Good bread is a wonderful thing, but it can be good in a surprising number of ways. Puffy naan straight from the tandoor is entirely different from a crusty ciabatta or a dense rye loaf, but each has its own undeniable appeal.
The challenge for any bread baker is to learn which techniques and ingredients lead to the end result you want. For example, if your goal is a light and fluffy loaf, you'll need to strike a balance between gluten to make it rise and softening ingredients that give it a delicate crumb.
Yeast, the ingredient that gives bread most of its rise, consumes the dough's sugars and converts them to tiny amounts of carbon dioxide gas. Those gas pockets, and steam from the bread's moisture evaporating, give the loaf its lightness and airiness.
Yeast can't do the job on its own, though, because the carbon dioxide would simply escape from the dough if not for gluten. When you combine flour with liquid and mix it, two naturally occurring proteins in the wheat -- glutenin and gliadin -- combine to form a network of long, stretchy strands within the dough. These strands trap gas from the yeast into millions of tiny balloon-like pockets, which expand during the baking process and give bread its crumb.
Harnessing gluten's potential to create a light and fluffy loaf requires some attention to technique. Gluten development comes from moisture, time and kneading. Once you've mixed water into flour, gluten will begin to develop on its own, but kneading helps it dramatically. If you make bread by hand, you might find it takes up to 10 minutes' vigorous work.
As you press and fold the dough, the gluten strands snag each other like Velcro and create a stronger, more complex network. The gluten network also gains more strength as the dough rises, which is why a well-risen dough is more elastic than it was when first mixed.
For a fluffy loaf, punch down the dough after this first rise and knead it again. Not only does the extra kneading and the second rise produce stronger gluten, it distributes the yeast and its gases evenly throughout the dough in smaller pockets. The end result is a loaf with a lighter, finer crumb.
Even with the best of mixing and kneading technique, your choice of flour can sabotage your chances of producing a light and fluffy loaf. The fluffiest breads are almost invariably white, because whole-wheat flour and rye flour contain less gluten, and most other grains have none. A loaf made with all-purpose flour will usually rise reasonably well. With more gluten, bread flour makes an even higher loaf.
- If you want to make a wheat or multi-grain loaf, combining bread flour with whole wheat flour or multigrain flour will help keep it lighter and fluffier.
- If all else fails, you can buy gluten flour -- sometimes sold as "vital wheat gluten" -- in bulk food stores. It's very concentrated, and just a spoonful will add enough gluten to make a whole-grain loaf lighter and fluffier.
There's a third factor to fluffy bread, apart from adequate gluten and good mixing technique. A high-gluten bread is light and airy, but its crust and crumb can be chewy and tough.
This is a good thing when you're making ciabatta or other artisan-style breads, but it's undesirable in a soft, fluffy sandwich loaf. That's why recipes for soft bread typically include extra sugar, milk, eggs or fat. All of these ingredients have the effect of weakening the bonds between gluten strands. The more of these softening ingredients you use, the softer and more cake-like the loaf will become.
The trick is to balance the recipe, so there's enough gluten to make the loaf light and yet enough softening ingredients to keep it delicate in texture. If you're refining a recipe of your own, this might mean adding butter or an egg to a chewy bread or tweaking a soft bread with gluten flour to give it more rise.