My tryst with the yeast !!!(part-II) basics of bread baking
This article is a continuation of My tryst with the yeast (part I)
Kneading is the primary way to achieve gluten network in dough. Gluten is a protein which develops once the flour is wetted with water and worked around with hands or any electric equipment. Alternatively gluten network can also be developed by just mixing the dough ingredients and allowing the dough to rise for 12-18 hours in a warm place. That way nature does the kneading for you and this forms the basis of all ‘no-knead breads’.
Yeasts are living cells, they feed on sugars in the dough. Initially, on the sugar provided in the reciepe and later as the sugar depletes, it breaks down the sugar or precisely carbs in the flour. As a result of this sugar metabolism they release carbon-di-oxide, which gets collected in the dough. To contain this released gas, gluten in the flour helps to stretch the dough and entraps the gas like small gas filled balloons. This forms the basis of porous and soft bread.
Kneading is also one of the road blocks why most of us shy away from baking bread at home. I agree it is a skill, but something which has worked so well for so many years and for so many people, why won’t it for you and me?
The basic technique for kneading is as follows:
- Select a suitable clean platform for kneading, usually something which comes to your waist height, so that you can use the entire body weight while kneading. A kitchen platform should be fine.
- Roll the dough in a ball, put it on a greased or floured platform. Keep some extra flour handy in case the dough sticks to your hand.
- With clean hands , first flatten the ball of dough, fold it into half inwards, towards you and press with the heels of your palm away from you.Use both the hands, it makes for faster and less tiresome process (please ignore my creepy hands in the picture!!) Repeat this two-three times.Do not tear the dough, just stretch it.
- Now give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the procedure.
- Continue doing the same until the sticky mass becomes soft and elastic. This may take anything between 10-15 minutes.
- If you are tired, take a break for few minutes and resume. But make sure you keep the dough back into the bowl and cover it, rather than leaving it on the platform. It will lose its moisture and a dry film forms on its top surface, which inhibits the activity of yeast.
- The catch is in those 15 minutes work on all parts of the dough equally.
- If the dough feels sticky, add a bit of flour to it, or dust your hands with it. But be careful not to add too much, it will throw off the flour: liquid ratio, and bread will be dry and hard. Better alternative is to mildly grease the work surface and your hands with the same fat that went into the flour.
- After the dough is almost kneaded and is no more sticky, you can now fold in dry fruits or tooty fruity or any other additives you want to and then keep kneading lightly until its gets evenly distributed. Adding them in the flour itself will pose a risk of repeated tearing of dough while kneading. However, any spices or herbs can be added in the flour before adding water. Allows better absorption of flavours.
Yes, it is a muscle work definitely. You can also experiment with your hand mixer with the dough hook attachment, or a food processor with plastic attachment. I feel the yeast benefits from the warmth of your hands while kneading. So I always give it a quick five minute hand-knead to finish the process, even if I’am using an electric equipment.
How much to knead and how to know it’s been kneaded enough?
It’s believed that it’s virtually impossible to over knead when you are doing it with hand, (unless of course if it has been done by an over enthusiastic hubby like mine who is always keen to show his deltoid power :-)).As you start kneading, the dough is a sticky mass. Once proper kneading is done, the dough looks soft and elastic, no longer sticky and it becomes possible to shape it into a ball without the dough falling apart. The following are the tests to check if your dough is ready to rise:
1. Shape the dough into a ball and let it drop onto your work surface. If the dough is ready, it should hold its shape. ( source wikihow.com)
2. Window pane test: First, cut off a small piece of the dough about the size of a golf ball. Hold it between your thumb and first two fingers. Next, gently spread your fingers and thumbs apart, stretching the dough into a thin translucent membrane (i.e, a windowpane),If you can stretch the dough without it breaking, that means the gluten is well-developedand your dough is ready to rise. Pat the ball back into the larger batch and you’re good to go. If the dough tears before you’ve fully extended your fingers, the gluten isn’t quite ready yet. Knead the dough for another two minutes and try the windowpane test again. (source kitchn.com)
My doughs are not usually that perfect everytime and I don’t always get window panes , but after 10-15 minutes of kneading, the dough starts changing its behavior. When I try to pull off a piece, it comes as a long string, rather than just breaking off. That for me is sign of doneness. Remember, window panes in a dough are ‘ideal’, so if you aim at it, you will atleast end up somewhere near it, rather than not trying for it at all and having a lumpy mass in hand. Also window panes can be well appreciated in doughs with all purpose flour (maida), rather than whole wheat flours (atta)
Rise of the dough:
One the dough is kneaded well, keep it in a greased container. It’s better to use caliberated containers to measure the amount of rise. I use the liquid measure jar, makes things much simpler. Grease it properly before placing the dough in it and rotate the dough within it, so that all surfaces of dough are greased well. Cover with a kitchen towel or greased plastic sheet or tin foil. Doubling may take anywhere between 40-60 minutes depending on the weather. If the weather is really cold, pre heat your oven, then switch it off and place your dough in it. Another sure way to check if it has doubled and if you are not using a caliberated container, is to insert two fingers into the dough upto the knuckles. If the dough bounces back once you take out the fingers, the dough isn’t ready. If the indentations remain, the dough is ready to be baked.
