Yeast Bread Making 101

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2011 • all rights reserved

Step by step instructions with photos for great results

About 10 days ago, Holli, a reader, made a comment on the Soaked Whole Wheat Bread recipe that she wished I had more of a how-to on bread making.  Here goes — there are a ton of photos here — almost 40.  Just click on any of them to see a larger version!

If you haven’t made bread before — or haven’t been satisfied with your results — I strongly suggest that you first perfect white bread, then move on to using other types of flour.  It’s easier to get the dough consistency correct with white, and once you know what it should feel like, it’s easier to duplicate when you try other recipes.

Basically, I can think of three likely reasons that a loaf doesn’t turn out as anticipated:

  • The yeast is partially or totally dead.  My method makes sure that it’s good by “proofing” it — details below.  It’s important to note that you can’t use no- or low-calorie sugar substitutes in yeast bread.  The yeast needs real sugar (or molasses or honey, etc.) to live and grow.
  • The recipe may have been designed for a smaller pan.  Many recipes specify a 4 x 8 inch pan, while the typical pan sold is 5 x 9 inches.  We’ll start by measuring the pan and adjusting the recipe to suit the pan.
  • Stirring and kneading too much flour into the dough makes the dough heavy and it won’t rise as expected.  The photos and instructions show how to tell just the right amount of flour to add — and give tips on how not to add too much, particularly by stirring for a long time with less than the full amount of flour in the dough.

Above all, don’t worry too much about everything being exactly perfect.  Relax!  If you have good yeast, make the right size batch and don’t add too much flour, you’ll have a nice loaf.  The exact stirring and kneading techniques are not nearly as important.  I show you how I do it — but everyone is a little different, so don’t think you have to exactly copy every hand motion I make.  It’ll be fine, really.

Here, I’m using my very basic recipe for White Bread, but I use the same technique for lots of other recipes.  The only one that is somewhat different is the “Soaked” Whole Wheat, but even there I’m looking for the same dough consistency when kneading and also considering what size pan I have compared to the size in the recipe.

This is a pretty long article, I know, because of all the photos and the detailed directions.  But hang with it — print it out or make a PDF with the buttons below — and we’ll make a really nice loaf — easily!

Remember, click on the photos to enlarge!

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And please, leave a note in the comments as to how your loaf came out.  Better yet, post a photo on TBG’s Facebook page for everyone to see!

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  1. I love baking, and I love baking bread. I have a few points that are a little beyond the scope of a beginner how-to but I think worth sharing.

    There are different kinds of yeast. Some types of yeast (specifically cake yeast that gets used in commercial bakeries) absolutely needs that first step of yeast + water + sugar + flour + salt. Dry yeasts (which is what most people use at home) get some sugar added in the manufacturing process and can get away with just yeast + water (it will get foamy, but not as foamy as what’s in the picture.) Other forms of yeast can be added straight to the flour, but I personally prefer to still let it warm up in the water first to make sure the yeast has woken up and has a faster rise.

    With some experience, and experimentation, it gets easier to identify mistakes by looking at the finished product. If a loaf collapses, it means you let it rise too long in the pan, or that it wasn’t kneaded long enough. If the texture of the crumb is coarser (looks like a sponge with bigger holes) and is kinda rubbery gummy, there was too much water. The finished product should have a completely smooth texture. A quick google search should turn up a list of flaws and fixes.

    While not strictly needed, an egg wash (mix of egg and a splash of water) brushed over the dough will help the crust get a shiny brown finish. That’s especially important for french breads which don’t have any added sugar to help them brown. You may find that the internal temperature of the loaf will reach 200 degrees before it browns. If you allow it to continue cooking, you will notice that the temperature will stay at 200 degrees while the crust continues to brown.

    You may also notice that the crust might develop deep random cracks. You can control those cracks by cutting slits into the surface of the dough before cooking or before the final rise (plus they make a more attractive loaf.)

    Sometimes your dough won’t be cooperative in shaping into a loaf, such as rolling into a long french bread loaf, or flattening out into a pizza round. Let the dough sit for 5-10 minutes and the gluten will relax making it easier to shape.

    Hope this info has been useful. Working with yeast dough is working with a living thing. Understanding what it likes and how it responds to what you do can help you turn out some wonderful bread.

  2. I’ve had several failures over the years when trying to bake bread. When I saw how complete your “Bread Making 101” page was I decided to try one more time. My “yacht” (a 15′ West Wight Potter) is no where near big enough to cook on so I made it at home. IT CAME OUT PERFECT! My wife loves it and I think she might be ready to promote me to head chef in our house. It was fun. Thank you.

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Tommy —

      I’m THRILLED to hear it! You made my day!!


      Follow-up: A couple of days later, Tommy posted a photo of his second loaf on TBG’s Facebook page. All I can say is WOW!


  3. Speaking about bread has made me think of sourdough. By chance do you have a secret recipe for no-fail great sourdough bread? That’s our favorite and ultimately we’d like to replicate San Francisco sourdough… not an easy task! Any help you can offer would be so very appreciated. Thanks much!

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Darien —

      I’m sorry but I don’t have a great sourdough recipe — I guess that’s what happens when you come from the Midwest! But I’ll ask on FB if anyone has one they’d be willing to share.


  4. Having never made bread before, I always thought it was very difficult. I followed your brilliant instructions and have made some very tasty bread! Unfortunately although I have made about 6 loaves so far I haven’t been able to get a picture of any of them. The reason – as soon as they are out of the oven my family of vultures are on them and in two minutes there is nothing left. If that isn’t a good recommendation for your recipe I don’t know what is! I hope it will be as easy in my little boat oven, we are moving full time aboard this April.

  5. Seriously Carolyn, I changed the way I made read after getting TBG. Before, I never beat the batter, I spent time kneading instead. MUCH BETTER results with your method. thank you!

  6. Hmmmm….did I inspire this post today LOL?!

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this!! I have tried so many recipes from online or from other cruising friends on how to make a decent loaf of plain white bread, and it always came out as Meh. Still edible, but usually because it was the only option. I can not wait to try again with your new recipe and have a loaf of bread that I actually WANT to eat!

  8. Can anyone tell me the best way to buy and store yeast? We bought it bulk about 14 months ago, and kept it in the fridge after opening, but I’m pretty sure it’s partially dead. Is it better to buy in the small packets?

  9. Claudia . . . well, maybe a little :) . . . and one I think yesterday about having a bread machine on board.

  10. Jessica — I’ve found that the more local the yeast is, the better it does. If you’re in a foreign country, get what the locals buy. In most countries, it’s sold in larger “bulk” packages and I try to buy the smaller ones of these. Yeast that’s 14 months old is pretty old in general — even in the refrig, after 4 months it’s on the decline. Here are my tips on storing yeast:

  11. Behan — I know you’ve made bread for years, so that’s a big compliment. Thanks! :)

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