Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods: and good bread with fresh butter the greatest of all feasts – James Beard
Starting the day with toast or perfecting a dinner when you bring a hot loaf of bread to the table, there are few things as universal as bread. By the same token, there are as many kinds and types of bread as there are cultures around the world.
As we explore bread types the first thing is to narrow down what we will be including. At its essence, bread is flour dough that is leavened and cooked. Since virtually any grain, and other things, can be made into a flour our categories are still broad. We will be focusing on a base of wheat type grain breads.
Leavening can occur with yeast, soda, salt, heat, or even spontaneously from airborne spores in some areas. We will focus mainly on yeast breads, with a foray into soda breads.
And of course you can cook with anything from a hot rock to a temperature and humidity controlling convection oven. We’ll keep this category open.
Yeast is often referred to as the one of the earliest domesticated organisms. The non-scientific description is that yeast consumes carbs and outputs CO2 and alcohol; fermentation. Different strains of yeast will yield different ratios of gas/alcohol making some more suited to making great adult beverages and other strains better for bread.
Which accomplishes one major goal of the bread making process; getting the bread leavened to the point it is not brick like, therefore easier and more enjoyable to eat. The texture is most influenced by the leavening, although the physical steps of bread making also have a purpose toward that goal.
Need to knead
Kneading bread dough is not required. The kneading process lines up the structure (glutens and proteins) and strengthens them so the bread responds better to the yeast with consistent fine bubbling throughout. Commercial breads often go further with additives that create a top to bottom consistent texture generally lighter than the homemade product.
White flours tend to have more glutens, hence softer bread structure. Whole wheat has a lower percentage so it generally makes a more dense bread. Some of this can be cheated away by adding more sugars so the yeast has more food to create more CO2 and lighten the texture.
Which leads us to the other point, no you do not need to knead. A longer fermentation process, and we’re talking 12-24 hours versus 2-3, will give you light enjoyable breads. The bubbling will often be longer and larger, less consistent, with a more sinewy texture. Think good crusty sourdough with those large bubbles.
Kneading is not a necessary step. But it certainly has an impact on the end result of the bread making process. Understanding how it is influential, will let you create a bread that meets your expectations for the product.
Time is the one component that is a part of every kind of bread making. Like the things we’ve explored already, how much time is a factor that will influence the bread that you end up with. Classically the dough is made, kneaded and allowed to rise for about 90 minutes, until at least doubled in size. The dough is punched down, and after a brief rest, shaped into loaves. The shaped loaf is proofed, the second rise, again until double or about 60-90 minutes, then baked.
An artisan bread recipe that has been all the rage lately is stirred together, left to ferment for 24 hours and then baked. Focaccia, and many flat breads, are kneaded and shaped, allowed one rise, then baked. Brioche is best when it has been refrigerated at least overnight during the first rise to allow for a slow thorough fermentation. Sourdough (a yeast culture that is kept alive with regular feeding) will benefit from many hours of sponge, then blending, kneading, rising, a proof stage, and then baking.
And on and on. Some steps can be eliminated, but time is always part of the process when making yeast doughs.
In general you need some form of wheat based flour to make bread. Gluten free breads often use wheat flour with the gluten removed, then some additives like xanthan gum or gelatin, to replace the strength and binding characteristics of gluten proteins.
The more ‘whole’ the grain is before being made into flour will affect how it responds to the bread making process. Broadly speaking, the less refined the denser the resulting bread. That’s why your homemade one hundred percent whole wheat bread will usually end up more dense than white bread. (Commercial bakers have cheats that you can explore on your own). Semolina made from durum, one of the hardest wheats, will add even more density to your bread, and is often used in pizza dough for texture.
Your best recipes for Rye Bread, Pumpernickel or many dark breads will still use a percentage of unbleached white flour to get better results in texture. A white flour base is still the best when adding coconut flour, for example, which sucks up moisture and rarely exceeds twenty percent of a recipe. Nut flours which add flavors, fats and fibers, will diminish the texture of your bread if too much is used. It is all about finding the balance to get your loaves to the texture that you enjoy.
You can throw 3 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon dry yeast and 1 cup of water in a bowl, stir and let sit, 24 hours later you have bread ready to bake. Add some sugar and the yeast is much livelier, your bread is ready in a few hours. One of the most interesting aspects of bread’s diversity is how many ingredients you can use to direct your recipe to the results you want.
Sugars are carbohydrates. Flour contains carbohydrates. But all carbs are not created equal. Just as your body can quickly assimilate sugar into glucose, yeast can ferment more quickly with sugar because it is ‘simple’ compared to the ‘complex’ carbohydrates in flour.
Just in terms of sweeteners, from brown sugar and maple syrup to honey or powdered barley malt, it’s all yeast food. All of them will leave flavors, and sweetness to a degree, in the finished loaf. Some are harder for yeast to digest, honey for example. So it will tend to leave more sweet flavors in the bread. Molasses is a great one for adding more flavor (and color) while offering less food for the yeast.
One especially fun aspect of bread as we know it is how many shapes it comes in. Just a loaf can be a circle, rectangle, oval, square, braids, or cylinders. If left alone nature will generally migrate the loaf to a hemispherical shape. Then we get to things like buns, bagels, English muffins, flat breads…it keeps going.
We’ve accumulated recipes, techniques, and tips on a wide-ranging array of bread making. Here are the broad categories to help you get to your own interest. Pick the one that you are looking to explore and get baking:
Multiple rise yeast breads; these breads will have consistent and finer bubbles evenly from top to bottom. They will also lend themselves to add-ins like cheese, herbs and seasonings, and will include some sourdough recipes. Variations will extend to Brioche, Croissants and other specialty breads.
Single rise yeast breads; this category is for focaccia, pizza dough, Asian bao, Nan and flatbreads. Generally more coarse in texture, and often chewier. As the examples show, these are also great for integrating and delivering other foodstuffs.
No Knead breads and quick breads; here we look at what are called ‘Artisan’ breads with few ingredients. Quick breads are our non-yeast category including everything from soda breads to corn breads to sweet breads (not the internal organ kind), and scones and biscuits and such.
Now that you have an overview here’s a three ingredient multiple rise white bread recipe that we also make for homemade buns.
White Bread Recipe
In a bowl, soften one tablespoon (or one packet) dried yeast in two cups warm water, not over 100 degrees. Allow to sit for 5 minutes.
Add and mix with paddle, 4 cups flour. Replace the paddle with the dough hook and add 2 more cups of flour, mix until blended and the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. At that point set a timer and knead the dough until smooth. The time will vary based on the type of dough hook and your machine, from 2-6 minutes typically.
It’s always fun to take the dough and turn it on a floured counter or board, and knead for a few strokes until nice and smooth. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and let rise until double in size, about 90 minutes.
Punch down the dough, let it rest ten minutes. Remove from the bowl and shape into loaves, rolls or buns. Proof until doubled in size, 60-90 minutes. Bake in a 350 degree oven until done. A loaf will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, indicating doneness, or a thermometer reading of 190 degrees at the center of the loaf. Remove from the pan, cool for 10 minutes and serve.