Bread Baking tips 2: digging in

(This is also a reprint and update from an earlier post a couple of years ago. Since I updated part 1, why not part 2 and think about a part 3?)

Here is where we get to the fun part: the mixing, the kneading, the rising, the shaping. Bringing about life from the humble ingredients talked about in Baking Tips 1. And I got lots of pictures this time. OH, don’t miss the YouTube video!!

Really, as long as you follow a recipe, you should be fine baking any kind of bread. Most of it is in the waiting. Waiting for it to rise. Waiting for it to rise again. Then anxiously wait, hovering around the stove, for it to bake to perfection, with any luck.

But here are a few things I have learned that apply to most bread making. To help keep my thoughts in order, I will use a standard white bread recipe as an example.

Lets see. Mix, knead, raise, shape, raise, bake.

There, that pretty much covers it. Done!

Well, okay, not quite done.

This one turned out a little on the large, Godzilla of all bread side.

So lets say we assemble the following ingredients to make a learning loaf of basic white bread. We can use a bread machine to do the mixing and first raising if you want. We can use your mixer to do the manual work for you, or just dig in and do it by hand. For this recipe and for learning purposes, we will do this one by hand. It is good to get your hands in there and feel what it should, and should not, feel like.

  • ¼ cup warm water (not over 110 degrees)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbls active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 4 tsp butter, melted or use oil
  • 3 cups flour, either all purpose or bread
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt (don’t forget the salt!)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten, to glaze.

An instant read thermometer comes in very handy when measuring the temperature of the water or milk. You do not want it too hot or you will be defeated before you even start. Yeast is the star of the show and is a living thing. Very hot liquid, over 110-115, will kill it (like when Paul was a toddler and knocked over Phils sea monkey cage and it all ended up in the carpet, sad and dead)  and your bread will turn out very similar to a brick. Better to have liquids too cool. Nothing goes wrong then. The warmth is just to wake it up and give it a boost. It will wake up eventually anyway, even if you use cool liquid, it will just take longer. So without an instant read, err on the cool side. Okay, enough harping on that.

Oh, and I use bottled water. I have heard the chlorine in our water is not good for the yeasties. I don’t want to pamper them or anything, but I drink bottled water, so why not. It’s just a little bit.(depends on where you are and the quality of your water.)

Now, sidle up beside me and let’s make some bread.

Put the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl or cup and whisk together. Then let it sit and wake the yeasties up. It should foam up a little in just a few minutes.

Wakey-wakey eggs n bakey! See the foaming up of the yeast as it gets busy.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the warm milk and melted butter. (Do I need to remind you not to make the milk too hot?) Well, I heated the milk in a saucepan on the stove and guess what. It got too hot! So, what to do? First, I put the butter I had not melted yet into the warm milk. This helps cool the milk while melting the butter. (okay, then I threw in an ice cube and stirred it in.)

eww, too warm. Will burn the wee bairns. Must cool

Put the flour and salt in a larger bowl and whisk briefly.

Now, with a wooden spoon or Danish whisk, we mix our wet ingredients in with our dry ingredients.

Mix until fully incorporated, no dry patches. The dough should form into a ball. It needs to be a bit sticky. If not, you better add a Tbsp more water. Maybe 2. You don’t want gloopy wet, but sticky. You will be adjusting it while kneading. If it is too wet and just sticks to everything and you are in despair, add a Tbsp. of flour or 2 and mix that in. But better a tad too wet than too dry.

Mix it up. Love using my Danish whisk.

Now we will cover with a damp tea towel and let sit for about 20 minutes. This allows the flour to absorb the liquids. On humid days it will absorb less, on dry days, more. Set the timer and go answer an email to your old friend Linda.

Lets get back to it! The dough looks like a shaggy mass, and it should at this point. Have your flour handy.  Put a little sprinkle of flour on your kneading board, cause it is time to knead the dough. We will use either our silicon mat or wooden cutting board. Pull the dough out with a spoon or your hands and onto the floured board.

Mr. Lumpy

Here is the part that always amazed me. How this shaggy, lumpy, sticky mass of dough ends up looking plump and soft as a babies behind. By kneading, we will be helping the bread to line up the strings of gluten, which in turn, helps the bread to raise and hold its shape. Wheat flour is chock full of gluten, but you can even buy extra gluten for other recipes. This characteristic of flour is why it is such a challenge to make gluten free breads. Because the other flours do not want to raise and hold their shape like bread made with wheat flour. Oops, we are supposed to be kneading.

So, flour your hands a little. Feel the dough?  Shape it into a nice ball. With the heel of your hand, push the dough away from you. Fold the dough towards you, pulling from the far side of the dough up about 1/3 of the way, turn it a little and push away with your hand again. You do not need to use too much muscle. Keep in mind a bread maker does it with only a little paddle in the bottom of the bucket. It just spins and turns the dough. You too, just push, fold up, turn a little, and push. Get a bit of a rhythm going. You really can’t go too wrong. (I wonder if I can video me doing this to add here? Hmmm.) See what happens when you click below.

