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Yeast Bread Primer

Making a loaf of bread, turning a sticky, lumpy mess into a loaf of real bread, feels different from buying a loaf that someone else or some mystery machine has made. If you haven’t made bread yet, we won’t tell you what that feeling is, or try to describe it.

When you are holding a slice of warm bread in your hand, one that you made yourself, you’ll know that feeling, plus, from that slice of bread, you will get more energy than you can from any other kind of food. It can help you lose weight. It can be packed with things that are good for you, and things that are not so good when you’re in the mood for a break.

Like your fingerprints, the bread you bake will be completely your own. It will reflect your personality and no one else’s because of the infinite number of variables you affect, either consciously or unconsciously, as you bake. Whether your hand is light or generous when measuring and adding ingredients, the length of time you spend kneading, the aromas in your kitchen, its temperature and the rate the air flows through it, the color and shape of your bread pans, the size and age of your oven, even the mood you’re in at the time you bake (whatever it is, making a loaf of bread will probably improve it!), all these and more imprint your bread so that it can be no one’s but yours.

Baking with yeast lets the artist in you come out. It’s somewhere between making mud pies and sculpting, the earthy mixed with the sublime. Your first loaf may not be beautiful, but baking can succeed on more than one level. Even if it doesn’t look pretty, its smell and taste alone are enough to transport you.

The Easiest Bread You’ll Ever Make

Our basic formula consists of only five ingredients, and only three of those are critical. This will make the simplest but most useful dough there is.

The key to being an intuitive baker lies in knowing what the key ingredients are in whatever you’re baking, and the ratio they have to each other. In yeast baking, there are just the three alluded to above: the flour, the liquid and the yeast. In most breads you’ll use three parts of flour to one of liquid, by volume, not weight. Our recipe for hearth bread, which will make 2 loaves, calls for 2 cups of water and three times that, or 6 cups, of flour. For this much flour and water, we’ll use 1 packet, or a scant tablespoon of yeast.

There are only two other ingredients to worry about, sugar and salt. You can actually make bread without either but we include them because the sugar gives the yeast an easy first course, and both bring out flavor. You can adjust either to suit your taste or diet. In this recipe, a tablespoon of each is a good place to start. So altogether we have 2 cups of liquid, 6 cups of flour, a tablespoon each of yeast, sugar and salt. When you’ve memorized this short list your life as an intuitive baker will have begun.

The following guidelines will take you through the process of making a loaf of bread with these five ingredients. Along the way you’ll discover some of the mysteries and magic that yeast contains.

King Arthur Flour’s Hearth Bread

Hearth breads were originally baked just where their name implies, at the hearth. Before the modern stove was invented, if you were well enough off, you had an oven built into the brick or stone work which contained the central fireplace or heating system of your house. This way, all the cooking and baking could be done in the same area and both could share the same chimney. These baking chambers, which may be familiar to some as beehive ovens, were used to bake almost everything that couldn’t be cooked in a kettle over coals or an open fire.

If you didn’t have a built-in oven, you would have used a Dutch oven, a portable cast iron kettle with a lid, which stood on legs right in the coals of the fireplace. To produce an all-around heat, more coals were shoveled directly on the lid. Dutch ovens are still made today and are very useful, since they are completely portable.

To preheat a built-in brick oven, a fire was built right in the oven chamber itself. About two hours later, most of the coals and ashes were removed and the baking began. A hearth bread was baked directly on the oven floor and was deposited there and removed with a long wooden paddle or “peel.” The whole baking process was done “by feel” as there were no thermometers to let you know when the oven was the right temperature or when the bread was done.

To make a hearth bread with a crackly crust, it was necessary to expose the dough to steam for 8 or 10 minutes after it went into the oven. This technique, used today so successfully by the French, gelatinized the starch on the surface of the dough. As the bread continued to bake after the steaming period, this gelatinized surface baked into the characteristic crunchy crust of a hearth bread. In old ovens, steam was created by wiping the whole interior with a very wet cloth on the end of a pole, much like a mop. Today, most commercial hearth breads are baking in ovens that have steam injected into them mechanically at 2 or 3 minute intervals during this first 8 or 10 minute baking period.

