The Main Ingredients

There are not many ingredients in bread, but everything included has a vital importance. Understanding what works, and why, will help your creative juices flow and assist in troubleshooting if problems arise.

Flour

Flour is the most important ingredient in bread making. It provides the structure (or “crumb”) of the bread, and most of the bread's nutritional value. The grain most commonly used is wheat. Although other grains are used, wheat alone contains enough essential gluten proteins to make bread production possible. Typical flour production involves cracking the grain and separating the different parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. The endosperm contains gluten.

Gluten proteins have unique properties that can change the consistency of a dough. When moistened and agitated through kneading, the gluten proteins tighten and elasticize. As a dough is kneaded it changes from a lumpy, goopy mess to a smooth, tight ball. The elasticity that develops allows the dough to rise. As the gasses build up during fermentation, the dough stretches, and because of the gluten, the dough is strong enough to trap the gasses inside.

Other grains, such as rye, millet, buckwheat, and oats, also contain gluten proteins, but not nearly enough to create such a strong elastic form. For this reason, breads made with these flours must contain at least 50 percent wheat flour.

Most flour today is made by finely grinding the endosperm, enriching it with nutrients, and bleaching it white. There are also many alternatives to standard white flour, including unbleached, whole grain, and organic flours.

  • Bread Flour

    The most common flour for bread making is bread flour, also called high-gluten flour. The hard winter wheat in this flour is bred to have higher levels of gluten protein.

  • Can bread be made without bread flour?

    All-purpose flour works fine for bread, but it isn't perfect. You can approximate the gluten protein of bread flour by adding gluten flour or vital wheat gluten, at the rate of 1 teaspoon per cup of all-purpose flour.

  • All-Purpose Flour

    All-purpose is most commonly found in American kitchens. It works for bread too, but is not ideal. The protein content is lower than that of bread flour, balanced by an equal amount of starch. All-purpose is sometimes used in the beginning of bread recipes that require longer fermentation, taking advantage of its higher starch content as food for yeast.

  • Whole Wheat Flour

    Another member of the wheat flour family is whole wheat. White flour production removes and discards the fibrous bran and nutrient-rich germ, leaving only the inner endosperm, which consists of starch and gluten proteins. Whole wheat flour retains the bran and germ and essential nutrients we need for good health. Most large flour production facilities make white flour first, then mix the bran and germ back in to create whole wheat. Stone-ground flours grind the whole grain and keep the flour parts together through the entire process. Wheat bran and wheat germ are also available separately to add into breads, enhancing flavor and nutrition. Graham is a similar whole grain wheat flour, with a slightly nuttier flavor. White whole wheat flour is made from a light-colored variety of wheat.

  • Specialty Wheat Flours

    Wheat flours such as semolina, spelt, and kamut can be added to bread recipes to enhance flavor, texture, and nutritional value. However, these grains do not contain gluten in sufficient quantities for use as the sole grain, and must be combined with wheat flour (preferably bread flour) to make a proper loaf.

  • Cake, Instant, Self-Rising, and Gluten Flours

    Cake flour, which has a high starch content and a very low amount of protein, is rarely used for bread. It is reserved for delicate pastry recipes that require a tender crumb.

    Unless a recipe specifies their use, stay away from instant flour (Wondra), which is similar to cake flour in its high starch content, and self-rising flour, which has baking soda and salt added for leavening. Gluten flour, also known as vital wheat gluten, is an additive used to increase the protein content in recipes. A small amount can be added to bread machine recipes, or to all-purpose flour as a substitute for bread flour.

Yeast

Yeast is the one ingredient that makes bread taste like bread. That characteristic yeastiness is the fragrance we smell as we pull our loaves out of the oven. But more important, without yeast, our loaves would be less like bread and more like hockey pucks.

Read the package! Most yeast can be stored at room temperature until it is opened, but once the vacuum seal is broken it needs refrigeration.

