Yeast Bread Baking – A Kitchen Science ‘Drama’

Does anything in the world ever smell quite so good as a just-baked loaf of bread? If you’ve never made yeast bread before, an adventure awaits!  And prepare yourself for one of the great “dramas” of kitchen science!

Every ‘drama’ is made up of various parts—cast, script, and various acts.  Bread baking is no exception. The cast of ingredients that go into a loaf of bread are simple—flour, yeast, liquid, sweetener (sugar), salt, and fat. Other ingredients can be added for flavor, texture, and nutritional value.  It is the nature of the ingredients and the way they are combined that create “drama!”

Meet the DRAMA Cast–Ingredients

Flour.  In most recipes, the flour used is either all-purpose flour or bread flour.  Both flours, derived from wheat, contain two proteins important to yeast breads—glutenin and gliadin.  When combined with liquid and manipulated, these proteins produced gluten, an elastic web that traps the gas released by the yeast.    All-purpose flours are a blend of hard and soft wheat in proportions to give satisfactory results for most baking, including bread.  Bread flour contains more hard wheat that soft wheat; with slightly more protein that all-purpose flour, bread flour is ideal for hearty breads because it allows for more structure.  Because the blend of hard and soft wheat used in all-purpose or bread flour may vary by manufacturer and flour gains or loses moisture depending on the weather or storage, most yeast bread recipes call for an approximate measure of flour rather than an exact amount.   Other flours or grains can be used in combination with all-purpose or bread flour to create breads with different textures, flavors, and nutrient value.

Want to see gluten and how it works? Science: What is Gluten? Here’s How to See and Feel Gluten by America’s Test Kitchen will answer those questions.

Gluten is formed when flour and water are combined.  Proteins in the flour react with the liquid to form gluten.  Beating and kneading the dough develops the gluten. 

Yeast.  Yeast is a living organism (actually a single-celled fungus).  Yeast ‘drama’ happens when the yeast granules awake in warm water, search out food (sugar), break it down, become active and release carbon dioxide—a gas!  It is the gas, trapped within the elastic web of gluten strands which cause dough to rise. 

To see yeast work, try this Scientific American experiment: Yeast Alive! Watch Yeast Live and Breathe.

Yeast is particular about temperature to thrive; lukewarm temperatures of 105-115 degrees F are perfect. It works slowly in cooler temperatures and dies when the temperature is too hot.

Yeast is available most commonly in the dry form as active dry or instant/quick-rise/fast-rise granules.  Compressed or cake yeast is less common and requires refrigeration.  Active or compressed yeast must be awakened prior to use in warm water (proofing).  Instant yeast is a modern variety which does not need to be proofed in the same way that active yeast does; it can be blended directly with the other dry ingredients.  However, there is no harm in proofing instant yeast.

Liquid.  Water and milk are the typical liquids used in making yeast bread.  Juice and vegetable water can also be used. The kind of liquid used plays a role in the bread’s outcome:  bread made with water has a crusty top and chewy texture; milk slightly weakens the gluten strands creating a bread with more tenderness and browner crust.   Even the kind of water—hard, soft, chlorinated—will bring about different characteristics.  Yeast is reluctant to dissolve in milk so is best dissolved in water.

An important step in making yeast bread is combining the flour and liquid in just the right proportion to yield a good dough.  Too much liquid weakens the gluten and too little makes the gluten tough so that it does not stretch sufficiently. 

Sweeteners/sugar and Salt.  Sweeteners, such as sugar or honey, and salt add flavor.  Salt also slows yeast growth but is not necessary to make bread.  Sugar furnishes food for the yeast.  Yeast can feed on the natural sugars in the flour by breaking down the carbohydrates but the break down takes time.  Since sugar or another sweetener is a readily available food, it speeds up the growth and rising action.  Sweeteners also add tenderness, moisture, and browning.

Fat.  Fat is an optional ingredient and is not necessary to make bread.  Fat, when used, adds flavor and tenderness and keeps the bread fresher for a longer time.

Eggs.  Eggs are also an optional ingredient and are more commonly used in rolls.  When used, eggs add flavor, color, nutrition, and improve the keeping quality and texture of the finished product.

The Script – A Good Recipe

Every drama needs a good script or in this case, a good recipe.  Like any other adventure in life, it is best to start with the basics and practice, practice, practice until one becomes proficient or skilled enough to branch out.  Bread can be made by hand, mixer, food processor, bread machine or some combination.  The best way to really learn bread is to use the hand method as it allows one to see and feel the ‘drama’ as it takes place which is great preparation for using any machine.

