Dough Part 3: Flour, Yeast and Bread Basics

It is time to really take the plunge. That is, move on to yeasted dough. There are many intricacies to bread and we will talk more about that throughout the series. but today we will start with the basics. Yet, before making the bread, we must understand the basic ingredients.

In its base form, bread consists of four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt, and water. This is also known as a “lean dough.” The salt and water are simple. Use kosher salt and clean, neutral water. As for the flour and yeast, we have some decisions to make.

Flour is not just flour. See the type of wheat used and how it is milled creates differences in the flour’s protein content. Bread flour contains 12-13 percent protein. All purpose has about 10-11 percent protein. Pastry flour has even lower protein flours. So why does this matter? The protein content dictates the structure of the bread. I use bread flour for most breads as it supports more structure. Bread flour is what gives us those big holes in rustic bread and what allows bread to stand tall. All purpose is great for things like super thin pizza or sweet breads where we do not want too much gluten and desire a finer crumb. Whole wheat flour contains the wheat bran, making it heartier. If making whole wheat bread, you can use all whole wheat flour, but I like to use a mix, (either 1:1 or 2:1 wheat to bread or all purpose).

As for yeast, there are three common types you may encounter. The first is fresh yeast and while it is preferred by many bakers, I do not like it at home as it does not keep long. The next is instant. This is a good option because you need to use very little and it works quickly. I don’t like it as I want my dough to rise a little slower, so flavor develops. The Goldie Lox yeast for me is active dry yeast. It stores well, either on a shelf or in the fridge, and works at a rate I’m comfortable with, generally helping dough double in size in about an hour at room temperature. We will usually talk in terms of active dry yeast but if you want to use a different type, use about double fresh yeast or about two-thirds instant yeast. There are other ways to levin bread, such as using starters, but that is for another day.

People will tell you bread making is complicated. The truth is that its not. To make most breads, we start with a simple ratio. By weight, measure water as 60 percent of the amount of flour using. In addition, you will want 2 percent salt and 1 percent active dry yeast. I usually start with 20 oz of flour for one free-from loaf. This means 12 oz of water, .6 oz of kosher salt, and .2 oz of dry active yeast. The way these ingredients come together is also important. We mix the yeast in room temperature water (too hot and they will die) to dissolve their outer coating, allowing them to work. We combine the salt and flour so that the yeast and salt do not directly touch. We then add the water and kneed by hand or with the hook attachment to the mixer until dough is smooth and no longer sticky. This is key as we need to ensure the dough has enough gluten. I use what is known as the windowpane test. Take a small piece of dough and stretch it between your fingers. If the dough tears, it needs more mixing. If it stretches and you can see through it, like a window, it is perfect. This means that we have formed enough gluten for the bread to hold the gasses that the yeast will give off.

At this point, we form the dough into a big ball and allow to rise until double in size, about one hour at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. During this time, the yeast is eating the sugars in the flour and burping up gasses. That is what allows bread to rise and gives the bread texture and flavor. Remember that the hour guideline is only an approximation. Yeast will work faster in warm temperatures and slower in cold ones. I prefer the slower, colder fermentation of the fridge and it lets the yeast work slower, thus developing more flavor. We can also always control the temperature of the fridge compared to the kitchen. We call this step bulk fermentation. You can tell that the dough has proofed enough by poking it. If it springs back slowly but leaves a little mark, it is done. If it springs back right away, it needs more time.

At this stage, we punch the dough down to get all the air out of it, shape it into loaves, rounds, rolls or whatever we like and let it rise again before baking. We call this bench proofing. Finally, we bake it, optionally glazing it first with egg wash or butter. It is that simple! You can tell has baked when it registers 200 degrees F internally and makes a hollow noise when knocking on the bottom.

This is the simplest form of bread, but you can make various adjustments to create a million other types of bread. Want a flatbread or pizza? Reduce the yeast by half. Want a denser bread with fewer airholes, reduce the water to about 50 percent. Want a bread with big, airy holes, like an Italian ciabatta, increase the water to up to 80 percent. Add a little sugar or honey to yeast mixture for a little sweetness. Plus, the yeast like to eat sugars so I often add a pinch to anything I make. Want a more tender bread, add a tablespoon or two or oil (or melted butter). Mix in herbs, olives, cinnamon sugar! Once you know the basics there is nothing you cannot do!