At its core, bread is made of four ingredients: flour, water, salt and some sort of leavening. It’s possible to make bread without salt, though saltless bread, to most palates, tastes a lot like cardboard. There are even those who eliminate leavening, though at this point, the loaf doesn't really taste like what most of us would expect from a loaf of bread.
One can add all sorts of other ingredients, of course, from sweeteners, to nuts, fruits and fats – but the essence of any bread comes down to these basic four.
In this section, we'll go over the basic four ingredients: flour, water, salt and leavening.
Wheat flour comes in many different forms. First, let’s talk a bit about the wheat from which it originates.
The wheat berry has three basic parts: the endosperm, the germ and the bran. The germ is the embryonic plant, but is only about 2-3% of the total berry. The endosperm, which is about 75% of the berry, serves as food for the germ as it sprouts. The rest is the bran, which protects the tiny germ.
White flour is almost pure endosperm, whereas whole-wheat flour retains all three parts. As a result, white flour will keep for a long time at room temperature – probably a year or more. Whole-wheat flour, on the other hand, contains the oily germ, and that oil goes rancid at room temperature in just a couple of months. This is why so many people think that whole wheat bread tastes bitter; mostly likely, the bread they ate was made from rancid flour.
All-purpose or artisan flour: For most artisan white breads, bakers generally prefer all-purpose (AP) or so-called artisan flour. These flours typically have a protein percentage of 10.5% to 11.5% or so. King Arthur Flour’s regular AP flour is about 11.7%, so it’s on the very high end, while General Mill’s AP flours are about 10.5%. Most Southern brands of AP flours like White Lily are not good for making bread, because they have a low protein percentage and are also bleached, but are better suited to cakes and biscuits.
Bleached flour will produce bread if it has a high enough protein percentage, but it will not have the same golden color or rich flavor of unbleached flour.
King Arthur Flour’s Organic Artisan Flour and Giusto’s Baker’s Choice are favorites among amateur artisan bakers. They’re about 11.3% protein and perform beautifully, striking a nice balance between rise and flavor. However, these preferences aside, one can bake very good bread from basically any unbleached all-purpose flour one can buy at the grocery store.
Bread flour: White bread flour is typically between 11.5% and 12.5% protein. Some brands, such as King Arthur Flour, are very strong with close to 13% protein, whereas others are closer to All-Purpose flour. Bread flour is good to use when making bread with a high percentage of rye flour or a lot of goodies like nuts, seeds, cooked grains or dried fruits. It produces a spectacular rise, but without additions, some bakers find that bread made from this flour is a bit tough and somewhat lacking in flavor compared to all-purpose flour.
Whole wheat bread flour: Not all whole wheat flours are the same. The bran in whole-wheat flour punctures the gluten web which traps gas, so it won’t rise quite as high as most white flours. As a result, you want to find a whole-wheat flour with as high a protein percentage as possible. The bran also contains protein, so look for a flour with at least 14% protein. You’ll also want to make sure that it’s fresh becausewhole wheat flour goes rancid after just a couple of months at room temperature because it retains the oily germ. King Arthur Flour and Giusto’s are both high-quality brands.
You’ll want to store whole-wheat flours in the freezer so that they’ll keep longer.
White whole wheat bread flour: Traditionally, whole wheat bread flour is made from hard red winter wheat or hard red spring wheat. However, in recent years, a variety of hard white wheat flour has come on the market that is strong enough to make bread. It lacks the tannins that give the red wheat its color and, for some people, a bitter flavor. Some folks really like it, finding that it mimics the taste of white flour and is less bitter than traditional whole wheat flour; others find it has a waxy texture that’s unappealing. But white whole wheat flour is certainly worth trying to see what you think.
Whole wheat pastry flour: Perfect for all quick breads, this flour is made almost exclusively from soft white winter wheat, and has a low percentage of protein. So long as you increase the liquid in the recipe a bit, you can substitute it for white flour in nearly all quick breads, and hardly anyone will be able to tell the difference. Really!
While wheat flour predominates in the breads of southern Europe and the UK, rye flour plays a more important role in the breads of northern and eastern Europe. This is due to rye's superior ability to grow in the poorer soils and cooler, wetter climates of those regions.