Notice, I only want you to add flour to your hands, to keep it from sticking too much. Occasionally you might add it to the board if it sticks too much. I have a metal “bench scrapper” to scoop up the dough off the board if I need to. I don’t recommend adding flour directly to the loaf; it could be too much and end up too dry. In the end, you want it to be like a post-it note. Tacky. For some recipes the bread is downright gloopy. But here, tacky will do. Knead for, oh, about 6-10 minutes. I usually knead until the dough is smooth and bouncy. I mean, it bounces back a bit when poked or pushed gently. The warmth from your hands and action of kneading both line up the gluten and activate the yeast growth.

See how much better Mr. Lumpy looks after a nice massage.

Okay, so we have baby bottom dough, right? We are going to put it into a nice large bowl, but oil the bowl first. Make sure it is a plastic or ceramic or glass bowl, rather than metal. A metal bowl could conduct too much heat.

Then, after putting the dough in the bowl, oil the top of the dough too. Now, cover the bowl, so the dough won’t dry out. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap or a dampened tea towel. (There is that towel again. That’s how it was done in the ‘old days’, before Saran wrap. I generally use a used loaf bag slit up one side and across the top to open it up.) We are going to let the dough rise until about double. This will take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the weather and where you put the bowl. Is it in a warm spot, like over a pilot light on the stove or on top of the fridge? Those are very warm spots and your dough will rise quickly. If it is just on a counter, out of the way of drafts, and it is a cool day, it may take a little longer. Today is, of all things, rainy and cool. So I should have time to run an errand and still make it back in time.


“But how will I know?” you may ask. Well, you can use the poke method. After about 45 minutes we will check on it. It has risen nicely. Eyeballing it, it looks double. Lets gently poke it with an index finger. If it bounced back, filling in the hole you made, quickly, then it may need a few more minutes. If it fills in slowly, it is just right! If it does not fill in at all, we may have waited a little too long. But not to fret. Just keep plugging away. The rising time does not have to be exact.

Now we gently de-gass it. What is called “punching down”. But really, no need to punch. Just reach in and gently push down, releasing the gasses  the yeast has been producing. Bring it back out onto a mat or board. It is time to shape it. But first we will let it rest a few minutes while we get the pan ready.

Dough resting, waiting to get its new shape

Lets make it into a regular sandwich type loaf, shall we? We could make rolls, breaking off little balls, rolling them up and putting them into muffin cups to rise. But lets not today. Get out a standard loaf pan, usually 5 X 9 or 8 X 4. I use metal ones usually. You can use glass or stoneware. Stone pans take a little longer to heat up, so take that into consideration when timing the dough.

So, lets take the metal loaf pan and spray it with oil. Good job! You hardly got any on the floor. (Don’t you usually spray over the sink? Occasionally on the stove? I do.) Every baker has their own way to shape the loaf. I, for example, lay it out on the board, patting it out with my hands into a small rectangle, about 9” wide. Then I roll it up, starting with the side closest to me, keeping it tight and pinching the edge to seal. (Pinch-pinch-pinch all along the edge. You could dampen your fingers that sometimes help). Then I just tuck under the ends, lift the tube o’dough up and place in the loaf pan.

Other people might pat it out into a rectangle; fold it like an envelope, first 1/3 over, then the other 1/3 over that. Then fold the envelope in half once more, tuck in the ends and pinch the seam, placing the now about 9” snake, into the pan.  Tuck it in sweetly.

There is a point here. You want the “skin” or pre-crust, to be fairly taut.  This helps it to rise with a nice rounded shape and keeps the crust smooth. Cover it once more with oiled Saran wrap. I don’t suggest the damp towel at this point so much. Mostly because you are not degassing it again. If the dough sticks to the towel when you remove it, the dough might fall.  (At which point you go back a step, de-gass, shape and let rise again.) Put the pan, with the covered dough, in a nice draft free place to take its nap, er, to rise.

Again, this will take 45 minutes to an hour. Depending on the size of the pan of course, you want the dough to rise about 1” above the edge of the pan. I can’t tell you how many times I have left it to rise, had my husband say “run to the store with me real quick” (What am I thinking? I know better). Then we get gas, a Jamba juice, one more stop, while I am biting my nails, waving my arms and trying to explain to him that I have to get home for the bread! I go to check on it and its I Love Lucy all over again. You do not want to rise way up over the pan! If it looks like a full-on loaf of bread before it even goes in the oven, it has nowhere to go but down baby, down! Like a popped balloon. Ptfffff!

But that did not happen this time, did it? NO!  It rose beautifully, just peeking over the top of the pan. It is ready for 2 things. We are going to slash it (gasp!) and brush the beaten egg over the top. (and you were wondering when that egg was going to get used.)

