Everything you need to know to start making delicious bread at home effortlessly – the secret yet simple artisan techniques demystified for the home baker
There’s a lot in this how to make bread guide. Read it all if you’ve got time, or jump to the specific section you need by clicking the links below
- Why make your own bread?
- Choosing flour
- Water – more than hydration
- The best yeast for the home breadmaking
- Why bread need Salt
- The magic of fermentation
- Pre-ferments – the artisan breadmakers secret weapon
- Mixing and kneading -by hand or in a mixer?
- Bulk fermentation – long and slow for good bread
- Folding – don’t knock your dough back
- Dividing a large dough
- Pre-shaping – for a better-shaped loaf
- Final shaping – a round loaf
- Proving your loaf
- Scoring – more than decoration
- How to bake bread
- Cooling – it’s worth the wait
- Storing – how to look after your bread
This article covers everything you need to know to bake amazing artisan bread at home. But it’s not a bread recipe. If you’re looking for a good bread recipe you’ll find one here.
Introduction to “How to make bread at home”
Making a good loaf of bread takes only a handful of simple techniques. Yet most recipes aimed at the home-baker dumb down breadmaking and skip or ignore these straightforward steps. And that’s missing an opportunity. Because they aren’t the reserve of the seasoned, professional baker. They’re easily achievable for the amateur breadmaker at home. And they will transform your breadmaking.
Still, this is more than a how-to manual of breadmaking techniques. It’s a laypersons guide to the magic that happens when you make even the simplest loaf of bread. And understanding each stage will help you flourish as a breadmaker. And you’ll have the confidence to experiment and tweak any recipe to get the best results possible.
This is a reference to the techniques and skills needed to follow my bread recipes. Both how they’re executed and the benefits they bring to your bread. And it’s a guide to getting even better results with your favourite bread recipes.
But its real purpose is to help you thrive as a breadmaker. To give you the tools to adapt recipes and create breads that suit your unique tastes and circumstances.
Give a man a fish and all that…
Why make your own bread?
If you’re lucky, you have a local artisan baker in your town. A choice of delicious, healthy bread made with simple ingredients on your doorstep. But the artisan baker is an endangered species.
The truth is, almost all of the bread made in the UK is manufactured using the Chorleywood Process. It’s an industrial method far removed from traditional breadmaking. High-speed mixing, abnormal quantities of yeast, additives, e-numbers and enzymes. Modern bread is the embodiment of processed food. And the tasteless, doughy loaves lining supermarket shelves aren’t as traditional as names like “farmhouse” suggest.
Nor are they the health food many of them claim to be.
As industrial breadmaking has evolved enzymes have replaced additives. A legal loophole classifies enzymes as processing aids, not ingredients. And there’s no obligation to mention processing aids on bread labels. By replacing additives with enzymes, bread manufacturers “clean-up” their labels to suit the modern consumer. But a possible link between transglutaminase enzymes and an increased risk for gluten-sensitive people has raised questions around the safety of enzymes.
That’s not to say you should never eat manufactured bread. A small amount of any processed food can be part of a healthy diet. But if an ultra-processed food like bread is a staple of your diet, you might want to consider alternatives.
Because manufactured bread is ripe with unfamiliar declared and undeclared ingredients. And a basic tenet of successful healthy eating is ownership of the ingredients you consume. Make your own and you control what’s in the bread you eat.
Or maybe healthy eating isn’t your goal. Instead, you avoid bread as it triggers your sensitive gut. Gluten is the in-vogue scapegoat. But, in the absence of diagnosed coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten intolerance, it may not be gluten to blame. Rather, the preservatives, acidity regulators, bleaching agents, flour treatment agents and enzymes essential to industrial breadmaking might be the cause. A simple homemade loaf with only four ingredients could be the way to re-introduce bread to your diet.
But for me, the main reason you should bake your own bread is that it tastes so much better. The flavour, smell and texture. Even the simplest homemade loaf is vastly superior to high volume, commercial alternatives.
And you don’t need the skills or experience of an artisan baker to make your delicious bread. So, let’s get started.
Choosing your flour
Breadmakers rely on gluten to give their dough the essential stretch and tear resistance needed for bread to rise.
All wheat flour contains gluten, but how much depends on the variety of wheat used to make it. Ordinary plain flour is ideal for cooking and baking, but it isn’t suitable for breadmaking. Instead, breadmakers use higher gluten flour to give their dough elastic strength.
Appropriately, breadmaking flour is more commonly called strong flour.
White flour vs Wholemeal flour
A wheat kernel has three distinct parts, bran (14.5%), endosperm (83%) and germ (2.5%).
