The women that went before us baked the most amazing bread at home in primitive ovens. They didn’t have temperature controlled ovens. They didn’t have standardized yeast. Yet their bread was a staple part of the daily diet. While its true that some of these ladies never got the hang of light loaves with crispy crusts, others became locally famous for their baking. If you had the privilege of helping your grandma or a neighbor in the kitchen on baking day, you probably caught some of these bread baking tips. For the rest of us, I offer my own bread baking tips, won by both observing the grandmothers and by not-a-few failed loaves. Here’s 16 bread baking tips that will surely improve your chances at attaining that perfect crust and crumb.
Start with fresh, organic ingredients
Fresh organic flour that you grind yourself includes the vital wheat gluten, the germ, and the bran. This is the best flour to use with your bread. It’s rich in enzymes and protein to make your loaves rise well.
Use high protein wheat or add gluten
Add vital wheat gluten to increase the rise and spring of your bread and make it lighter. Commercial bread machine flour has vital wheat gluten added. I prefer Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Flour. I’ve always had good success with it. You don’t need much. 1/4 cup per 5 cups of whole wheat flour is enough to make your loaves lighter.
Rise it at 70F
The best and most flavourful bread rises slowly at cooler temperatures. In the summer in a warmer climate you may need to put your bread in a cooler location to rise. Adjust the rising so that you can maintain this optimum temperature.
Proof your yeast
Yeast has a shelf life. Keeping your yeast in the fridge can increase its shelf life. But eventually it loses its vitality. Always proof your yeast before adding it to your bread.
There are different kinds of yeast. For regular bread baking (not bread machine) I prefer active dry yeast. It will work with the dough and give you a long rising time without collapsing prematurely. Instant yeast is fast but the bread isn’t given a chance to develop fully. Instant yeast will collapse with a long rising time. Wine yeast isn’t used for bread baking.
Optional dough conditioners
Add 1 tbsp. cider vinegar to the dough or 1 tsp. of diastolic malt, when you mixing it as a dough conditioner. This adds enzymes and increases the lightness of your dough.
Half the yeast and double the rising time
When following a commercial recipe, decrease the yeast by ½ and double the first rise. This removes some of the yeasty, alcohol flavour of the bread and gives a more complex flavour and a better crumb. The lightness of the dough comes as much from the handling and rising time as from the yeast.
Use less flour than you think you need
The bread dough should be very sticky when you put it to rise for the first time. The flour will absorb a lot of the stickiness during the first rising. Don’t be tempted to make the dough “smooth and elastic” in the first kneading, as so many recipes say. Your bread will turn out heavy. Instead reserve up to a third of the flour that the recipe calls for to add after the first rising. Then knead it in one handful at a time. And stop as soon as you can handle the dough without it sticking to your hands or the counter top. The actual amount of flour that you need will depend on the relative humidity in your kitchen on the day that you bake.
Knead with wet hands
Instead of flouring your hands when you knead the dough, wet them. This will keep the dough from sticking to your hands without adding any heaviness to the dough.
Don’t forget the salt
Bread without salt is tasteless and the crumb isn’t as well formed. Salt mediates the yeast and changes the texture of the bread. Add about 1 tsp. of salt for each loaf of bread that the recipe makes.
Use a baking stone
The baking stone increases the heat retention in the oven and gives that crisp brown crust the wood fired ovens give. I don’t have one. If you don’t have one either, you can put two bricks in the bottom of your oven and preheat them with your oven. They will retain the heat, like a baking stone, and make the bottom crust brown evenly. For artisan bread you can bake the loaves right on the baking stone. But for this recipe we are using bread pans. Place the bread pans on top of the baking stone.
Slash the tops of the loaves
Slash loaves diagonally across the top about 20 minutes before baking. This give space for the loaf to spring in the oven without cracking your bread.
Create steam in your oven during baking
This is the key to making the very best artisan bread. If you don’t take anything else away from the article take this. Commercial artisan bread bakeries have ovens that steam the bread during the baking process. The steam encourages “oven spring” which makes taller, lighter loaves of bread. It also crisps the crust and makes the crust chewier. You can create steam in your oven while baking, by putting a heavy pan, like a small cast iron frying pan, onto the bottom rack of your oven. Just before you put your loaves into the oven to bake, pour boiling water into the frying pan. Add your loaves and close the oven door. Another way to create steam is to lightly spritz the oven walls with water, avoiding the oven light, at the beginning of the baking period. Experiment with your own oven and see which way works best for you.
