1. Measure out the ingredients.
A.K.A. "scaling". And as the term implies, it is extremely useful to have a scale for this process. Depending on humidity, temperature and other variables beyond one's control, 1 cup isn't always 1 cup. It could be 1 cup in Alberta but 1.25 cups in PEI. But 20 grams is always 20 grams, no matter where you are. (Don't read into this too much, in no way am I implying that 1 cup and 20 grams are equivalent.)
Although accuracy is pretty important, especially with baking, don't get too caught up with precision. As long as the basic ratios are on point, you will be fine. The more bread you make, the better instinct you will have for what the dough should be like.
Most bread dough recipes follow what is considered the "straight dough method". Basically the first thing you do is activate your yeast (assuming it is dry active yeast, just soak it in warm water until it becomes foamy/bubbly). For instant yeast, go ahead and add it straight in with all of the other ingredients. That's all there is to it. If you have a mixer with a dough hook attachment, feel free to use it, or you can really get into it and use your hands. Personally, I feel that the entire point of making homemade bread is somewhat lost if you are using machinery to complete the majority of the process (don't get me started on bread machines). Although I will contradict myself by saying that for larger batches, having a Hobbart at your disposal is quite convenient. Because when you have almost 100 burger buns to make, no one should be subject to completing such a hefty task without a mixer. Let's be realistic here, it's just not happening.
Anyways, getting back on track with step #2, mixing. Sure you combine all the ingredients and start to knead, but how do you know when enough is enough? The windowpane test is the easiest way to go about doing so. Just cut off a little piece of the dough and gently stretch it into a square, "windowpane" shape. If it doesn't tear and you can see through the dough without it ripping, you are g2g (good to go). If not, keep kneading. The whole purpose of kneading is to evenly distribute all of the ingredients throughout the dough while developing gluten. This is what will give your bread strength and hold it together. Gluten is necessary for structure. For those of you who have ever attempted making gluten-free products, you know how delicate and finicky life is without gluten. In the case of whole-wheat breads (containing bran) or any other "sharp" particles, you always want to knead slightly less because these "sharp" particles tend to tear the gluten strands.
Now it's time to let the dough rise. The yeast will do it's thing and the entire mass should double in bulk. If you want to make the dough ahead of time, you can mix it, then proceed to ferment it in the fridge. This process is called "retarding" and it gives the dough time to develop flavor. Then you can take it out and continue with step #4. Otherwise, the dough will rise more quickly in a warm environment. You can even preheat your oven, then turn it off and prop open the door. Putting the dough in there for a few minutes will help to speed up the process. Just make sure it isn't too hot or you will kill off the yeast. We aren't baking the bread here...not yet at least!
|This may have been a bit more than double....|
This is where you let out your anger. Have any frustrations or tensions? Not after this you won't. Actually this step is not designed to be aggressive. All you want to do is expel the carbon dioxide gas that has been produced by the yeast. Gently punch down the dough to rid it of any air bubbles.
Unless your batch of dough is only going to make 1 loaf of bread, you need to scale it out. Generally a good sized loaf is about 500 g (roughly 1 pound). Burger buns are about 100-110 grams and dinner rolls are between 50-60 grams.
So now, the portions of dough you have obtained, you want to shape them. They should be nice and round and smooth on top (no rips). There are different methods of doing this but at the end of the day, it's one of those things that requires nothing but practice. The first time I tried my "hand" at rounding, my sous chef just laughed at me. It was awful. It's one of those things that looks so easy but can be so difficult at first. Then eventually it clicks and you feel like a champ.
Obviously larger boules will require both hands to round while small rolls can be done one in each hand.
I will try to describe this the best I can (if not there are always Youtube videos). First of all, if the dough is on the drier side, use a squirt bottle to wet the surface of the counter. This will make things easier as the dough balls will have something to adhere to. Then place the dough in the palm of your hand. Gently press the ball into the table while moving it in a circular motion. Use your thumb and fingers as guides, cupping the dough as you press it around and around. Once it's smooth and uniform, it's done. That's about all there is to rounding, other than that it's all about the repetition.
Surprisingly there are no benches involved in this stage. It simply means to let the dough rest. This allows the gluten to relax, making it much easier to work with in the coming stages. 5-10 minutes will do. Oh and make sure that you cover the dough so that it doesn't dry out.
8. Make-up and Panning
If you are making boules or rolls all you have to do is take your rounded dough and place it in the appropriate pans. Make sure they are either sprayed or lined with parchment to prevent stickage. However if you are making baguettes or knotted roles, pretzels or other fancy shapes, now is the time to do so. Or it may be as simple as shaping the rounded dough to fit into a basic loaf pan. I won't go into great detail because it really depends on what you wish to make and the possibilities are endless.
This is the second rise. Before baking, let the dough double in bulk once more. Again, the warmer the better, or you can retard it (which I find especially useful when making rolls, you can make the dough in the morning, complete the first fermentation, but actually bake just prior to dinnertime = warm bread). Cover the dough to prevent drying.
At home, most bread is baked anywhere between 350-425 F. It all depends on how hot your oven is and what crust texture you are going for. Prior to baking you can brush the dough with egg wash, milk or oil (this is often done with focaccia) mostly for appearance but also texture. Egg wash aids in browning. You can sprinkle your bread with coarse salt, herbs, nuts/seeds, oats or whatever other creative ideas you have.
How do you know when it's done? Color is a pretty big indicator. However if your oven is very hot the bread could be fully browned before it is fully cooked. So it should also spring back when touched (or in the case of rolls, the sides should spring back when you squeeze them). Also, if you take the bread out and rap the bottom of it with your knuckles, it should sound fairly hollow. Or you can even get out a thermometer, although it doesn't really help you to gain any kitchen instinct.
Self explanatory. Put it on a cooling rack and wait. There's nothing else you can do. This is not a process that you can speed up.
There's protocol to storing bread? Yes, indeed there is. First and foremost, make sure it is completely, 100% cool before doing so. Otherwise it will just steam and the condensation will make it all soggy and disgusting and you will have ruined your beautiful homemade bread. Are we clear on that?
Breads with crispy exteriors such as French bread should be stored in paper, not wrapped or else the crust will lose its texture. Soft loaves and rolls can be bagged in plastic or wrapped in Saran as you don't have to worry about maintaining their crunch.
Unfortunately, the one thing about homemade bread is that it does stale super quickly (which is why you devour it while it's still warm so it's all gone and you have nothing to worry about!). So if you make a lot, you can freeze it. Once it starts drying out, you can revive it a bit by heating just prior to serving (although once it cools you are back to square one). It's also great for toast, croutons, crustinis, etc. And once it is past the point of no return, don't forget about homemade bread crumbs!
That's bread making in a nutshell my friends. I want to keep going because there's at least 100 more things I want to tell you. But I have to stop myself here because this is already ridiculously long and if I don't stop now, I never will. We could get into sponges and laminated doughs and sourdough starters. All of which would be better saved for another post (s), another day. I need to save something to talk about!
Enjoy the remainder of this beautiful Friday and have a great weekend everyone! Perhaps it will be conducive to some homemade bread baking...