This is a continuation of yesterday’s post Breadmaking 103A – Steps to the Process. In that post we covered the first three steps of breadmaking: Preparation, Mixing, and Kneading. Today we will continue our journey toward your first loaf (or a better loaf!), beginning with rising.
Rising – the first fermentation:
Up until now, the yeast we mixed into our dough hasn’t really had any role. It has all been about the flour and gluten and how you coerced it into being dough. Now, though, it is the yeast’s turn. The point of letting dough rise is to give the yeast time to feed off of the sugars in the dough and metabolize it, producing carbon dioxide as a by-product. When the carbon dioxide starts to accumulate, it creates air pockets. Thousands of little air pockets = rising dough! This helps explain why kneading is so important – if the gluten doesn’t stretch out, the dough won’t be very strong, and it won’t be able to hold in all the CO2 being produced! It all comes together so nicely
Where your dough rises is very important. Temperature affects yeast activity greatly – a cold environment will slow it down a LOT. Conversely, a warm or hot environment will speed up the fermentation. This may be useful if you only have a limited amount of time or aren’t comfortable using a cold fermentation, but you do sacrifice a bit of flavor. Cold fermentation is a technique used by many artisan bakers to create a depth of flavor otherwise impossible. The presence of a draft is also important – any moving air across the surface of the dough will create a skin that 1) won’t let the dough rise properly and 2) won’t bake well. Finding a draft-free location is key.
I like to let my dough rise in an oiled bowl, for a couple of reasons, the first being that it keeps it out of any draft. I cover the top with plastic wrap and rest assured that it won’t develop a skin. Oiling the bowl keeps the dough from sticking and makes life a lot easier when it is time to shape your dough for the final fermentation.
The goal with rising is to let your dough double in size. With practice, you will be able to tell when your dough is risen enough. There are a few tricks, though. You can place a small amount of dough in a measuring cup and wait for it to double (i.e. a half cup becomes a cup, a cup becomes 2 cups, etc). You can also place the whole amount of dough in a tall clear pitcher and mark the initial height.
This step is one that many bakers (including myself) struggle with. It is very difficult to nail down the techniques. Again, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart is a very useful tool for this.
Turn your dough out onto an oiled counter (I’m not a big fan of using flour as a stickiness-preventive) and separate into appropriate size using scissors or a dough scraper. Don’t just pull it apart – you’ll end up just tearing the nice structure you’ve worked so hard to build. If your recipe says “makes two 1.5 lb loaves,” separate the dough in two. If your recipe makes one loaf, no need to separate. Now, time to shape.
The goal with shaping is to create surface tension across the loaf. No matter what shape you make, you want to get the top as tight as possible without breaking the dough. The easiest way to shape a loaf is into a boule (or ball). Simply pull the sides of the loaf under to the bottom, rotate, and repeat. It should only take about 30 seconds to shape. Don’t overdo the shaping – you don’t want to hurt the dough!
In the near future, I will do a whole post on the shaping of loaves. It is very important and something that can’t be covered in an introductory post.
Proofing – the second fermentation:
Proofing is similar to rising in that the yeast is metabolizing sugars. When you shaped the dough, you moved it around enough to expose the yeast to new areas, and thus new sugars. This second fermentation is important for developing the flavor of your bread. Additionally, and just as importantly, proofing brings your loaf back up to size for baking. If we did not proof our dough, we would end up with dense hockey pucks for our sandwiches, and that’s not fun at all. Again, you want to allow your dough enough proofing time to double in size.
Catching your dough at the right time is critical. Underproofing may cause the dough to rapidly expand in the oven, creating “tumors” of sorts in your dough. Overproofing will cause your dough to deflate in the oven. Like I’ve said before, you will get good at the timing with practice.
While this step seems obvious, there are many important factors. Following the recipe and using an oven thermometer can help take a lot of the guess work out of baking. The best way to know if a loaf is done is to take the internal temperature – it should read 185-190F for soft-crusted loaves, and 200-205F for hard-crusted (non-enriched) loaves. The crust should be golden and sound hollow when tapped.
The cooling phase is just as important as the baking phase!!! I can’t emphasize this enough. The bread will continue to bake internally after you take it out of the oven. If you let it cool 10 minutes and then cut into it, it will most likely be gummy and tough. Let the bread cool for at least an hour, preferably two, before eating.
Always cool on a cooling rack. Never leave pan-loaves in the pan, as they will develop a soggy crust. The cooling rack allows air to pass under and around the loaf, keeping the crust from getting soggy and quickening the time it takes for the bread to cool down.
There are exceptions to the cooling rule – some breads are okay to eat straight out of the oven, such as dinner rolls or hamburger buns. But, if you are unsure, let the bread cool down completely before eating.
That’s it! Of course, there is still A LOT more to learn about making bread, but these are the basic steps. I’ll begin posting recipes soon – I wanted to get a good tutorial base up before I threw you all into the world of bread. Start preparing – bread is on the way!