Chemical differences in the proteins and enzymes found in rye present differences in how rye flour behaves when mixed with water to make dough, and these differences impact the use of pre-ferments, mixing, fermentation and baking when there is more rye than wheat flour in the dough.
There are a number of different types of rye products available. They vary in how much of the rye berry is included, just as whole wheat differs from white wheat flour. They also differ in how finely ground the rye is.
There are breads made with 100% rye flour, but many other breads are made with lesser percentages. The influence of rye flour on dough handling and on the resulting taste and texture of the bread varies according to the proportion of rye used.
Chemical differences in rye
Gluten is the primary protein found in wheat, and the methods of mixing dough made with wheat flour center on their impact on gluten development and structure. Gluten forms the framework of cells that trap the carbon dioxide generated by fermentation of sugar by yeast. This trapping generates the expansion of the dough (rising) and ultimately the texture of the bread's crumb.
Rye contains much less gluten than wheat, and the gluten rye contains is of poor quality when it comes to trapping air bubbles. Consequently, breads made with mostly rye flour do not expand as much as those made with mostly wheat flour. The crumb of breads in which rye predominates tends to be dense with smaller holes. On the other hand, rye has more free sugars than wheat, so rye dough ferments faster.
Rye contains a group of important complex sugars called “pentosans.” These are present in other grains, but rye has more of this substance. Pentosans are important to the baker for several reasons. They compete with the proteins that make gluten for water, and water is the substance that leads the proteins to combine to form gluten. This means that rye doughs often require a higher proportion of water than doughs in which wheat predominates. Pentosans break apart easily during mixing, and their fragments result in a stickier dough. Because of this, rye doughs require gentler and, usually, briefer mixing than wheat doughs.
Rye is higher in the enzymes (amylases) that break down starch into sugars. Starch is needed to form the structure of the crumb, and if too much starch is split up, the texture of the bread suffers and becomes gummy. Traditionally, this is prevented by acidifying the rye dough, which slows down the action of amylases. This is why breads with a high percentage of rye flour are made with rye sour (rye-based sourdough starter), even if commercial yeast is added.
Acidification of rye dough has other nutritional advantages specific to rye bread which may also be of interest to the home baker, as well as the advantages that also apply to wheat-based sourdoughs.
Rye products used in baking bread
Whole rye berries may be used in bread, after soaking, to contribute flavor and texture. Rye berries are also used after breaking them into smaller pieces in the form of rye chops, cracked rye, rye flakes, and so forth.
The rye flours you may find include the following:
In Europe, especially Northern Europe, a much wider range of rye flours is available, encompassing different grinds as well as a variety of percentages of bran and germ.
Rye flour that contains the oily germ (pumpernickel, dark and medium) spoils very quickly, so try to buy the freshest possible and store it in the freezer.
Rye flour used together with wheat flour
A small amount of rye – 5-10% of the total flour by weight – has a definite effect on the flavor of the bread. The distinctive flavor of the rye itself may not be noticed, yet the bread's overall flavor seems better. This may be due to the action of the amylases in rye releasing more sugars. This small addition of rye is what defines a French pain de campagne. These breads are often sourdoughs, but the rye may be added with the rest of the flour rather than as a rye sour. There is so little rye in the dough, that it's behavior during mixing and fermentation and its texture when baked may be indistinguishable from a purely wheat bread.
Breads containing up to 40% rye flour are usually called “rye bread.” Jewish Sour Rye (New York Rye, Deli Rye) is a familiar example. The rye flour is in a large enough proportion so that it is advisable to add all or most of it as a rye sour. There is enough rye so that a distinct rye flavor is tasted. However, there is enough wheat flour to provide gluten to form the kind of crumb we associate with wheat breads.
The dough in these breads will feel different during mixing, tending to be stickier. The temptation is to add more flour, but this should be resisted. When hand kneading sticky rye doughs, using rapid, light strokes - minimizing the time your hands are in contact with the dough - decreases the amount of dough that will stick to your hands. You may also find that wetting your hands with water or lightly oiling them helps.