Bran is the outer shell and high in fibre trace mineral and phytonutrients.
The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel and is the energy store of the wheat seed. It is high in protein, including gluten, and starchy carbohydrates.
The germ is the sprouting portion of the kernel and has the highest fat content.
To make white flour the bran, germ and the nutrients they contain are removed and only the endosperm is used. By law white flour is fortified with calcium, iron, niacin and thiamin, but that doesn’t replace all the lost nutrients.
Wholemeal flour is made from the whole kernel, the bran, endosperm and germ. The ratios of each are specified by law. Only bread made with 100% wholemeal flour can only be called wholemeal. Nevertheless, some bread manufacturers stretch these limits. And marketing terms like wholegrain, multiseed and multigrain add more confusion for the consumer.
But even wholemeal isn’t quite as whole as you might think. Industrial steel mills separate the three components of the wheat kernel before milling. Wholemeal flour is made by reconstituting the flour in the appropriate ratios after milling.
Traditional stone milling can’t separate the parts of the wheat kernel. Instead, stoneground wholemeal is made by milling the whole kernel. But it’s a less efficient process and stoneground flour is more expensive.
Still, thanks to the legal constraints on wholemeal flour, it’s unlikely you’ll notice any difference between stone milled and regular flour in your finished bread. You must decide if the extra cost is justified.
Start with White Flour bread recipes
White is the most forgiving flour to work with and the best choice for novice breadmakers. And the lighter and springier homemade white loaf texture is the closest to industrial bread. And that’s quite important.
We are so conditioned to unnaturally light and spongy loaves that real bread is an unfamiliar taste. If you and your family are just starting on your breadmaking journey, start with a white bread.
As a nutritionist, of course, I recommend wholemeal bread over white bread. It packs a greater nutritional punch. But a bulletproof white bread recipe that’s easy to make and your family love instantly is the way to get started. Build your breadmaking confidence before you try “healthier” bread recipes.
Real wholemeal bread has more taste and is a genuine health food
And you’ll want to. Because lightness alone isn’t a reliable indicator of good bread. With growing breadmaking confidence you’ll be itching to tackle more complex loaves. And once your family is weaned from the industrial options, they’ll love them too.
Wholemeal dough expands less than a white and the finished bread has a denser texture. The culprits are the minute pieces of bran and germ in wholemeal flour. They rip micro-tears in your dough, weakening the gluten structure and limiting the expansion of your loaf.
Bread manufacturers add a cocktail of ingredients to create unnatural volume and lightness in their wholemeal bread. Don’t expect the same results.
If you want a lighter loaf you can replace up to half of the wholemeal with white flour. Your loaf will be lighter but at the cost of nutritional content, flavour, texture and character.
But eventually, your go-to recipe should be a wholemeal one. Because homemade wholemeal bread is a genuine health food you can enjoy every day.
The advantage of using wheat flour for breadmaking is the gluten content. Breads are made with other grains like rye, oat, barley or spelt. But the time and skill required make them less suitable for the home-baker.
A good compromise is to make bread with a backbone of wheat flour mixed with another flour like rye. The result may not suit the purists. Still, it will carry many of the characteristics of the alternative flour and be a delicious bread.
Water – more than hydration
Adding a water-based liquid to your dry ingredients hydrates them to create your dough. Pure water is the most common choice. But other liquids like milk or beer work well adding their own signature to the texture and flavour of your bread
But water does more than hydrate your dough.
- Gluten development is only possible in the presence of water
- Water acts as a solvent, dispersing yeast, salt and other ingredients
- It’s essential to yeast fermentation and reproduction
- And the quantity of water determines the consistency of your dough
Wetter, softer doughs ferment quicker than drier ones. They are also more delicate and so tricker to work with. They usually require careful mixing and multiple folds during fermentation. Ciabatta is a typical example of bread made with a high hydration dough.
And the higher the flour’s protein content the more water it will absorb. As a result, water absorption varies from flour to flour. So if you change your brand of flour you may need to tweak the water quantities of your recipe.
I’d recommend sticking to the volume of water suggested in a new recipe for the first few bakes. But with experience, you may choose to make adjustments to suit your local flour.
The best yeast for home breadmaking
My preference is fresh yeast. But I haven’t used it since I stopped baking professionally. Fresh yeast doesn’t keep and is difficult to find in the small quantities needed for home baking.
“Frozen-fresh” yeast is one option. But I’ve found dried yeast gives more consistent results and is the simplest option for home bakers. Consequently, I’ve adapted all my recipes for dried yeast.
