Ahem.. let me start this post with a disclaimer - (never thought will begin a post like this!). I am not really qualified to write this kind of a post being relatively new to bread baking. Am just compiling my observations and doubts which I had as a beginner and a few things I learnt during the process of bread baking, so please correct me if I am wrong. I am still very much learning my way with breads, have a small folder of not-so-successful ones, truth be told. But I am definitely better than where I started . Am now much more confident with yeast and in love with baking breads to the point of being obsessed. Now prefer home-made breads to the store-made ones. Its been an eventful journey from distressed baking-bread-is-not-my-thing to I-just -can't-wait-to-get-my-bread-machine.
Baking, for me earlier, unbelievably revolved around cakes. Thanks to blogging, it opened up a whole new world of baking to me. Something made me give baking bread a try. And how hard I tried and tried. And cried and cried, buckets no less - on Champa's shoulder. She actually had to replace the keypad of her lap-top drenched with my tears! :)). A lot of credit goes to her, she is a baking doctor in disguise of a software engineer, let me tell you! I can't write this post without mentioning her here, thanks a zillion times over Champa! You are an inspiration to me and a lot of others too.
Moving ahead, am sharing a few things which may be of help if you have not baked bread yet or just have started baking bread. I shall try to update pictures here as and when possible - I have a chaotic, umm, style of working in the kitchen you see, so not best suited for in-the-process pictures.
Caution : Continue reading only if you are really interested in baking breads or you may doze off by the time you are through with this lengthy post!
Information complied from Champa's blog (not to mention the umpteen mails exchanged between us) and The King Arthur Whole Grain Baking Book.
Bread Baking Process In a nutshell: To bake bread, the dough ingredients are mixed, kneaded (sometimes not) , allowed to rise once, then deflated, shaped, allowed to rise again in the pan and then baked. This is a process which could take anywhere between 3 to 4 hours or more depending on the recipe and other factors.
Dough Ingredients: Typically flour, yeast, sugar, salt, fat and liquid and optional flavorings.
Good Yeast : This is the biggest and most critical factor, even if all else is just perfect and the yeast isn't, a good loaf is impossible. Please refer my earlier post on this for more details.
Accurate measurements: As with all baking, breads specially and absolutely need accurately measured ingredients. So we can't really toss in a bit more of this and that when we are beginning. We can't eyeball the amount of liquid that goes into the bread unless you are an expert. Measure. Weigh ingredients for best results. Get digital kitchen scales if serious about baking.
While reading a recipe, check how the flour has been measured, people use different measuring methods. It could be dip cup into the flour and level (referred to as dip and sweep method) method or spoon flour into the cup and level method. I measure by spooning the flour lightly into the cup and leveling it with a spatula. My one cup of APF measured this way weighs 130 grams.
Mise en place: Measure and have all your ingredients ready before you begin. You do not want to run around like a headless chicken for a missing ingredient while the yeast proofs. If you leave the yeast for too long at this stage, even good yeast may lose its potency. If you are going to be adding something cooked or hot to the dough, eg, sauteed onion, make it first, so that it cools completely before you begin proofing the yeast. If you add this hot thing to the dough, you may kill the yeast. And yes, killing yeast is a huge crime in the books of a bread baker. Serious!
Salt in breads : Salt is a must in all breads, including sweet breads. If you do not use salt, the bread will taste flat. So you can't skip salt in any bread recipe.
Sugar in breads : This is a must when you use Active dried yeast, but not really indispensable when you use instant yeast. The instant yeast uses the sugar in the flour and starts growing. So some recipes (using instant yeast) may not have sugar at all. Dough with more sugar in it will color more. Dough without sugar will give lighter colored bread. Adding milk to a dough as part of the liquid helps the bread get a nice color.
Fat: Oil, butter, egg yolks, cheese that go into the dough. Fat gives the loaf a tender crumb. Bread without fat will be chewy, example a Baguette.
Spices in breads: One of the best things about home-baked breads is you can add herbs and flavorings to your taste and preference. But be careful as you add cinnamon and garlic (not as a combination of course!) Yeast slows down with too much of these. Up to 2 1/2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon for 3 cups of flour is fine. 6 medium cloves of garlic for 3 cups of flour. Source KAF Whole Grain Baking Book.
