Baking your own bread has many advantages: You can choose the ingredients yourself, do without any chemical additives and give free rein to your creativity. Here are tips on baking bread and how to avoid mistakes as a bread-baking beginner.
Bread baking is also relatively simple and can be done without any complicated equipment. First and foremost, you need flour, water and a lot of patience – but it’s worth it: Biting into a still warm loaf with a crunchy crust at the end is a truly sensual pleasure.
Bread baking requires dexterity and precision. The list of bread flaws against which professional bakers have to measure their quality breads is extensive.
Fortunately, amateur bakers apply less stringent standards to their breads. Nevertheless, numerous mistakes can happen when baking bread. But here, too, as so often, practice makes perfect.
We will look for possible sources of error so that your homemade bread will turn out perfectly.
Preparation is key
If you do not already have experience and/or bake according to a recipe, you should study the recipe carefully before baking bread.
Make sure that the following basic requirements are met:
- Stick precisely to the ingredients given.
Simply changing ingredients such as flours will always result in an adjustment of the liquid quantities. Different flours have different swelling properties.
- Make sure you have all the ingredients ready.
The ingredients should all be processed at room temperature, or seeds and nuts may need to be pre-soaked.
- Make sure you have the necessary baking accessories ready. You can find a list of the necessary accessories for baking bread here.
- Make sure the equipment is really clean, especially when using sourdough.
- Preheat the oven well. Almost all breads should be baked in an oven preheated to top and bottom heat. The preheating time varies depending on the oven model, but is on average between 20 and 30 minutes.
- Be patient!
Useful bread baking accessories:
- Large bowl
- Fine kitchen scale
- Dough card
- Oven gloves
- Oven that heats evenly
- Baking tins
- Bread knife
- Rack (for cooling)
For advanced bakers:
- Dough scraper
- Food processor or dough hook on hand mixer
- Proofing basket*
- Water spray bottle
- Bread stone (or pizza stone)*
- Reusable baking paper or baking mat
- Bread pan*
- Bread bag
Mixing the ingredients correctly
Even small differences such as changing the types of flour or using too much sourdough can lead to a change in the proportions of the other ingredients in relation to each other and the bread not rising properly or tasting sour.
For example, sourdough bread automatically becomes more liquid when sourdough is used, which means that the amount of liquids must be reduced.
In addition, the ingredients should have about the same temperature, preferably room temperature, so that they combine more homogeneously and the bread becomes nice and fluffy.
To avoid unpleasant surprises, you should always measure out the ingredients to the gram using a digital scale. It is also better to weigh the water.
The right flour type
The quality of the flour plays a major role in successful bread. The flour should not have been stored too long or too moist, otherwise the finished bread will smell musty, possibly have crust cracks and the crumb will be too moist.
- Make sure you use the type of flour specified, because the types also differ in their starch and gluten content.
- Fine flour is recommended, and you should sift it to get the best possible crumb. Flour lumps cause small holes in the dough.
- Bread that you want to bake mainly with rye flour needs sourdough as a leavening agent so that the dough does not collapse. This is because the enzymes contained in rye flour break down the gluten that ensures the stability of the dough.
In general, the lighter the type of flour, the less water is needed.
Flavourful bread needs not only enough salt but also other spices. Be generous here, and you will be rewarded with tasty bread. Salt is also chemically necessary for the baking process. Breads without salt literally melt.
If you want to bake with less salt, you can reduce the salt and let the yeast dough rise longer. You can also use other spices to help out. You can replace salt with these spices:
- Herbs such as rosemary and coriander.
- Caraway, cumin, coriander seeds
Yeast and other leavening agents
Most breads are baked with yeast. Often either fresh yeast, dry yeast or sourdough made from rye or wheat flour is used.
Pay particular attention to the following:
1. Shelf life of the yeast:
Yeast needs to be active and can lose motive power if it is too old or stored incorrectly. Fresh yeast can only be kept in the refrigerator for about ten to twelve days. However, it can be frozen in an airtight container.
Mix the yeast with about 50 ml (1/5 cup) lukewarm water and a pinch of sugar. If a bubbling foam develops within ten minutes, it is still active and can be used.
2. Water temperature:
Also make sure that the water is not too hot under any circumstances when mixing the yeast. Otherwise the dough will not rise because yeast cells are killed at 40 °C and above. Always check the temperature by hand.
3. Keep yeast and salt seperated:
You should always put salt and yeast separately into the bowl. Otherwise, a chemical reaction can occur when they meet directly, which has a negative effect on the bread.
Fresh yeast from the bakery is of much better quality than dry yeast. However, dry yeast has the advantage that it can be kept for up to several years if stored in a cool, dry place.
