Fresh compressed yeast is favoured by practiced and artisanal bakers, many of whom claim that fresh yeast gives baked bread a better flavour and aroma. It requires crumbling and creaming before being incorporated into your main dough. It has a limited shelf life of about 2 weeks, requires refrigeration and can be a bit unpredictable and tricky for novice bakers. It is also not as easily available as other types of yeast. Fresh yeast is sold in chillers or freezers, in block or slab form.
Active dried yeast is dormant yeast which is activated by moisture. It is the traditional dried form of yeast and requires dissolving with a small amount of sugar before being incorporated into your dough. It should be combined with a little warm water and sugar and left to proof (become active) for about 10 minutes. If after this time, it does not foam up and smell yeasty, it is dead and should be discarded. Repeat with a fresh pack. Active dried yeast is usually sold in jars or sachets.
Instant yeast is more concentrated than active dried yeast and contains yeast enhancers that make it more of a hedged bet than either fresh compressed yeast or active dried yeast. Unlike the first two, it does not require creaming or dissolving in water and can be added straight to the flour, along with liquid. This is the type of yeast I most often use for reasons of convenience, dependability and availability. Instant yeast is usually sold in jars or sachets.
Rapid rise yeast contains even more yeast enhancers than instant yeast and is used when you want a loaf of yeasted bread, very fast. While you do get a faster finished loaf, in most cases, in about an hour where traditional yeast loaves take about 3 - 4 hours from start to finish, I do not recommend this type of yeast as its concentration level and heavy reliance on yeast enhancers produces a loaf that is definitely a step below in both taste and texture. Rapid rise yeast is usually sold in sachets.
Yeast inhibitors impair yeast activity, slow down rising and may even kill yeast cells. Some common ingredients that can cause trouble for yeast include salt, cinnamon, alcohol, sulfites, pottasium sorbate and fresh garlic. It doesn't mean you have to exclude these ingredients; just use them in moderation or use them in a way that avoids direct contact with the yeast.
Bread Starters (Sourdough and Preferments)
Sourdough starters are said to have been discovered, probably by accident, by the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians, when a mixture of flour and liquid (likely water or milk) was left unattended longer than usual and was observed to have 'soured' (become fermented and bubbly). Some brave soul, drawn to the appealing fruity aroma of the dough was prompted to continue with the breadmaking process instead of discarding the bubbly dough, and the world's first naturally leavened bread was born. The fermentation of sourdough is caused by the interaction of wild yeast (in the air) and lactobacillus bacteria in the presence of the sugar in the mixture of flour and liquid. Fermentation takes much longer with natural wild yeasts - on average, about 4 days or so. Sourdough bread is most closely associated with San Francisco as the bacteria responsible for this wondrous interaction was discovered in the San Francisco soudough starters beloved of the prospectors of the California Gold Rush, and so named Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis, in its honour. Sourdough starters are favoured for the superior flavour they impart to breads and for breads made from rye flour, which owing to its low gluten content, does not work well with regular yeast. A true sourdough starter does not contain any added yeast. When a loaf of bread is required, a portion of the starter is taken and added to a prepared unyeasted dough before being risen, formed and baked. The starter, also known as 'mother dough" requires regular 'feeding' with additional flour and water, and refrigeration, to keep it alive and active.
Biga is an Italian bread starter (pre-ferment) made by mixing a proportion of the flour, water and usually though not always, all of the yeast in a bread recipe then covering the mixture and leaving it to ferment at room temperature for 6 - 18 hours. Longer fermentation periods are not uncommon, but this should be done under refrigeration. It is then incorporated into a prepared, dough made from the remaining proportion of the ingredients. Thereafter the dough goes through the usual process of rising, shaping, proofing then baking. Breads made with a biga starter have more complex flavour, a chewy texture and an open and airy crumb with large aeration holes because of the usually wet doughs used in this method. Ciabatta is one well known bread that is made with a biga. Bigas usually have a hydration level of about 60 % so they are like a rather firm bread dough.