Avoid quick-acting and fast dried yeasts. They come with unwanted additional ingredients intended to speed up fermentation. Whatever the yeast’s name, I recommend checking the small print for added ingredients. Yeast doesn’t need any help, it only needs time to do its job. Speed is the enemy of flavour in breadmaking.
Mix the dried yeast into your warm water and allow it to dissolve before adding it to your dry ingredients. No need to add sugar as often suggested.
And for a pre-ferment, it isn’t necessary to dissolve dried yeast at all. Instead, sprinkle it evenly over your dry ingredients before adding the water.
Sourdough’s rediscovery by San Fransisco hipsters elevated a once unfashionable breadmaking style to connoisseur status. And its legion of fans include health benefits in their list of reasons sourdough is the bread of the discerning consumer.
The near mystic appeal of sourdough is the starter culture. A mix of flour and water used to cultivate the wild yeasts, sourdough cultures have been used to leaven bread for millennia. Ancient, natural and just a little mysterious, sourdough is a marketer’s dream. Any self-respecting sourdough bread can trace its starter culture’s origins deep into the mists of time.
The truth is, making your own sourdough culture isn’t difficult. But, looking after your culture is a commitment. It’s like bringing a family pet into the home. If you struggled to keep a Tamagotchi alive in the ’90s, sourdough isn’t for you.
And in my view, the extra effort and inconvenience of keeping and using a sourdough starter aren’t worth it. The health claims are unproven. And the slightly sour flavour is different but not superior to a bread made with a pre-ferment and slow bulk fermentation.
But don’t let me stop you from experimenting for yourself.
Buying genuine sourdough bread is almost as inconvenient. The term sourdough has no legal protection. Many loaves labelled sourdough are made with sourdough flavourings, not traditional sourdough cultures. It’s worth checking how your local store’s “sourdough” was produced.
Why bread needs Salt
Salt adds flavour where there is none. That’s why it’s overused in so many processed foods. And no industry was more guilty than bread manufacturing. But there’s accumulating evidence of a link between salt and high blood pressure. In 2006 the UK government introduced salt reduction targets. By 2017 bread manufacturers had been required to progressively reduce the salt in their bread by 50%. And there are even tighter targets for 2024.
Nevertheless, beyond taste, salt has three other important functions in bread making,
- It strengthens the gluten structure
- It slows the yeast fermentation which improves the overall flavour
- It contributes to the colouration of the bread
High salt levels aren’t needed for breadmaking. But salt is one of the four fundamental ingredients. Bread can be made without it, but it isn’t as good.
Still, if you’re on a low salt diet you have the option to leave it out or replace it with a low sodium variety.
You only need flour, water, yeast and salt to make fantastic bread. But as your confidence grows you can tackle more complex recipes. New ingredients will add variety and increase your enjoyment of making and eating bread. Fats, oils, sugar, eggs, seeds, whole grains, dried fruits there is an unlimited choice.
The magic of fermentation
Yeast does the heavy lifting in breadmaking. And we call the work it does on our behalf fermentation.
Yeast is a living, single-cell microorganism. And there are millions of yeast cells in the small amount you add to your dough. The original cells grow and multiply using the starches in your dough as food. As yeast metabolises starch it produces three important by-products, alcohol, carbon dioxide and organic acids.
Fermentation isn’t unique to breadmaking. It’s used to produce other foods like sauerkraut and brew every alcoholic tipple.
Alcohol is a by-product of fermentation, but your finished loaf contains none. Alcohol has a low boiling point and evaporates completely during baking.
It does, however, contribute to the wonderful smell of baking bread. Alcohol itself has no odour, but it acts as a solvent for other organic molecules. As your bread bakes, the alcohol evaporates and transports these wonderful smelling compounds to your nose.
Carbon dioxide builds up in your dough as it ferments. Some carbon dioxide is trapped as expanding gas bubbles and your dough rises.
But not all of the carbon dioxide produced is released as gas. A lot is dissolved in the water within your dough. This dissolved carbon dioxide is the key to the sudden expansion of your loaf when it first goes into the oven. The oven spring that’s so important to a good loaf.
Organic acids take hours to develop fully yet they make a vital contribution to your bread. They add delicious layers of flavour and contribute to the wonderful smell of good bread. They also help with gluten development improving the dough’s structure.
But organic acids develop gradually. And that’s why slow fermentation is essential to good breadmaking.
And you can increase the organic acids in your dough with pre-ferment. This traditional and simple technique improves your dough structure and the finished bread’s flavour.
