Making bread is biblical. It’s fulfilling, fun and delicious. It’s not nearly as intimidating as people think and if you have a bread machine, there’s truly nothing to it. But, it helps to understand the how’s and why’s to making a perfect loaf of bread. This is all you’ll “knead” to know! Early leavened breads date back to at least the Egyptians. The feeling is that their leavened breads were probably closer to our sour dough; a mixture of flour and water, that stands and allows the mixture to “sour” while collecting the natural yeasts that are in the air. Also, it appears that naturally leavened breads began at around the same time as beer making. And all this time I thought it was “a loaf of bread and a jug of wine….” There are a few things we “knead” to talk about…okay, that’s the last time.
First, there’s yeast. There are 1,500 species of yeast. It’s everywhere; seriously it’s all around us and on us, or at least some strain of yeast is. But, what we’re talking about here is bakers yeast. Yeast “eats” sugars, then converts those sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol, thus causing the bread to raise. This is a very simplified version of what happens, but this is more or less what you need to understand. Sugar both feeds the yeast and helps make the bread more tender (as does fat). Too much sugar (or salt or oil) can adversely affect the raising we want our bread to do, by slowing it to a snail’s pace. So really, it’s a balancing act.
For our purposes, we’re going to talk about dry yeasts, specifically active dry yeast, instant yeast and rapid-rise yeast.
- Active dry yeast is the form of yeast most commonly available to us. It’s pretty much the same yeast our mothers and grandmothers used, of the dry yeast variety, that is. It has a larger granule and must first be proofed or rehydrated. It can be stored at room temperature for a year, or frozen for more than a decade.
- Instant yeast has a smaller granule and more live yeast beasts in it. It is more perishable, but can be added directly to flour with no proofing or rehydration. It too, can be stored in the freezer. LeSaffre’s “SAF Instant Gold” is specifically designed to be used with high-sugar doughs.
- Rapid-rise yeast has even smaller granules than instant yeast, so it dissolves more quickly and has a higher carbon dioxide output, so bread raises more quickly. It is, more or less, a form of instant yeast. This is sometimes referred to as Bread Machine Yeast. Feel free to use it in any type of yeast bread. It, too, can be stored in the freezer. Generally, this is the type of yeast I have on hand.
People are always afraid of “killing” the yeast. It isn’t as easy as you might think. When using water, I use good warm tap water, about 110°F-120°F. Recipes call for you to “proof” the yeast. Proofing is putting yeast in warm water with a bit of sugar and allowing it to bubble, thus rehydrating it. You also do this so you know your yeast is good; that it is active. This needs to be done when using active dry yeast only. I use either type of instant yeast, so it isn’t necessary to “proof” it. Also, I always store my yeast in the freezer, bring out the container when I begin to bake and the let it sit on the counter for a few minutes, then proceed. I’m not certain you need to do that, but it works well for me.
I add the yeast directly to the flour. Before you start the machine, stir the yeast into the very top, just to coat the yeast granules. When you do this, use the warmer water temperature. Because the little flour-coated bits of yeast need the warmer temperature to reach and activate them. When using a bread machine, most bread machines have you add the liquid into the “bucket” first, everything else, then the flour and the yeast last, on top of the flour. NOTE: Brewer’s yeast is not a substitute for baker’s yeast. It’s a completely different animal. Another NOTE: When you boil potatoes, save the water and make bread with it…there’s nice sugars in that water, as well as flavor and potato water tends to produce a very tender loaf!
Now, let’s talk gluten. This is a hot topic right now and everybody and their dog seems to be avoiding gluten. So, I’m telling you right now, this posting may make some people unhappy. If you have Celiac disease (or Coeliac disease in the UK) you need to avoid gluten; cut it out of your diet completely. Simply put, your body doesn’t process gluten the way the rest of us do and it can do long-term damage to you. Then there are those who are sensitive to gluten and if you feel you might be one of those, you should get tested, not just assume. Otherwise, there is absolutely no health benefit or necessity to avoiding gluten. The whole grains and wheat-associated-grains, including bulgur, farro, kamut, spelt, and triticale, which is a hybrid of wheat and rye, have wonderful minerals and vitamins, not to mention fiber. They should absolutely be in your diet.