Hearth Bread Recipe

This recipe is a typical one with two rising periods. We’ll give you some alternative methods farther along. This one will take somewhere between 3 1/2 and 5 hours from start to finish, depending partly on whether you work quickly or leisurely. But no matter how fast you work, most of this time it’s the yeast, not you, that’s busy. Where you put the dough to rise is the most important factor in determining the time frame.

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon or packet active dry yeast
  • 6 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • (cornmeal to sprinkle on baking sheet)

There are only two hurdles to get over in putting these ingredients together and neither is a very big one. The first is activating or “proofing” the yeast at a temperature that will make it want to grow. This part of bread baking probably causes the most anxiety. To alleviate it, just remember that yeast likes and dislikes the same temperatures you do. Knowing what is comfortable for you means you know what’s comfortable for the yeast.

Activating or Proofing the Yeast: Pour the water, hot from the tap, into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and stir until it dissolves. As the water dissolves the sugar and warms the bowl, it cools somewhat and should be just right for dissolving and activating the yeast. Somewhere between 95°F and 115°F is fine. With such a wide temperature range, you know that yeast is really quite accommodating. Try a few drops of water on your wrist. If it feels warm and comfortable to you, it will feel the same way to the yeast. Add the tablespoon or packet of yeast and stir it in.

The temperature has to be 120°F, which feels hot, before it begins to kill the yeast. It has to get all the way to 140°F before all the yeast is completely done in. 140°F feels really hot. If you don’t want to trust yourself the first time around, use a candy thermometer to see if you and the thermometer agree on what is “hot” and what’s just right.

Let the yeast mixture sit for 5 or 6 minutes, 2 to 3 for it to become thoroughly dissolved and 2 or 3 more for it to begin to grow and show signs of life. Tiny bubbles should begin to appear on the surface. Some varieties will cause the whole mixture to expand rather dramatically.

If none of this happens (which is very unlikely), and you’re sure that the water you used was not too hot, it may be that you have some “tired” yeast. (This is why activating the yeast is called proofing. It proves that the yeast is alive and ready to go before you get too far into a recipe.) If you suspect your yeast might be too old, your best bet is to get a new batch and start again.

Don’t add the salt yet. Yeast doesn’t like salt and will be happier if you add it after you stir in the first cup of flour. The flour acts as a buffer and prevents the salt from making a direct “assault” on the newly growing yeast.

The second hurdle in making your dough is not to add too much flour. This, too, is easily avoided.

Measuring & Adding the Flour

All flour is sifted through many layers of silk screening, (i.e., it is “pre-sifted”) before it is packaged at the flour mill. During shipment it settles and becomes compressed. Our mothers and grandmothers used a flour sifter to return compacted flour to its original light and airy state. Since sifted flour weighs 4 1/4 ounces rather than the 5 or so ounces a compacted or “scooped” cup of flour weighs, you can see where it might be easy to inadvertently add more flour than a recipe calls for.

All King Arthur Flour recipes, unless noted otherwise, are written for 4 1/4-ounce cups of flour, but you don’t need a flour sifter to make sure your cups weigh that much. When you measure flour the following way, it will weigh 4 ounces a cup, you won’t add too much to your dough and you’ll have flour that is already full of lots of little air pockets, the first step to a light loaf of bread.

  1. First fluff up the flour in the bag or canister with a spoon until it’s light.
  2. Then sprinkle it lightly into a dry cup measure (the kind that measures exactly a cup at the rim).
  3. Scrape any excess off with the back of a knife.

Stir your first cup of flour into the yeast mixture and add the salt. Then stir in 4 1/2 cups more flour. When the dough begins to hold together and pull away from the sides of the bowl, it is ready to knead.

