Several readers have sent me notes asking for a detailed how-to on bread making. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of bread and developed some techniques that I haven’t seen in other cookbooks but that make it much simpler to get great results every time (and you don’t have to knead forever!).
If you haven’t made bread before — or haven’t been satisfied with your results — make your first few loaves with white flour, 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.
If a loaf doesn’t turn out as anticipated, there are three likely causes:
- 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 know just the right amount of flour to add — and give techniques that will keep you from adding too much.
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 most yeast bread recipes.
This is a pretty long article, I know, because of all the photos and the detailed directions. Don’t be intimidated by how long it is — that’s because I have photos of every step. Hang with it — print it out or make a PDF with the button at the end — and we’ll make a really nice loaf. Easily!
Begin by measuring your pan. Most bread pans in the US are 5 x 9 inches (measuring the inside bottom of the pan), but many recipes are written for 4 x 8 inch pans. For a 5 x 9 pan to be “full,” you’ll need at least 1-1/2 cups of water. This may mean making a recipe and a half.
Begin by “proofing” the yeast to be sure it’s good.
Place warm (not hot) water in a small bowl and add the yeast (at least 2 teaspoons or 1 packet per cup of water), sugar (at least an amount equal to the yeast, and don’t use a no- or low-calorie substitute, yeast needs real sugar), salt and 1/4 cup of flour. Mix well and let sit in a warm place for 10 minutes.
At the end of 10 minutes, it should be VERY bubbly and foamy as in the photo. If it’s not, the yeast is no longer good and won’t make your bread rise. Throw it out and get new yeast before going any further — if you try to make bread with it, you’ll just be wasting all your other ingredients.
Place as much flour as you used water in a large bowl. I like to use a plastic bowl (you’ll see why below) with a rim that’s easy to grip. Add the yeast mixture, along with any oil, spices, herbs or other ingredients.
Stir, stir and stir some more — literally, about 5 to 10 minutes worth. The dough will be thick and heavy. I tuck the bowl under my left arm (I’m right-handed) against my waist for better leverage.
This step is really important for developing the gluten in the bread so that it will rise nicely and have a soft texture.
By stirring longer, you won’t have to knead the bread nearly as long — and you won’t run the risk of adding too much flour as you knead.
As you keep stirring, you’ll notice that the texture of the dough changes.
After 10 minutes, the dough will stretch as you pull the spoon from the dough, instead of just breaking.
Now you can add more flour. I add just 1/4 cup at a time so that I don’t add too much.
Thoroughly mix after each addition.
When you have added the “right” amount (regardless of what the recipe may say is the “right” amount — different flour from different manufacturers is always different, and can be different even from a different bag from the same manufacturer), the dough will come together in a ball in the center of the bowl. This is much more apparent with a plastic bowl than a glass or metal one, and the main reason that I prefer to use a plastic bowl to make bread.
Once this happens (there may be bits of dough still on the bowl, as in the photo), DON’T ADD MORE FLOUR.
Now we’ll knead the bread. Normally I knead the bread right in the bowl to minimize the mess, but I couldn’t get good photos of the process that way, so I’m doing it in a jelly roll pan.
To knead in the bowl, begin by removing the ball of dough and setting it aside. Sprinkle just a few tablespoons of flour in the bowl, as I’ve done on the jelly roll pan.
Place the ball of dough onto the flour and cover it with just a couple tablespoons more flour.
Kneading in a plastic bowl or on another non-stick surface makes it much easier to NOT add too much flour, as the dough won’t be sticking to the surface you’re kneading it on.
A plastic cutting board (one used for veggies, not meat) also works well.
Begin by pressing the heels of your hands down in the center of the dough. These pictures only show one hand since I was using the other to take photos, but I would normally use both hands, close together.
Then use your hands to pick up the dough on the side away from you.
Pull the edge of the dough towards you and use your fingertips to just lightly push the edge down in about the center of the dough. Don’t worry about the exact technique!
Then use the heels of your palms again to press down in the center. You don’t need to use a lot of force.
Then use your hands to pick up one side of the dough.
Rotate your hands (still holding the edge of the dough) to the side away from you.
And once again, pull the edge of the dough to the center, folding it over on itself.
Use your fingertips to press it lightly into the dough under it.
And again press down with the heels of your hands.
And continue to rotate, fold the dough over and press it down with the heels of your hands.
In just a few minutes, you’ll notice that the dough is all nice and smooth, not tearing apart and your hands aren’t really sticking to it.
There may still be a little stickiness, and that’s okay — it’s better that it’s a little sticky than to knead too much flour in and have dry, heavy bread that won’t rise.
The important part is that it becomes smooth and elastic — knead longer if you need to, but don’t add much more flour!
The dough should feel soft and easy to stick a finger into — if it’s hard to poke your finger in, there’s too much flour. Remember for next time!
Wipe your bowl out, and put a couple of tablespoons of oil (canola, corn or vegetable are best — olive oil has a distinctive taste) in the bottom of the bowl. Tilt the bowl so that the bottom is lightly covered with oil.
Put the dough into the bowl, smooth side down.
Use your hand to twist the ball around so that the whole “bottom side” gets covered with oil.
Then flip the dough over so that the oiled side is up. If you don’t do this, the top of the dough will dry as it rises and you’ll have hard little bits in your finished loaf.
Cover the bowl — I use a plastic grocery bag — and let it sit in a warm place to rise until doubled in size.
The exact amount of time will vary by how warm it is — I’ve had bread rise in as little as 15 minutes in very hot climates, and as slowly as 2+ hours when it’s chilly.
Just eyeball the “doubled” part — and don’t worry if it gets way bigger and even caves in on itself. It’ll be fine!
Don’t add any more flour to your kneading surface unless it’s totally gone . . . and then, only add a few tablespoons.
Tip the dough out of the bowl onto the kneading surface (or just knead it in the bowl) and knead it just like you did before. I don’t put any flour over the top.
You don’t need to do it very long — maybe only 10 or 12 times.
The dough will be very smooth and elastic, and your hands will hardly have any dough on them.
Put a tiny bit more oil in the bowl and put the dough back in the bowl to rise. Use the same procedure as before to oil the dough and cover the bowl.
When the dough has doubled again, turn it out onto a work surface to make it into a loaf shape.
Gently fold one side of the dough into the center.
Then the other side, so you have a long roll.
Gently pick the loaf up and turn it “right side up.”
Place it in an oiled pan. Again, cover the pan with a plastic grocery bag (or whatever you were using) and place it in a warm place to rise.
When the loaf is about two-thirds as large as you want the finished loaf to be, start preheating the oven.
When the oven is up to temperature, place the loaf in the oven and bake it according to recipe directions.
It will rise a bit more in the oven, making a nice full loaf.
There are two ways to test for doneness:
- If you have an instant-read thermometer, stick it in the center of the loaf. It will read between 190 and 200 degrees F. when done.
- Otherwise, lightly tap on the loaf with your knuckles. It will sound hollow when done.
Remove the loaf from the oven and set it on a heat proof surface. I just put it on the stove top.
Use a knife or spatula (pancake turner) to loosen the sides of the loaf.
Then turn the loaf out on its side on a cooling rack or other heat resistant surface. Leave it on its side for at least 5 minutes — if you stand it upright immediately, it’s likely that it will sort of collapse to one side as the sides are soft until they cool a bit.
Once it has cooled slightly, you can stand it upright and begin slicing it.
Use a serrated knife or a bread knife for the best results, and with hot bread, use a VERY gentle touch so the slices don’t smush down.
Cutting a cool loaf is easier . . . but can you really wait?
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!