Speeding up fermentation with technology
More than 80% of all British bread is made using the Chorleywood Process. Invented in the UK the process has been adopted in countries such as India, Australia and New Zealand. It cuts fermentation from hours to minutes with high-speed mixing, dough conditioners, added sugars, high yeast concentrations, very warm temperatures, emulsifiers and enzymes.
Scottish bread guru Andrew Whitely blames the Chorleywood process for the rise in bread intolerance. The science isn’t definitive, but there’s good cause for concern.
What’s certain is the technology doesn’t come close to replacing time. And every step of the process reduces the quality and flavour of the final bread.
Pre-ferments – the artisan bakers secret weapon
A pre-ferment is a favourite technique of almost all my bread recipes.
It’s a simple and traditional bread making step used to improve doughs. What it’s called depends on the cultural origin. Names include starter dough, pâte fermentée, poolish, biga, and more.
A little flour, water, salt and yeast are mixed in advance and allowed to slowly mature for many hours. By the time it’s added to the main mix, it’s replete with the organic acids so important to gluten development and flavour.
And if your making bread daily it can be as simple as keeping a little of today’s dough to add to tomorrow’s mix.
To make a pre-ferment from scratch mix flour with water, salt and a relatively small amount of yeast. It should be well mixed but doesn’t require kneading. Some pre-ferments are so wet they resemble batter more than dough.
Cover your pre-ferment and leave it to mature for anywhere between six and twenty-four hours.
The exact quantities and timing depend on the bread recipe.
Mixing and kneading -by hand or in a mixer?
There’s a lot going on when you knead your dough. But three sequential stages are the most important.
Stage 1 – the first and simplest is the uniform distribution and mixing of your ingredients.
Stage 2 – the hydration of the starch granules in the flour. As the starch granules absorb water your dough sticks together and your dough begins to form. At the start, your dough may appear too wet. Resist the temptation to add more flour. As kneading progresses, the dough will absorb the water.
Stage 3 -the development of the gluten structure in your dough. At first, the gluten molecules in your dough are haphazardly clumped together. And in the molecules in those clumps are randomly aligned in every direction.
Kneading gradually stretches the gluten molecules simultaneously ordering them into reasonably straight lines. The result is a dough that both stretches and resists tearing. You work hard to develop these properties in your dough. Every stage after kneading should preserve and enhance this hard-won gluten structure, not damage it.
A little bread chemistry
Gluten molecules are made of two proteins, Gliadin and Glutenin. Gliadin gives your dough the stretch and glutenin its elastic qualities.
Rye, oats and barley have similar gluten molecules. But crucially they pair glutenin with alternative proteins to gliadin. The absence of gliadin’s stretching properties calls for slightly different breadmaking techniques. And breads made with alternative flours will have a denser texture.
The gliadin protein is also the most common trigger of the damaging inflammatory immune response in Coeliac disease. As it’s unique to wheat, some coeliacs tolerate other grains if they’re uncontaminated by wheat during processing.
Oxidation of the flour is essential to the development of the gluten in the dough.
Before it’s suitable for breadmaking flour needs a few weeks exposed to air to age and oxidise naturally. Traditionally, flour is packed in paper sacks to let it to breathe and oxidise.
But allowing flour to oxidise naturally is too slow for industrial milling and breadmaking. Storing huge quantities of flour as it ages organically isn’t good business. Instead, flour is treated to artificially oxidise and age it.
Chemically bleached flour requires almost no ageing. But bromide and peroxide bleaching agents are under suspicion of being carcinogenic. They’ve been illegal in the UK since the 1990s. Today enzyme preparations are the flour treatment of choice. And remember enzymes don’t need to appear on the bread label.
Health concerns and dubious labelling aside, artificial ageing of flour compromises the flavour, aroma and texture of your finished bread.
Kneading incorporates oxygen into the dough. And oxygen assists in the gluten’s development.
But too much kneading over-oxidises your dough and damages the gluten structure. Your dough loses its elasticity, releases absorbed water and becomes sticky. And the flavour and colour of the final loaf will suffer.
So, over kneading is the death of your loaf. Still, it’s unlikely to happen if you’re making your dough by hand – unless you knead like it’s a Bootcamp workout. But if you make your dough in a mixer, I know from experience, it’s easily done.
Mixing too fast or for too long produces an over-developed dough. It won’t support the long fermentation and the organic acids so essential to great flavour won’t develop.
The secret to delicious bread is a slightly under-developed dough and a long slow fermentation. Time will allow the flavoursome organic acids to develop and they will strengthen the dough structure.
One or more folds during the bulk fermentation enhance the gluten strength further.
How to mix and knead your bread by hand
- Dissolve the dried yeast in warm water.