Liquid - flour ratio : This plays one of the key roles in a successful bread. Be careful to not skew this ratio when you mix the dough. Milk, yogurt, buttermilk, water, juice, honey, whipping cream, coconut milk, beer, eggs, butter, oil etc form the liquid portions of a bread dough. Be particularly careful when you are working with whole wheat flour as different kinds of whole wheat flour take different amounts of water. Unless you are using the same brand and kind of flour and the same method of measuring flour, under the same weather conditions, the liquid amount may not be the same. So how do you gauge the amount of liquid that goes in here? When you read a recipe, pay attention to the consistency of the dough stated in it. The dough may be soft and smooth, sticky or very sticky or sometimes tacky. A tacky dough is one which sticks to your hand, but peels off easily as well. Go by this consistency as your guide. When in doubt, do not add the entire liquid in the beginning, save, say about 1/4 cup of it, add it gradually, tablespoon by tablespoon and then by teaspoons till you reach the desired dough consistency. Note down how much you have used. In case your bread doesn't turn out perfect, refer this and adjust accordingly the next time you bake.
If a recipe does not have onion in it and you add it, it will contribute to the liquid in the recipe, so you will need to reduce the liquid accordingly. Same with fresh fruit. So avoid adding these (unless you know what you are doing) if you are tweaking a recipe.
Liquid absorption in the dough: The KAF book says, flour is like sponge. It absorbs moisture from the air when it is humid. So when the weather is humid, it will take less liquid. So start with lesser liquid when it is humid.
Flour range - Most recipes will specify a range of flour - as in - 3 to 3 1/4 cups flour. Start with the lower range. The range is given as you may need different amounts of flour due to atmospheric conditions and way of measuring the flour. Again add the flour keeping in mind the consistency of the dough the recipe calls for.
Dough consistency: When you read a recipe, pay attention to the consistency of the dough (if mentioned in the recipe). For example, soft dough, sticky dough or tacky dough. A tacky dough is a dough which sticks to your hands slightly but also easily peels off your hands. Aim to get the dough to the specified consistency within the specified range of flour and liquid. There again may be a variation of a tablespoon or two which should be fine.
Kneading the dough: You could knead the bread with your hands or in a bread machine ( A very heavy, jealousy rr..eeking sigh here!) sometimes a food processor or electric mixer. Contrary to what we have heard or seen, bashing the bread dough does not help. Treat your dough gently. Knead but do not fling it down on your counter-top. Too much of rough handling the dough may kill the yeast. Too much of kneading does not help either. Time your kneading, do not approximate. I try to flour very lightly or not to flour the counter at all while kneading, I sometimes oil it.
Proofing the dough : Once your dough is kneaded keep it an oiled bowl. Turn it once, so that the dough has a coat of oil all around. We need to know the level of the dough so that we can gauge if it has doubled. I wish to have one of those dough rising buckets with markings which make it easier. Since I don't, I push a scale carefully beside the dough and read the level, mark (with a dab of flour). Mark the level where it needs to reach to double. Keep the bowl covered with a clean kitchen towel. Keep it in a warm place, e.g, inside your microwave (turned off of course). Its OK to open the towel and see if the dough has doubled. Normally it takes about 40 minutes to an hour. Check around 30 minutes.If the dough doubles sooner than this, in all probabilities you have used more yeast or more liquid. More yeast may give a quicker bread, but will smell funny. More liquid will not give you a good loaf.
Proofing Time: Recipes specify a time range for the bread dough to rise (proof). This is merely an approximate indication. The actual time proofing time depends on the weather, the kneading technique and warmth of the rising place. Breads kneaded in a bread machine supposedly rise faster. So again pay attention to what the dough is supposed to look like after the specified time - doubled, puffy or almost doubled. So if your recipe says - rest the dough for an hour or till doubled in volume, and your dough doubles in 40 minutes, you can safely carry on with the rest of the procedure.
If the dough needs to double, let it just double. Not more than that. I was of the assumption that if it rises even more, the better. Post a certain stage of rising, the bread will not have enough support in the pan and will collapse, giving a mushroom shape to the bread and sometimes a denser bread. Be specially careful in a no-knead bread as the dough is quite wet and will need the support of the tin even more. If the no-knead dough has to rise up to the rim of the pan /muffin cup during the second rise, let it rise up to that point itself. Breads with eggs rise higher than those without eggs.
First rise: When we mix ingredients, knead and keep the dough for rising, this is called as the first rise.