Poolish is the French equivalent of the Italian biga and is made the same way ie, a proportion of the flour and water with all or some of the yeast called for in a recipe. It is called "poolish" because it was taught to the French by Polish bakers. The difference with a poolish is that it has a hydration level of 100 % meaning equal amounts of flour and water are used (by weight). Hence a poolish will be more batterlike in consistency.
Sponge starters are made with all the water and yeast in a recipe, and half the flour. The batterlike mixture is left to ferment for 2 - 4 hours after which the remaining flour is added and kneaded into a dough which goes through the normal breadmaking processes.
The difference between sourdough and all other starters is that sourdough can be made well in advance of any breadmaking and kept going indefinitely by refrigeration and regular feedings of flour and water. Preferments (any other starter except sourdough) are made expressly for the particular recipe you're working on.
A straight dough is one which has been made without any kind of starter be it sourdough or a preferment. In other words, all the ingredients are combined and mixed with liquid into a dough which is then kneaded, risen, deflated, shaped, proofed and baked. This is the most convenient and straightforward method of breadmaking and the one I use most often.
White (wheat) flour - You can use plain flour for making yeasted bread, but strong flour (bread flour or high gluten flour) is best, as the higher gluten content and common additives like a small proportion of barley flour and vitamin c increase the elasticity of the dough and enable the dough to stretch and rise better, and retain its shape well, as it gets inflated with the ethanol and carbon dioxide that is produced as the yeast cells feed on the sugar present in the dough. A dough made with bread flour also rises better in the heat of the oven as it bakes. Some bread recipes call for plain or even special types of softer flour like Hong Kong flour where the intended finished product is one that is less airy, less chewy, softer and almost cake-like, with a more restrained rise than regular bread, as in brioche, challah and Chinese pao (steamed buns).
Wholewheat flour is used for a higher fibre, fuller flavoured and more nutritious loaf of bread. It is possible to make bread entirely with wholewheat flour, but I personally prefer a mixture of 60% white (wheat) flour and 40% wholewheat or wholegrain flour for a balanced combination of taste, nutrition and texture as loaves made entirely from wholewheat flour tend to be heavy textured.
Graham flour is a coarser, unbleached and less processed type of wholewheat flour that contains the endosperm, bran and germ of the winter wheat grain. It is named after its inventor, Sylvester Graham, an American Presbyterian minister and pioneer of the health food industry.
Spelt flour - In recent years, spelt, which is closely related to wheat, has grown in popularity as it is sweeter, nuttier and more nutritious than wheat. Additionally, spelt contains more protein than wheat and is more digestible, so, it's a boon to those sensitive or allergic to wheat. However, as it contains a hefty amount of gluten, it is still unsuitable for those with gluten intolerance.
There has always been contention as to whether or not the addition of sugar is necessary in making bread. The truth is breads like the classic French baguette have been made since time immemorial, without a single grain of added sugar, so, sugar is clearly not essential in breadmaking. This is more so in modern times, when bread flour has additions like barley flour or barley malt which provide ample sugar for yeast cells to feed on and do their job of aerating the dough, and yeasts are usually processed with a little sugar to help kickstart them. Sugar however, does add flavour to the finished loaf, and will give a deeper, more attractive colour and sheen (owing to caramelisation in the heat of the oven) to the crust of the baked loaf. It also makes the yeast proof a little faster than it would in a dough without any added sugar. In short, sugar makes a nice addition, but your dough will still rise without it, just a little slower. Something to remember though, is that while yeast LOVES sugar, too much of it is a bad thing because yeast will happily gorge itself with as much sugar as you give it, then fall into a stupor sort of like a sugar induced coma and take a nice long nap instead of doing its job!
Like sugar, salt adds flavour to your loaf, but unlike sugar, it doesn't activate or speed up the action of yeast, but retards it. Apart from flavouring, salt is used in breadmaking as a control on the yeast, so the dough doesn't rise too quickly and billow out of shape, and the flavour of the bread is not unpleasantly sour from unrestrained yeast activity. Salt also extends shelf life and strengthens the gluten structure of the dough, making it easier to knead and shape. Personally, I feel bread tastes flat without some salt to add spark. There is however, at least one classic Italian bread recipe, Pane Toscano (Tuscan Bread) which excludes salt. Legend has it that the bread bakers of Tuscany devised this recipe as a revolt against an exhorbitant tax on salt. So good was it, that the recipe remains even today, long after the dispute was resolved. The classic Tuscan bread salad, Panzanella, is traditionally made with cubes of stale Pane Toscano.