This basic or standard bread recipe makes two loaves and is the perfect starter recipe.

BASIC WHITE BREAD
2 cups milk
3 tablespoons shortening or butter
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt (optional)
1 package active, instant, or cake yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm (105-115F) water
6 to 7 cups all-purpose flour

Act 1.  The Plot Thickens – Making the Dough

Heat the milk on low heat. Stir in shortening, sugar, and salt and heat until all ingredients are dissolved; do not heat beyond scalding. Cool to lukewarm.

It is important to proof the yeast to ensure the yeast is alive and ready to create carbon dioxide.  To do so, dissolve the yeast in a large warm bowl with ¼ cup lukewarm water and ½ teaspoon sugar.  Stir and allow the mixture to stand for 5-10 minutes.  When the yeast mixture starts to bubble and foam, it is alive and ready for the bread.

Add the lukewarm milk mixture to the dissolved yeast. Stir in 3 cups of the flour; beat until smooth with an electric mixer or wooden spoon. Mix in enough of the remaining flour to cause the dough to form an irregular ball, come away from the sides of bowl and is easy to handle. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes for easier handling. 

Act 2.  Conflict – Kneading

Kneading is the process of working the dough by pushing, pulling and stretching to develop gluten and elasticity.  Kneading will develop muscle in the bread as well as the bread maker!  Prepare to have fun!

Turn the rested dough out on to a lightly floured surface for kneading.  To knead, take the heel of your hand and push the dough forward and stretch it. Then fold it in on itself, give it a quarter turn and repeat. Continue kneading until the bread dough is smooth, elastic, satiny, and air blisters appear just under the surface. The dough should no longer stick to the work surface or your hands. Kneading times vary, but generally it takes about 8-10 minutes of work. Don’t worry about over-kneading by hand—you will be tired long before you overwork the dough.  Shape the dough into a ball and place the dough ball back into the mixing bowl which has been lightly greased; turn the dough once to grease the surface.  Cover the dough with a clean towel or lightly greased plastic wrap for proofing. 

Act 3. Rising Action – Proofing

Proofing is the rest period during which yeast ferments the dough and produces gas or the time when the yeast and gluten do their magic work!  Proofing is best when the dough is set in a warm place (above 75ºF).  It will take about 45 to 60 minutes until the dough doubles its size.

When the bread is doubled in size, punch it down. This means plunging your fist into the center of the dough to press out some of the air inside the dough. Fold the dough over and form into a ball. Allow to rise a second time if possible. (A second rise allows yeast more time to work thereby giving the bread more texture and flavor.)   

Act 4. The Climax – Dough Becomes Loaf

After the first or second punching, divide the dough into two equal portions. Let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes to make the dough easier to handle.  Place the dough on a hard surface and roll or push out the dough to remove the air bubbles and shape each loaf by rolling and pinching.  Seal the edges by pinching the seam and place into two greased 9×5-inch loaf pans; cover and let proof again until doubled. This should take about 60 to 90 minutes.

When the bread has doubled in size, pop it into a 375ºF oven and bake for 30-45 minutes until golden brown and the internal temperature reads 195-210ºF on an instant read thermometer. Remove the baked loaves from the pans as they come out of the oven; cool the loaves on wire racks. Brush the top crust of the hot, baked loaves with butter or margarine, if desired, to keep the crust from becoming tough.

Act 5.  The Review – Enjoying the Results

Admire! Hold the temptation and allow the loaves to cool completely before cutting into them.  Use a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to slice the bread. Enjoy!

For visual help with the bread making process, check out Basic White Bread (Hand Kneaded) a YouTube by Kevin Lee Jacobs of Delicious Living. 

If you want to evaluate your bread, consider appearance,
crumb, flavor, and aroma.

APPEARANCECRUMBFLAVOR and AROMA
Symmetrical shapeMoistPleasing
Smooth rounded topFine, uniform grainSlightly sweet
Golden brown colorNo large holesNut-like flavor
Tender crustElastic or springy textureMild yeast overtones
Correct sizeNo dough streaks 
Light in weightCreamy color 
Small, defined break and shred (space
between top and sides)
  

When you have mastered basic yeast bread, you are ready to try variations using other ingredients and other techniques.  While the outcome may look or taste different, all yeast breads share a common ‘drama’.  The variety is endless and all are delicious rewards for the effort.  Your yeast bread adventure awaits!  Let the ‘drama’ begin!

[Note: this blog is geared toward 4-H youth in response for educational materials to include in a ‘box unit’ on yeast bread encouraging basic skills in the Food and Nutrition area.]

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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