Once doubled gently punch and deflate it and shape it accordingly. This dough now goes into baking dish for a second rise where it has to double again.
A pre baking glaze is usually applied on the top surface of the dough after it is given a second rise in the loaf tin. It makes the crust more dark, shiny and enhances its visual impact. The following glazes can be used
Egg yolk- for a dark brown and softer crust
Egg white- for a light brown/ golden and softer crust
Milk or water – for a lighter brown and softer crust
Egg yolk-water or whole egg – water mixture is also used to wet the top surface of the loaf, to sprinkle and hold nuts and other toppings.
Additionally fresh cream, butter, olive oil and other fat can also be used as glaze.
Doneness of bread:
It can be checked by two ways. If you happen to have a probe style kitchen thermometer or meat thermometer, then the temperature at the bottom of the bread should read between 870-900 C. However if you don’t have one, you can check by the color change of the crust as also by picking up the loaf and tapping the bottom. It should sound hollow.At times while baking, the crust seems to be browning faster, just cover the tin with aluminium foil and continue baking till the interior is cooked. Easier said than done, experience will teach you how to accurately ‘guess’ the doneness. Thermometer method is considered to be the most reliable one.
Just out of the oven the crust feels hard, don’t worry. It slowly softens as it absorbs the moisture from the inside during cooling. Do not cut the bread at this stage as the core is still cooking . Allow it to cool on a cooling rack. The very idea of using a cooling rack is to allow good circulation of air underneath the loaf .Once the loaf is out of the oven and still hot, you can brush it with butter or oil. This gives a good sheen to the crust. I usually use ghee.
Storage of bread:
Hardly a problem for homemade breads, my three-fourths of loaf disappears the moment I start slicing it. However if you still plan to store it , airtight containers in cool dry place are the option. Homemade breads do not have any added preservatives as compared to store brought ones (another reason for us to start baking breads). So it’s better to be consumed within 2-3 days.
Some take home points:
- Check the yeast! Check the yeast! Check the yeast!! Can’t stress more on that. Do not bother to proceed with the recipe if your yeast isn’t foaming in sugar solution. Do check instant yeast too at times, to make sure your batch is still viable.
- Instant yeast is the best to start with. I don’t see myself switching to any other form in near future. It has never given me any problem. Again make sure your source is reliable.
- Always start with recipes with all purpose flour, gradually you can swap it with whole wheat.
- Whenever you start kneading the dough, it should not feel hard, that means it needs more water, else the bread will come out dry with cracks on top of crust.
- Place the dough in caliberated containers to know if it has doubled. Eyeballing the size doesn’t help always. Take the two finger test to make sure it has doubled.
- A dough scraper is a very handy tool , especially when manipulating a very sticky dough or when cleaning the work surface.
As cliché as it may sound, nothing beats the satisfaction of baking a homemade bread. It has been kneaded with your passion, baked in the warmth of your love, rose with the pride of your achievement and served with your smile. So next time when your kid dips a bread in the milk, and remarks mom, it’s just like bakery bread, you will agree the effort is worth it.