- Add all the dry ingredients into a bowl.
- Pour in the warm water and yeast
- Mix everything with a dough scraper or cutlery knife.
- Once the four mix becomes too heavy for an implement, continue with your hands until the dough comes together in a ball
- Tip the dough onto a smooth and clean surface and start kneading.
- If your right-handed, drive the heel of your right hand down and away from your body and through the centre of the dough.
- As you draw your right hand back use your left hand to gather the dough with a clockwise, circular motion
- Lefties do the same but reverse the hands
- Repeat continuously until the dough is ready.
- The kneading time varies according to the bread recipe. But around 8-12 minutes is normal.
Mixing and kneading with a mixer
Before using a mixer, I encourage you to make your first few loaves by hand. When you go mechanically powered things can go wrong very quickly. What you learn kneading by hand will help you judge the progression of your dough when you eventually switch to a mixer.
Mixer design and speeds vary. Below is my suggestion for a dough requiring a ten-minute kneading by hand (based on my trusty Kitchen Aid mixer). You’ll have to experiment with your mixer to get the best results.
- Attach the dough hook and add all the dry ingredients into your bowl with the water and yeast mix
- Run the mixer at the slowest speed for three minutes. This slower speed is essential to mix the ingredients thoroughly before a more intensive kneading.
- Increase the speed to the second slowest speed and kneed for a further 7 minutes.
A word of warning, it’s very easy to over-knead your dough with a mixer. Walking away and forgeting your dough is easily done. I’ve learnt the hard way to use a timer, then I’ll judge my dough by eye for the last couple of minutes.
And finally, most home mixers only have the space for one large loaf. The extra effort of hand kneading can be worth it to make two or three loaves in one go.
Bulk fermentation – long and slow for good bread
As soon as you stop kneading your dough fermentation begins. How long it takes depends on the air temperature and the starting temperature of your dough.
The ideal temperature is around 25C. A little chillier than perfect for yeast, yet sufficiently warm to encourage growth. The slightly lower than optimal temperature slows fermentation and gives organic acids time to develop.
The temperature of your ingredients will determine the starting temperature of your dough. But there’s no need for pinpoint accuracy. Start with all your dry ingredients at room temperature. Use lukewarm water and after kneading your dough temperature will be about right.
25C is warmer than room temperature. So, an airing cupboard or similar warm spot makes an ideal location to prove your dough. If you don’t have a suitably warm corner, your bread will still work well at room temperature. Only it will need more time.
Place your kneaded dough in a bowl at least two and a half times larger than the dough. Cover with a heavy cloth or oiled clingfilm and leave it in your chosen fermentation spot.
As the dough ferments, bubbles of trapped carbon dioxide expand and your dough swells. The ideal increase in dough volume varies according to the bread. Judging the perfect time to end the bulk fermentation takes practice. Still, doubling in size is a reasonable expectation for most bulk fermentations.
All my recipes suggest bulk fermentation times. But they’re only a guide. You’ll have to make adjustments according to your dough and air temperatures.
A long slow bulk fermentation with a single fold halfway through suits most doughs. But lightly kneaded or wetter doughs can require two or more folds.
During the bulk fermentation, fold the dough as often as instructed. Try to space the folds evenly.
Folding – don’t knock your dough back
Too much carbon dioxide inhibits fermentation. So, degassing your dough during bulk fermentation is essential.
Most breadmakers knock-back or punch the gas from their dough. Knocking back your dough achieves the essential degassing. But it misses an opportunity to improve your dough and transform your loaf from average to exceptional.
The alternative is to fold your bread. It’s quick and simple and has three important benefits.
- Folding releasing excess carbon dioxide more effectively and evenly than knocking-back.
- Folding reduces any temperature difference in your dough ensuring an even fermentation. Outside of a commercial bakery, the dough and the air temperature are rarely the same. Folding brings the warmer or cooler outer edges into the centre and evens out the dough temperature.
- Folding stretches and realigns the gluten strands and strengthen your dough.
How to fold
Tip your dough onto a floured surface. It’s important that it doesn’t stick to your table. Unsticking it will tear the dough and damage the gluten structure. So use plenty of flour.
But incorporating raw flour into the dough can cause streaks in your final loaf. So you should carefully brush excess flour from the dough surface between folds.
- Lift the left-hand side of your dough and fold it two-thirds of the way over towards the right side.
- Press down gently on the seam.
- Repeat the two-thirds fold and press, this time right to left.
- Fold again, this time from top to bottom.
- Repeat the for a final time, bottom to top.
- Carefully turn the dough over onto the seams. This is now the top of your dough.
