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Three Things that Every Bread Baker Should Have and Why
My mother taught me to bake bread before I was a teenager. We didn’t have a stand-type mixer and she knew our oven like an old friend.
She tended to use the same recipes and her red-and-white cookbook was soiled with butter and batter stains.
She had penciled notes in the margins reminding her of adjustments she had made in the past, so that the recipes would work in her oven. I would love to bake with her today.
Baking bread is not hard but it pays to know the essentials and the science about baking. We’ve written a book by that title: How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking. If you are serious about baking, read that. But it’s over 200 pages. This is a five minute read, a good refresher.
Essential #1: A Kitchen Thermometer
You cannot bake bread without a good thermometer.
Yeast is very sensitive to temperature; you have to create the right environment for it to live and grow.
Most recipes are going to tell you to add water at 110 degrees. (In a bread machine it’s a closed environment with heat coming from the motor and for our bread mixes, we tell folks to add water at exactly 80 degrees.) But the goal is not to have bread dough at 110 degrees—that’s way too warm. The ideal temperature for the yeast to grow in bread dough is 79 degrees. Water at 110 degrees mixes with cooler ingredients and cools in contact with the air and, ideally, you have bread dough somewhere around 79 degrees.
How sensitive is yeast to temperature? A ten degree difference in temperature can change the rate of yeast growth by 100%.
But dough is not the only thing you will measure with a thermometer. You’ll use a thermometer to tell when the bread is baked.
For the bread to set, the internal temperature needs to reach 190 degrees for most breads. The color of the bread isn’t going to tell you that. Thumping the loaf will not tell you that.
To measure the inside temperature, turn your baked loaf out into your gloved hand or a kitchen towel. Turn the loaf and from the bottom, stick the temperature probe into the center of the loaf. It should read 190 degrees. If not, set it back into the pan and bake it for another 5 minutes.
Essential #2: Dough Conditioner
A good dough conditioner does three things: It “conditions” the protein strands so they are longer and more elastic (I have no idea how that works), it then holds more gas and makes the bread lighter and taller. Your loaves should be an inch taller.
It makes the dough more acidic. Yeast grows better in a slightly acidic environment. (There is a reason that our grandmothers added a tablespoon of lemon juice to their bread. Not very precise but the idea works.)
Dough conditioners are hygroscopic. Hygroscopic materials attract moisture. I don’t think it’s much but it tends to retard staling.
Essential #3: An Oven Thermometer
Ovens drive me nuts! The temperature is all over the board. In my experience, they’re not very precise even when new. But the mechanics of the heat and cool cycle means that they are too cool at one point and too hot at another. They heat until they’re above target and then cool until they’re below target.
My mother had an instinct for her old oven. Besides, if something took an extra five minutes to bake, she had that written in her cookbook.
For most of us, a better solution is an oven thermometer. Hang it off the rack with the provided hook and you know what the temperature is every time you open the oven. (In our oven at home, we have the thermometer hung right in front of the door so that we can read what the temperature is without opening the door.) Pretty soon you get to know your oven and your recipe and you’re a better baker.
You’ll be surprised how long it takes your oven to recover between batches of cookies.
It’s worth a few bucks to know how hot your oven really is when you stick your bread in.
*Note: At the time of publishing this article, the oven thermometer shown is free. The price is subject to change. But right now, you can get a free thermometer.
There you have it, what we consider the three essentials in our bread baking.
What about other “essentials”?
I love proofing bags. Sticking my bread dough in a giant, oversized bag beats the dickens out of stretching plastic across the top of a bread bowl. It creates a greenhouse without restricting the dough. I love it but it’s not essential.
I use a high protein bread flour, at least 11% protein. I don’t need to add more protein with wheat gluten. If I’m using mostly whole wheat flour, I add wheat gluten. Whole wheat flour is lower protein to start with and the bran tends to cut the gluten strands making it less effective in trapping gas.
Don’t use it to bake loaves. It relaxes the gluten and makes the dough more pliable and eliminates springback. It’s wonderful for pizza dough and flour tortillas but not loaves.
About the Author
Dennis Weaver has burned food from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. He is the founder of The Prepared Pantry in Rigby, Idaho and the author of How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking available as an E-book or as a Kindle book on Amazon.
Dennis lives in Rigby, Idaho, with his wife, Merri Ann. They have five wonderful children and five beautiful granddaughters.