Understanding Bread – the “Basics”

Before beginning to make bread dough, it’s important to get a few “basics” under our belt.  What is so amazing about making bread, is that you literally take a couple of simple (low cost) ingredients that when combined correctly, make a wonderful loaf of bread.  The science of how that happens is really cool!  You’ll enjoy the process more if you understand what is causing the changes, so I’m going to attempt to take all that complex science and very simply condense it for you:

Basic Bread Making Ingredients: (Though other ingredients are often used)
1)      Flour
2)     Yeast
3)      Salt
4)     Water

And Sometimes…
1)     Eggs
2)     Milk/Dry Milk Powdered
3)     Sugar
4)     Butter/Oil 

Flour has two different types of protein which, when combined with water form gluten strands.
1)      glutenin, which creates elasticity and then chewiness when baked.
2)     gliaden, which creates extensibility, the protein’s ability to stretch to achieve a higher rise. 


Different types of wheat flour contain different amounts of protein:
1)      AP Flour has the lowest amount of protein
2)     Bread Flour has about 3% more protein than AP Flour
3)     High-Gluten and Whole Wheat Flours have about 3% more protein than Bread Flour 

As you can see, it is really important when following a recipe to use the type of flour called for.  If you were making a cake, for instance, and you used Bread Flour instead of Cake Flour, because of the higher protein levels your cake would be tough and chewy.  The same goes for bread, if you use AP Flour when Bread Flour is called for your bread would not have enough protein structure to hold the rise – it would be too soft.

What is Yeast: Yeast is a living micro-organism. It requires food, warmth, and air to grow.  When added to water and a pinch of sugar, yeast flourishes in the warmth and feeds on the sugar.

Water temperature: Water temperature should never be above 110 degrees.  The best way to be accurate is to use a thermometer, but if you do not have one, think of bathing a newborn – just warm, NEVER HOT water.

Types of Yeast:
1)      Fresh/Compressed Yeast – This type of yeast comes in a “cake/block” form.  It has a very short shelf life.
2)     Active Dry Yeast – This type of yeast comes in packet and jar form (small and large). It has a long shelf life – up to a year. (always check the expiration date)   This is the type I use.
3)     Quick Rise Yeast – This type of yeast also comes in packet and jar form.  It can be used just as Regular Active Dry Yeast, but it takes ½ of the time in rising.

Yeast Equivalents:
1 package active dry yeast = about 2 1/4 teaspoons = 1/4 ounce
1 (6-ounce) cake/Block of fresh yeast = 1 package of active dry yeast

What is Proofing: Think about “proving” to yourself that the yeast is good – if it bubbles/foams, it “proves” it is good and can be used.  If it does not bubble or foam it does NOT “prove” it can be used.







How to Proof Yeast:
In the required amount of warm water (110 degrees) that the recipe calls for, add the yeast, a pinch of sugar and allow to rest at room temperature for several minutes.  Check for bubbles/foam.  Here, my recipe called for 1/2 cup water and 2 tsp. yeast.  I added a pinch of sugar and let it rest for 10 minutes.  Notice the picture on the right – Proofed!  (By the way, this is an excellent science experiment for kids.  They love to watch the yeast grow!)

The Mystery of Bread Solved!  The action of the yeast causes carbon dioxide gas bubbles to form and give “rise” to dough. The gluten strands found in the protein of the type of flour used “trap” the carbon dioxide gases as it rises.  The dough gets its structure and as it rises and bakes, it becomes a loaf of BREAD!   Isn’t that AMAZING?!!!!


About bakingway

Baker/Pastry Chef for over 25 years.

Posted on January 2, 2011, in baKING Tips, Breads and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. What a great beginning summary of how bread baking works. I actually teach bread baking in my kitchen to adult and teenage beginning bread bakers. You have done a fabulous job of explaining it very clearly and simply. I would like to print your post to use as one of my handouts. Are you ok with that?
    Thank you, I look forward to your future post.
    Neal Johnson

    • Thanks Neal! I’m glad you enjoyed my post – keeping the science simple is a bit difficult. You surely can share my post with your students. Please tell them the address of the blog as well! Thanks again! Chris

  2. Gorgeous Stuff! My spouse and i had been only contemplating that there’s too much wrong important info on this theme and you also just simply updated our judgement. Appreciate your sharing a very effective piece of writing.

  3. Thank you for this in-depth explanation of the hows and whys! I’ve started on my beginner’s bread-making journey and I keep getting surprised by how different recipes yield different results! It will be nice to know how a recipe will turn out before creating it.

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