Kneading

This part of bread making is one of the most pleasurable, especially if you’re kneading on a surface that is a comfortable height for you. Traditional counter height, 36 inches, is fine for someone who is quite tall. If you aren’t, it’s important to find a surface low enough so you can use your whole body when you’re kneading, and not just your arms. Table height (29 or 30 inches) may be much better for you, or somewhere in between. Experiment to find what is comfortable and effective.

If you ever enjoyed rocking in a rocking chair, or rocking a baby, this is what kneading can be like, but only if you’re doing it at an optimum height. Find a little music so you and the dough can have a dance all by yourselves.

Turn your dough out onto your kneading surface which you’ve sprinkled lightly with the remaining 1/2 cup of flour. Before you start, flour your hands well, too. When you first begin, it will be a bit messy, but don’t be faint of heart.

Fold the outside edge of the dough over onto itself toward you and push the dough away gently with the heels of your hands. After every push, turn the dough a quarter of the way around and fold it toward you again. Keep repeating this sequence. You’ll find that you’ll begin to rock back and forth and relax as you do it.

As you knead, sprinkle just enough more flour about to keep the dough from sticking to the board or to you. Depending on the humidity in the air, this can mean more or less than the original 6 cups.

Flour is porous like a sponge. When the air around it is dry, flour will be dry. When the air is humid, flour will absorb the moisture in it. Just as a dry sponge can soak up more water than a wet sponge, so can dry flour. You’ll find that during cold, dry months you’ll often need less flour when making a dough, and in hot, humid months, a bit more.

After you’ve kneaded for 3 to 4 minutes, let the dough take a little rest while you clean out and grease the bowl. When you return to your dough, you’ll find that the little rest has changed it. It will feel more “together” and easier to work.

Continue kneading another 3 to 4 minutes, a few minutes more if you have time and are enjoying yourself, less if you don’t. When the dough is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, it has been kneaded enough.

First Rising: Form the dough into a nice, round ball and place it in your greased bowl, turning it over so the top has a thin film of grease on it as well. This helps keep it soft so that, as the yeast begins to grow and produce carbon dioxide bubbles, it can expand.

Cover the bowl with a damp towel or a piece of plastic wrap. It’s a good idea to grease the underside of the plastic so that it won’t stick if the dough comes in contact with it.

Put the bowl somewhere cozy to let the yeast grow and multiply until it has doubled the size of the dough. This will take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours depending on warmth and humidity. If your kitchen is warm, that is probably cozy enough. If you have a pilot light in your oven, put it in there, or on top of your refrigerator, or on a heating pad, (even on your water bed). Somewhere between 75°F and 85°F is ideal.

If you put your dough somewhere cooler, it will still rise, but more slowly.

You’ll find that on rainy or stormy days (great days for baking anyway), when the barometric pressure is low, your bread will rise more quickly than it does ordinarily. This is because the dough doesn’t have as much air to “push” against; the air is not as dense or heavy as it is on clear days. This is the same reason you don’t need as much yeast or baking powder at high altitudes where the air is thinner and lighter.

Knocking or Punching Down the Dough: When you can poke your finger in the dough without it springing back, it has “doubled in bulk.”

Make a fist and give it a good knock or punch. If anyone is passing through the room, it doesn’t take much to entice them into assisting with this step. A few punches will knock most of the gas out.

Turn the dough out onto your lightly floured kneading surface and knead out any stray bubbles.

Second Rising (optional): A traditional hearth bread usually has a coarse grain so if that’s what you’re aiming for, skip this step. (But it’s good to know about for making rolls and other breads where you want a finer grain.)

By the end of the first rising the dough will contain almost twice as much yeast as it did when it started. If you wish, or a change in schedule necessitates it, you can let the dough rise a second time in the bowl after you’ve knocked it down. Because there is twice as much yeast working, the second rising will take about half as much time as the first. And because each of those little single-celled organisms is producing its own bubble of carbon dioxide, you’ll have twice as many little carbon dioxide bubbles in the dough. (It’s all these extra bubbles that make the grain finer.) After the dough has doubled, knock it down again.

