I don't want to bore you or boggle your mind with scientific or mathmatical data---just the basic steps necessary to be able to treat yourself and your family to great bread. Remember that each recipe and each batch of dough will be different.
The most important item to consider before you begin is the time required to complete the process from beginning to end. This may entail 3-4 hours or 2-3 days, depending on the kind of bread you want to make.
Study the recipe thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, and think your way through it. Then plan your schedule and timing around it. This will be easier than trying to force your dough's timing around your own schedules, for that definitely does not work.
Also consider your current weather and atmosphere conditions. Hot or cold temperatures and high or low humidity will definitely affect flour absorption of water and proofing of the dough.
STEPS TO A SUCCESSFUL AND YUMMY LOAF OF BREAD
(I have to thank Peter Reinhart for teaching me this!)
- Mis en Place - A fancy cooking phrase that very loosely means "get your act together and measure out all the ingredients you will need before you begin". This way you won't forget to add an ingredient, the most frustrating ones being the salt or the yeast. (!!)
- Mixing - The combination of the mixing of all the ingredients to distribute them evenly, and then kneading the dough to develop the gluten and bring the yeast to life.
- Fermentation - The first step of fermenting the dough, allowing all the ingredients to integrate and develop flavor. In many cases, the fermenting dough can be refrigerated for as long as overnight, which develops even more flavor.
- Punching Down - The process of degassing before forming the dough into the desired shapes. The extent of degassing will depend on the type of bread you're making. Sandwich bread dough are among those that can be degassed by kneading again, whereas French, Italian and other "lean" doughs require the opposite of degassing as little as possible. Your recipe should tell you.
- Shaping - First dividing the dough into the desired portions; then rounding them into their first shaping as a boule (ball) or batard (sort of oval). Rest them to allow the gluten to relax, and then form them into their final shape ready for proofing.
- Proofing - The final or secondary stage of fermentation allowing the loaves to rise to the right size for baking. In some cases, refrigerating the shaped loaves overnight will develop much better flavor.
- Baking - When the vital actions within the dough occur. This process may include creating the simulation of a commercial steam-injected oven for artisan-type breads.
- Cooling - Actually an extension of the baking process as it continues to bake internally after it's removed from the oven. This is necessary before slicing into the bread.
- Storing - Well, hopefully we're going to eat at least some of it before we decide how to store it.
LITTLE THINGS I DO TO HELP MAKE MY BREAD BETTER:
- Measuring Flour Porperly: I use a large scoop to first gently stir up the flour in its container. Then use that utensill to scoop the flour into the measuring cup. Use a regular table knife to level off the top to the rim of the cup.
- Combining Dry Ingredients: I like to first put all the dry ingredients as directed by the recipe into my mixing bowl, then use a wire whisk to distribute them thoroughly.
- Mixing and Kneading: (This may not work for everyone, but it works for me for most doughs except very wet ones.) I use the dough hook almost all the way through the kneading process like this:
- Begin mixing with the dough hook on low speed 3 minutes until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
- Mix at least 3 minutes on medium speed until the dough has come together into a cohesive smooth dough, tacky but not sticky. It's okay if it sticks very slightly to the bottom of the mixing bowl.
- Finish kneading by hand on a lightly floured surface about 2 minutes, adding as little flour as possible, or until the dough just feels right in your hands.
- Fermenting the Dough: I like to allow my dough to ferment in the oven with just the oven light on.
- Proofing the Dough: I like to proof my loaves in the pan sitting on top of my coffee pot underneath my under-cabinet light. I ferment my free form loaves on their sheet pan underneath an overturned large $5 plastic storage box.
- Spray Oils: I use PAM olive oil flavored spray for oiling my bowls and my pans. Can't beat it!
- Overnight Proofing: When proofing my loaves overnight, I insert the whole sheet pan into a Reynolds Oven Bag, close up the front of the bag, and just shove the whole thing into the fridge.