Step 1: Preliminary thoughts
Baking bread means more to me, than just preparing something to eat. As soon as you smell the bread baking in the oven, you know what i mean. Last year, i baked twice a week, give or take.
Most of the time, i prepare a "poolish" preferment Friday morning or around lunch time. At night, before i go to bed i add the remaining ingredients, and let it knead by my bread maker. The next morning, i preheat the oven, then maybe go to bed again until the oven reaches the temperature. This way, even a full time employed guy like me can do it without interfering with my other hobbies, or money gathering activities (like working ;-).
Many people tell me they tried to bake bread, after reading a recipe. Then their bread turns out dense like a stone. It's really not that hard to bake bread with a yeast leavened dough, if you have a basic knowledge.
1. Yeast works in a temperature range from about 5 to 35 deg. C or 41 to 95 deg. F. (At the lower end, the activity is almost stopped and it works very slow but you can raise the temp. to speed it up. At the upper end, it works very fast, but if you overshoot this temp. you could kill your yeast.)
Professional bakers normally try to reach a dough temp. of around 28 C or 83 F after kneading. (The temp. is reached by adjusting the water temp., the temp. of the flour can change from seasonal storage temperatures. Kneading causes friction and heats up the dough some more.)
This may sound awfully complicated, but if you take tepid water, all will be ok. (If you don't have 200lb of flour to knead, your bowl temp. has more impact on the rising time.)
2. Yeast doesn't like fats or salt. But then, i don't like bread without salt. The yeast tolerates some salt, but i wouldn't add it to a preferment. If you make a dough with lots of fat, add it after you mixed the flour, yeast and water or milk. Take more yeast.(As directed on the yeast pack will be enough.) Normally, i only take a quarter or even less than the amount suggested on the yeast package. But i give it more time to work.
After you master the white wheat flour bread, making whole wheat and breads with other grains are easy to adapt. I would suggest you use 25-50% white wheat flour in any of these breads. This makes sure, you get a good rise.
If you use coarsly milled or crushed grains or other dry, hard ingredients, you need to soak them. With the following method, you can soak them in the preferment.
Step 2: Ingredients
The most important ingredient is the flour of course. It's differently named in different countries and this can confuse things a little bit.
A gluten-rich flour is a good thing to start with. Gluten is a wheat-protein and we need it for the gas holding capability of a dough. It's essential for a nice rise.
So if you find a flour with a protein content of around 11%, you should be ok. I normally buy my flour at a local mill, but once i didn't have any of it, i went to the supermarket and bought plain white flour. The result was also very good.
I would stay away from "bread mixes", since they normally have obscure additives you really don't need if you follow these procedures.
I use a digital kitchen scale to weigh my ingredients. I will add volumetric measures later, stepped up or down, so you won't need 3.731 cups of flour...
Bakers state their ingredients in bakers percentage in their receipes. This way it's easy to step a receipe up or down.
This makes two batards.(thick short baguettes)
500g white flour 100%
350ml or 350g tepid water 70% (unchlorinated, and not too soft)
15g salt 3%
1g active dry yeast 0.2%
4 cups bread flour (560g)
13 fl.oz. water (384ml)
3 tsp salt (15g)
1/6 of a 1/4 oz yeast packet
Depending on the moisture content and the type of flour, you may need to adjust the amount of water a little bit. You can add some flour, if your dough gets too moist. If you always need to add more flour, reduce the water a little bit.
Step 3: Preferment
Put half of the flour in a big enough bowl, sprinkle the yeast over it and pour in the water. Then stir/mix it until you have everything evenly distributed. It should be of batter-like consistency. Leave it covered at room temperature. Don't use a absolutely tight container, or it might explode from CO2 pressure.
I normally make the preferment 12-24 hours before my intended time of baking.
There are other yeast preferments or starters like the biga, which is a very dry preferment.
Then there is the whole world of sourdoughs.
Sourdoughs are a combination of lactic and acetic bacteria and a acid tolerant yeast. You need the acidity for the development of the gas holding capability in a 100% rye bread. But sourdoughs also make wonderful wheat breads. There are very good instructables available on this topic, but maybe i'll do one more...
Step 4: Kneading the dough
After incorporating all the ingredients, the dough needs to be kneaded properly. When you do it by hand, it will take around 10-15 minutes. Using a hand mixer with kneading hooks or a KitchenAid or Kenwood type of machine, it it takes around 5-7 minutes.
When you overdo the kneading, the dough will go from springy to slack pretty quickly and you need to start over with a new dough. It is very unlikely to overknead it manually, with a machine, it can happen easily.
As you can see on the pictures, i use a bread maker to mix, ferment the preferment, add the remaining ingredients, knead and ferment again. This way i only need one container with integrated mixing and kneading hook and it is covered while fermenting. The only task i don't use the bread maker, is for baking.