Place the dough to your bowl topside up, cover and return to your fermentation spot.
Dividing your dough
I’m a lazy baker. So, I rarely make a single loaf. But when baking small quantities of bread the majority of effort happens before bulk fermentation ends. All that weighing, mixing, kneading and folding is the same effort for one, two or three loaves.
If you’ve made for multiple loaves, it’s important to divide the dough evenly once the bulk ferment is over. That way, your loaves will be ready for the oven at the same time and bake at the same speed.
How big is a loaf of bread?
The density of different types of bread varies enormously. Until 2008, UK law stipulated the size of a loaf of bread by weight to protect the consumer. Loaf sizes were multiples of 400g. Although no longer a legal requirement many bread is still priced and sold as either 400g or 800g loaves.
UK trading standards officers made regular unannounced visits to our Deli to inspect and weigh the loaves we sold. Extra motivation, if ever it was needed,our to weigh and divide our dough accurately.
Dividing your dough
First, divide the dough equally by eye with a dough cutter or a knife. Weigh the two pieces to ensure they’re the same weight. If there’s a difference (+/- 10g), trim and adjust accordingly.
Every cut divides the dough in two. Try use as few cuts as possible to maintain the maximum dough structure.
Pre-shaping – for a better shaped loaf
Pre-shaping organises the random cut dough pieces into consistent shapes. And that makes shaping the final loaves easier.
Even if you’re making a single loaf I still recommend pre-shaping. It helps create a uniform loaf during the final shaping. And that helps prevent uneven oven spring and baking.
A light working of the dough is all it takes.
How to pre-shape
- Place your dough, topside down, on a lightly floured surface.
- Add any trimmings on top of the main lump of dough
- Lightly pat the top of your dough to degas it and incorporate the smaller pieces
- Hold the nearest edge of your dough with both hands, both thumbs underneath and all eight fingers on top.
- Lift and fold the dough away with your thumbs and simultaneously tuck the dough in on itself with your fingers
[This motion stretches the top side of the dough, now in contact with the table. The stretching improves the gluten structure. But if it sticks to the table your dough will tear damaging the gluten structure. However, too much flour on your table will slide without stretching.]
- The complete fold should reach about two-thirds of the way over the dough.
- Press down with your thumbs to attach the edge of the fold to the body of the dough and create a seam.
- Dust any loose flour from the surface of your dough and turn it 90 degrees
- Repeat this fold and turn three more times
- Set your dough aside, seams up, to rest.
The dough needs to relax before its final shaping. How long it takes depends on how tightly you’ve shaped the loaves.
Leave the preshaped loaves upside down (seams up) on a floured surface covered with a cloth or clingfilm.
5-10 minutes of bench rest is normally about right. As the dough relaxes the seams begin to drift apart indicating it’s time to start the final shaping.
Shaping your loaf
At home, the most convenient way to cook bread is on a baking tray. Your dough proves for the final time and bakes on the same tray. Loaf tins, oven stones and bannetons all have their place but aren’t essential to good bread.
A round loaf is the easiest to shape and ideal for the novice. I’d recommend mastering round loaves before experimenting with other shapes. It’s a simple skill you’ll use again and again in your breadmaking career.
Shaping a round loaf
- On a lightly floured surface, with the dough seam side up, repeat the same four folds you used to pre-shape your dough
- Turn the dough over
- Cup both hands around the dough with your pinkies touching the work surface
- Move your hands in short, circular anti-clockwise motions.
- The centre of the dough should remain in contact with the table surface throughout shaping.
[Just as with preshaping, the flour on your table surface is important. The dough shouldn’t stick or slide. But it needs enough traction to resist the turning motion and cause tightening.]
- As the dough tightens, bring your pinkies closer together under the dough.
- At the same time bring your thumbs together over the loaf to round the top.
- Place the loaf seam side down on a greased baking tray
Proving your loaf
Cover the shaped loaf and return it to your fermenting space to prove. Judging how long you to leave your and the best moment to bake your bread comes with practice. All my recipes give you guidelines. But the precise time your loaf needs depends on the dough temperature and how tightly you’ve shaped the loaf. Ultimately it’s your call.
Over risen or under risen and your bread’s appearance and eating quality will suffer. Leaving your dough to achieve its maximum rise weakens its structure. Your bread will collapse in the oven. Equally, too little rise and the bread will not achieve its full volume.
80-90% of its maximum rise during proving is about right. As a rough guide, poke your loaf gently with your finger. If the dough doesn’t rebound it’s time it was in the oven. Not a foolproof test, but a starting point if you’ve never baked bread before.