Fat, be it butter, lard, margarine, shortening, oil or the lipids in egg yolks, adds flavour and colour, richness and tenderness to bread as well as extends its shelf life. Without fat, your bread will be tougher, chewier and go stale much faster. Fat also affects the structure of bread by coating and in effect, separating the gluten strands in your dough, thus giving the crumb of baked goods made with fat rich doughs like brioche and croissant dough, a feathery, filament-like appearance. Too much fat though will overcoat these gluten strands, weigh down on yeast activity and result in a heavy and of course, greasy finished product. Yuck. Because fat forms a barrier between the flour and the yeast, it slows down yeast fermentation so fat-rich doughs will take a longer time to rise. This is often countered by adding a little more yeast for fat-rich dough recipes.
Liquid and Dough Hydration
Almost any liquid can be used in breadmaking, including water, milk, buttermilk, yoghurt, coffee, tea, beer, juices and wine.
If using wine do take note that pottasium sorbate and sulfites, commonly used in winemaking, are yeast inhibitors and will slow down yeast activity, resulting in slow rising and close textured, low rising loaves. Alcohol itself,though a byproduct of yeast fermentation, also has a stultifying affect on yeast; the yeast cells can actually succumb to alcohol poisoning. To sidestep these issues, slightly increase the amount of yeast and do not use wine as the sole liquid for your dough. I would recommend replacing no more than 30% of the liquid used with wine. To be honest though, the flavour and colour imparted with such an amount of wine is insignificant in my opinion and red wine tends to impart a bitter flavour to loaves, probably because of the tannins present which don't seem to take well to being heated.
Liquid activates the yeast and gels the ingredients to form a cohesive dough. Water produces a lighter, more open crumbed loaf, while richer liquids like milk or yoghurt produce a more moist, denser, softer, more cake-like dough. The optimal hydration (moisture) level for regular (not enriched with large amounts of fat or eggs) dough is around 65% - 70%, meaning that if you use 500 g (1/2 lb or 5 teacups) flour, to achieve 70% hydration, you would have to use 350 ml (350 g / 12 fl oz / 1 3/4 teacups) liquid. This will vary slightly depending on humidity levels, altitude and flour types (wholegrain flours require slightly more liquid than white flour). Optimum hydration will produce a dough that is silky, elastic, easy to work with and that will hold its shape and rise well. Too much liquid will result in a sticky, floppy dough that is difficult handle and shape while too little liquid will give a dough that is unyielding, inelastic and that will rise poorly. If you are to err, do so on the side of generosity when it comes to hydration; a little too much is better than not enough, though I wouldn't advise going beyond 70% as very wet doughs are devilishly difficult to handle. To read more on how to calculate dough hydration, and see the different effects of varying hydration levels, click here.
Water or Liquid Temperature
In most recipes you will see a specification for warm, lukewarm or tepid water or liquid. The intent behind this is the deeply ingrained assumption that warmth is needed to activate the yeast and keep them cosy and happy so they'll get the fermentation process going at a good rate. The truth is that as long as yeast is hydrated and not actually frozen, it will still get going and start fermentation. So, by all means use cool or room temperature water - better a little too cool than a little too warm, though iced or chilled water is probably NOT a good choice. If however, you are making bread in cold conditions (an unheated kitchen in winter, etc.) then warm water (body temperature) would definitely help. Pardon my sometimes pedantic recipes - old habits die hard ;)
Autolysing is when you give the water and flour mixture a rest after mixing, before adding the yeast and other ingredients. This supposedly enables the flour to better absorb the liquid and the gluten strands to align themselves in a way that would produce a better structured dough, which is easier to work with, and a finished loaf with better volume. I have never tried this, but I do mix everything up, including the yeast, then give the dough a 15 - 20 minute rest before kneading, as I've found this really does seem to produce a dough that is easier to knead and shape. The dough also seems to better hold its shape, for free-form breads.