Breads with over 50% rye flour are another story. All the special considerations due to the chemical differences in rye become more important as the proportion of rye increases. Typically, these breads have a short bulk rise and, once baked, should be allowed to rest for several hours before slicing, so the crumb can set up properly. In the case of breads with 70% rye or more, a rest of 24 hours, even up to a couple of days, may be required.
Pastry flour: Pastry flour is perfect for making quick breads like muffins, banana bread, waffles, and pancakes. Its protein percentage is usually about 6% to 8%.
High-gluten flour: This flour is typically only available to commercial bakers or via mail order from places like King Arthur Flour. Its protein level is usually greater than 14%. It’s used in bagels (it gives them their tasty chewy texture) and breads with a high percentage of rye.
Fancy durum flour. Also known as semonlina flour (though ground finer) or pasta flour, durum flour is made from durum wheat. Though high in protein, durum flour does not contain enough gluten to make good bread unless mixed in with regular wheat flour.
00 flour. 00 is an Italian designation for a type of flour commonly used in pizza crust. It is softer (lower in protein) than American bread or all purpose flour.
Spelt flour: Spelt, which is also known as farro, is an ancient grain that is a cousin to wheat. It contains enough gluten to make a light loaf of bread, but absorbs less water than wheat, and so requires a lower hydration. The gluten is also somewhat less resiliant than that of wheat, and, as such, one needs to be careful when using a mixer, as it's easy to over-develop.
There are all kinds of ways the leaven breads. Here, we’ll be talking about two leavens: commercial yeasts and sourdoughs.
The three most common types of commercial yeast are:
Fresh yeast: Truth be told, fresh yeast, which is also known as cake yeast, is hard for home bakers to find these days. They are sold as little “cakes” that must be kept refrigerated, and they go bad after a few days. Many professional bakeries, however, still use fresh yeast, and so many bread formulas are written with fresh yeast in mind. Typically, breads that rise for 1.5 to 2 hours in bulk and 1 to 1.5 hours shaped call for fresh yeast at 2% of total flour weight.
Many recipes use much, much less yeast than that, however, and they ferment for much longer, which gives the bread more flavor.
Active dry yeast: This is the kind of yeast that you’re most likely to find in your grocery store. Typically, you’ll want to use about 1 to 2 tsp per loaf and, if the formula calls for fresh yeast, you’ll need to measure out 40% of that weight to convert to active dry.
Active dry yeast needs to be “proofed” before using, which means it needs to be dissolved in about ¼ to ½ cup of lukewarm water (about 90 degrees F or so).
Instant yeast: This is what many amateur bakers prefer to use. In grocery stores you'll often find it labels "Rapid Rise Yeast" or "Bread Machine Yeast." It looks like active dry yeast, but it retains many more living yeasts in each grain. As a result, there’s no need to proof it – just add the yeast directly to the dry ingredients. If the formula calls for fresh yeast, measure out 1/3 of that weight for instant yeast. If the recipe calls for active dry yeast, cut the measurement by about 25 percent.
Before the 19th century, sourdough was really the only leavening available (unless you’re talking about salt rising bread, which uses bacteria alone – a leavening with which this book does not deal). Sourdough is really not that hard to work with – as some Internet sage once wrote, “People who thought the earth was flat made bread like this for thousands of years.”
First, what is this stuff? Sourdough starter is a stable symbiotic culture of wild yeasts and bacteria. The yeasts break down starches into sugars, which the bacteria eat. The bacteria, on the other hand, create an acidic environment that kills off competitors to the yeasts. The yeasts were almost certainly already living on the grains when they were out in the field. As for the bacteria, that’s a trickier question, but the consensus seems to be that they come from us – studies have failed to isolate Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis anywhere except in long-lived sourdough starters and on human teeth. The individual mix of yeasts and bacteria varies from starter to starter, and region to region. It’s part of their charm; every starter is unique, and produces bread that tastes somewhat different from those produced with other starters.
Sourdough starters work more slowly than commercial yeasts, which are much more concentrated that starters and have been carefully selected for their gas production. Typically, a sourdough loaf will rise for at least three to four hours in the bowl and will then need another two to three hours as a shaped loaf before it will be ready to bake.
