Learn how to proof your yeast, handle dough, and test for doneness.
Bread baking is both an art and a science. For beginning bakers, the main point to keep in mind is that yeast is a living organism that requires a warm, moist environment and a food source to grow and thrive.
Active Dry Yeast, Instant Yeast and Compressed Yeast
- Cake yeast, or compressed yeast, is fresh yeast. It is used by many professional bakers and can be found in the refrigerated section of some supermarkets. It has a short shelf-life of one to two weeks. Some pastry recipes call for fresh yeast, which comes in 0.6-oz squares.
- Active dry yeast is the most commonly available form for home bakers. It is available in 1/4-oz packets or jars. Store jars in the refrigerator after opening. Be sure to check the expiration date before baking.
- Instant yeast is a dry yeast developed in the past thirty years. It comes in smaller granules than active dry yeast, absorbs liquid rapidly, and doesn’t need to be hydrated or “proofed” before being mixed into flour. “Bread Machine Yeast” is instant yeast that may include ascorbic acid, a dough conditioner.
Yeast Conversion Rates
In commercial baking, precise measurements are key. Home bakers generally don’t need to reduce or increase liquid amounts to compensate for the type of yeast used since the quantities are so small.
A 0.6-oz cube of cake yeast is roughly equivalent to 2 to 2-1/4 tsp. active dry rapid rise, instant, or bread machine yeast.
Proofing Active Dry Yeast
Yeast makes carbon dioxide gas that acts as a leavening agent. Start by “proofing” or growing the yeast: this ensures it is active and re-hydrated (this step is not required for fresh or instant yeast):
- Sprinkle the yeast onto warm (110 degrees F/45 degrees C) water and stir to dissolve. The water should feel warm, not hot, to the touch. Yeast feeds on sugars–honey, molasses, or refined sugar–by breaking down the flour’s starches into sugar molecules.
- Set the yeast aside until the mixture resembles a creamy foam. This should take between three to eight minutes.
- If nothing happens, discard the mixture and try again with different yeast.
Mixing and Handling
- Mixing: Combine the liquid and proofed yeast at the bottom of a mixing bowl. Add flour and salt. Some of the best breads are “lean doughs,” consisting simply of flour, water, yeast, and salt. Baguettes and ciabatta bread are examples of lean doughs. Enriched doughs contain fat, whether in the form of butter, milk, oil, or eggs. Challah, brioche, and sweet roll doughs are enriched doughs. If your recipe calls for butter or egg yolks, mix the flour-water-yeast mixture to hydrate the flour and develop the gluten strands before working in the fat.
- Kneading: Using a plastic bowl scraper, wooden spoon, or your hands, scrape the dough onto a liberally floured work surface. Kneading develops long elastic strands of gluten, or wheat protein, which trap the gases produced by the yeast. Kneading by hand is not a complicated process, but it does require some stamina. With the heels of your hands, press the dough down and away from you. Fold the dough over, turn 90 degrees, and repeat over and over until the dough is smooth and elastic. If you’re using a stand mixer, knead with the hook attachment on low speed until the dough is elastic. Flour or oil your fingertips and pinch off a small piece of dough. You should be able to stretch the dough to a thin “windowpane” without tearing it.
Once the dough has doubled–this can take between 45 minutes and two hours, as enriched doughs take far longer than lean–deflate it and expel the gas. If you’re dividing the dough into loaves or strands for braiding, use a sharp knife rather than tearing the dough.
- On a lightly floured surface, shape the loaves as desired: if you’re baking in standard loaf pans, pat the dough into a rectangle to express the gas bubbles and fold up in three parts, like a business letter.
- Pinch the seam to seal.
- Place the loaves in pans or on a lightly floured kitchen towel. If you’re topping loaves with seeds, now is the time to do it.
- Cover with a damp towel and let rise at room temperature while you preheat the oven.
Flour your index and middle fingers, and gently poke the sides of your loaf. The indentations should remain; if the dough springs back, it needs to rise more.
Scoring the loaves adds more than a decorative touch: it also allows gas to escape without bursting open the seam and disfiguring the bread. Use a serrated knife–or a baker’s lame, a curved razorblade–to cut diagonal slashes. Work quickly, cutting about 1/4-inch deep. Immediately transfer loaves to the hot oven.
The heat from the oven makes the gases in the dough expand, causing “oven spring” and releasing moisture.
- Baking stones help home ovens mimic hearth ovens by storing heat and moderating the temperature. Use a spray bottle to spritz the walls of the oven, creating a blast of steam for a crisp, chewy crust.
- For a soft and tender crust, brush the loaves with milk or egg wash before baking. You can also brush the tops of the baked loaves or rolls with melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven.
Bake until the bread is well browned. Test for doneness by picking up the loaf with a hot pad and rapping on the bottom with your knuckles: the loaf should sound hollow when done. If it does not, or the sides or bottom of the loaf are still pale, return the bread to the pan and continue baking.
This is the most overlooked step in the bread-making process. Cool the loaves in their pans for about ten minutes before removing the pans. Cool on a rack for proper air circulation. As tempting as a warm-from-the-oven loaf may be, the bread needs to cool in order for the structure to set. Cutting a warm loaf causes mashing and tearing. Never wrap loaves until they’re fully cool: condensation will form, causing a soggy crust and promoting spoilage.