If in doubt, it’s better to have your loaf slightly under proved than over proved.
Scoring bread – more than decoration
When your loaf goes into the oven the heat triggers three events that to cause your bread to expand rapidly.
A brief burst of intensive yeast activity and gas production before the heat eventually kills it.
Trapped carbon dioxide and ethanol gases heat up and expand
Water in the dough heats up releasing dissolved carbon dioxide as gas, a bit like opening a soda bottle.
Within minutes, expanding bubbles of trapped carbon dioxide force your loaf to swell. Some breads double in size. This rapid expansion during the early stages of baking is known as oven spring.
Scoring your loaf
All your kneading, folding and shaping has produced a dough with a robust and even structure. Still, bulges will form randomly as expanding gases find the weak points in your dough. Unless this expansion is controlled, your loaf will be misshapen with an uneven crumb.
Scoring your loaf creates intentional weak points. And this encourages your loaf to expand where you want it to. The scoring pattern you choose has more to do with aesthetics than function. All that’s required is a sufficient and regular scoring of your loaf’s upper surface. This will encourage an even, upward expansion as it bakes.
The traditional scoring tool is a razor blade. In a pinch, a sharp knife works. But perhaps the easiest way to score your bread at home is with scissors. Multiple snips encourage the correct expansion of your loaf and make an eye-pleasing pattern.
How to bake bread
What happen’s during baking
Most bread is cooked in a very hot oven, around 240C/465F. That’s often the maximum temperature for a domestic oven. The high heat is necessary to optimise oven spring, flavour and colour during baking.
We’ve already looked at scoring and the mechanics of oven spring. But there’s more going on during baking to understand.
Enzymes convert starches to sugars before quickly succumbing to the heat. On the loaf’s surface, these sugars will eventually contribute to the browning of the loaf.
Kneading only moistens the outer surface of the flour’s starch granules. Now, with the help of heat, water penetrates to their core and they swell and then gelatinise to form the crumb.
At first, the pressure of the expanding carbon dioxide stretches and extends the gluten in the dough. But as the temperature rises the gluten coagulates, expansion stops and the loaf’s shape is fixed.
As the temperature rises, enzyme activity, initially accelerated, decreases and eventually stops as heat destroys the enzymes.
When the surface of the bread reaches 100C it starts to brown. It’s a complex process known as the Maillard reaction, involving heat, moisture, protein and sugars. (Browning during cooking is often a result of the Maillard reaction, for example, grilled meats.)
During baking, your loaf loses moisture. How much depends on the loaf size, ingredients, bake time and temperature and even oven type. 10-20% is typical.
If any of these events happen too quickly, your loaf won’t achieve its full volume, colour or taste potential. You can use steam to slow their unfolding and improve your bread enormously.
Steaming – the secrect of a beautiful bake
In a very hot oven, steam cools the surface of the loaf. The cooling effect delays the destruction of the enzymes on the loaf’s surface. They in turn convert more starch into sugar and the browning of the loaf is enhanced.
And steam slows down the crust formation. Once the crust has formed no further expansion of the loaf is possible. Slowing the crust development allows the maximum oven spring and increase your loaf’s volume.
Bread must to go into a moist oven and be steamed immediately or it’s not effective. Starting with a dry oven and adding steam later doesn’t have the same effect.
Still, the benefits of steam only last for the initial stages of baking. If the steam isn’t removed the bread will develop a thick and chewy crust. To achieve a thin crust the bread needs to be finished in a dry oven.
Most professional bakers use steaming ovens to bake their bread. But you don’t need a professional baking oven to effectively steam your bread at home.
Steaming your loaf at home
You can replicate the effects of a steaming oven with your domestic oven and reap the benefits. Here’s how you do it.
Pre-heat your oven with a heavy roasting tray on the bottom shelf, cast iron is ideal.
Two minutes before you bake your bread, throw two ice cubes into the tray. This will pre-moisten your oven, which is essential – but isn’t enough to steam your bread.
Moist heat can scald. Quickly and cautiously open the oven door and add your bread to a middle shelf.
Before you close the door, pour about a cup of boiling water into the roasting tray then quickly shut the door. As the water boils in the roasting tray it will steam your bread.
[Be very careful. This will instantly create a cloud of steam that can burn. Wear oven mitts to protect your hands and keep your face back to avoid escaping steam.]
At the end of the first third of the cooking time, check your bread. It should have started to colour and reached its full size. Carefully remove the roasting tray.
Close the door, but not completely. Leave it open a crack for the rest of the bake. This allows the residual moisture to vent and prevents your loaf from developing a thick, chewy crust. Instead, your loaf will have a deliciously thin, crisp crust. If needed, a metal teaspoon works well to hold the door open.