Not all sourdough breads are sour. The French pain au levain and Flemish desem breads are typically not very sour at all, while San Francisco-style sourdoughs and many German ryes are very sour, indeed!
Different starters will produce different levels of sourness, but by far the most important factor in a sourdough bread’s flavor is temperature. If the dough is allowed to ferment at 80 to 85 degrees or is allowed to rise slowly overnight in the fridge or in a cool room (35 to 50 degrees F), the bread will have a markedly stronger flavor than a sourdough that rose at room temperature (65 – 70 degrees F).
Sourdough breads generally keep well, because their acid content slows down the staling process. In addition, the acid in sourdough both reduces the impact of bread on one’s blood sugar and also neutralizes phytic acid in whole wheat breads. Phytic acid prevents the body from absorbing many nutrients.
Salt retards the yeast and helps control the fermentation process. It also adds a flavor that most of us expect in even the simplest of breads. Some people claim that they can taste a big difference in their bread depending on the type of salt they use. The famed Poilane bakery in Paris, for example, uses only coarse gray sea salt from Normandy.
Other bakers can’t tell a bit of difference. But one aspect in which different salts do objectively differ is their density. For this reason, many bakers weigh their salt because weights are always the same, no matter what kind of salt one uses.
Iif you’re measuring by volume, however, you’ll want to pay attention to the following:
Table salt or finely ground sea salt: This is the standard for almost all recipes. You can follow the instructions as they are written.
Sea salt: You’ll want to increase the volumetric measure by about 50%.
Kosher salt: Double the listed volumetric measure.
Typically, salt is measured at 2 percent of the flour weight, except for rye breads, which are typically at 1.8 percent. The salt proportion may go down a half percent or more if salty ingredients such as olives are incorporated, and may go up 0.3 or 0.5 percent if cooked grains, nuts or seeds are added.
Water activates the yeast and starts the process of developing the proteins that make up gluten into a web that will trap air and create a dough.
Basically, concerning water, if you can drink it, you can bake with it.
That said, some municipalities put an awful lot of chlorine in their water. If you’re concerned that the chlorine might interfere with the action of your leavening, the solution is simple: fill a bowl with water and leave it uncovered overnight – the chlorine will dissipate completely.
The percentage of water varies quite a bit depending on the type of bread.
Bagels: Made from a dry dough, water is anywhere from 50% to 60%
Sandwich bread: 60% to 65%
French bread (baguettes, etc): 65% to 70%
Ciabattas: 70% to 80%
Whole grain breads: Whole grains absorb a lot more water than do white flours. For whole-wheat bagels, bakers hydrate the dough at about 60%. For most other breads, they go anywhere from 70% to 85%.
Milk, buttermilk, yogurt: When used in place of water, these ingredients soften the crumb and crust, and, especially in the case of buttermilk and yogurt, add flavor to the bread. They will also accentuate the browning of the crust.
Flavored Water: When making onion or garlic flavored breads, one thing that can be done is to flavor the water used to make the dough. Typically dry onions are added to boiling water to rehydrate the onions then allowed to cool. A small amount is all that is needed, say, 1/4 Cup of onions in 2 cups of hot water. You may add the re hydrated onions to the mix or use it as topping, or not. The water will add a wonderful aroma and flavor to the bread. Dry garlic chips may also be used in this manner. Onion rye, onion bagels benefit from this treatment.
Fats (oils and butter): Fats soften crumb and crust, add flavor and lengthen life of bread. The amount varies widely. Sandwich breads usually have somewhere between 2% to 10% of the flour weight, whereas a brioche could have 80%, even 100% (!!) the flour weight in butter.
Sugar (honey, molasses, sugar, syrup): Sweeteners also add flavor, and, in some cases like honey, can also delay staling. It is a myth that the yeast needs additional sugar in order to work in the dough. In fact, in high quantities, sugar can negatively affect the yeast. Typically sweeteners are 5% to 15% of the flour weight.
Seeds and nuts (sesame, flax, pecans, sunflower, etc.): These are really yummy, and are often toasted before adding them to the dough, usually at the end of the dough’s development. Sometimes, the addition of seeds and nuts requires the addition of more salt, bumping the salt percentage up to 2.5% or so.