When it comes to bread, gluten is king, so you really want to knead your dough well to ensure optimum gluten development for a pliant and stretchy dough that will be easily inflated with the carbon dioxide and ethanol the busy little yeast cells are producing during proofing and rising. If you knead by hand, the best approach is to pull the dough away from yourself and fold it backwards onto itself again. Do this repeatedly, giving the dough quarter turns as you go, until the dough is smooth as a baby's bottom, silky and really elastic. This normally takes about 15 minutes if done by hand. A standmixer will do the job in about 8 - 10 minutes on speed 2 (low). There is something called a window pane test which will tell you if the dough has been sufficiently kneaded or not. Pinch off a small piece of kneaded dough and gently stretch it out as thinly as possible, without tearing it, to a roughly square or rectangular shape, sort of like a credit card. Hold this piece up to a light source. The light should show easily through the middle of the square, like light through a window pane. If you can stretch the dough evenly and thinly, without tearing it, it's sufficiently kneaded. Click here to see what this looks like.
Flavours and Additions
The flavours, fillings and additions to your dough are only limited by your imagination. Use flavourful liquids, flavouring extracts, instant coffee, milk powder, finely grated citrus zest, chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, grated coconut, almost anything you like really. Very rich (many eggs, generous amounts of heavily sweetened dried fruit or fat) or large amounts of flavourings or additions should be incorporated into your dough, after the initial rising and deflating processes, to give the yeast a chance to work unhindered by a heavily laden dough.
Rising, Deflating, Shaping and Proofing
The rising, deflating and proofing processes are collectively called dough fermentation and fermentation is essentially a rest period for the dough.
Rising is the first rest period after kneading. This resting period allows the yeast (through the action of yeast enzymes) to modify the gluten structure of the dough. All this activity results in the production of carbon dioxide and ethanol (alcohol) which inflates the dough and gives off that characteristic boozy smell. The dough should be risen in a greased container to prevent sticking which will hamper rising, which should be covered to maintain a constant cozy temperature and prevent a skin forming on top which will again, hamper rising.
Deflating the dough (aka knocking down, knocking back, punching down, de-gassing) expels the carbon dioxide, dispels that boozy pong, and gives the yeast a nudge to start working on inflating the dough again.
Shaping the deflated dough is achieved by dividing and forming by hand for free form loaves or, moulding into tins or proofing baskets.
Proofing is the final rising and resting period after shaping where the dough is left to rise again before baking. The dough should again be covered lightly during proofing to prevent a skin forming and hampering rising and to maintain a constant temperature. Once proofed, the loaf or dough should be handled very gently before baking so as not to deflate it and lose all that precious aeration.
Underproofed, Overproofed.....Just Right?
No matter the proofing (final rise before baking) time given in a recipe, the quality of your loaves will improve vastly if you learn how to judge for yourself whether or not your dough is sufficiently proofed.
Underproofed dough wil produce a heavy and poorly risen loaf which will have a tight, dense crumb with small holes. When gently pressed with a finger tip, the impression made will spring back almost immediately.
Overproofed dough will produce a loaf that initially rises in the oven then dramatically collapses and settles into a squat and spread out loaf as the gluten structure has been weakened by overfermentation. When gently pressed with a finger tip, the impression made remains and does not spring back.
Perfectly proofed dough produces a well risen loaf that holds its shape and has an airy crumb with a proliferation of moderate sized holes. When gently pressed with a finger tip, the impression made springs back gradually.
Slow Rise or Cold Rise Bread
Slow or cold rise bread is bread made with significantly less yeast and much longer fermentation times (usually under refrigeration) than ordinary breads. The intent behind this method is to develop more complex flavours and more open textured loaves with larger and more holes, through decelerated and prolonged yeast enzyme activity. Slow and cold rise breads are notable for their rich, umami like flavour and for the fact that they don't require kneading because of said enzyme activity. The dough ingredients are mixed as usual but instead of kneading then rising in the usual way, the mixture is covered and refrigerated for anything from 8 hours to 3 days before proceeding as for regular dough, ie, deflaing, shaping, proofing and baking.