Did the slash, see?
egg wash

Did I forget to mention it might be time to preheat the oven? Do so now. Heat the oven to 400 for now. As soon as the loaf goes in, we will reduce the heat to 375. You loose about 25 degrees when you open the oven door, so that’s why we start higher, then reduce heat.

You can make a slash down the middle of the risen loaf, if it not raised too much. Like when you poked it earlier and it filled in if it still had time to raise, if the dough is just raised, not over-raised, you can just cut down the middle of the loaf, about 1/4″ deep with a very sharp knife or razor blade. (Does anyone have a scalpel handy? Seriously.) Just work quickly, making a nice cut down the middle of the loaf. If the knife is dull, it will drag, not cut. If the loaf is over risen, it will deflate, like the first time I slashed one of my loaves. But I do it now all the time and it works just fine. The key is sharp knife or blade and don’t wait too long, until the loaf is over inflated. If it is over an inch above the top of the loaf pan, you might consider not slashing.  You don’t have to slash at all. It helps with the shape of the loaf, as it raises in the oven (called oven spring, because it springs up from all the heat, kind of like you would if you just sat on something hot).  Sometimes loaves will crack on the top or sides from trying to rise up too fast and the “skin” splits. The slashing jut helps control that, making it prettier. But plenty of times I have not slashed and had nice rounded loaves. Like the cinnamon raisin bread I make with no slashing.

Either way, now brush on the beaten egg. I read somewhere to put a pinch of salt, sugar or a splash of milk in the egg to make it break up the egg whites better, so I do that now, usually adding a splash (a couple teaspoons of) milk. Brush it all over the loaf. Why? Well because it gives it a nice glossy brown crust. While you don’t have to, it is part of this recipe. Another time I will show you one of my baking books full of illustrations of different types of glazes and toppings for bread. Some washes give it a shiny crust, others a darker crust or sweeter crust.

So, our loaf looks lovely. It is risen, slashed, and has its egg wash. The oven is on. I like to take a baking sheet and put the loaf pan on it, then put it into the oven. This keeps the bottom from getting too dark. I do this for almost everything I bake. I even double up the cookie sheets when making cookies. It helps that I buy pans that come in 2’s.

Where were we. Oh, ready to put the pan into the oven? No need to put in ice or mist the sides or any of that other moisture making techniques you may have heard of. For this loaf, just put it into the oven and turn down the heat to 375. The higher heat at the start will get that oven spring I told you about into gear in top-notch style. All that moisture in the loaf, whoosh, turns to steam and she expands quickly. Then, the heat hardens the gluten, and the crust, giving it structure and stopping the expanding. Leave it for 30 minutes at least, before peeking. It will probably take closer to 40-45 minutes to finish. It depends on your oven too. If your oven has hot spots, turn the loaf around half way through, so one side does not overcook. This is where  your instant read thermometer is invaluable. In the old days, you might thump the loaf of bread, like a watermelon. Now, you just stick the thermometer in the loaf. When it reads 180, voila, it is done. You don’t have an instant read thermometer? Borrow one. Or run to Target or somewhere and pick one up. Mine was about $12 and worth every penny. I have used it a billion times, for bread, meat…okay, that is another post. Come borrow mine if you want. It beats taking the pan out of the oven, flipping it out of the pan, all hot, yikes, thumping the bottom to see if it sounds hollow (??). No? Putting it back in the pan and back in the oven for 10 minutes.

If you can’t see it, the temp is 196. We only needed it to get to 180, so time to come out.

Now, this loaf does not look very big, does it. Not the like Mothra one at the top of the post. But it did rise beautifully. So what gives? Well, in this case, I should have used my slightly smaller 4 X 8 loaf pan. But I used my newer, shiny bigger 9 X 5 pan. So instead of rising up more, it rose side to side more. Not really what I would have liked. Wider, not taller. But is still has a wonderful texture, soft but substantial. The way white bread should be.

This amount of dough I would probably put in the smaller 8×5 pan next time to get a higher loaf.

Please, you have come this far, let the loaf cool off before cutting into it. It will be much lovelier if you wait. It will moosh up if you cut it too soon. Still will taste great, but won’t be the same.

So, now you have seen some of the ordinary little things I run into with most of my bread baking, most of the tools, some of the techniques. Did the link work for the kneading video? Isn’t that just too cool? I love learning to do new things.

Write to me if you have any questions. Maybe I missed some critical issues? I hope this gives you more confidence in your bread “building” skills.

Heres the one I made the next day, smaller pan, more kneading. Go figure.
The next days loaf

Love L


2 thoughts on “Bread Baking tips 2: digging in

  1. Beautiful! And the video was great, too. I think we’re heading into another hot weekend, but when the weather cools down for *real*, I may have to bake some bread. Mmmmmm…


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