Bread dough is deceptively simple — it only contains four basic ingredients. Since there are so few ingredients, it is important to choose each one carefully. Once you know how to combine water, yeast, flour and salt in the right formula, you’ll be able to bake foolproof homemade bread every time.
Start With Yeast
Yeast is what makes the difference between a soft, light loaf of bread and a hard biscuit. It is a microorganism that feeds on sugars and starches, and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. Typical white or whole-wheat bread recipes call for active dry or instant yeast. You can find these forms of yeast in your local grocery store. Older recipes may call for proofing active dry yeast by soaking it in warm water and a pinch of sugar. Instant yeast does not require proofing and can be added directly to the flour in your bread recipe.
Sourdough breads are made by combining a sourdough starter with active dry or instant yeast. Sourdough starter is a small amount of flour and water that has been allowed to combine with wild airborne yeast. It ferments for several days or weeks to develop a characteristic sour flavor. Typically, sourdough starter is used in conjunction with active dry or instant yeast, although it can be used alone to leaven sourdough bread.
Choose Your Flour
The flour you choose for your bread makes a big difference in the final loaf. All-purpose flour contains between 8 percent and 11 percent gluten protein. Bread flour is made from hard, high-protein wheat and contains between 12 percent and 14 percent gluten. This higher gluten content is essential for yeast breads, because it gives the dough the elasticity it needs to hold air bubbles. Softer, all-purpose flour doesn’t have the strength to hold up to rising, and can collapse, leaving you with a dense, spongy loaf.
If you prefer whole-wheat bread, you can mix whole-wheat flour with bread flour in your favorite bread recipe — or substitute all the bread flour with whole-wheat.
Add Essential Flavors
A small amount of salt is absolutely essential for great-tasting bread. Most recipes call for between a teaspoon and a teaspoon and a half for a full loaf of bread. Salt brings out the subtle flavors of the flour, giving your bread a well-rounded taste.
Add the salt to the flour, and mix well to evenly distribute it.
Finish the Dough
Mixing bread dough can be quite a workout if you do it by hand. Start by combining all your dry ingredients — flour, salt, and instant yeast, if you use it — in a large mixing bowl. Add warm water, proofed yeast and any other liquid ingredients, such as milk or honey, to the flour mixture and stir until it forms a batter. It should be quite stiff, depending on the ratio of liquid to flour.
If you’d rather give your arms a rest, you can mix the dough in a stand mixer.
Let the batter rise until it has doubled in volume, then knead it to develop the gluten in the dough.
Let the dough rest as described in your recipe, then bake. Be sure to resist the temptation to cut open the bread the moment it comes out of the oven. It needs to cool for the internal crumb structure to set before you slice it.
References and ResourcesFine Cooking: The Science of Baking with Yeast
King Arthur Flour: The Complete Guide: Baking with Sourdough
What’s Cooking America: Types of Different Flours