Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Basic Bread, Part Two: The Process

Making bread is a lot different from making most things. There's not much to it, but the process does take a lot of time. It's probably better to make bread when you have something else to do, too.

To give you an idea of what I mean, this was what happened as I made bread tonight:

-I mixed the yeast in with the sugar and water to prime. Then I went to go get laundry.
-I mixed the dough, kneaded it, and covered it for the first rise. Then I made dinner for tonight.
-I cut the dough in half, kneaded it a bit more, and covered it for the final rise. Then I ate dinner, cleaned up a bit, folded laundry, and put laundry away.
-I put the two loaves into the oven, and then went and wrote the first chunk of Basic Bread: part one.
-Finally, I pulled the bread out of the oven, took pictures, and finished part one.

As I mentioned in Part One, the basic science involves yeast reproducing in a pile of dough, which is made of flour and water, yeast, and whatever else you feel like adding in. Sourdough, which is a good traditional way of making bread, starts with something called sourdough starter (or a "mother"), which is basically a container of a flour and water mixture, with active yeast growing in the mix. The basic sourdough recipe calls for flour, water, a little bit of salt, and some sourdough starter. (which, again, is basically just flour and water, with live yeast growing in it.) Kneading the dough helps form gluten, which is the elastic substance that allows bread to rise, as it swells up due to the gases produced internally.

The first step in breads made with store-bought (quick-rising) yeast is to prime (or proof) the yeast. To do this, mix the yeast into a glass of warm water with some sugar. It kick-starts the process of reproduction, so that the yeast is active before it's even mixed into the dough. It also helps to let you know, before you make the dough, if the yeast is any good. If it's too old, and most of the yeast is dead, it won't reproduce, and the bread won't rise.  It's important to know, before you go any further, that your dough is going to rise. If the yeast doesn't start to reproduce, you have time to go get more yeast if you haven't mixed the dough yet. If you just add old yeast to the mix without proofing, you may be waiting a long time for the dough to rise.

Once the yeast is happily reproducing, the bread dough is mixed, and then kneaded for around 15 minutes. Kneading bread dough is a simple thing, but it's pretty frequently misunderstood. Kneading bread helps to mix the ingredients, but it also helps the flour to form gluten chains. Proper kneading stretches the dough out, and helps those chains form, which adds to the elasticity of the dough. Basic kneading is as follows: Flatten and roll the dough up a bit in one direction, and then flatten and roll from the last roll.

I've read advice to slap the dough around, and slam it down on the table, to help really stretch it out. This is good with more elastic doughs, like sourdough. For basic sandwich bread dough, which has a finer texture due to the presence of shortening or butter, is less stretchy, and doesn't really demand such violent handling. But the same source also advised to do all the kneading with one hand, so that the other remained clean enough to handle anything else that requires a clean hand. (Like the phone, or taking pictures. This is helpful advice if you can do it. Proper kneading can be a lot of work. I'm a woodworker with strong meat-hooks for hands, and it's hard for me sometimes. But I can say that it has helped to have a clean hand available from time to time.

After that, it gets covered, and left alone for about 20 minutes, for its initial rise. Put more simply, you give the yeast time to reproduce within the dough. One yeast cell splits into 2 yeast cells, into 4, and so on. The three main products of this reproductive process are carbon dioxide (CO2), alcohol, and more yeast cells. In bread, there's not enough alcohol produced to notice, and it bakes off anyway when the bread goes into the oven. But as the yeast cells multiply in an exponential fashion, and each of them is giving off more and more CO2, the dough begins to grow larger, resulting in gas pockets like these ones, which were produced during the initial 20 minute rise of tonight's loaves.

After the initial rise, the dough is cut in half (for 2 loaves) and then each lump is kneaded a little bit more, before being shaped into a ball, or loaf-shaped lump. The dough gets covered again, and left to rise for a certain amount of time, usually specified in the recipe. Some recipes call for the dough to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours, to help slow the process down and bring out more flavor. Other breads are given an hour or two for the final rise, before going into the oven.

As I said in part one, yeast needs to be kept warm if you want it to reproduce. It will generate some heat of its own in the process, but if it gets cold, it will slow down. That's why the water used to mix the dough should already be warm. For the initial rise, it's normal to cover the bread with a clean dish towel, or proofing cloth, to help insulate it and keep it warm. In cooler weather, I'll also put the rising dough in an oiled plastic bowl of some kind. I specify plastic, because it's a lousy conductor of heat. That means that if the dough is warm, it will stay warm. Metal or glass bowls will conduct the heat away, and cool the dough off, which slows the process down.

Keep the yeast warm and fed, and it will do what it does in its own time. All you have to do is wait.

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