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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Baking bread hints and tips

Oven Baking

Before the indoor electric or gas oven became a common household appliance, most bread was baked in large wood fired masonry ovens, communal ovens, or over and open fire. The large masonry ovens yielded excellent results; however, other methods, such as open fire baking, resulted in bread loaves that were inconsistent in texture, flavor, and doneness.

Preheating the Oven

It is important to set and preheat the oven to the proper temperature as called for in the bread recipe. Most breads require a specific baking temperature that must remain constant to achieve the proper results. Many basic breads, containing only flour, water, and yeast, are baked at high temperatures, usually 400ºF and above, while breads containing enrichments, such as eggs, milk, or butter, are baked at lower temperatures. Some bread recipes call for the dough to be placed in a very hot oven for a short time and then the temperature is lowered for the remainder of the baking time. This technique simulates the cooking temperatures of old fashioned wood-fired masonry ovens in which the bread dough received an initial blast of very hot air followed by a gradual cooling after removal of the embers.

Baking Process

The heat of the oven transforms the moisture in the bread dough into steam causing the bread to rise rapidly. The yeast in the dough continues to produce carbon dioxide gas, contributing to the rising action of the baking bread. Usually within the first 10 minutes of baking, the temperature of the dough has increased to a level that kills the active yeast cells, ending the rising action. The final shape and size of the bread is set and the crust begins to form. The oven door should not be opened before this stage is completed. Further baking allows the natural sugars in the dough to caramelize, which results in the golden brown color that is characteristic of many varieties of bread.

Chemical leavening agents used in quick breads cause carbon dioxide gas to form when the liquid ingredients are blended with the chemical leavening agent and other the dry ingredients. The chemical leavening agents become even more active when exposed to the heat of the oven, causing rapid rising. It is important to mix the ingredients only until just blended and place the batter or dough in the oven immediately. Over mixing and/or a delay in baking the batter or dough will allow too much carbon dioxide gas to escape, resulting in a collapsed loaf.

Adding Moisture While Baking

The level of moisture in the oven is an important factor in achieving proper results when baking bread. Moisture, in the form of steam, allows the bread to form a thin, golden crust while allowing the interior to remain soft and moist. It is often beneficial to add moisture to the oven either before the bread is placed in the oven or during the baking process. There are a number of methods for adding moisture to the oven.

Method One: In ovens equipped with two racks, one of the racks can be placed in the lowest position in the oven and then covered with unglazed tiles, such as terra cotta. The tiles should be positioned so that there is a gap between the tiles and the sides of the oven to maintain proper air circulation in the oven. The tiles hold the heat and moisture in the oven, creating bread with a crispy crust that simulates hearth-baked breads.

Method Two: A spray bottle can be used to apply a mist of water directly to the oven. After the bread is placed in the preheated oven, spray the sides of the oven with water and immediately close the door. The water will quickly form steam, raising the moisture level of the oven. Caution must be exercised to ensure that excess water does not come into contact with the electrical components of the oven (heating coils, fan, etc.). This is especially important with the oven light, which may explode if the cold water strikes it. Water can be sprayed into the oven several times during baking, but it must be done quickly and the oven door must be closed immediately to maintain the heat.

Method Three: A third method for adding moisture is to place a dish of ice cubes into the oven. It is best if the dish is made of glass or ceramic and it should be place on the bottom rack or on the oven floor while the oven preheats. Carefully remove the dish from the oven after all of the ice is melted (usually within 10 to 15 minutes).

Method Four: Place a metal pan on the lower rack or floor of the oven while the oven preheats. Two or three minutes before the bread is placed in the oven, pour a cup of water into the hot pan, which will immediately generate steam. Care must be taken when pouring the water so that the steam does not scald your skin.

Bread Baking Times

The baking time for different breads is determined by the instructions in the recipe. This should be followed closely, but variables such as the quality of the oven, the temperature calibration, the humidity level, and altitude may affect the suggested baking time. A convection oven will reduce the baking time, but some experimentation may be required before the proper baking time can be determined when using this feature.

Although there are exceptions, baking times for the majority of breads usually fall within the following ranges:

Hearth breads, large country-style rounds, and breads baked on flat surfaces 35 to 50 minutes

Basic breads baked in loaf pans and other containers 45 to 60 minutes

Thin flat breads 5 to 15 minutes

Thicker flat breads 15 to 25 minutes

Quick breads 45 to 75 minutes

Rolls and Buns 15 to 20 minutes

Checking Doneness

There are no scientific methods for determining whether or not bread has been baked to the optimum doneness. Unlike some food items, such as meat, in which a meat thermometer can be used to determine proper doneness, the doneness of bread is usually determined by the senses alone. An experienced baker can readily determine doneness even when the baking time may differ from day to day due to temperature and humidity factors. A loaf requiring 30 minutes baking time on a particular day may require 35 minutes on another day, so it is never wise to strictly adhere to the baking time suggested in the recipe, which is provided only as a guideline.

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.

Forming and Baking Cinnamon Rolls


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.



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