The first step is to choose your bread type. Are you a fan of soft-textured white bread, hearty artisanal breads, mixed-grain loaves, sourdough, or sweet bread? Each style of bread has a slightly different method, but most of them start with the same key ingredients -- flour and yeast. Count on kneading and rising to create texture.
Yeast feeds on sugar in the dough to make little carbon dioxide bubbles that get trapped in the dough and make it rise. It works slowly and helps develop flavorful dough.
Active Dry Yeast: This is the most common yeast for home baking because it's easy to use and yields reliable results. These tiny, dehydrated granules come in packets and larger jars and are mixed with flour or dissolved in warm liquid before they are used.
Quick-Rising Yeast: (also called fast-rising or instant yeast): A more active strain of yeast, it cuts the rise time by about a third. Quick-rising yeast can be substituted for active dry yeast, except in recipes requiring the dough to rise in the refrigerator and in dough using sourdough starter.
Compressed Yeast: (also called fresh yeast): This type of yeast comes in small foil-wrapped square cakes and is sold in the refrigerator section of the grocery store. It works well for bread, especially loaves with long rise times, but this style of yeast has a short shelf life and must be refrigerated. Soften it in warm water, according to the package directions, before using.
Starters: Sourdough bread is made without added yeast. A starter allows wild yeast to grow, which enables the bread to rise naturally, giving the bread a tug-apart texture as well as sour, tangy flavor. The starter is made of yeast, warm water, flour, and honey or sugar, and it ferments over five to 10 days. You can keep the starter going for a long period of time by adding honey or sugar every 10 days to "feed" it (if you're sharing the bread recipe, for instance).
To make sure your bread rises, follow these tips:
- Use the yeast before the expiration date on the package and keep any opened yeast in the refrigerator.
- Check the temperature of the yeast/water mixture with an instant-read thermometer. The acceptable range is 105°F to 115°F. If it's too hot the yeast will die and your bread won't rise. If it's too cold the yeast won't activate, also causing it not to rise.
- Use an electric mixer to beat a portion of the flour and the remaining ingredients together, making sure all of the flour and yeast are moistened.
- Use a wooden spoon to stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can (avoid an electric mixer at this stage because it can strain the motor). Stir the batter until the dough looks ropey and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Tip: Always add the minimum amount of flour in the range. If you add too much flour during mixing and kneading, the bread can become heavy and dry.
- To knead the dough, fold it and push down with the heel of your hand.
- Flip over dough, fold it, and push down again. Repeat process over and over, adding enough of the remaining flour as needed, until the dough reaches the stiffness specified and is smooth and elastic.
- Moderately soft dough is slightly sticky and used for rich, sweet breads. It requires 3 to 5 minutes of kneading.
- Moderately stiff dough is used for most nonsweet breads. It is slightly firm to the touch and requires 6 to 8 minutes of kneading.
Tip: Lightly flour your hands before kneading to keep the dough from sticking to them.
Tip: You're finished kneading when your dough is soft and smooth but not dry, and holds together nicely in a ball
Shape the dough in a ball and place it in a greased bowl that is twice as large as the ball of dough. Turn the dough over to grease the surface, which will keep it from drying out. The greased bowl keeps the dough from sticking. Cover dough with plastic wrap that's been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray so it won't stick to the wrap. Now your dough is ready to rise.
Tip: For best results, round dough into a smooth ball with your hands before you put it into a bowl to rise. A rough surface can allow gases to escape, which will prevent the bread from rising.
A lot is happening as your bread rises. The yeast is multiplying and creating carbon dioxide bubbles, and the gluten is reinforcing the bread's structure as it balloons in size. The dough is also developing flavor.
Place your yeast bread dough to rise in a warm (80°F to 85°F), draft-free place. An unheated oven with a bowl of warm water on the rack below works well. For the first rise, the dough should double in size. It is ready when indentations stay after two fingers are pressed 1/2 inch into the center
Tip: Rising times are only an estimate. It's important to continually check the bread dough. The temperature and humidity outside, the temperature of the rising spot and of the ingredients, and the ingredients in the dough can all affect the rise time.
Once the dough is double in size, deflate it by punching your fist into the center of the dough, pulling the edges in. (Deflating the dough after it rises releases the carbon dioxide built up in the dough and relaxes the gluten, making it easier to shape.) At this point in the process, most recipes require that you let the dough rest about 10 minutes. Letting the dough rest also relaxes the gluten, making the dough easier to shape.
Once your loaf is shaped and in a pan (if you're using one), cover the dough and let it rise again in a warm place. This time, let it rise just until nearly double in size. If dough doesn't double in size for this second rise, your bread will rise higher when baking (this is called "oven spring").
Place the loaf of unbaked bread in a preheated oven and bake until the bread sounds hollow when lightly tapped with your finger. If the loaf is browning too fast but doesn't sound hollow, create a loose tent out of foil, loosely cover the loaf, and continue baking (yeast breads containing butter and/or sugar often need this step). Immediately remove the bread from the pan and cool it completely on a wire rack. This allows air to circulate around the bread, keeping the crust crisp as the bread cools.