Glazes and Toppings
Glazes like beaten egg, milk, butter, oil, honey, cornstarch slurry or even water can be gently applied, before or after proofing, though I prefer to do so after. When glazing, take care to avoid drips that may settle on the baking tray or get between the dough and the tin and may 'glue' the the loaf or pieces of dough down, preventing a both a proper final rise and expansion while baking in the oven. When glazing after proofing, ensure that the bristles of the brush do not puncture and deflate the dough. Glazing is not essential but it does improve appearances and can contribute to the overall flavour of the finished bread.
Toppings like flour, nuts, herbs, seeds, grains, sugar, salt or cheese, can be applied before or after proofing - dough may be rolled in toppings like seeds, before shaping and proofing. If you want to add toppings after proofing, do so very gently so as not to accidentally deflate the dough. Glazing before adding toppings helps them stay put. Again this step is not essential but can add flavour, texture, visual appeal and also give a handy indication of what is inside the dough.
Slashing or Scoring
Slashing or scoring a loaf is not only decorative, it has practical merit as it encourages the loaf to really open up and expand evenly in the heat of the oven, without tearing or cracking unattractively along the sides or underneath. It also maximises the surface area of the crust, which is very desirable as much of the flavour and aroma of good bread comes from a well browned crust. Slashing should really be the last thing you do to a loaf, before putting it in the oven as cuts or slashes made on a loaf far in advance of baking, will likely go out of the desired shape after proofing. When slashing a loaf, do so with a very sharp knife or blade (a lame, scalpel, paper cutter or Exacto knife would all be ideal) using quick, deep, decisive strokes that taper off toward the ends. Before you start, know exactly what pattern you want and how you want your loaf to expand. Click here to see how diffirent slashing patterns affect the rise of your loaf. Wet the tip of your cutter, to prevent it sticking to and tearing your loaf.
For most of my bread recipes, I start baking at a relatively higher temperature than many bread bakers - around 230 C - 250 C (445 F - 480 F) as higher temperatures are one of the factors that positively affect "oven spring" (see below). The exceptions to this are breads made from doughs rich in fats and sugar which would of course burn very quickly at such temperatures. For regular dough, I've found that starting at higher temperatures yields a beautifully crusty and perfectly expanded loaf that is exactly how bread should be, to me. The temperature though has to be closely monitored and gradually reduced first every 10 minutes, then 5 minutes, and finally be around 190 C (375 F) when the loaf is done baking. The finished product is a fragrantly nutty loaf with a nicely caramelised and cracklingly crisp crust that is not too thick, and a light and almost lacy internal crumb, full of lovely holes waiting to trap lots of luscious butter, just like this!
Oven spring can be likened to the last, desperate and gasping breath of a dying person. Sorry to be so morbid and dramatic, but the successful making of a loaf of bread necessarily ends only with the death of the yeast cells that did all that work, turning flour and liquid into a beautiful, puffy and tremulous loaf waiting to go into the oven. The intense heat of the oven, eventually kills the yeast in the process of setting the form of the loaf. Before the yeast cells die, they give one last heaving, rasping and monstrous collective exhalation that dramatically puffs up the loaf in the first few minutes of baking. This is known as "oven spring" and the hotter the oven and the more moisture present around the surface of and inside the loaf, the more dramatic the effect, and therefore the higher the rise. This is why you will read of home bakers fiddling with spray bottles, ice cubes and baking tiles, all in an effort to maximum both oven heat and moisture around the loaf, all in the hope of maximising oven spring and achieving beautifully crusty, artisanal or professional grade loaves. This would not be a concern if you're baking with a professional bakery oven, so, if you're serious about the look and feel of your loaves, you know what to do! I'm not one for all that fiddling, and I have no budget for professional ovens, so I just make my oven as hot as it will go and ensure my dough in nicely hydrated inside and moist and soft on top by spraying it with water before baking. No ice cubes, no tiles, no way.