Dried fruits: These are excellent additions to breads, especially raisins and dried apples. It’s a good idea to soak these for a half-hour or even overnight before adding so that those that end up on the surface don’t burn. Dried fruits are typically at 15% to 30%.
Spices and herbs: These can add a lot of flavor to breads, but be careful not to overdo it. Dried herbs are best. Traditional additions include dill, rosemary and cinnamon. Typically these are about 2% to 3%.
Note: Tree-bark spices like cinnamon and allspice contain anti-fungal compounds that retard the activity of the yeast. You may want to bump the yeast up by about 50% if you’re using these kinds of spices in the dough.
(These instructions have been adapted from a posting at thefreshloaf.com by Sourdolady .)
Procedure for Making Sourdough Starter
Day 1: mix...
2 T. whole grain flour (rye and/or wheat)
1 T. unsweetened pineapple juice or orange juice
Cover and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day 2: add...
2 T. whole grain flour
1 T. juice
Stir well, cover and let sit at room temperature 24 hours. At day 2 you may (or may not) start to see some small bubbles.
Day 3: add...
2 T. whole grain flour
1 T. juice
Stir well, cover and let sit at room temperature 24 hours.
Stir down, measure out 1/4 cup and discard the rest.
To the 1/4 cup add...
1/4 cup flour*
2 Tbs water
*You can feed the starter whatever type of flour you want at this point (unbleached white, whole wheat, rye). If you are new to sourdough, a white starter is probably the best choice. Unbleached all-purpose flour is fine.
Repeat Day 4:
Once daily until the mixture starts to expand and smell yeasty. It is not unusual for the mixture to get very bubbly around Day 3 or 4 and then go completely flat and appear dead. If the mixture does not start to grow again by Day 6, add 1/4 tsp. apple cider vinegar with the daily feeding. This will lower the pH level a bit more and it should kill off competitors to the yeast, allowing them to thrive.
How it Works
The yeast we are trying to cultivate will only become active when the environment is right. When you mix flour and water together, you end up with a mixture that is close to neutral in pH, and our yeasties need it a bit more on the acid side. This is why we are using the acidic fruit juice. There are other microbes in the flour that prefer a more neutral pH, and so they are the first to wake up and grow. Some will produce acids as by-products. That helps to lower the pH to the point that they can no longer grow, until the environment is just right for wild yeast to activate. The length of time it takes for this to happen varies.
When using just flour and water, many nascent starters will grow a gas-producing bacteria that slows down the process. It can raise the starter to three times its volume in a relatively short time. Don't worry--it is harmless. It is a bacterium sometimes used in other food fermentations like cheeses, and it is in the environment, including wheat fields and flours. It does not grow at a low pH, and the fruit juices keep the pH low enough to stop it from growing. Things will still progress, but this is the point at which people get frustrated and quit, because the gassy bacteria stop growing. It will appear that the "yeast" died on you, when in fact, you haven't begun to grow yeast yet. When the pH drops below 3.5--4 or so, the yeast will activate, begin to grow, and the starter will expand again. You just need to keep it fed and cared for until then.
Once your wild yeast is growing, the character and flavor will improve if you continue to give it daily feedings and keep it at room temperature for a couple of weeks longer.
After that time, it should be kept in the refrigerator between uses/feedings. Every week or so, take it out of the fridge, feed it by retaining only ¼ cup of starter and then feed it ¼ cup flour and 2 Tbs water.
NOTE: This method works well for those who bake sourdough bread muliple times during the week, and who also like making other baked goods with leftover starter. In this chapter, a stiff starter (60 percent hydration) is discussed, but these techniques will work just as well for a wet starter (100% hydration). This personal account was written by JMonkey.
This is how I maintain my own starter, which I created in 2005. I'm a telecommuter who works from home, and I bake bread for the family two to three times a week. Occasionally, I'll make a loaf with commercial yeast, but typically, I make sourdoughs. Also, on the weekend, I like to make sourdough English muffins and sourdough waffles.
Keeping my starter in the fridge meant I was constantly trying to remember when I needed to take the stuff out to rev it up for bread, and I'd often realize too late that I didn't have enough starter for the muffins or waffles.
