Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Bread Saga, Part 2: Back to the Basics

Hi, I'm Jackie, and I can't bake bread.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. The second step is research. Lots of research. And discovering that baking bread is NOT like baking cookies. It's weird. And takes a little more than dumping everything in a bowl!

Did you know that the Tech library has a whole section of cooking/baking books?! I just discovered it, it's awesome. They have two or three whole shelves of just bread books! They have everything from super science-y ones with tons of technical information on wheat and yeast and whatnot, to fluffy books of just bread recipes. I was really looking for something in between, some easy recipes, with plenty of basic, practical information on bread making.

I'm warning you now, this is not a post for those of you who just skim for the pretty pictures. Well, I guess if you just look at the pictures, you wouldn't be reading this...nevermind. But anyway, I give you my massive amounts research, stolen from my heaps of books combined with tons of info stolen from Allie at Live Laugh Eat, who had recently had a big bread baking saga too. My hopefully simple, over-detailed, bread baking for dummies! Enjoy, my fellow bread failures!


There are two major types of yeast. Active Dry Yeast, and Instant Yeast (also called bread machine yeast or fast acting yeast.) Which one should I use? Whichever one the recipe tells you to. It's almost like they planed these things out already. If it doesn't say, look and see if the recipe tells you to proof the yeast. What's the difference? Active Dry yeast needs to be proofed before you mix it into the dough, instant doesn't. Proofing yeast is when you take warm water, between 100 and 110 F (too cold and it won't work, too hot and you'll kill the yeast!) dissolve some sugar in it, sprinkle your yeast in, and gently stir. After about 5 minutes, the yeasty water should get all bubbly and foamy, and you're good to go! If it doesn't foam, the yeast is dead. So sad.

Salt and spices can make your yeast sad too. Add whatever your recipe calls for, but don't add salt directly to your yeast, or go crazy on the cinnamon. Like I usually do. Whoops.

What if I have the wrong kind of yeast? Alton Brown says you can do a 1:1 exchange. I mean, he's a smart guy and all, but that still scares me. I'll just stick to using the right kind of yeast...


Yes, There's a diagram here and everything. Don't worry, I'm not THAT legit, I stole it from Wikipedia.

There are about 5,000 different kinds of flour. They're all the same basic idea, ground up grain. What kind of grain and how it's ground and what parts of the grain are used and what's added makes a huge difference.

All purpose flour, or just plain old flour is made from a combination of hard and soft wheat, and has a medium protein content. Basically, it's average flour, usable for just about everything, which is handy, because it's usually the cheapest. It comes in two variates, bleached and unbleached. Freshly ground, it's kinda yellowish, but as it ages, it turns whiter. People don't usually like yellow flour because it's weird, so bleached flour has stuff in it used to age the flour, hence it's whiter. Other than the color, they're basically the same.

Bread flour is made from just hard wheat, and has a higher protein content, which helps the bread be...better. Bread snobs say you absolutely need bread flour to make vaguely legit bread, but for bread wannabes like me, I'm sticking with the cheap stuff.

Cake flour is basically the opposite of bread flour. It's made with just soft wheat, and has less protein content, because cakes have egg in them, they don't really need much more protein. Cake flour comes in a box, which I think is weird. You don't absolutely need it for cakes and pastries, but it's nice, but definitely don't use it for bread!

Whole wheat flour is made with the bran and the germ of the wheat kernel, not just the endosperm. (Tehe! Sperm!) "Whole" wheat, as in made with the whole kernel. Hey, clever! It has a high protein content. It's healthy, but makes kinda lame bread, because it doesn't like rising. You can generally use whole wheat flour in any bread recipe that calls for all purpose, but only substitute half so it will actually rise.

White whole wheat flour is just like normal whole wheat flour, except it's made with white wheat rather than red wheat. It has basically all the health benefits of whole wheat without tasting as healthy.

Yes, there's a million more, like rice flour and corn flour and soy flour and junk, but flour's kinda boring, and I got all the info I need! Speaking of needing...


Kneading sucks. Just in case you were wondering. Kneading is pinching and pulling and stretching the dough, so the gluten in the flour can elasticize, and form into long chains. This gives your bread a springy texture. I don't really get it either, don't worry, but I think that's maybe why gluten free bread is super gross. Anyway, kneading is good, it makes happy bread. Yes, your dough will eventually get elasticy, just keep kneading! It's a good arm workout!

There are two alternatives to the kneading marathon. One is to use a stand mixer. This lovely article explains how (yes, there is a trick to it, just like everything in bread making apparently!)I've never gotten it to work, so I can't tell you any more than the article, because I don't actually have a stand mixer. The second alternative is to make a no-knead bread. Gluten is happy either if you knead it, or let it rise for a reeeally long time. Like, overnight at least. I've seen a recipe that tells you to let it rise in the fridge for up to two weeks. 

But my no-knead dough is super super sticky! AAAHH! Chill out. Sticky is good, it means your bread will have bigger holes and a better flavor. Don't freak out and add more flour, you're not planing on kneading it anyway, who cares if it's sticky!


Letting your dough rise is just letting the yeast do it's thing. It's what really makes bread happy. It needs to be nice and warm, and it does need to actually double. But my apartment's really cold, can I just make one of my guy friends hold it for an hour? Guys are like space heaters! Nope, doesn't work. I've tried.

Here's my latest trick I've discovered: turn the oven on the lowest setting for a minute or two, just so that it's nice and cozy in there, but not boiling hot. Turn the oven off, and pop in your covered bowl of dough. Now triple check that you actually turned the oven off, and you're good to go!


There are two things that can effect your crust once everything's mixed up; the temperature of the oven, and moisture. Temperature scares me, I'm not messing with that, stick to the recipe. Moisture on the other hand, we can change. Adding moisture to the crust makes it crunchier. We can do this by one, adding a pan of water under the bread as it bakes, the water will evaporate and get into your crust, or two, spray your crust a couple times with a spray bottle during the first few minutes of baking. I don't like super crunchy crusts so I can't tell you much, but if you're looking for more crunchyness, have at it.

Then there's those artsy little slices in fancy-pants bread. Those aren't just for looks, they're to let gasses out of the dough as it bakes, and to prevent your loaf from getting deformed. Cut them with a razor blade or a very very very sharp knife so the dough slices evenly, rather than drags with your knife.

So there you go, Jackie's bread baking for dummies, written by...erm...a bread baking dummy! Trust me, there will be PLENTY more bread to come, and I can only guess there will be more learning on the way! (Yeah, I'm cheesy, so what??)

Information lovingly stolen from:
Live Laugh Eat
Breads, by Time-Life Books
Practical Baking, by William J. Sultan
Bread, by Sarah Morgan
and Wikipedia


  1. YAY! I'm glad you found Allie's stuff at LLE helpful! One of my fav blogs - and I met her in person and she's super sweet!