Traditional Shaping

Let the dough rest for several minutes after you’ve kneaded all the bubbles out. This will relax the gluten and make it much easier to shape. The directions may sound complicated, but don’t let them intimidate you; the dough will tell you what to do.

Cut the dough in half to shape it into two loaves, either French style (long and narrow), Italian style (shorter and more oval), or round. Tuck the cut edge of each piece into the center of the dough so it is no longer exposed.

Gently, so you don’t break the surface, roll it out with the flat of your hands like a fat play dough “snake.” It may take two or three relaxing periods (of a few minutes each) and more light sprinklings of flour to make it the length you want.

Put the smoothest side (which you’ll want to make the top surface of the bread) DOWN on your kneading surface. Make sure it’s lightly floured so it can move without sticking.

To shape the loaf, think about wrapping up something in a towel, bringing it around whatever you’re wrapping and tucking the ends underneath. Imagine the surface of your dough is the towel. Bring it around, stretching it gently to expand the (bottom) surface and tuck all the edges into the center (at the top). Since this will be the bottom of your loaf, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Turn the loaf over and tidy it up if necessary.

Place the loaf on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled generously with cornmeal. Repeat with the second piece of dough.

Final Rising

Cover them both with a damp towel and let them rise until they have doubled, somewhere around an hour. Since you don’t want to leave a big fingerprint in the dough when you check it this time, poke it gently on the side.

If the dough doesn’t immediately spring back at you, and your finger has left a slight impression, you can probably assume it is ready to go in the oven.

Dough can over-rise. When it has, it looks billowy, as though it was pumped full of air. Don’t be tempted to let your dough rise to this point hoping that the baked loaves will be lighter. Over-risen dough tends to collapse on itself either before or while it’s baking. As a result, the bread will be dense and sour tasting, the opposite of what you intended.

If your dough should over-rise after it’s shaped, just knock it down and quickly reshape it (and pretend you meant to have it rise again all along).

Because King Arthur Flour has a greater tolerance than other all-purpose flours, it can stand more risings before the gluten begins to break down. What this really means is that a King Arthur dough is very accommodating and forgiving and will give you more chances to succeed.

Preparing the Oven

Although it’s difficult to recreate the original hearth loaves in our modern ovens, we can come fairly close.

Every oven is unique, not like any other. Newer ovens are better insulated and tighter which means less fluctuation in temperature, though even in the newer ovens temperatures can vary. Check yours with an oven thermometer for any discrepancies that could account for under- or overdone bread. Getting to know your oven will keep it from surprising you and will help you work with it more effectively.

Using Baking Tiles

Although baking tiles aren’t critical to making a successful hearth bread, they can help approximate a hearth oven. Baking stones or tiles are available at most kitchen supply or tile stores. Lay them directly on your oven bottom or, if that’s not possible, on the first rack. The tiles will absorb moisture and release it slowly as well as act as a “heat sink” to even out any temperature fluctuations. You can leave baking tiles in the oven permanently. If you want to bake something at the level the tiles are on, cover them with a large cake rack. This will allow air to circulate underneath a cake pan or cookie sheet. Just remove the rack when you’re making hearth bread.

Creating Steam

First, preheat your oven to 475°F about 15 minutes before you want to bake your bread. To create steam, you have several options.

Water

Place a roasting pan directly on the oven bottom (on the baking tiles if you have them) or lower rack and let it preheat with your oven. Just before you’re ready to put your loaves in the oven, pour 2 to 3 cups of water in it. Use something with a handle long enough to prevent you from getting burned. Steam is deadly. And keep a pan just for this purpose as this steaming business won’t be kind to a pan you love.

Ice Cubes

Our friend Rebecca Cunningham (whose fruit tartlets appear in Chapter VII) throws a tray of ice cubes in the preheated roasting pan. She says it creates a time-released steam that lasts just about as long as it should (8 to 10 minutes) and creates some pretty dramatic hissing and crackling in the process. Who said baking can’t be exciting?

