How Bread Works

Learn how bread works; the secrets to cultivating yeast and developing gluten.

| 2010 Guide to Homemade Bread

  • Kneading Bread
    The dough is stretched and folded until it stiffens and takes on a satiny, elastic appearance. Jelly

  • Kneading Bread

The process of baking bread often seems cloaked in mystery. You put a few simple ingredients together, follow a peculiar set of steps, and voilà, the staff of life. The process seems so alive, so magical, so ... intimidating. My usual response to such fearful thoughts is to research how and why something works. Like most things that seem scary, bread is, at its heart, quite simple. The answer to the mystery of bread revolves around yeast and a protein called gluten.  

Harold McGee, who literally wrote the book on science in the kitchen (On Food and Cooking), breaks the making of yeast bread down into four steps: “We mix together the flour, water, yeast and salt; we knead the mixture to develop the gluten network; we give the yeast time to produce carbon dioxide and fill the dough with gas cells; and we bake the dough to set its structure and generate flavor.” Sounds easy enough, right? OK, maybe it doesn’t just yet. Let’s break each step down individually. 

Choosing and mixing your building blocks 

Through the millennia humans have been making bread, its ingredients have become pretty specialized. Depending on your desired outcome (are you looking for an airy white bread or a dense, crusty artisan loaf?), you can take advantage of this quality.  

The best strain of yeast has already been chosen for you (more on yeast later), you can filter your water (or buy bottled) to avoid any problems that minerals or the lack thereof might cause, and the most pristine salt is available right on your grocer’s shelf. 

Flour comes in many types. Bread flour is made primarily from hard red spring wheat and has a higher amount of protein than all-purpose flour. These flours are “refined,” which means that portions of the wheat kernel (bran and germ) have been filtered out. If you’re looking for a more healthful loaf, you can add some whole-wheat flour, which includes the filtered bits, into the mix. You can’t just substitute whole-wheat flour for bread flour willy-nilly because, while wheat flour has more protein, the bran and germ don’t have the kind of protein needed to form the best gluten matrix and can actually cause a weakening of the structure. Other flours, like rice or corn, are also missing the crucial mixture of gluten proteins. 

The mixing step is actually pretty important. Seems there’s a trick to the order that things go in the bowl, as anyone who’s ever tried to mix a whole lot of dry ingredients with a small amount of liquid knows. The yeast needs to be evenly distributed (to the point that some sift instant yeast together with the flour before adding liquid). The minute the water hits the flour, things start to happen. Even exposure to oxygen can make a difference. 

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