Create the crust texture that you want
Brush loaves with water before baking for a crustier loaf. Brush with egg before baking for a softer, golden loaf. Brush with butter when you bring the bread from the oven for a very soft crust.
Use a long preheat
Don’t be in a hurry to get your bread in the oven. Preheat the oven before putting in your bread dough for at least 20 minutes. Some artisan bakeries preheat the oven for a full hour. Bake bread at 425F for a crisp browned, caramelized crust.
Preheat the pan before putting in your bread or place the bread pan on a baking stone – use parchment paper to transfer your dough to the pan
Don’t rush bread baking
Time – allow for at least 4 hours to make an awesome, loaf of bread. The dough needs time to ferment, proof, and bake. Don’t rush it. The actual hands-on time is less than 20 minutes. Most of the time is waiting. Start early in the day and you won’t be disappointed.
Bake more bread….
Bread baking is an art that you learn by experience. Bake lots of bread and learn the feel of the dough and the behavior of the yeast. If you have a failure, know that we all do. Failures can be made into crumbs to add to meatloaf or hamburgers, or make croutons or bread pudding. Homemade bread is worth the effort to learn to do well. It is healthier and tastes better than store bought.
Basic whole wheat bread
2 tbsp. yeast
1 ½ cups of hot water (110F)
1 tsp. organic sugar or honey
2 tsp. salt
4 to 5 cups of whole wheat flour
¼ cup of vital wheat gluten
1 tbsp. butter
Proof the yeast: Mix yeast, hot water, and sugar or honey in a 2 cup measuring cut. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Active yeast will bubble up. If your yeast doesn’t bubble then discard and try again with fresh yeast.
In a mixing bowl add the proofed yeast, butter, and salt. Mix in 3 cups of the whole wheat flour and the ¼ cup of vital wheat gluten. Mix well with a dough hook. This batter will be the consistency of a heavy,l wet dough. Keep mixing until you see threads forming in the dough. This is the gluten. Once the threads form add 1 cup of flour more. Beat with the dough hook to incorporate well.
Cover and let rise for 1 ½ to 2 hours at room temperature. As it rises, the dough will dry out as the water in it is absorbed by the flour.
Remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in a small amount of flour, as needed. Less is better than too much.
Divide dough into two portions. Form two loaves by stretching the dough and tucking under the edges, so that the surface of the dough is smooth on top. Place in two well-buttered bread pans. Cover with a floured towel and allow to rise for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 425F. Place a pan of water in the bottom of the oven during the preheat.
Before you put the bread in the oven, slash the top with a thin, sharp blade, to allow for oven spring. Place the bread pans in the oven and with a spray bottle of water. Spritz the wall of the oven, avoiding the oven light. Close the oven door and repeat the spray after 2 minutes, and again after 4 minutes. Now keep the oven door closed and bake for 20 minutes until the loaves are a deep golden brown. Turn off the oven heat but leave the loaves inside the oven for an additional 5 minutes.
Remove the bread from the oven and turn out of bread pans onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool for at least an hour before slicing. The bread continues to bake while it is cooling and the crust draws air into the hot loaves, increasing the flavour and complexity of the bread as it cool. Don’t rush the cooling period.
Learn to Bake Bread on Craftsy
Now that you’ve tried a basic loaf of whole wheat bread, learn to make artisan bread from a professional artisan baker. Pick up Craftsy’s Bread Baking Basics for free.
If you are ready to commit to learning this homestead skill well, go deeper by taking a Craftsy class, in the comfort of your own home, and at your own pace. Peter Reinhart, author of many books on bread baking, including his newest book Bread Revolution, teaches Artisan Bread Baking .
It’s an excellent course to give you the basics in a format where you can ask questions and get feedback from a professional. Post your own pictures of homemade bread as the course progresses and learn from the instructor’s comments. It’s the perfect learning environment.