The Basics of Baking a Classic Loaf of Bread at Home

Feed the yeast, feel the dough, watch it rise

Sheetal Bhat

The aroma of freshly baked bread creates one of those moments in life when everything seems perfect. And possible.

Baking, as they say, is a science requiring a baker to plan and persist in order to avoid disappointments. A lot depends on the ingredients you use, the manner or order in which the ingredients are mixed, the baking tins used and oven temperature. Hence, each bake will have an individuality that reflects the method, and to some extent, the emotional state of the baker. More so when it comes to baking bread.

Breads are very sharp at reflecting the quality of ingredients and handling of dough. As the awareness on the undesirable effects of ingredients used in industrially produced breads grows—from refined flour to preservatives—a lot of us are trying to bake homemade breads, as often as we can.

Also read: 31 Days of Baking with LF

Baking Bread at Home: The Beginning

I began baking homemade breads a few years back, teaching myself the fundamentals as well as some finer details of baking breads while working with commercial yeast and of late, the wild yeast or sourdough.

Back when I was growing up, our kitchens lacked the tools required to bake. What was available outside was rarely accurate. Recipes were rare to find and if we found one worth trying in the women’s magazines, sourcing the ingredients was a tall task. Since the demand was so low, even leavening agents lost their mojo, waiting for an enthusiastic baker to pick them off the store shelf. We experimented—in the absence of caster sugar, granulated sugar was ground at home, the very British recipes requiring self-rising flour were never attempted as the local kiranawala had no clue where to procure them. We had to learn from our mistakes and the family had to be prepared to eat those mistakes.

It is not the flour, water and salt that intimidate us. But the yeast, it can test our patience. 

Baking is a craft that requires practice to perfect it, it demands feedback, sharing of tips and tricks. If you’re a beginner, I can very well comprehend the initial anxiety while learning to work with yeast. It isn’t the flour, water and salt that intimidate us, but the yeast can test our patience. In India, we are not used to working with commercial yeast. Although a lot of our fermented foods have wild yeast, it is the commercial yeast that daunts us. I was extremely nervous when I baked my first loaf using commercial yeast and have now worked my way to become a confident bread baker. To get here, one needs to develop a nuanced relationship with yeast. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Firstly, choose good quality ingredients. Just as you take care to select the best whole wheat flour for your rotis, be prudent about the quality of flour and yeast you use. The fresher the ingredients, the better your breads will be.

Always transfer the flour to a container, do not allow it to remain in its original package. The flour will expand and increase in volume in the container. This way you would not end up using more than required amount of flour.

It is advisable to use a digital weighing scale rather than measuring cup to weigh the ingredients. The more accurate the measures, the better chances one has to achieve perfect results.

Read and acquaint yourself with bread baking terminology—it will help you interpret the recipe well. You will also understand the science behind what goes into baking a good loaf of bread.

It is crucial to ensure that the yeast has not crossed its use-by date. Hence, always “prove the yeast” by allowing it to froth up in some sweetened water.

Also read: 5 baking powder substitutes to save you a trip to the store

Make Yeast Your Bread-fellow

Think of the yeast as a fellow living being and treat it with care. Consider it as someone in deep sleep that needs a pleasant environment to wake up. Water and sugar help it to wake up well. The water has to be tepid or body temperature. Hot water will kill the yeast. Just like us, yeast has a sweet tooth.  The sweetness from the sugar or honey we add to the water is the food that helps the yeast to be fully awake. The reason salt is not added while proofing yeast is because the yeast wouldn’t like to eat salt to wake up, it will either take too long to wake up or not wake up at all. So, remember, no salt. Just sugar added to tepid water. (Again, not too much sugar, or you’ll make it lazy!)

There are three types of yeast: fresh yeast, instant dry yeast and active dry yeast. They can be used in lieu of each other but the quantity will vary. While the fresh yeast has limited shelf life, the other two can be stored longer. Remember, once you open the pack of yeast, transfer it to a clean glass jar and store it in the refrigerator.

How to Pick the Right Flour for your Bread

Begin with all-purpose flour or maida. Graduate to baking breads using whole grain or millet flours after you have achieved decent results with maida.

Whilst you are still learning, knead the dough with your hands and not in an electric mixer. Learning requires getting your hands dirty. Try to understand how the dough behaves. And remember, the same ingredients will have different results in different seasons. Therefore, never add all the water at once. The flour absorbs greater amount of water in winter or in dry climate than in summer or humid climate. Just like our skin that needs extra moisturizing in winter. 

How to knead well

Do not let the process of kneading intimidate you. As Indians we are used to kneading dough for rotis and paratha. Kneading the bread dough is very similar, you should knead it well to achieve soft and well-risen bread. It is said that well kneaded dough should be soft and supple like a baby’s bottom. Instead of kneading it continuously for 10-15 minutes as most recipes suggest, give the dough a 5-minute rest after actively kneading for 2-3 minutes. This will give you the same result in 10 minutes. Please understand that the dough needs both your love and time to develop well.

Kneading the dough well helps weave the gluten structure well.  Gluten is the network of inter-connected proteins that gives structure to baked goods. It looks like thin woven threads, when we weave gluten threads strongly together, they give the bread a good rise.

The maida and wheat flours available in India are cultivated for flat breads, meaning they aren’t strong flours that good breads need. 

In this case, overnight retardation or allowing the kneaded dough to mature for 8-10 hours in refrigerator works the best. It gives a good flavour and texture to the bread. Knead the dough, place it in a greased bowl or large greased zip lock bag and place it in the refrigerator for minimum 7-8 hours. Bring it to room temperature, knead, shape, let it rise and bake.

Shaping of dough has great influence on the rise and crumb of the bread. There are loads of tutorials on the internet that you can look up to master the craft of shaping the dough.

Invest in good tools once you are sure that you will continue to practice baking breads at home. A good dough scraper, digital weighing scale, loaf tins and pans are a must.  Most Indian ovens now do a very good job at baking breads but never bake with the fan mode on.

Remember, it is your patience and practice that will teach you to learn and perfect the craft of bread baking. Bake as often as you can.  


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