Mist

Use a mister to spray your loaves with water every 2 minutes for the first 8 or 10 minutes of baking. This is fun too but you tend to lose heat every time you open your oven. (We have another friend who throws 1/4 cup of water on her tiles every 2 minutes. This we don’t recommend, even though it, too, is pretty dramatic.)

Finishing Touches

Here are several options for dressing up your bread now that it has risen and is ready to bake.

Slashing the Top

Just before you put the loaves in the oven, slash the oval loaves diagonally three or four times about 1/4 inch deep. To make an attractive pattern on the top of a round loaf, cut twice one way and twice at right angles across the first cuts. A good serrated knife does this easily. By making these cuts, you create places for the bread to expand where you want it to which can prevent (horrors!) a bread “blowout.”

Washing

Each kind of wash has its own merits. You can use whichever appeals to you.

  • Water Wash: This helps the steaming process and makes a crunchier crust. Just before you put your loaves in the oven, brush the tops with cold water. You can use your fingertips if you're gentle, a pastry brush, or even a mister which will spray on an even, fine film of water. Another alternative is a goose feather brush which will spread water (or any wash) over the surface of the dough with almost no pressure at all.
  • Whole Egg Wash: To make your loaves "fancy for company," make a wash with a whole egg beaten with a tablespoon of water. Brush this gently over the exposed surface of the dough before it goes in the oven. This will give the loaves a shiny bronzed surface.
  • Egg White Wash: This does essentially the same thing as the whole egg wash but the color is transparent. With 1 egg white, use 2 teaspoons of water.
  • Egg Yolk Wash: This makes a very golden crust. With 1 egg yolk, use 2 teaspoons of water.
  • Milk Wash: Like egg, milk makes a bronzed crust, but it will be softer and less shiny.
  • Butter: A little melted butter can be brushed on, either before or after baking, for a softer, richer flavored crust.

Sprinklings

To dress up your loaves even more, make an egg wash “glue” by beating a whole egg with just 2 teaspoons of water. Brush this over the exposed surface of your dough and sprinkle on one or more of the following: kosher or coarse sea salt; one of the herbal salt substitutes or some chopped herbs themselves; sesame, poppy or sunflower seeds; minced garlic or onion; grated hard cheese; chopped nuts; or anything that will complement the meal your bread will be served with.

Baking

This is where the magic happens. After your oven is thoroughly preheated, pour 2 or 3 cups of water (or throw a tray of ice cubes) into the preheated roasting pan. (Keep your hands well back so you don’t get steamed.)

With pot holders, or preferably oven mitts, quickly place the loaves on a rack above the pan. Bake for 20 minutes. Check the bread after 15 minutes. If the crust is getting too brown, turn the temperature down to 450°F and finish baking.

Tap the bottom of a loaf after you take it out of the oven. If it sounds hollow, it should be done. If it isn’t, the moisture in the interior will deaden the tap sound. If there’s any question, put the bread back into the oven for an extra five minutes.

If you want a softer crust, remove the bread after the 20 minute baking period. As it cools, moisture will evaporate through the crust and soften it. To keep the crust crunchy, turn the oven off after the bread has finished baking and leave the loaves inside with the door closed for 5 to 10 minutes. It is in this simplest of breads that the marriage of wheat flour and yeast becomes sublime. The smell of it as it comes out of the oven, the first taste before it’s even cool, that feeling of complete satisfaction after eating the first piece, all these combine to put the world right for at least a little while.

Freezing Dough & Bread

Bread dough can be frozen prior to baking, either before or after it has been shaped. Freezing won’t kill the yeast, but it does subdue it somewhat, so double the amount called for in the recipe.

Finished breads can be frozen very successfully in heavy, airtight plastic bags in a non-self-defrosting freezer. If you get them into the freezer as soon as they are completely cool, they will taste just as if they had come right out of the oven when they’re thawed.