Welcome to yet another post from the bread baking series. Last year I published the recipe of my “Two-Year-Old Bread.” It was pointed out by some of my friends that the instructions seemed a little “vague” to the newcomers. After reading it, I realized it was indeed the case, so I decided to go a little deeper without being “too technical.” I also built a compilation of videos showing exactly how I perform many of the techniques. Let’s get started!

The Big Picture

Overall, baking bread has different “stages,” where various things happen. Something essential to highlight is hat things like fermentation, gluten development, and more, happen all the time and not just at these stages. But we do things to either boost them or slow them down.

The following chart shows the different stages of basic bread baking.

The basic bread method in a nutshell.

Mix & Autolyse

When talking in bread baking terms, mixing means how much integrated the flour and the water is. The more integrated these two are, the more the gluten develops. We care about gluten because it’s how the dough can retain the air and gasses produced during fermentation. Without gluten, we’d have to find other ways to make it hold the air.

We measure our ingredients in what’s called “Baker’s percentage,” this is, all the ingredients in a recipe will be expressed in terms of % to the total amount of flour. So, if a recipe calls for 72% hydration, this means we do 72 grams of water for every 100 grams of flour.

Autolyse is simply a process that allows flour and water to spend some “quality time alone.” We mix the flour and most of the water from the recipe and let it sit for some time. We do this to allow the gluten to develop and will enable the dough to gain initial strength. Right before it starts to ferment. Though the flour already has a low quantity of natural yeasts, it would take at least a day to start seeing some visible signs of fermentation.

If we mix by machine to full gluten development, then autolyse is not that necessary. Kneading by machine to full gluten development will somehow restrict the time we can allow the dough to ferment, yielding in much less exciting flavors.

Finally, we add the yeast, starter, pre-ferments (or whatever we’re using to leaven the bread), the salt, and oils or fats, kicking off the bulk fermentation stage. A note on oils and fats, we add them for flavoring and to make the final crust not so crunchy. If we make let’s say sandwich bread without fattening agents, then we might get the unpleasant feeling of our mouth getting hurt by the crust.

Bulk Fermentation

This stage has two main goals that are somehow opposing, and we need to balance them. Allowing enough time so the dough ferments so it develops its delicious flavors, and helping the dough gain enough strength to hold its shape.

We will begin to help the dough gain strength. To do this, we will perform a series of folds. Please see the video at the end of the post to see how this is done. How many folds? It’s undefined. We just want the dough to hold its shape, so if when you’re ready to perform a fold, it still keeps the form of the previous fold, then you’re done. I typically perform folds every 40 minutes.

An over-fermented dough that has quadrupled its size after bulk fermentation. It could not hold its shape properly and the loaf ended up being rather flat.

Once the dough has gained strength, we’ll allow it to grow 50% to 60%. The time it will take will depend on its temperature. Warmer doughs will ferment faster, colder will ferment slowly. One thing to consider, on the one hand, fermentation will somehow weaken the gluten structure over time, so we don’t want to over-ferment. On the other hand, the volume gained will stretch the dough, which will make it gain some strength (or tear apart, if it’s too elastic). The bottom line is: we want to ferment the dough just enough.

Proofing

Once the dough is stiff enough, we are ready to divide it and shape it, so we make those delicious baguettes, burger buns, rustic loaves, etc. that we meant to do. Every type of bread has different shaping techniques. There are two shapes that I consider essential: boule and batârd. One is simply a round ball, the other one looks more like an oval. I like the second one because it yields on loaves of bread that are more convenient to slice. Please see the video at the end to see one way of achieving these shapes.

Before doing the final shape, we divide our dough if necessary, and do a pre-shaping. This is forming some boules and letting them sit for 10 to 20 minutes. I like to do this because this is one stage where I can check if I have made any mistakes. If the dough cannot hold the basic boule shape and it relaxes completely quickly, it means it will not hold any shape. It will be necessary to troubleshoot it (or make a pizza!).

We place the shaped dough in various containers to proof. At this point, our goal is the dough to gain volume before we bake it, so our bread doesn’t end up like a brick. Here we want it to double in size. This can happen at room temperature, but most bakers do it overnight in the fridge. The advantage of doing it in the cold is that we slow down the fermentation while still gain volume and retain the strength. It’s very challenging to know when the proofing is done, I’m still not very good at it, but the rules of thumb say:

  • It needs to have gained volume. Otherwise, it’s not done.
  • You poke your finger like 2 cm inside the dough, it needs to spring back slowly and leave a small dent.

If you over-proof your dough, then the gluten will tare, and it will collapse. There are also ways of troubleshooting this.

Finally, you want to have your dough in a container with a lid or plastic wrap. Otherwise, the crust will dry out, get hard, and significantly limit how much it can grow in the oven.

Baking & Cooling

The final step in the process is to bake your bread. The objective here, of course, is so that the dough becomes easy to eat. A couple of things will happen during this process. First, the water in it will boil and evaporate; this will increase the sizes of the air bubbles in the crumb. Second, the yeast will get warmer, producing more gas and will suddenly die when it gets too hot. This will also help increase the sizes of the air pockets in the crumb.

Coming back to the water vapor, it will try to escape from the dough. Usually, it finds its ways through the weakest places of it. This produces the loaf to crack open. Where? We don’t know. Although I know people who like these cracks in the crust, we usually make weaker spots for the steam to escape and the bread to grow in a controlled way by scoring the dough. Here is where bakers like to decorate their loaves. I show one way of scoring in the video at the end of the post.

We want to bake the loaf at a high-temperature 500ºF (260ºC) for a specified amount of type driven by the shape. The recommended temperature will also vary on the kind we made. We know the bread is done when the crust is golden brown, and taping it at the bottom of it produces a hollow sound.

Finally, we want to allow the bread to cool off before cutting it. Although many people enjoy it when it’s warm from the oven, there is still a lot of moisture inside, and the crumb will look less appealing if cut too soon.

Demo of The Techniques.

The following video will show a demonstration of some of the techniques I mentioned here.

Conclusion.

With this I end my post, I hope you find it useful and informative. I have distilled and simplified many of the concepts that authors explain at lengths in books. Please take it with a pinch of salt, as there are many nuances that I have not discussed.

Please feel free to leave comments or questions in the section below. Happy Baking!