While one cannot live on bread alone, it certainly makes life more enjoyable. Who doesn’t love biting through a crunchy crust and sinking your teeth into a nice tender interior crumb? How about that tug and resistance you get when you bite into a pizza or tear off a piece of baguette?
Lately, a friend of mine has been playing with pizza dough and experimenting with his grandmother’s white bread. As is often the case when one is learning to work with yeast dough, he’s had a mixed bag of varying success. You can read and research all you want but when it comes to working with yeast breads, hands-on experience is the best teacher of all. Yeast is a living organism and can behave quite differently based on the temperature, age, type of bread, and how all of it is handled.
One of the first things that people will often notice in yeast bread recipes is that they never give a truly precise amount of flour. It is usually a range such as “3-4 cups of flour”. This is due to the fact that different types of flour will absorb varying quantities of liquid. Softer flours (less gluten) absorb less moisture and high gluten flour will absorb more so it will actually take less flour than when using all-purpose flour. This is why it is imperative to feel and touch the dough as it is developing. The dough should be nice and moist but not so wet that it is “shaggy” which is where it clings to the hands and cannot be pulled away with out long striations stuck to the hand. Keeping the dough nice and moist throughout will aid in oven-spring due to the moisture content turning to steam and providing one last measure of leavening to the loaf.
Tips for Working with Yeast Doughs:
- Check the freshness date on your yeast to make sure it hasn’t expired.
- “Instant” yeast can be added directly to the dry ingredients and doesn’t need to be proofed in a warm liquid.
- Make sure the water is just lukewarm (105-110F) to avoid killing the yeast with water that’s too hot.
- Salt kills yeast. It should be added after the yeast and sugar have had a time to activate and after a portion of the flour has been added.
- Do not leave salt out of dough, it aids in the development of gluten, as well as providing flavor.
- Dough made with bread flour will require more kneading and longer rising time.
- Unbleached all-purpose flour will allow for better gluten development than bleached four will.
- Bread made with flour that is higher in protein content (bread flour) will have more browning.
- Flatbreads like focaccia and pizza dough are better made with all-purpose flour since gluten isn’t as important. Bread flour used in these items can make them too tough.
- Wheat bread recipes always contain more white flour than whole wheat flour due to the additional fiber from the bran in whole wheat flour. This fiber cuts through the developing gluten strands during mixing and keeps them from developing the strength they need in order to expand to the maximum potential. If you’ve ever had a loaf of whole wheat bread made with 100% whole wheat flour you’ll recognize that it makes a much better paper weight than a loaf of bread!
- Add flour just until the dough forms a moist cohesive mass. It shouldn’t be sticky and “shaggy” when squeezed with your hand but it should be moist. Dough that is too dry won’t create enough steam to sufficiently rise in the oven.
- Avoid kneading dough on a floured surface. If dough is sticking to your hands, flour them instead. This will prevent excessive flour from being worked into the dough. The more flour that gets worked into the dough, the less moisture is available for creating steam to expand the air cells inside during baking.
- When kneading dough by hand you are likely to become tired before you’re likely to overknead it. When doing it in a mixer it is possible to overknead the dough if it is worked for too long and too vigorously. Overworked dough is going to go from being soft, smooth, and supple to wet and sticky again. This is due to the starch granules bursting and releasing the moisture that they once contained. If this occurs, I recommend starting over as the amount of flour needed for bringing back together could render the amount of yeast in the dough useless and possibly result in a heavy dense loaf.
- When adding dried fruit such as raisins, always soak them in water or another liquid to hydrate them. Put them in a microwave-safe dish and add just enough water to cover. Microwave them at high for 1 minute and then drain off liquid and allow to cool before adding to the dough. This will make them plump and moist and prevent them from absorbing moisture from the surrounding dough and thus drying it out.
- If your oven doesn’t have a “proof” setting for letting dough rise, heat it for about 10 minutes on its lowest temperature and then turn it off and open the oven for a minute or two. Place your dough inside to rise.
- Yeast dough will develop more flavor and “yeastiness” the greater number of times it’s allowed to rise. Three risings (including in pan or loaf form) is generally about the maximum that bread can successfully go through before too much yeast has died and it develops an overly “beer-like” flavor.
- Brioche dough which contains a high amount of butter must be refrigerated overnight in order to make it firm enough to work and shape after the initial mixing. The eggs and butter in this dough make it very tender and soft as well as contribute to its characteristic golden color.