Bread is a living food of a special kind. It starts with a living entity, wheat. When harvested, the wheat is killed. The dead wheat is milled to make flour, which is packaged and sold. In the hands of the baker the flour is brought back to life again through the addition of leaving agent (normally yeast) to form a living dough.
The living dough is allowed to grow by means of fermentation. The yeast eats the sugars and starches in the flour, and produces alcohol (ethanol) that provides flavour and carbon dioxide (CO2) that causes the bread to rise. The living entity is killed once more when dough is baked and the internal temperature reaches 60 °C. When the bread is consumed, this dead entity called bread provides life to those who consumes it: bread is life.
Bread-making at home is part of the global movement for cleaner, healthier and more sustainable food, so hop on board!
Bread making typically requires 12 stages, some of which requires only a few minutes. When these are understood and followed, you are guaranteed great success.
Stage 1: Mise en place: this is the stage of getting organized. Everything is put in place: ingredients are measured, equipment prepared.
Stage 2: Mixing: During this stage ingredients are mixed and the dough is prepared (kneaded). The purpose of the mixing stage is threefold: to distribute the ingredients, to develop gluten, and to initiate fermentation. During this stage the pre-fermented starter is added. These could be either a firm pre-ferment such as a biga, or a wet or sponge pre-ferment such as a poolish. The dough could be kneaded by hand or by machine (fitted with a paddle and dough hook).
Stage 3: Primary fermentation: Yeast is triggered and fermentation starts when liquid is added to dry ingredients. Ultimately, the flavour of the final product is determined largely by what happens during this, the first rise, stage. This stage should be as long as it requires for the full flavours to develop. Often, the dough is left for a few hours to ferment at room temperature, then put in the refrigerator for a much longer period (up to three days, depending on the type of dough) to continue fermenting. The low temperature of the refrigerator “retards” the dough and in doing so, stretches the fermentation time, which improves flavour.
Stage 4: Punching down: During the primary fermentation stage, carbon dioxide gas is formed which cause the dough to rise. During this, the 4th stage, some that gas is dispelled by pressing down on the risen dough. This is important because too much CO2 will eventually choke off the yeast. Degassing also allows the gluten to relax somewhat and it allows the external (cooler) and internal (hotter) temperatures of the dough to equalize. Most importantly, it redistributes nutrients, which triggers a new feeding cycle for the yeast.
Stage 5: Dividing: During this stage the degassed dough is divided and weighed into portions for individual loaves.
Stage 6: Rounding: Once the dough is divided into individual portion, each portion is given a preliminary shape. Typically, the dough is given a round shape (boule) or a torpedo shape (bâtard). The shaping of the bread stretches the gluten once more, and helps to form surface tension on the outside skin of the dough, which helps the bread to keep its shape.
Stage 7: Benching: Once the preliminary shaping is done, the shaped dough should be allowed to rest, often for 30 minutes or so, depending on the type of dough used. This period of “benching” allows the gluten to relax so that is easier to handle during the final shaping stage.
Stage 8: Shaping and panning: During this stage the bread is given its characteristic final shape. Classic bread shapes include among others, the boule (round), bâtard (torpedo), baguette (long cylinder), fougasse (ladder), dinner rolls pretzels, and many, many more. Shaped loafs can be transferred to bowls or molds for the final proofing stage. These could be the bog-standard loaf pan known to all, or something loaf-specific such as a brioche mold. Breads not baked in pans or molds are prepared for proofing in wicker baskets called a banneton or brotform. A sheet of canvass called a couche is used to shape and proof breads such as baguettes.
Stage 9: Proofing: This is the stage that ends the period of secondary fermentation that started when the dough was divided. Proofing is the final rising of the bread before it gets baked. During proofing the aim is to get the dough to the right size for baking, thus to make the bread aerate properly. Although fermentation continues, the proofing stage does not contribute as much to the final flavour of the bread as the primary fermentation period. The proofing period is influenced by temperature and humidity (which is why commercial bread makers use proofing boxes). Home bakers are not without options: breads can be proofed in food-grade plastic bags (be careful not to use garbage bags as these are often treated with harmful chemicals), covering the dough with an inverted bowl, in a microwave oven in which a cup of water was heated close to boiling point, or in a stove with the oven light turned on. Or, if you have access to a dish-washer, run a cycle without soap and then add the dough when the machine is still hot. Use these methods if you do not have time, but if time is no issue, let the dough proof at its own pace.
Stage 10: Baking: When bread is baked the starches are gelatinized, the sugars are caramelized, and the proteins are roasted until they coagulate. Most bread is scored just before baking. These surface-cuts helps to release trapped gas and adds an esthetic element to the final product. When scoring bread, use a very sharp blade such as a razor blade (attached to a handle this scoring tool is called a lame), or use a sharp serrated knife and cut with the lightest of touches. Let the knife do the work, do not butcher the dough!
To ensure the bottom crust of the bread is crisp, use a baking or pizza stone, or a baking sheet made from thick metal, an unglazed tile or even the bottom of a cast iron pan. Anything that will get hot enough and retain its heat.
Good home made bread benefits from the introduction of steam during the first few minutes of baking. Commercial hearth oven have steamers build in, but home ovens do not have such facility. To create the required steam treatment a heavy-duty pan has to be added to the bottom of the oven when it is heated to temperature. To this the home baker must add a cup of hot (not cold) water is added just after the bread has been put in the oven. Close the door immediately thereafter. After about one minute, open the door once more, and with a spray can (one that is commonly used to spray and mist plants) spray the sides of the oven. Close the door and after about 30 seconds, repeat the process. Home oven struggle to retain their heat very well, so the addition of cold water or ice cubes will cause the temperature to drop too much. Breads benefit only from steam during the initial stages of baking, thereafter, the crust sets and additional steam is superfluous.
The bread is cooked when the internal temperature is between 93°C and 98°C. Buns require an internal temperature of at least 85°C. Tapping the bottom of a correctly cooked bread will produce a hollow sound. If you are going to use a thermometer to test the doneness of the bread, also insert the probe in the middle of the bread, as that is where it is at its coolest.
Stage 11: Cooling: Cooling the bread is essential for producing good quality bread, for during the 2 or so hours it would take a loaf to fully cool down, the loaf will continue to shed moisture which adds to flavour. The cooling period is also needed to complete the process of gelatinization. Thus be patient! Always place the bread on a cooling rack that allows the air to circulate around the bread (including the bottom). If left on a solid plate, the bottom will draw moisture and become soft or soggy. Use a fan if you’re in a hurry.
Stage 12: Storing and eating: In my house home-made bread hardly ever makes it into the second day. Storing is therefore not a serious issue. Store lean, crusty loafs such a baguettes in paper, but remember they will remain fresh for more than a day. Bread is best stored, wrapped in plastic in a cool dark place (such as a cupboard or breadbox) or in a plastic container that keeps air out. Storing bread in the refrigerator causes the bread to dry out, so should best be avoided.
For the more serious or aspiring home bread maker I can fully recommend getting a copy of Peter Reinhart’s latest book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, or his earlier work Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers. Both are superb textbooks.
This week’s recipe for a simple Italian loaf made with a biga as starter is one I adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
Now all that remains is for you to join the revolution. Viva, bread! Viva!
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