Welcome back! You’re almost ready to bake some bread. You now understand what bread is (not a stupid question!) and you have all the things you need to start making bread. The last thing we need to do is understand a bit about the process. Bread isn’t one of those spur-of-the-moment type things you can do just on a whim. For the first couple of times, making bread will require a decent chunk of time. While you can go out and do things during the rising or proofing, many novice breadmakers like to sit in the kitchen and watch the bread rise. Let me tell you – it’s not very exciting. But, anticipation can make anything exciting, so watch away!
There are 12 accepted steps to the process of breadmaking. Peter Reinhart goes through them very thoroughly in his book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, which I highly recommend. Here I’ve written a quick overview of the first few steps:
Step 1: Preparation
This step is actually extremely important. If you just jump into things without preparing first, you will often find yourself in a bit of a bind – missing ingredients, out of time, or out of (oven) space! It is very important to read the recipe twice before starting – the first time to get familiar with the process, and the second to really think about the timing. Make sure you don’t have to run off somewhere when it’s time to put your bread in the oven.
The next thing you want to do is check your ingredients and make sure you have enough on hand. Half of the amount just sin’t going to do, unless you scale the whole recipe back by 50%.
Lastly, make sure you have all your tools on hand.
Step 2: Mixing
Once you’re all prepped and ready to go, it’s time to start mixing! The goal of mixing is not to get a really uniform and smooth dough, but simply to get all the ingredients wet. Put your dry ingredients in the bowl first and combine. Don’t put the salt right on top of the yeast – it will kill it. Instead, put them on opposite sides of the bowl and mix into the flour. Then, add all your wet ingredients (or follow specific instructions in your recipe).
The best tools for mixing are your hands. They work better than any whisk out there and honestly require a lot less work to operate. Simply use one hand to mix, and the other to turn the bowl. Rotate your hand and the bowl in opposite directions until all the dry and wet ingredients are incorporated and you have a very shaggy dough.
If you don’t want to get your hands doughy, then mixers also do a fine job, and a danish dough whisk is your next best bet as far as hand tools go.
Step 3: Kneading
There are a few methods for kneading bread dough. I recommend you experiment with all of them and see what works best for you. Depending on the hydration of the dough (that is, the flour to water ratio), different recipes will yield different-feeling dough. Some may be very sticky and wet, while some may be seemingly tough and hard (as I often find with whole wheat). Follow the instructions in your recipe to get the desired consistency.This usually takes about 8-12 minutes when kneading by hand. It may take a bit longer your first few times until you get the hang of it.
The point of kneading is to get all the gluten that was all coiled up in little particles of flour to loosen up and stretch out. In well-made bread you can often see strands of gluten extending out into the holes created when the dough rises. You can test for gluten development using the windowpane test (I will post on this later).
The first method of kneading is the classic “Fold-and-Push.” Fold your dough in half and push down and away from you. Turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat. Use your dough scraper every 7-8 kneads to get all the dough off the counter and back into your ball. Continue until the dough reaches the right consistency, as specified by your recipe. The windowpane test is a good way to know if your dough is “ready.”
The next method is what I call the “Slap-and-Fold” technique. You lift your dough off the counter, slap the bottom part down, and fold the top part over, all in one smooth motion. Turn the dough a quarter dough a quarter turn and repeat. Again, use the dough scraper every few kneads to reincorporate any run-away dough and continue until the desired consistency is reached. This technique is a little harder to visualize, so here’s a video!
The third method is the Stretch and Fold method (they’re all starting to sound the same, huh?). This still requires the use of one of the above techniques, but to a lesser degree. You knead for about half of the time, and then put it in a bowl to rest. Periodically throughout the rising time, you put your dough back on the counter top, stretch it out, and fold it in half. You do this a couple of times, and then let it continue rising. This technique is cool because you can actually see the consistency of the dough change right before your eyes.
Lastly, there is the “No-Knead” method of breadmaking. While this isn’t really a kneading technique, I feel that this is the best place to talk about it. Though this technique does require a lot less time and effort, I don’t prefer it. I find that the consistency and the flavor really just don’t match up to the traditional method. What you do is basically use a very high hydration (i.e. lots of water), a ton of yeast, and a long refrigeration time – I think the dough lasts up to a week. You just mix it all together, let it rise for two hours, and then refrigerate it until you are ready to use. Sounds intriguing, right? Go ahead and give it a try. If it works for you, awesome! You’ll save yourself a whole lot of time.
Now, kneading dough, whatever method you choose, takes some practice. You probably won’t be very good at it the first time, nor the next. I spent a lot of time trying to understand how a shaggy, ugly, sticky mess turns into a pretty ball of dough. But don’t get discouraged! You will get the hang of it in no time.
Holy moly. I had more to say about this than I thought! I’ll continue this topic in a later post.
Question of the day: What is your favorite way to knead your dough?
For me, it depends on the day. On long days that I get home late from work or school, I take the easy way out and just throw it in my mixer. When I need to get some aggression out, I go with the slap and fold! It’s perfectly noisy and requires a good amount of physical effort :) And when I need to relax or be quiet, the fold and push is definitely the best option.
Have a wonderful Tuesday!