The 15 stages of bread making

When starting off with learnig how to make bread knowing all the stages of bread making is best, before you get your hands dirty. This is a step by step guide on every stage of bread production with a few links to get more information if you want it.

There are so many ways to make bread. Every recipe follows these stages in some form or another. Some recipes will skip some steps, this is fine, its how bakers create qualities that are unique to their type of bread.

Let's explore all 15 stages...

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"Less complicated bread is not necessarily low quality, you just need quality ingredients, time and technique"

1. Creation of a preferment

The levain is what is added to the dough to raise the bread, the most common levains are yeast and sourdough. Some bread recipes require a preferment to be made prior to making the bread. Preferments are a form of levain created from fermenting flour with water and a little bit of yeast or sourdough starter.

Using sourdough or preferments such as biga or poolish create more flavour and strength in the dough amongst other things.

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Bread does not have to contain a preferment but if you are going to use one they will need to be prepared in advance.

Further reading: What is a levain

2. Weighing of ingredients

Mise en place means “everything in its place” and is the purpose of this early stage of making bread. There's nothing worse than starting a recipe to find you've run out of salt or your yeast has expired!

Get your bowls, equipment, recipe, ingredients (and yourself) ready for the bake. Then weigh the ingredients so you are ready to commence. You can use the same bowls to weigh the many ingredients, providing you separate the liquids from the dry. 

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Through all the stages of bread making, organisation is important so the best way to start is as you mean to go on.

3. Autolyse

An autolyse is where flour and water are combined to soften the flour. The mixture is left for 10-60 minutes to develop before the remaining ingredients are added and the kneading can begin. This is an optional step, but handy step to use - especially when hand kneading. Autolyse reduces the mixing time and creates a slightly increased raise in the final bread.

When autolysing you can choose to add or remove the salt and the levain (usually yeast). Changing the ingredients that are added for the autolyse creates different properties in the dough.

Autolyse is not essential for making bread, it just makes things a little easier. I always autolyse the flour without salt when baking baguettes and focaccia, as it helps the dough to hold its shape.

4. Kneading - Important stage of bread making!!

Kneading is usually divided into two stages. First is the slow mix, or incorporation of ingredients. The second stage is a faster knead which oxidises the flour and develops protein from the flour into gluten. A good gluten structure can retain the gas produced by the levain so the bread will rise.

Bakers increase or decrease the time they slow or fast knead to create different dough characteristics.

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Different dough mixers and hand kneading techniques work the dough with variable intensities. Here's an article the shares the most effective way to hand knead dough.

Further reading: How to knead dough.

Some recipes follow a “no-knead” technique. The ingredients are gently incorporated for a couple of minutes before left in the mixing bowl to ferment naturally.

Kneading is one of the most important stages of bread making. It is also the one that curiosity and endless possibility make bread bakers hooked in the craft. 

5. Additional ingredients

Towards the end of mixing, extra ingredients can be added that would otherwise get crushed if they went in at the start of kneading. Common additions that are used include dried fruit, olives, cheese and herbs. 

You can also add fats or a little extra water towards the end of kneading and knead for a few minutes longer to incorporate. These additions change the texture, colour and flavour of the bread.

6. The bulk fermentation stage of bread making

Also known as the rest period, bulk fermentation can last from ten minutes to two or three days. During this period the dough creates flavour and structure. It also allows the yeast to multiply in activity, ready to raise the bread.

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In bulk fermentation, the dough is placed in a bowl or tray and covered. It's allowed to rest for a period of time, typically 2-3 hours.

Bulk fermented dough can go in the fridge which slows down the process and allows more flavour to be crafted.

Stretch and folds (see below) are often used throughout the bulk fermentation stage. 

It's a good idera to plan ahead before you start your bake. For starters, you don't want to be doing the school run or perhaps worse of all asleep when your bread is going to need some attention. Create a schedule that fits your day around your bake before you start baking. That way your bread will be as true to the recipe as possible.

7. Stretch & folds and degas

Bakers stretch and fold the dough during bulk fermentation. This helps strengthen the dough and allows the levain to remain active. A degas or punch down are simple versions of the stretch and fold technique that you may have come across. These are when the dough has risen to double it's size it is punched down to force the gluten structure to rebuild. It does work, but the stretch and folds technique creates more strength in the dough.

8. Divide

When making more than one bread from a dough batch the next step is to divide. Here we divide the dough into individual bread pieces. For accuracy it is best to use scales to weigh each dough piece, dividing my sight is very risky and usually doesn't work out. Take the dough from its resting place and turn it onto a work surface, get the scales out and you can get to work. (You may wish to add a little flour to the table to prevent it sticking). 

Use a metal dough scraper to cut pieces of dough to roughly the size you require for your bread. Place them on the scales and add or remove dough to reach the weight you want. We usually allow for a 5% weight tolerance above or below the desired weight. The tolerance helps us to remain efficient when baking and avoid excessive dough handling which will damage the dough. If there is a little bit of extra dough left after dividing it can be split amongst the weighted pieces or it can be returned to the mixing bowl and combined in the next mix of dough you make.

