Don’t let lengthy yeast bread recipes intimidate you. Making yeast bread is easy—even if you’re a beginner—and requires just a few minutes of hands-on work. Below is a brief overview of how yeast breads are made, using our Hearty Country Bread as an example. Once you learn these basics, following a bread recipe will be a cinch.
The most important thing to remember is that good bread takes both time and patience—you must wait for the bread dough to be ready, but when ready, the bread dough will not wait for you. As most professional bakers will tell you, bread baking is a game of “hurry up and wait.”
When measuring out ingredients for a dough, bakers often use the phrase “scale out”’ rather than “measure out” because they use a scale to weigh the ingredients rather than using measuring cups. Because the ratio of flour to water greatly impacts the end result, we recommend weighing your ingredients before making bread. That said, whether you scale or measure, the nice thing about bread dough is that it is very flexible—you will have plenty of time during kneading to fix a wet or dry dough if necessary. The only thing to keep in mind is temperature, since yeast is a live culture; if your liquid ingredients are too warm (over 120 degrees), they will kill the yeast.
Mixing only takes a minute or two and we like to do the mixing right in the standing mixer bowl that will be used later for kneading. The point of mixing is to evenly distribute water into the dry ingredients (which starts the development of gluten), and form a very shaggy dough. Making a smooth, soft, malleable ball of dough is not the point here—we just care about incorporating the water into the flour. This step is particularly important for rustic doughs, because it lays the foundation for a strong gluten structure later during kneading and turning.
Many of our recipes let the dough rest after it’s mixed—officially, this rest is called an autolyse. The point of this resting time is to let the flour absorb the water before it gets pushed around during kneading. Giving the flour a chance to hydrate has several advantages: it makes the dough less sticky and easier to knead, it cuts down on kneading time (excessive kneading leads to loss of flavor), and it gives the bread a more open crumb. An autolyse is especially important for leaner breads such as rustic loaves and baguettes; it is less critical for breads with more fat and flavoring ingredients, like sandwich bread and cinnamon swirl bread.
Kneading is a very important step that takes 8 to 10 minutes in a standing mixer (or up to 30 minutes if kneading by hand), and this time should never be skimped on. Kneading develops and organizes the gluten strands in the dough, which provides the bread’s structure. Without good gluten structure, the bread will sag in the oven.
After the dough has been kneaded, it needs to rest, relax, and rise (usually for 1 to 1½ hours). The gluten, which was worked hard during kneading, will relax and become elastic and supple. Meanwhile, the yeast will begin to go to work—it eats the flours starches and releases carbon dioxide. The releasing of the carbon dioxide into the relaxed, elastic dough is like slowly blowing air into a balloon. The bread is ready for shaping when it has doubled in size. The key is knowing when that point is reached. The easiest way is to let the dough rise in a straight-sided container and mark its initial height with a rubber band.
After the first rise, the dough is formed into the final shape of the bread, such as a round loaf, sandwich loaf, small rolls, or a long, skinny baguette. The shaping is done on the counter with “iron hands in kid gloves,” to quote an old baker’s phrase. Simply put, you need to firmly bend, fold, and roll the dough (which will have a will of its own at this point) into a tidy, sturdy shape without tearing or roughing up the dough’s surface.
This second rise, also called proofing, is much like the first rise in that the dough needs to rest, relax, and rise. The only difference this time is that the yeast is already hard at work and the dough has been shaped into a loaf. You also shouldn’t let the bread overrise (overproof) or it will develop a slack shape, a dense, blobby texture, and a sour taste. Underrisen loaves will be dense and squat. (But when in doubt, it’s better to under- than overproof.) You can tell when the loaf is properly risen and ready to be baked when it has nearly doubled in size, and the dough barely springs back when poked with a knuckle.
Heating up the oven (and a baking stone if you’re making rustic breads or rolls) is important, as is prepping the bread for baking. Some loaves of bread should be brushed with something wet, such as water, oil, or a beaten egg—this moisture helps keep the surface of the bread elastic so that the bread can continue to rise nicely as it bakes in the oven. Alternatively, you can turn your oven into a steamy sauna by pouring boiling water into a preheated loaf pan placed on the oven's bottom rack; the moist environment transfers heat more rapidly than dry heat, prevents the bread's exterior from drying out too quickly, and creates a glossy, crackly crust. Some loaves and rolls with thick, rustic crusts are also slashed with a sharp knife or razor—this not only looks pretty, but the slash acts as a pleat to let the bread rise during baking.
The best way to gauge the doneness of a loaf is internal temperature. Don’t be tempted to pierce the top crust in the center, though, as this will leave a conspicuous hole. Insert the thermometer from the side. (If the bread is in a loaf pan insert it just above the edge of the pan directing it at a downward angle.) Bread is generally done baking when its internal temperature registers 200 to 210 degrees. We don’t, however, recommend using this method for testing babka or cinnamon swirl bread because you could hit a patch of sugar, which would give you an inaccurate temperature reading.