Second or Final Rise: After the dough rises, it is deflated, shaped and placed in the pan or tin and allowed to rise again. This is the second rise. Some breads will be allowed to rise only once and baked.This quick Focaccia for example.
Shaping the bread : After the first rise, deflate the dough gently. Roll it into a rectangle according to the size of your pan. Roll up (like a Swiss roll) starting with the narrow edge. Seal with your fingertips as you roll. Seal the final edge of the dough. Seal the two ends of the roll by pressing down to make a thin sealed strip at each end. Fold the sealed strips under the loaf and place in the pan. - As described in the Better Homes And Gardens Homemade Bread Book.
During the Second rise: When you shape the proofed bread dough and place it in the tin to rise again, this is called the second rise. This time around cover the pan with a greased aluminum foil. Keep in warm place (unless otherwise specified in the recipe). If you use a towel or something like that, it will stick to the risen dough and then you will need to peel it off, with tears in your eyes, deflating the dough.
Assuming you leave the dough to proof for longer during the second rise and it rises way more than indicated, you can punch it down again, re-shape and again let it rise to the level needed. This time, no excuses, other than the dreaded no-power!
When baking 100% whole wheat breads , the dough may not always double. So the test here to move towards shaping and baking after the first rise and second rise is - when you lightly press two fingertips quickly 1/2 inch into the dough and the indentation remains. - Source - Better Homes And Gardens, Homemade Bread Book.
Baking : Don't forget to pre-heat your oven (if using an OTG) atleast 20 minutes before the end of the rising period. Better have a hot oven ready and waiting than keep the dough waiting till the oven heats up. I have a few times forgotten to do this (the result of using both the Microwave and an OTG for baking, the microwave takes 5 minutes to pre-heat), ended up with a dough which waited longer than needed and resulted in perfectly -edible- but- not- great- breads.
Some breads like some focaccias and pizzas are baked at high temperatures. I normally bake at 190 degrees C for the first 15-20 minutes and then at 160 C degrees - just following the teacher :)). This is to ensure that the bread gets a good color initially at the higher temp and then baked well from within later. If your bread browns at 15-20 minutes, its a good sign, the liquid-flour ratio is right! Also, dough with more sugar colors more, dough with less sugar may not brown a lot. Dough with milk gets a better color. Breads with egg-wash color beautifully, specially sweet breads.
When is a bread done? The bread is baked when at the end of the baking time, the bread turns a golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. If its not done, put it back immediately in the oven and bake for some more time. If you bake it again long after its come out of the oven, it will not help as the yeast will be long dead by then.
Instant read thermometer: My now indispensable tool for testing the done-ness of bread. The temperature should read between 200 - 210 F on this and your bread is done.
After baking : Once out of the oven, brushing the top of the loaf at this stage with melted butter will make it soft .Allow the bread to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then take it out and cool on the rack completely. . Though its very tempting, do not slice it when warm as it will still be cooking. Also when the steam from the warm bread escapes when sliced, the bread tends to stale or dry out faster later. It will not remain moist. So when the bread is cooling, may I suggest that you clean the counter or set up the props for your pictures?
Noting down: Note down the weight of flour, quantity of liquid that goes in a recipe. Note down the time at which you keep the dough for the first rise, the second rise. We don't want to forget at what time you kept it for the rise when we are learning. Though this will not be exactly the same for even the same recipe always, this will help approximate the rising time.
Picking a recipe for a beginner : Chose a recipe from a reliable source which gives you accurate measurements in terms of the flour and liquid. If you have just begun or yet to start, start with a no-knead recipe. Kneading forms an important part of the bread baking process and adequate / inadequate kneading can make a good or not-so-good bread. This being the case, a no-knead bread gives you better chances at success. Needless to say, this is highly motivating for the new bread baker. Pick up a recipe with only APF in the beginning. You can then move on to a combination of both and then only whole wheat, multi grain etc. Start with no-knead recipes and then move on to the ones which require kneading.
Bake bread at home and you will really gift a lot of satisfaction and joy - to yourself and your family. You just read how a dummy baked bread, if I can do it, so can you! Here are some easy breads you could try.
No Knead Focaccia
Batter White Bread
No Knead 100% Whole Wheat Bread
No Knead Spicy Buns
So this is all the few bits I know. So don't ask me very difficult questions please :) And do share any more helpful pointers you may have...
This is also my entry to Jaya's event Back To Basics, hosted by Padmajha this month, the theme is Basic Breads .