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The stages of bread making

Understanding the stages of bread making helps make the process easier. When you start making bread the whole thing can be a bit confusing. You aren’t sure when your bread should be left to rise; or when it should be shaped; or when it’s ready to bake. Following the twelve stages of bread making as I show you below will make things less confusing.

The twelve stages of bread making

Ok, it’s normally twelve but I added the most important one at the end to make it thirteen.

  1. Gathering everything that you need to make the loaf.
  2. Measuring the ingredients
  3. Mixing the dough to the right consistency
  4. Resting and stretching & folding or kneading the dough
  5. First rise/ fermentation/ proof
  6. Deflating (gently) & dividing (if you are making more than one loaf)
  7. Shaping
  8. Second rise / proofing / secondary fermentation
  9. Pre-heating and preparing the oven
  10. Slashing/ scoring the loaf with a sharp knife or razor
  11. Baking (and steaming the oven)
  12. Cooling
  13. Eating

Stage 1: Gathering everything that you need to make the loaf

Chefs call this mise en place. Having everything ready ahead of starting can make things go more smoothly. That way you are always ready for the next stage. For bread making there are a few essentials that you need:

  • Your ingredients, flour, yeast, salt & water
  • A large bowl
  • A jug or cup
  • Scales (I prefer electronic and the ones that can measure in 1g increments are best)
  • A proving cloth/ shower cap/ clingfilm/ beeswax wrap/ another bowl the same size or bigger for covering the dough
  • Baking tray/ loaf tin
  • Sharp knife or razor (aka baker’s razor/ lame/ grignette)
  • Oven gloves
  • Oven (preheated to 220C, gas mark 8, 425F, with a solid baking sheet or stone on the shelf as bread, even in a tin benefits from a hot surface)
  • Cooling rack

Once you get bitten by the bread bug you may want to invest in a few other items:

  • A plastic scraper, for scraping the dough out of the bowl and cutting your dough
  • Banneton/ proving basket
  • Temperature probe to test the internal temperature of the bread when baked
  • Oven thermometer
  • Flour dredger
  • Dutch oven
  • Bread storage bag

Stage 2. Measuring the ingredients

You don’t have to be as precise when making bread as you do for a cake so you can relax a bit here.

When you are just starting out with bread making follow two or three different recipes word for word and see which one works best for you. Then when you have grown in confidence try experimenting with reducing the amount of salt and yeast you use.

Salt is normally 1-2% of the flour weight, so 5-10g for 500g flour. It is important for flavour; it tightens the gluten network, slows down fermentation and helps add colour to the crust but you can reduce it to 1% of the flour weight if you prefer.

If you reduce the amount of yeast that you use it slows down fermentation and this can help improve the overall flavour and texture of your baked loaf. I tend to use 2g easy bake yeast or as little as 5g fresh yeast when I make a loaf with 500g flour.

Remember that salt will kill yeast so try to keep them separate from one another. I add one and mix it well into the flour and then add the other and mix again.

Stage 3. Mixing the dough to the right consistency

The important thing to remember is that different flour will absorb water differently. I always start with measuring in less water than I know I will need, then I take the scales away and splash more water in gradually until I am happy that the dough feels right. You can watch my video of mixing my dough here to see how I do this and what your dough for a simple white bread should look like.

Bear in mind that different types of bread require different amounts of water. A bagel for example is quite a dry dough to achieve the chewy texture, a ciabatta is a very wet dough to achieve the large holes that bread is known for. For a simple white bread I usually add between 320-340g of water to 500g strong white flour.

Stage 4. Resting and Stretch & Fold or Kneading

Once your dough is mixed the next stage is to develop the gluten. Gluten makes the dough nice and stretchy so that when the yeast eats the sugars in the dough and exhales carbon dioxide that gas can get trapped in air bubbles and the gluten can expand and stretch without bursting. This then creates a dough filled with holes, making it light and fluffy.

When your dough is mixed to the right consistency you can cover it with a cloth, large plastic bag, shower cap or cling film and let it rest for 10 minutes up to an hour. As soon as you add water to flour the proteins called gliadin and glutenin start to form chains and make gluten all by itself. By letting the dough rest you are giving it a head start to form gluten and you won’t need to do so much mechanical stretching with the stretch and fold method or by kneading the dough.

Because gluten will develop all by itself there is a No Knead Method to making bread made popular by Jim Lahey that you might be interested in trying.

You can watch a video of the stretch and fold method here. It is my preferred choice for developing the gluten in the dough. The method is convenient, less messy, easy, it isn’t hard on your back or hands and is gentle to the dough. It is also just as effective in developing the gluten as kneading is.

If you prefer to knead I show you my preferred method of slap and fold here. You could just as easily use a stand mixer to make life easy.

I also definitely don’t object to you using a bread maker to develop your dough if it makes life easier for you.

By the end of the stretches and folds or kneading your dough should feel different. It should be smoother, have a satin sheen to it and you should be able to feel that the dough has some strength to it. By this I mean if you pull it you can feel the dough resisting you. This will feel different with a white loaf to a dough that is made with wholemeal or with one of the more fragile flours such as spelt and einkorn. You will still feel that resistance though.