How to know if your bread is ready
The best way to judge when your bread is ready is its appearance. But it does take a practised eye.
When your loaf is ready the crust has an even brown hue. (Although the sides of bread baked in loaf tin will be paler than the top.) With a white loaf look for a golden brown colour. Wholemeal and other flours will be a darker brown.
But if your oven is too hot or you use insufficient steam, your loaf will brown before it’s done.
Still, a cooked loaf shouldn’t stick to the tray or loaf tin. But it will stick if your tray or tin isn’t well seasoned and properly oiled.
And when you tap on the bottom of a cooked loaf it sounds hollow. But many loaves sound hollow before they’re ready. And what about rolls and other small breads?
Can you use a thermometer to check your bread’s temperature instead? When bread is ready its core temperature is in the high 90C. But many loaves need time at this temperature, so testing with a thermometer isn’t actually helpful.
So, we’re full circle. Your bread’s ready when it looks ready. Judging it perfectly takes practice and becomes easier the better you know your oven and recipe. To begin with, err on the side of caution. It’s better to slightly overcook your loaf than undercook it.
Cooling – it’s worth the wait
It’s difficult to resist the heavenly smells of a warm loaf fresh from the oven, but you should.
When I bake bread I jealously guard it against the pilfering hands of my family. There’s a lot of love gone into that loaf and it should be eaten at its best. And good bread needs time to slowly cool to develop its true texture and flavour.
Granted, some industrial bread is almost inedible unless eaten warm. You know the type, plastic baguettes, mini ciabattas and the like. But well-made bread only reveals its full bounty and character when cooled properly.
You’ve come this far. Let your loaf cool, it will be worth it.
The hot loaf is still losing moisture as it cools, so
- Place your bread on a cooling rack to allow it to cool evenly
- A cooling rack allows air to circulate around the entire loaf and prevents the bottom from going soft.
- Don’t leave it in a draught as this will increase the moisture loss during cooling.
Leave it for two or three hours to cool completely before eating.
Storing – how to look after your bread
Going stale or ageing?
We’ve become used to soft, doughy industrial bread that remains unchanged for days before suddenly going mouldy.
But real bread ages gracefully and is a little different every day. How your bread ages will depend on the ingredients and loaf size – larger loaves age more slowly. Still, it’s important to understand, stale bread and aged bread aren’t the same things. All bread stales eventually. But part of the enjoyment of real bread is appreciating the subtle changes as it ages.
Bread will be softest on the day of baking and best eaten fresh. By the second day, the crispy crust will be lost and the crumb will be firmer. Nevertheless, store your loaf correctly and it will eat well for two or three days.
As bread ages it loses moisture, the gelatinised starch slowly re-crystalises and the crumb of your loaf hardens. With time your bread exchanges freshly baked softness for character and complexity. But eventually, every bread is better toasted.
Without all the added processing ingredients and sugar, real bread takes longer to toast. But it’s worth the wait. It’s so good that you may never again be satisfied with anything else!
Making bread that keeps longer
There are traditional methods of slowing the ageing process.
- Pre-ferments and long fermentation both increase the organic acids in your loaf. And these acids delay bread ageing.
- Denser loaves retain moisture and age more slowly.
- And a grain or seed soaker incorporated into the dough extends shelf-life and adds character.
How to store your bread.
- Allow your bread to cool completely. Wrap your bread in greaseproof paper or keep it in a paper bag. Don’t use plastic. You want your loaf to breathe.
- Keep fresh bread in a cool dark place. A bread bin, once a feature of every home but now increasingly rare, is ideal.
- Never keep bread in the fridge. Bread deteriorates fastest between 0-10C.
- Bread freezes well. Still, it must pass through the 0-10C range twice. So, once defrosted, a loaf does not keep very long.
- Slice and wrap a loaf before freezing and you can avoid wastage by defrosting only what you need. That said, sliced bread will not keep as long frozen as a whole loaf.
- Frozen bread is best wrapped in plastic. The crumb of your loaf will eventually dry out in the freezer. Simultaneously ice crystals that form on the crust render it soggy on defrosting. And a freezer is an environment full of competing odours that can taint your bread with unwanted flavours. Plastic wrapping will protect your bread.
Hi, I’m Ralph
I’m an Associate Registered Nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef.
My passion is helping individuals gain control of their diet to achieve food freedom and health in today’s broken nutrition environment.
I’m based in Edinburgh and provide 1-2-1 online nutrition coaching and support across the U.K.