Siren Song of a Loaf
I'm going to tell you a secret; keep an open mind. *Ahem* My bread sings to me. I am not delusional and no, I have not been inhaling too much ethanol from proofing dough. When I take my loaves out of the oven, and put them on the counter, after about 20 seconds, they start humming this delightful fizzing and crackling and almost...tuneful ditty. It's the most beautiful sound in the world, after "mama". This only occurs when the loaves have been baking at high initial temperatures and the crust has attained caramelisation nirvana. When they come out of the oven and hit the much cooler ambient air, the sudden change in temperature causes the crust to start fracturing, hence the sound. After a few minutes, cracks form here and there and the kitchen is filled with the most ravishing aroma. I breathe it in and am rendered quite speechless. When was the last time, any song made you feel that way?
Anatomy of a Loaf
Crust is what the brown, nutty and chewy skin of the loaf is called.
Crumb is the name given to the soft, doughy inside that's full of all those lovely little holes I call butter traps! (not to be confused with "crumbs" - those annoying pin head sized grains of bread that can come from either crust or crumb and always find a way to get lodged between the keys on your laptop and the folds of your blanket.
Cooling, Slicing and Storing
Cool your free form loaves (baked without a tin or mould) immediately after baking, on a rack until completely cold before slicing or storing. Gently jiggle tinned or moulded loaves out of their containers and cool on a rack as for free form loaves.
Slice loaves with a gentle but decisive sawing motion, using a clean, dry, very sharp serrated knife.
Store soft bread in a clean, dry sealable plastic bag at room temperature. Store crusty bread securely wrapped in paper at room temperature. Consume within 3 days.
Breadmaking at Higher Elevations (Altitudes)
It may sound strange to you that making bread up on a mountain is not the same as making bread at sea level. Strange but true and it's mostly down to physics. But first, don't assume that a "normal" recipe for sea level dwellers won't work for mountain dwellers. Give it a try as is first, especially if you are hovering around 3000 feet. However if you are approaching 4000 feet, you would probably need to make some adjustments. It's best to redo the recipe with one adjustment first, as you may need only the one adjustment. If you do this and still find the recipe doesn't work, then the next time you redo it, make the first adjustment again plus a new adjustment. Don't assume you will have to make all possible adjustments before the recipe will work.
First thing to know is that at higher elevations, air pressure decreases and this is the reason that dough and batters rise faster than they would at sea level. Compensate by decreasing the stated amount of yeast by 1/2 tsp first. If you find the dough still rising faster than the given times, reduce yeast again by 1/4 tsp each time, until you hit the right amount for your elevation. The right amount would be the one that makes your dough rise close(r) to the given times in the recipe. As yeast is supercharged by the decreased air pressure, don't exclude salt from your dough as salt acts as a yeast retardant. Take care however, not to let the two come into direct contact with each other as salt can kill yeast and your dough then will not rise at all.
Your second option is to reduce the rising times in addition to marginally reducing or maintaining the amount of yeast. I would pick the first option as less yeast and more time spent rising the dough yields a better flavoured loaf with improved keeping qualities. A large amount of yeast used will make your loaf go stale, in terms of flavour (sour) and texture (crumbly) much faster.
Next thing to know is that mountain air is drier so it tends to "suck up" moisture, from your wet laundry, your skin, and yes, your dough. This is why doughs often feel and look dry, even when you follow the recipe closely. Compensate by increasing the amount of water starting with one extra tablespoon and slowly working your way up with a little more each time, until the dough feels moist, soft and silky.
Temperatures at higher elevations also tend to be lower, hence the air, cooler. Compensate by using tepid (slightly above body temperature) NOT HOT water.
Even at sea level, making wholegrain, especially 100% wholegrain breads can be challenging. This is no different at higher altitudes. Wholegrain flours require slightly more liquid than white flour. Adjust accordingly to achive a moist, silky dough that is easy to knead. However, the decreased air pressure at these elevations may actually be a boon where heavier wholegrain doughs are concerned. Take advantage of this factor - knead wholegrain doughs well to encourage gluten development and if necessary, add 1 - 2 tablespoons vital gluten powder to the recipe, with the flour. Do keep an eye on the rising times and make sure the dough doesn't rise more than 2 1/2 times in volume, for both risings or you risk having your loaf collapse from an overstrained gluten structure.
Most important thing to remember - DON"T GIVE UP! Successful breadmaking is not the exclusive right of sea level dwellers, and is the result of recognising and manipulating factors and dogged determination. Loving bread though, is a great help ;)