It can also be frozen without losing its leavening power. It is also easier to measure out and mix with the dough.
You should resist the temptation to use more yeast than is indicated or necessary in the recipe. Too much yeast makes the bread too firm and has a negative effect on the taste and smell of the bread.
Tricks around sourdough
Sourdough should be as fresh as possible, but should also have risen long enough. Only then will the bread be tasty. As a rule, sourdough should develop for five to six days. For rye bread, however, it needs three to four more days. Otherwise, you need to add some extra yeast to the dough.
Sourdough can be kept in a jar in the refrigerator for two to three weeks. The jar should only be loosely sealed because the fermentation process continues slowly. If stored too warm, sourdough will spoil and become unusable.
If you want to store it longer, add flour and crumble it until it feels dry. Then sourdough won’t grow mould, because moulds and bacteria need moisture to grow.
If you find it too tedious and time-consuming to make sourdough, you can also buy it ready-made at the bakery (also online).
Be careful with dried sourdough powder that is sold in shops. Make sure that the sourdough you mix has real leavening power and is not just a colouring and flavouring agent in bread doughs.
Bread with baking soda
You can also bake many types of bread with baking soda if you need to do it quickly. Because then the dough does not have to rest. On the contrary, baking powder begins to work in the dough before it is baked and loses its leavening power relatively quickly. Therefore, you should make sure that you put the dough into the oven quickly.
Baking powder has less leavening power than sourdough or yeast. Therefore, you should use a fine flour so that the dough rises. A rather light dough is also recommended.
Breads baked with baking powder become more compact, have smaller pores and are nice and fluffy.
In some recipes, baking soda is used as a leavening agent instead of baking powder. But for baking soda to work as a leavening agent, the bread also needs acidic ingredients such as buttermilk or quark.
So you can substitute baking soda for baking powder, but not the other way around.
Kneading the dough is the key to good bread. During kneading, the protein molecules in the flour form gluten, the glue that forms the dough structure. This ensures that the bread rises during the baking process.
That’s why you should knead the dough long enough. If you knead the dough too little, the bread can become cracked and lardy. There are also recipes for so-called no-knead bread, i.e. bread that can be baked without kneading.
However, the dough must not be over-kneaded either. This will cause the dough to become tough and break when you try to stretch it. Then the dough can no longer be saved and you have to try again, because otherwise the bread will be much too firm.
This happens easily when you use a kitchen appliance with a dough hook, for example. Therefore, you should be especially careful and use the lowest setting of the appliance.
The right kneading technique
When kneading, it is best to use the heels of your hands to press the dough onto the work surface and move it forwards and downwards away from you. Then fold and turn the dough in your direction and repeat the kneading process again and again until the dough is soft, smooth and sticky.
When is the dough perfectly kneaded?
Professional bakers do the so-called “window test” to check whether they have kneaded the dough long and well enough. The test is very easy to do: You carefully pull a small piece of dough further and further apart with your fingertips until it becomes transparent. The dough must not tear, otherwise you will have to knead it for a while.
It is important that the surface of the dough always looks a little floury and that it comes away from your hands and the bowl or work surface easily and as completely as possible.
Quick solutions for possible dough faults
- If the dough is too soft, sticks or clumps, you can try adding some more flour and then continue kneading it.
- If the dough is crumbly, add a little more water until you can knead it again easily and it has a homogeneous structure. The dough must not be too firm, otherwise it will not rise properly. In addition, the bread will crack, fall apart when cut and crumble if you have added too little water.
With very soft dough, a dough card makes kneading easier because you avoid sticky hands. A silicone pad that you can place around the dough has the same effect.
Resting time for the dough
When you let the dough rise, the yeast or the sourdough need enough time to work properly. Only then do they form enough gases to create more dough volume. The ideal place for bread made from yeast and also sourdough is a warm place without draughts.
It is best to cover the dough with a kitchen towel. The cooler the place to let it rise, the longer the dough needs to rest. The ideal fermentation temperature for yeast doughs is between 32 and 36 °C (90-97° F), for sourdoughs between 25 and 28 °C (77-82° F).
Yeast doughs should usually rest for about one hour and sourdoughs for about two hours. However, you must not let the dough rise for too long, otherwise there is a risk that too many gases will form and the dough will collapse again quickly afterwards.
The length of time you leave the dough to rise depends on the volume of the dough, which should have increased significantly in the course of this time. If it has doubled, that is a good sign.
The finger test to check
The dough has risen perfectly when it is as soft as a feather pillow. It should spring back to its original shape within seconds after you poke it with your fingers.
If the dough does not rise properly, it is usually due to the outside temperature. In this case, you should place the container with the covered dough on the heating. If the dough seems dry afterwards, you can wet it with a little water.