Gluten is a protein. Actually 2 proteins, glutenin and gliadin. When you add liquid to flour and then knead or work the dough, gluten molecules are activated; they quite literally stretch out. Adding yeast facilitates this “stretching”. When the gases produced by the yeast inflate the gluten molecules—think little balloons; this permits the dough to raise. Baking kills the yeast, hardens the gluten molecules and a great loaf of bread is born!
Let’s move on to flour. There are basically 2 kinds of wheat—Hard wheat and soft wheat. Hard wheat flour comes from wheat raised in the colder, Northern states and other similar climate countries. It has more protein, therefore higher gluten levels. This is usually referred to as bread flour; protein varies from 12-14 percent, and it will produce a fantastic loaf of yeast bread. Kneading or mixing the dough for 15 minutes or longer is essential. Kneading the dough not only allows you take all your aggressions out on that dough, but you are developing the gluten while you do it. So, if you’ve had a truly lousy day, make bread…it’s a win-win!
Soft wheat flour, contains less protein and is usually produced in the warmer Southern states or such climes. Some Southern (all-purpose) flours, like White Lily® are produced from softer wheat, so you may substitute them for cake flour. Soft wheat flour makes great cakes, cookies, pie crust, pancakes, biscuits, etc., but yeast breads, not so good. In soft wheat flours, protein varies from 7-9 percent.
Self-Rising flour has baking powder and/or baking soda added to it. It is not appropriate for yeast breads.
All-purpose flour is blend of soft and hard wheat; its protein content varies from 8-11 percent. It can be used to make either yeast breads or other types of baked goods, hence “all-purpose”. I use any brand of all-purpose flour for general baking. However, because King Arthur® all-purpose flour is on the higher end of the gluten content, it makes excellent yeast bread or pizza dough, but pancakes and cakes are a bit of a challenge, but that’s another posting.
Speaking of pizza dough…if you have trouble pushing pizza dough into a pan or on a peel; it keeps “springing back” and won’t stay put. That’s because you’ve done a good job of developing the gluten. When the “spring back” (that’s a real term, by the way) happens, just walk away for 5 or 10 minutes. This allows the gluten to “relax” (another real term) a bit, so when you start to push the dough again, it will be more complient. It will bend to your will! Goddesses love that. You may have to do the “walking away thing” (that’s my term) more than once, though.
Whole grain flours are whole wheat, rye, barley, spelt and even oats and buckwheat, to name a few. They contain very little gluten, therefore they are less “flexible” than white flours and they will require some additional gluten, if you don’t wish to make a brick or a doorstop! This is where vital gluten comes into the picture. Yes, Virginia, you can add extra gluten to flour…think of this as “super” gluten; gluten on steroids (No, there are no steroids used in its production!). This is pure gluten; its protein levels are around 40-45 percent! When you use whole grained flours, which are just that…the entire grain ground into flour, 1-2 tablespoons of vital gluten makes up for the lower gluten content of the whole grained flour and the bread raises to lofty heights. It also helps to use some white flour with the whole grain flour.
So, gluten, yeast and sugars acting in unison, give bread that lovely elastic quality that is the mark of a good “crumb”. “Crumb” is the overall texture of the bread. There should be tiny pockets, evenly distributed throughout the loaf, which work exceptionally well to soak up butter and jam!
Bread is usually best eaten within 2-3 days of baking, but well wrapped, bread freezes exceptionally well, too.
These websites will supply you with all sorts of good info regarding grains/flours, if you wish to know more.
I’m also posting a recipe for Honey-Whole Wheat Bread. This bread makes a great grilled cheese or a great meat loaf sandwich. It’s also pretty darned good with just a smear of butter on it, hot out of the oven! Which, by the way, is the best way to eat bread, but not the best time to slice bread, as it tends to crush the loaf. You’ll have to make a decision—hot bread with melted butter or a slighty crushed loaf…hmmm…life is full of tough choices, isn’t it?