Knead to Know
Baking isn’t difficult. It just requires precise measurements, great ingredients, the right cooking temperatures, and good techniques! Although this can be intimidating to some, any home cook can become a master baker with a little help. Having the right ingredients is the most important thing - plus a little patience and some reliable recipes. The below guide will help you master each baking step…
Mixing dough by hand takes a bit more time, but it’s totally worth it - the results are just as good as using a mixer or bread machine, and it’s much more satisfying.
So first add the bread mix, yeast and water to the bowl and mix until all of the ingredients are combined. The easiest way to mix the dough is by hand but, if you prefer, start mixing with a spoon until the mixture is too stiff to stir, and then get your hands stuck in.
If you combine ingredients using a mixer, add the bread mix, yeast and water to the bowl and mix on slow until all of the ingredients are combined and then slowly increase to full speed to start the next step - kneading.
Flour strength (as in how much protein in contains) is linked to bread volume and softness. But the dough can only achieve this if it has been correctly ‘developed’. In other words, kneading. Kneading is vital in helping the dough to rise. It helps the gluten develop, which gives dough the ability to stretch and expand. Lovely.
How to stop it being sticky
When you first start kneading, it can take a little time for the mix to soak up the water. This is why dough starts off being very sticky to handle. Kneading and then resting for short spells (both you and the mix) allows time for the water to be absorbed. It makes kneading less sticky and your hands less messy.
Don’t over dust your worktop
Avoid the temptation to add more flour to your dough because it’s sticky. The water will slowly absorb and the dough will become easier to handle. Once your dough begins to form, try flouring your hands rather than the dough. If you add more than a light dusting of flour to your dough or worktop it can spoil the resulting loaf.
Put the effort in
As a rule, the more effort you put into kneading the dough, the bigger and lighter the loaf. This is why doughs that are mechanically kneaded using a bread-maker or kitchen mixer sometimes make bread with a lighter texture than those that are hand-kneaded.
Keep it firm, but gentle
Stop sniggering at the back… A firm, but gentle approach is key - gently folding and stretching the dough is more effective than bashing the living daylights out of it. And over-stretching will tear the dough and make it sticky to handle. Keep hand-to-dough contact fleeting by momentarily taking your hands off after each push or fold. Prolonged contact makes for stickier hands!
Have I kneaded enough?
Whether you’re kneading by hand or mixer, it helps to know when your dough is ‘developed’. The best way to do this is the ‘window pane’ test (still used by commercial bakers today). Simply take a piece of kneaded dough and using your thumb and fingers, gently tease it into a thin sheet. If you can get to the point where it becomes almost translucent without breaking or tearing, it's developed. If the sheet tears, keep kneading and try again. It needs to be smooth, with a silky sheen, and should stretch 2-4 inches without breaking apart.
This is the action of deflating the dough by pressing down with your knuckles. This helps to ensure an even crumb structure later on. And once rested its then ready to be shaped for its final proof.
How the dough is moulded has a big influence on the internal texture of your loaf. Close-textured bread for toasting and sandwiches requires more intensive moulding than open-textured breads such as baguettes. It’s a little-known fact but some really open-textured breads such as ciabatta are not moulded at all. Whatever texture you want to sink your teeth into, it’s best if the surface of the dough is stretched and reasonably taught as this helps the dough retain its shape through to baking. Try working the dough against the worktop so that the slack is tucked in under itself, tensioning the dough skin.
This is the stage that allows the dough to rise for a final time before baking. It is best done in a warm, draught-free place, as this allows the yeast to work at the best temperature. The shaped dough is ready to bake when it has doubled in size and should spring back and feel very slightly spongy rather than firm. The proof of the bread is in the eating, of course.
One reason homemade bread is sometimes a bit on the hefty side is because the dough’s not been developed enough. Whatever method you use, the final dough should be smooth with a silky sheen.
Artisan bread scoring
Yes, you could just cut the dough with a knife, but if you want to score your bread like a pro then consider this. The surface of your dough needs to be taught, so cut the dough just before setting it in the oven and slice at an angle so that the blade cuts under the dough surface rather than down. Dust the loaf with flour - this helps the blade slide through the dough without sticking and when you score it and also provides a nice contrast with the exposed dough against the dusted crust of the loaf.
To add a visual touch to your bread before baking - and perhaps provide a clue to the hidden flavours inside - sprinkle the bits of the ingredients on top. These can be added before proving e.g. the dough can be rolled in the topping; or after proving by gently sprinkling the grains, seeds or light dusting of sieved flour over the surface.
The final step in the bread making process. Want to know what happens? Well, when dough is placed in a hot oven, the moisture in the dough turns to steam causing the loaf to rise and the outer crust to form. A golden brown colour forms as a result of the natural sugars in the dough caramelising. The best way to check the bread is baked to perfection is to listen to the sound of the loaf when it is tapped on the underside - it should sound slightly hollow. Always allow a freshly baked loaf to cool on a wire rack - this will prevent the bottom crust from becoming soggy. And no-one wants a soggy bottom!
Steaming your oven
Using steam when baking is not essential but if you want to improve the appearance of your loaf, read on… Having a steamy atmosphere in your oven will give your loaves a shiny crust and also improve the appearance of any decorative cuts you’ve made to the dough. To achieve this, you need to create wet steam. So place an iron pan or heavy baking tray in the bottom of the oven and allow it to come up to temperature with the oven. Immediately after putting your dough in the oven, dash half a cup of water into the tray and quickly close the oven door.