Yeast is a living organism that occurs naturally in the air all around us, and comes in different varieties. Yeast feeds on carbohydrates, and it prefers an environment that is warm and moist. When all the conditions are right, the yeast will feed and produce two byproducts, carbon dioxide and alcohol. Baker's yeast produces more carbon dioxide, while brewer's yeast produces more alcohol. The accumulating alcohol is harder to detect in baking, but the longer the fermentation, the more the alcohol accumulates.

Bubbling foam on the surface of the mixture shows that the yeast is working. As the carbon dioxide accumulates, the gluten proteins in the dough stretch, and the dough rises. The better the conditions, the more carbon dioxide is created, and the more the dough will rise. Easily absorbed carbohydrates, like sugar or honey, get to work quickly. Starches need more time to convert into sugar, so the process is slower.

  • Yeast Maintenance

    Because yeast is alive, it can be killed. This happens eventually in the oven, but it can happen prematurely if care is not taken.

    The first danger yeast encounters is water temperature. Warm water is recommended to get the yeast started, but anything over 110°F will kill it. Some bakers use a thermometer for precision, but a normal sense of touch works too. You should be able to easily hold your finger in the warm water. That will make it slightly above body temperature (98.6°F). If you can't handle it, the yeast can't either.

    Salt can also kill yeast. Bread needs salt for flavor, and a touch of salt keeps the fermentation process in check. Bread with no salt will erupt in fermentation, as in Italy's Tuscan White Hearth Bread. But adding too much salt, or letting the salt come into direct contact with the yeast, will drastically retard the fermentation process to the point of stopping it.

    Sugar can also have a slowing effect on yeast. Excessive sugar added directly to the yeast sends it into a feeding frenzy, and leaves little fuel for later in the fermentation process. When a dough is sweet, the increased amount of sugar must be added in stages, so as not to shock the yeast.

  • Choosing Yeast

    The recipes in this book call for active dry yeast, which is the most readily available yeast in markets today. There are other options, however. Quickrise yeast is fed large amounts of phosphorus and ammonia, which speeds its activity by 50 percent. Instant yeast is coated with ascorbic acid and sugar for immediate activation. Bread machine yeast is covered in ascorbic acid and flour for easy absorption, and can used interchangeably with active dry for most recipes.

    Compressed yeast, also known as fresh cake yeast, is the yeast preferred by professionals. It is perishable, and if refrigerated, will hold for about a week. It may also be frozen for several months, although the consistency will change once defrosted.

    Similar in constancy to a block of cheese, fresh yeast is more easily measured by weight, which is preferred by production bakers. But more important, fresh yeast has a superior flavor. It can be used instead of active dry (.06 ounces is equivalent to .25 ounces active dry) in the recipes in this book. Small cakes of yeast are available refrigerated in some markets, although they are often cut with cornstarch. The cornstarch accelerates fermentation, but results in a product with less flavor. If you are interested in baking with fresh yeast, try buying a 1-pound block from a local artisan baker. To store, cut it into sixteen cubes and freeze loose in a zip-top bag. Pull out ounce-sized blocks as needed.

Water

In order for the yeast to absorb nutrients, water must be present. Water can be straight from the tap, bottled, filtered, or purified. Milk, juice, tea, coffee, and eggs are commonly added in place of all or a portion of the water needed.

Many bakers insist on a certain type of water, based on taste and desired outcome. If your tap water tastes good, it is perfectly fine to use. If you are concerned about the mineral content, use a filter. Some bakers are known to import tap water from certain cities for authenticity.

Many recipes call for water to be at a certain temperature, the optimal temperature that promotes fermentation. However, fermentation takes place even when water is cold. Cool temperatures retard fermentation, but they do not halt it until a dough is frozen. For this reason, bakers can slow down production by making a dough in the evening, letting it rise slowly overnight in the fridge, and forming and baking it the following day. Bakers agree that if time allows, a longer rise is preferable, because more fermentation produces more flavorful bread.