Stage 5. First Rise/ Fermentation/ Proofing

Once your dough has developed the gluten through stretches and folds and kneading it needs time to rest and ferment.

Enzymes get to work in the dough breaking the starch down into simple sugars. The yeast consumes the simple sugars and lets out carbon dioxide and ethanol. The carbon dioxide gets trapped in the gluten network and the bubbles expand. The dough rises and becomes full of air.

Your dough can ferment at room temperature or in the fridge. It takes ten times longer for it to ferment in the fridge. Slowing your dough down can be beneficial. The longer it takes to prove the more chance of good bacteria getting to work and improving the digestibility of the dough. The enzymes also have more time to unlock more of the sugars from the starch increasing the residual sugars in the dough. These contribute to the flavour of the bread and the sheen and improved colour of the crust. Putting your dough in the fridge also means that you can get on with your day or leave it overnight to deal with the next day.

Your dough is ready for the next stage when it is full of air and has doubled in size.

Stage 6. Deflating and dividing your dough

You only need to divide your dough if you have made enough dough for two loaves or you want to make rolls, pizzas etc.

As for deflating, you will read in lots of recipe books the term ‘knock back’ or ‘punch down’. I don’t do either of these. I handle my dough with care. If I do deflate it it is done gently. I normally tip my dough gently onto a lightly floured work surface ready to be shaped without deflating it too much. I like my bread to have irregular air pockets.

If you want a bread with a lots of tiny holes, for example a sandwich bread then you might want to deflate the dough by pushing it down all over with your hands to expel the air pockets. It will take longer for your bread to rise after shaping and be ready for the oven if you have fully deflated the dough.

Stage 7. Shaping

Once your dough is risen and full of air it’s time to shape it. You can shape it as a bloomer or in a tin, use a banneton or make it into rolls, or pitta breads or pizza bases. The list is endless.

Shaping your dough takes practice to get right. You will get better at it each time.

Stage 8. Second Rise/ proof/ secondary fermentation

After shaping most breads will need a second rise to recover the air lost in the shaping process.

Some breads though can go straight in the oven after shaping, this includes flatbreads, pittas, pizzas and focaccia.

The second rise can also happen either at room temperature or in the fridge. This makes it convenient for fitting bread making into your day.

You don’t want your dough to double this time, you do want it to expand to about half again of its original size. It should feel uniformly airy when you gently place a hand over the loaf. If it feels less airy in the centre of the loaf leave it for another ten minutes and try again. You can see how to test your loaf to see if it’s ready for baking in this video.

Stage 9. Pre-heating and preparing your oven

Preheat your oven to 240C, gas mark 8 at least thirty minutes (or for as long as it takes your oven to heat up) before you think your bread will be ready to bake. if you are proving your loaf in a warm room it may only take thirty minutes to be ready to bake so you may want to turn your oven on after you have shaped it.

I always put a solid shelf into the oven to heat up. This could be a baking tray or a baking/pizza stone. Your bread will benefit from being placed onto a hot surface even if you have shaped it in a tin. It will help with oven spring.

If you are planning to use a dutch oven you may want to preheat it with the oven.

Stage 10. Slashing/ scoring your loaf

If your loaf is not in a tin then it will probably benefit from being slashed/ scored before you place it in the oven. Slashing or scoring is to cut across the top of the dough with a sharp blade. This allows the loaf to burst at the cut as it rises in the oven with oven spring. If you don’t slash the loaf then your loaf won’t expand as much as it could have done leading to a loaf with less volume and a heavier crumb. Your loaf will also try to expand where it can which can lead to it bursting at its weakest point and you end up with a ball of dough escaping from the side or bottom.

Learning how to score your loaf can take practice but you will be really pleased with the results if you persevere. I show you one way to score your dough here.

Scored loaf

Stage 11. Baking and steaming the oven

When you put your loaf in the oven you need to steam your oven unless you are baking in a dutch oven. Steam helps the crust of the loaf to stay moist. This is important because as you put your loaf in the oven the gases trapped inside the gluten network expand and cause the loaf to rise more (oven spring). If the crust dries out too quickly your loaf can’t do this extra rise. I steam my oven with a plant mister, spraying the oven walls and floor (avoiding the light and the glass door) and then quickly close the door. You can read more about steaming the oven here.

Once the door is closed lower the temperature of your oven to 220C, gas mark 7 or the temperature advised by the recipe that you are following.

Your loaf is baked when it is evenly golden all over, sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Be aware that white loaves sound different when knocked to a wholemeal loaf. You can check by inserting a temperature probe into the centre of the loaf and if it reads 90 degrees C then the loaf is baked.

Stage 12. Cooling

This is a really important part of bread making. When your bread cools the water evaporates from the centre of the loaf and the crumb sets properly. If you cut into your loaf before it is cooled then you will always think you under baked your loaf as the dough will still be gummy. Allowing your dough to cool properly will also allow the full flavour to develop.

Then you get to the best bit, stage 13 of the bread making process, eating your loaf. Nothing quite beats tucking into a homemade loaf.

If you would like to learn more about bread and transform from a novice to a confident bread maker then my online Bread Made Easy Masterclass is for you.

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