Alternatively, place a bowl of boiling water under the container with the dough. This will ensure ideal room humidity. This way you can also speed up the leavening process.
- Cut in before baking:
During baking, the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast must be able to escape. To do this, make a few incisions in the top of the dough with a knife. This also gives the bread its desired pattern during baking.
- For some breads, it is recommended to brush them with water before baking to prevent them from cracking.
- Breads that are to be given a shiny surface are brushed with a little water directly after baking.
- If you want to bake a rustic bread, work some flour into the end of the dough, the place where the dough overlaps, for the characteristic look, the irregular surface. Then place the dough in the preheated oven with the end facing upwards.
If the dough is too soft to shape well, it is best to put it into a loaf tin. The dough will also keep its shape if you use a roasting tin. In addition, the crust will not dry out this way.
The oven must be well preheated
When baking bread, you are on the safe side if you know how quickly your oven heats up, how it retains heat and how evenly the air is distributed in it.
By the way: A fan-assisted oven is not suitable for baking bread because the crust dries out too easily.
Perfect bread needs top/bottom heat and high temperatures like in a stone oven, which was used in the past and is ideal for baking bread.
You should therefore preheat the oven with top/bottom heat long enough. We recommend 250 °C for baking the bread.
You can usually turn down the temperature after about fifteen to twenty minutes to allow the oven to cool down. Most breads are baked hot and then baked at a reduced temperature.
In general, the lower the temperature, the softer the crust.
Steam during baking
In order to achieve an optimal bread volume and a beautifully shiny and crispy crust, the so-called “steaming”, i.e. the generation of steam, is indispensable after pushing in the dough. An oven with a steam function is ideal for baking bread, and several manufacturers now have them in their range.
The steam that condenses on the much colder surface of the dough keeps it elastic, moist and less likely to crack. The heat ensures that the starch gelatinises more quickly and the protein coagulates faster.
The bread gets a particularly beautiful crust if you brush the bread with water a few times before, during or shortly before the end of the baking time. A heat-resistant silicone brush is suitable for this.
DYI alternatives to a steam oven
You can also easily create steam yourself. To do this, pour a glass of hot water onto an empty baking tray or into an ovenproof dish that you place on the cold bottom of the oven and place the dough on the middle shelf. Or you can spray water into the hot oven with a spray bottle. This will cause enough steam to rise in the oven.
It is usually necessary to release the steam after about 10 minutes when you reduce the baking temperature after baking.
However, you should be careful when opening the oven door, because you can scald yourself when the steam escapes. The best thing to do is to put a wooden spoon between the oven and the oven door. This will keep the door open for some time.
Tip for a flavour boost: If you spread spices such as cloves or rosemary on the baking tray next to the dough, the bread will take on the aroma of the spices through the heat.
The baking time
The general rule for bread is: it is better to bake it a little longer with a little less heat than briefly at high heat. This is the only way for a nice crumb (crust) to develop and the inside to bake through.
It is best to stick to the baking time given in the recipe. However, since every oven is different, it takes some experience to find out if the bread is not only crispy on the outside but also cooked through on the inside.
The key here is to do a knock test. To do this, tap the underside of the bread to check that the dough no longer contains any liquid. If the tapping sound is hollow, the bread is fully baked.
Otherwise, the baking time must be extended by about five to ten minutes.
If the centre of the bread is too soft, it may be because the bread was not properly cooked before you took it out of the oven. To be on the safe side, you can also use a roasting thermometer to measure the core temperature of the bread, which should be about 90 to 100 °C (195-210°C).
If the bread has actually become too dry, you can crush it into crumbs and mix it into the fresh dough the next time you try to bake it. This will give the bread a more intense aroma.
This very common mistake in bread baking is all too human: the bread fresh from the oven is cut immediately to make it a perfect treat.
But here it pays to have a little patience, let the bread cool down a bit first. Not only because very fresh bread is difficult to digest. While it is cooling, the baking process still continues and the crumb continues to develop and firm up. This is the only way to give your bread a crispy crumb that will last.
Always leave bread to cool on a rack so that no moisture can collect at the bottom and soften the beautiful crumb.
Before you can cut the bread, the remaining liquid must evaporate from the bread. Otherwise there is a risk that the crumb will fall apart more easily.
It is best to store homemade bread at 16 to 18°C (60-64° F) in a bread container or bread box where there is sufficient ventilation. The shelf life of bread depends on the type of bread.
- Wholemeal and sourdough bread usually stays juicy the longest and keeps fresh for seven to ten days.
- Wheat bread dries out more quickly.
You can also freeze bread as a loaf or cut into slices without losing flavour. It should then thaw slowly at room temperature. If you like the bread crispy, simply put it back in the oven at 200 °C for a few minutes.
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