Salt

The number one reason that salt is added to any type of recipe is flavor. Salt also plays a chemical role in baking yeast bread. Salt retards the process of yeast fermentation. This happens because salt attracts water. Remember that water is a necessary component of yeast fermentation. When water is attracted to the salt, there is less available for the yeast. Most dough can withstand salt up to about 2 percent before the effect becomes detrimental.

Most professional bakers use kosher salt for its superior flavor, which is less metallic and less “salty” than standard iodized table salt. Don't bother using fancy gourmet salts in dough recipes. Their subtle flavors will be lost in a sea of yeast. Save them for the top of breads, where they give a burst of flavor at first bite.

Salt also helps toughen gluten by helping bond protein molecules. Salt inhibits enzymes that soften protein, essentially protecting the gluten protein from destruction. Dough made without salt will be noticeably slack or mushy, and its fermentation will be rapid and unstable. Bread made without salt will have less structure, and a bland, overly yeasted, overly fermented flavor.

Too much salt will prevent the yeast from feeding, causing little rise, if any. The dough's texture will be tight, and flavor will be too salty to eat. The right amount of salt for optimal outcome is also the precise amount needed to make bread taste good.

Sugar

Sugar makes five major contributions to bread dough. It is food for the yeast, flavor for us, and it promotes tenderness, preserves crumb, and gives the bread a nice color.

Sugar is the preferred source of food for yeast, because it is easiest for the yeast to consume. There are other sweeteners that contain glucose, and also work well as a sweetener and yeast food, including honey, date sugar, agave syrup, cane syrup, and maple syrup. Professional bakers use barley malt, a syrup (or powder) that has a unique flavor, and although it is half as sweet as sugar, the sprouted grain contains enzymes that convert the barley starch to sugar necessary for fermentation. Sugar is also converted from the starch in flour, which takes a little longer.

Sweeteners vary in their sweetening strength and caramelizing properties. Cane or beet sugars, which include granulated, brown, turbinado, and powdered, are half as sweet as honey. Date sugar, agave, and sugar substitutes don't caramelize in the oven. Substitutions may take a little experimentation for best results.

Sugar, like salt, attracts water. This effect is evident in the moistness of a sweet bread, and its shelf life. The ability to hold water keeps the bread moist days longer than a sugar-free bread. The effect of holding water also means that excessive amounts of sugar will inhibit fermentation by keeping the water away from where it needs to be. In bread recipes with a large amount of sugar, it must be added in stages to prevent disruption in fermentation.

When sugar is cooked, it caramelizes. This effect also occurs inside a dough, and is evidenced in the color of a crust. If two bread recipes are made identically, but one is made with sugar and one without, the crust of the sugar-free dough will be noticeably pale. It takes a surprisingly small amount of sugar to brown a crust, which is why most recipes contain at least a teaspoon or two. But sweet dough, with double or triple that amount, will be noticeably darker.

Fat

Fat moistens the bread, tenderizes the crumb, and prolongs the shelf life. A lean dough (fat-free dough), such as French bread, will begin to stale as soon as it cools, and will last less than a day before its drying texture becomes noticeable. Rich dough (dough with fat) remains soft and moist for twice as long.

Fat and oil are interchangeable; both produce the same effect on the crumb of the dough. The flavors, though, vary greatly. Neutral oils, like vegetable, salad, and canola, are good substitutes for butter. Olive oil has a strong, fruity flavor that is not always appropriate.

Fat slows fermentation. Oily dough is heavier, which limits the stretch of the gluten and prevents large pockets of carbon dioxide from forming during fermentation. The absence of large bubbles of gas results in the absence of large holes in the finished bread crumb. Bread with a tight crumb is preferred for recipes such as sandwiches and canapés because it holds in the fillings.

Fat is added into bread dough in several forms, including butter, milk, cream, sour cream, cheese, nut butters, and eggs. Recipes will specify how a fat is to be added, which is usually after the yeast is proofed, but before the main quantity of flour is added. It is not necessary to liquefy a solid fat before adding it. Mixing and kneading will add enough friction to warm the fats to liquid state, making them easily absorbed by the flour.

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