After some tinkering, I finally decided to keep the starter on the counter and feed it once or twice a day, which means I've always got at least enough active starter for my overnight whole grain sourdough, and, if I'll need more for a daytime sourdough, I've got enough to seed a bigger amount that can ripen while I sleep. The regimen that I now follow also has the advantage of not wasting anything, because I use all the extra starter stored in the fridge to make all the waffles and English muffins I want. Since both of these recipes derive most of their rise from the interaction of acids and baking soda, using week-old starter from the fridge has enough oomph for leavening and flavor, given that it's gotten pretty acidic already.
Anyway, I'm not saying this is the way to maintain a starter - it's just what works for me at this time in my life.
I usually feed it twice a day, once in the morning and once again before bed. Sometimes I forget, though, and only feed it once a day, but it doesn't seem to mind much. I keep it at 60% hydration, which is pretty stiff, but I find it's less messy and stands up a bit better that the wet stuff would to a missed feeding here and there, due to my forgetful nature. Here's how I feed it (it's a 1-3-5 ratio for starter-water-flour by weight).
In the morning, it hasn't risen much, but it feels puffy, and when I break it open, it's clearly aerated inside. Sometimes, it actually blows the lid off the plastic container.
It weighs about 45 grams, so I take 5 grams of it (about the size of a small marble) and put the rest in my fridge bowl. These leftovers will find their way into waffles or English muffins later in the week.
Then I add 15 grams (1 Tbs) of water and mush it up until it's soft and the water has turned somewhat milky in color.
Then I add 25 grams (2 heaping Tbs or 2 Tbs + 1 tsp) of whole wheat flour.
(If you're maintaining a wet starter, simply increase the water to 25 grams)
Finally, I mix it all up with a spoon, take it out and knead it a bit in my hands, which consists of folding it over on itself four or five times. I then roll it into a ball, snap on the lid and let it work.
That's it. I've found it's not that much of a hassle to feed it twice a day and is much less annoying than realizing I can't make a sourdough because I forgot to take my starter out of the fridge and feed it.
If you only bake once every week or two, you’ll be happier storing your starter in the fridge in a covered container.
Once a week, take it out, and feed it.
For a wet starter, retain only 1/4 cup of starter and then feed it 1/2 cup flour and 4 Tbs water.
For a stiff starter, retain a marble-sized piece and add 15 grams (1 Tbs) of water. Mush it up until it's soft and the water has turned somewhat milky in color. Then add 25 grams (2 heaping Tbs or 1 Tbs + 1 tsp) of flour.
Keep it out for an hour or four, and then pop it back into the fridge.
If you’re going to bake with it, make sure to take it out a day before and feed it twice, with at least 8 hours in between each feeding.
To add more flavor to breads, many bakers use pre-ferments, in which a portion of the bread flour is mixed with water, occasionally salt, and a tiny bit of yeast, and is then allowed to ferment for a long time – 12-18 hours, usually. There are three basic types of pre-ferments, and they usually account for anywhere from 15% to 40% of the dough:
Poolish: Most famously used to make tasty baguettes, a poolish consists of equal weights of flour and water (or 2 parts flour to 1 part water by volume) with just a tiny bit of yeast. For home bakers, a pinch or 1/16 of a tsp should be more than enough.
A poolish is ready when it is very bubbly, smells sweet and has just begun to recede from hits high point.
Biga: Truth be told, “biga” is just an Italian word for pre-ferment, but in the English speaking world, it has come to mean a stiff preferment, usually a dough at about 60% hydration with just a pinch of yeast. It should be kneaded for a few minutes after it is mixed up.
A biga is ready when it has begun to recede just slightly in the center.
Pate Fermente: Literally, this is French for “old dough,” and it’s just what it sounds like. In France, they’ll often save dough from the previous day’s batch, keep it in the fridge, and then used it in the next day’s batch. Typically, though, home bakers make one by exactly mimicking the proportions of flour, water and salt, and adding just a tiny pinch of yeast. It is then allowed to ferment for a long period of time.
Alternatively, once could even use the same proportions of yeast, but only let it ferment for an hour or so on the counter, and then placing it in the refrigerator.
Like a biga, a pate fermente is ready when it just begins to recede in the center.