active dry yeast, or 10g fresh yeast (see notes)
1 teaspoon vegetable, canola, or other neutral oil, for greasing
If using instant or fresh yeast, combine flour and all of the water in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. If using active dry yeast, combine flour with 650g water and combine yeast with 50g warm water; let yeast stand until foamy. Mix flour and water at low speed until they are fully incorporated and form a uniform dough. Alternatively, combine flour and water in a mixing bowl and mix using a dough spatula until dough forms. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let the dough rest for at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour.
Add salt, along with either the instant yeast, fresh yeast, or the active-dry yeast solution, and mix at low speed or by hand until salt and yeast are fully incorporated and dough is smooth.
Turn stand mixer up to medium-high speed and mix until the dough feels elastic and bounces partway back when indented with your thumb, about 3-5 minutes. If mixing by hand, skip this step.
Working with oiled hands, gently transfer dough, being careful not to tear its surface, to a lightly oiled mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Uncover dough. Working with wet hands and/or a plastic bench scraper, loosen the dough, then gently lift and pull the dough down towards you, folding it in half. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat, folding the dough in half towards you. Now give the bowl a half turn and repeat the fold a final time, being careful not to compress it too much. Lastly, pull the unfolded side of your dough carefully up from the bottom, and pull it up and over to form a neat package. Re-cover with plastic wrap and let stand until dough has increased in volume by half, about 1 hour 30 minutes longer.
Transfer dough in one piece to a lightly floured work surface. Using a bench knife, divide dough in half and shape each portion into a ball. Dust the tops of the dough balls with flour, cover with a towel, and let rest for 15 minutes.
Shape the dough into rounds once again, gently folding the dough over itself similar to how you did before, but even more carefully now. Now flip the dough ball over so that the seams you just created are on the bottom and a smooth surface is on top. Let dough rest on the work surface, seam-side down, for 5 minutes. Transfer each dough ball, seam-side up, to a bowl or basket lined with a lightly floured linen cloth or plain, not-fuzzy kitchen towel. Refrigerate dough balls or store in a cool place until dough has nearly doubled in size, about 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, set a Dutch oven on the oven's bottom rack and preheat oven to 500°F (260°C) (If your oven has a convection setting, do not use it.)
Remove 1 loaf from the refrigerator and gently turn it out, seam-side down, into the preheated Dutch oven. With a razor or paring knife, score the full surface of the dough with 2 parallel lines roughly 3 inches apart. With a spray bottle filled with water, lightly spritz the surface of the dough. Cover and bake for 15 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 450°F (235°C) and bake for 15 minutes longer. Uncover and bake until crust is dark brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Transfer loaf to a wire rack. Allow to cool for at least 1 hour before slicing. Return Dutch oven to oven, and reheat at 500°F for 10 minutes. Then repeat with the remaining ball of dough.
This recipe requires a scale to measure the ingredients—it's a far more accurate way to bake and will deliver much more consistent results. This recipe works with multiple types of yeast: choose whichever is available to you.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 20 to 24|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 1g||1%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 32g||12%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||4%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|