If you thought that yeast bread recipes were forever beyond you, then this post is for you. Like anything else you try in the kitchen making successful bread is a blend of the right knowledge and a little bit of practice. I learned to bake bread in a bakery of a restaurant, it was very intimidating but with the right tricks and someone to guide me, I picked it up right away. There are a number of bread secrets you should use as you bake bread that will give you consistent results time and time again. What’s more many of these secrets will ensure that your bread is the envy of your circle of friends and family and they will ask for your bread time and time again.
In truth making yeast bread is really easy, even for beginners. Learn a few simple rules and techniques and you will never again feel intimidated to try any type of bread or bread recipe. Bread is a matter of patience and a knowledgeable eye. There are no absolutes in the bread world, you must learn to think past numbers such as measurements and time, and get straight to the factors that will ensure you have great bread every time.
Pay Close Attention to Ingredients
Getting ingredients right is crucial with bread baking, I always choose instant yeast, and I keep most of it in the freezer except for a small portion that is kept in the fridge. Yeast is a living organism so it will stay live and viable longer if kept cool.
If you do not keep it in the freezer or fridge it is vital to keep a close eye on the expiration date. If it is old make sure to proof it with a bit of warm water and sugar from the recipe first before you use it. If it foams up it is still live and you can use it.
I never proof yeast unless I think it is old, simply because with instant yeast you do not need to. I have never had a problem with my yeast rising or my bread turning out fine. Of course yeast never stays in my house for long. On a side note, grab bricks of yeast from the wholesale clubs, they are much cheaper and last a lot longer.
Flour – while all-purpose flour works fine for bread making purposes, bread flour makes an even better bread. Why? Because a different type of wheat is used to make bread flour and it is higher in protein. That protein content helps the gluten to develop better, something that can be useful if you are new to bread making.
Pay Attention to the Environment
Humidity and altitude can also affect how your bread comes out. Keep notes when you make bread as to the weather and how your bread turns out. Keep notes and you will soon know when and how to make the best bread.
One more tip – if it is very dry where you live, you can put a pan of hot/boiling water in the bottom of an oven, and put your dough in the oven to rise. You can also turn the oven light on for a bit of added heat if needed. Congratulations you have made a make shift proofer like they use in bakeries!
Nothing can ruin a loaf of bread faster than liquid ingredients that are too hot, and cold ingredients will make your yeast sluggish which it may or may not be able to recover from. Make sure all of your dry ingredients are room temperature, and make sure that your liquid ingredients are in the 100 -110 degrees Fahrenheit range. Eggs and fat can be at room temperature, but water and milk must be warm.
If you do not have a thermometer for your water, you can test the warmth of the water on your wrist, when I worked in a bakery this is how I learned to do it. If the water is warm but has no bite as hot water does, then it is perfect. Baby bottle warm is how it was described to me.
A lot of sites go into detail about how ingredients should be measured for making bread, I approach this subject a lot differently than most people do. While it is true that weighing ingredients can give much more accurate results, most recipes are written with cup measurements in mind.
You will also get a lot of advice about what type of measurements to use, how to measure the flour and more.
But here is the thing, the amount of flour you use in a recipe is highly dependent on factors exterior to how you are measuring. I can put the exact same amount of flour in my bread on a really dry day as I do on a humid day and I will get very different results.
So I advocate measuring carefully for all of the ingredients but to learn to add flour by eye rather than exact measurements in cups.
When making dough continue adding flour until it just starts to form a ball, slow down on the amount of flour you add at a time, only adding 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time and fully kneading it in before you add more. When the texture of your dough is uniform, slightly tacky but not sticky, and the bread still feels light and soft, then you have added enough flour. NOTE: if you are using a kitchenaid mixer as I do the dough will clean off the sides of the metal bowl leaving it clean, and the dough will no longer stick to the bottom of the bowl when you have enough flour.
If you take notes you will find that the amount of flour you use changes, even though your results will not.
NOTE: Some flours are stickier than others, as are some ingredients. If you are using oatmeal, or rye flour for instance, these doughs will always be sticky, use care to make sure you do not add too much flour in these. The same is true for many sweet doughs or those with a lot of eggs.
Checking to See if Your Dough is Kneaded Enough
This is one of the biggest problems faced by beginners, is not knowing when bread dough is ready after kneading. The purpose of kneading is to develop the gluten in the flour and give the dough elasticity it needs for rising properly.
Most recipes say knead until elastic and smooth, but this is really not enough information.
The best test is to take a walnut size piece of dough and stretch it until is thin and transparent like a balloon or wad of bubble gum. If the dough tears quickly or easily and you are unable to stretch it that thin, then your dough needs more kneading. This membrane like structure is called a gluten window in the baking world.
Letting it Rise
Letting dough rise is also critical to your success. Most recipes give you a certain time or say until double, but again there is a more accurate test.
Room temperature, humidity, the ingredients you use and how much you use, and the condition of the dough, all affect the time it takes your dough to rise. If you use cold ingredients (should be room temp) that can also make the yeast sluggish.
Once the dough is in the pan, you may not want to do this, simply wait until the dough has risen to the top or above the top of the pan, then it is time to put it in the oven.
Bake It Until It is Done
When is bread done? Slide it out of the pan and look at the bottom, if it is a nice gold brown and gives off a hollow thump when you tap on it, it is ready to go!
One last thing, Take your bread out of the pan and put it on a wire rack to cool right away. If you leave it in the pan, it will sweat and get soggy!