Step 5: Forming the bread and final rest
If you wait for much longer, the "yeast-food" gets depleted eventually. But with such minute amounts of yeast used, the schedule is quite forgiving.
Compared with insanely high amounts of yeast in many bread recipes, which double in size in 45 minutes, this is really slow baking.
Although it may sound tempting to save some time, the resulting bread smells of raw flour and yeast and has a texture like cardboard.
Give slow baking a try, you won't be disappointed. It has been done this way for centuries and good bakers still do it.
Forming the bread:
I like free formed breads, because of the crunchy crust and the plain sight of it. And you don't need to clean a form afterwards ;-)
To form a bread, you can't just push and shove it into the desired form. It would flow to a blob during the final rise.
Here we use our good protein friend gluten again. This protein makes the dough springy.
First i flour the working surface, then i take the dough out of the kneading bowl and flour the dough from the top, so it won't stick.
Use only so much flour, that it doesn't stick, because the flour you add here is not incorporated into the dough.
Next, i flatten it and try to make a sqare area of dough. While flattening, you also drive out large bubbles. This is also called degassing. Without degassing, you get really large holes into your bread.
Then i divide the dough into 2 rectangulars. I put one out of the way and take the other one with a short side towards me.
Then i think of three sections on the long side and fold it from the far side towards me. In the end i have a "roll" with 3 layers and i push down the seam.
Then i flatten that "roll" again, but only so wide, that i can give it one more fold and push down the seam again.
When you do that you will realize how springy the dogh got by folding it. This is the work of the gluten protein. If your dough is very slack, you can give it another fold. If you overdo it, the dough can rip.
Finally i put them on a cookie sheet with the seams down for the final rise. Cover it with cling wrap and let it rise for 60-90 minutes.(or overnight in the fridge) The time of the final rise can be adapted to the environmental temperature and also how dense the crumb should be. During the final rise, you also have to preheat your oven.
Step 6: Scoring and baking
First, use a baking / pizza stone of a sort. You could use unglazed spanish tiles, but you can get gaps when they're not aligned nicely or when you move them while shoving the loaves onto them. This helps to heat up the loaves quickly from the bottom. This is important for a good oven spring. It also gives more thermal mass into the oven, so the temperature doesn't fall so much, when you open the door or shove the cold dough in. But you need to be aware, that it also takes longer to preheat.
As a next thing, you should have a steam saturated environment during the spring phase of baking. This keeps the surface elastic, since the steam condenses on the cold dough surface and keeps it from drying out too early. There is more than one way to achieve this.
1. Put a heavy skillet on the oven floor, before you preheat the oven. Just before you put the loaves into the oven, add a cup of boiling water into the skillet.
2. Spray the oven walls and the oven floor with a water sprayer, when you put the loaves in. Repeat it after a minute.
3. Buy a oven with integrated steam generator ;-)
4. Use a very small oven, like my small electric one. Sprinkle some water on the cookie sheet and on the loaves. The environment gets moist enough this way.
As you can see on the photos, i scored/slashed the loaves differently for you to see. Slash them with a very sharp blade about half an inch deep.
Sprinkle the the loaves with water, i do it by hand with tap water. But you could also take a water sprayer or a brush.
When the oven has reached the temperature and is steam saturated, i shove in the loaves on the sheet with the cookie tray. Then i let the sheet with the loaves fall on the baking stone by quickly pulling out the tray. Work quickly in order to keep the heat and the steam in the oven.
Start baking rather hot 275C / 530 F(if your oven can't get that high, take the maximum), then after about 3-5 minutes (when you see the first brown spots on the forming crust) reduce the temperature to 180C / 355F for the rest of the bake. It will take a while for the oven temp to fall, but that's ok.
If you have a oven with a convection function, use it. It helps to heat up the loaves quickly for a nice oven spring and in a even browning of the loaves. If you don't have a convection feature, i'd raise the temp to around 190C / 375F in the second baking phase. And maybe you have to turn the loaves for even browning. Every oven behaves a little different, so you probably need to make some temp adjustments to get optimal results.
Breads of this size need about 35 minutes to bake. The baking time needs to be adjusted for thicker and thinner breads. If your bread gets too dark too early, reduce the temperature in the second baking phase and/or turn down the heat earlier.
If you want a very thick crust, vent the steam by quickly opening and closing the oven door when you turn down the heat. You can repeat it after a coule of minutes.(Stand away from the oven, as hot steam can scald you!)
Many things about preferments, long fermentation times and baking are almost universal in making good to outstanding breads.
It takes me a maximum of 15 minutes of actual working to make a delicious plain wheat bread.(cleaning of the equipment included.) The time it takes from start to finish varies from 6 hours(with some shortcuts) to 24 hours with retarding, but it's not much work actually.
Step 7: Books, links and stuff
Bread by Jeffrey Hamelmann
The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
They have written more books about bread and also a wonderful pizza book.
A very nice site in german
My other bread related instructables
My entry in the pizza contest
Some photos with comments.