9. Preshaping

This stage is important to give dough the strength it needs to hold its shape when proving. To preshape you take a dough piece, push it against the work surface to remove gas and shape it into a ball. Once shaped it is then left on the table to rest. Deping on the bread type and the amount of levain used the dough is rested for 5 -30 minutes.

For most types of bread, take this opportunity to push out as much air from the dough as possible. If you want on open crumb you should preshape lightly to retain some of the air in the crumb. For ciabatta, the pre-shape stage is often skipped altogether to create an open and uneven crumb.

Instead of a round ball, for long shaped breads like baguettes you can opt to preshape to a cylindrical shape. 

10. Final Shaping

The next stage of the bread making process is final shaping, this is where we shape the bread to its final shape before proofing.

Leaving the dough to rest on the table after the previous stage allows it to relax enough to be able to be reshaped into the dough's destined shape.

If left to bench rest for too long the dough will not be strong enough to retain its shape when final shaped.

The dough is again flattened on the worksurface before being shaped into the desired shape and often placed in tin, tray or proofing basket to rise.

11. Final Proof stage

Now it’s time for the yeast/levain to do the work and raise the bread ready for the oven. The final proof can be a matter of minutes to a few hours, even longer if you choose to use a fridge to slow down the process to the following day.

A usual final proof time is around 2-3 hours. To speed up the final proof you can add more yeast, or increase the temperature.

A low temperature of the dough and the room will decrease the final proof time. 

To increase the temperature, bakers may choose to use warmer water when baking, increase the temperature it bulk ferments or final proof in a proofer.

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In a professional environment a proofer is used for the final proof. Proofers are essentially a box that the dough goes into which controls temperature and humidity to create the perfect final proofing environment. Home bakers often place their dough to rise in a warmer environment such as a oven with the light on, an airing cupboard or near a heat source. Some create their own proofing boxes.

A proofer is far from essential, it just adds a bit more control to the timings. In cool climates the bread will take longer to proof than others.

There's an extra stage here whilst the bread is rising - DO THE WASHING UP! (I have to remind myself).

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12. Cutting

When the dough has reached its intended size and is ready to go in the oven the bread is often cut it before.

As the dough enters the oven additional gas is produced which forces the dough to shoot up by around 20% more. This is called oven spring.

Cutting the dough allows some of the gas to escape during oven spring which stops the crust rupturing uncontrollably and looking unpleasant. We tend to cut only white breads as they spring up more uncontrollably than wholegrain loaves, though this is not a rule that is always adhered to. 

The way the bread is cut supports how it springs in the oven, a skilled baker can adapt the oven spring by changing the amount and depth of the cuts. This is how "ears" are created in the final bread. To cut the bread an artisan baker uses a lame, this is essentially a razor blade on a stick. Lames ensure the most accurate and defined cuts. It is possible to use a serrated knife to make basic cuts in bread if you don't have a lame.

Cutting allows a bit of artist personality in bread baking. Boring people, like myself tend to opt for a cross or simple line through the middle, while many others cut flowers and landscape pictures. If you wish to dust flour on  your bread, just before you cut is the time to do it, but please don’t add too much!

13. The bake stage

After cutting, it’s straight to the oven to meet its maker... Ok... bake it.

Oven settings tend to be around 220-230C (430-450F) for most types of bread but can increase for baguettes and lower for sweetened bread.

The final proof stage

Longer baking times tend to create crusty, more flavourful bread. Softer breads have shortened baking times. The use of a baking stone helps to conduct heat into the dough which gives a better oven spring.

Bakers often choose to add steam to the oven as the bread goes in. Adding steam supports a good oven spring and creates crusty breads with a light crumbs.

Further reading: How to add steam to an oven for bread

14. Cooling

When crusty bread is baked it should sound hollow when tapped. Soft bread will not sound the same but you'll be able to tell it's ready by its dark coloured crust. Once the bread is ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool. The cooling time is determined by the size of the loaf and how dense it is, typically 2-3 hours.

It can be tempting to enjoy delicious warm bread before this point but you will notice more flavour and a better crumb/crust structure if you have the willpower to wait. 

When removing soft rolls from the oven it's a good tip to give the tray a bang on the work surface to help them set.

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15. The last stage of bread making - Finishing

The last stage of bread making is finishing. Depending on the bread you may add a further glaze or topping as, or after it cools.

Finishing tends to involve a glaze that is applied with a pastry brush and sometimes some fruit or nuts are sprinkled to adhere to the sticky surface. You can choose to do this as soon as it comes out of the oven, or you can wait for them to cool down a bit first. 

Top tips for using the 15 stages to make bread

  • Depending on the recipe, some stages can be skipped, doubled or increased. If you see a recipe that doesn't follow some of these stages, still follow it if it's from a reputable source. 
  • Plan your bake around what other things you might have to do in your day.
  • Use good quality ingredients to make the best dough.
  • Clean as you go, or at least do the washing up once you have finished

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These 15 steps are part of the learn to bake bread at home course, click the link to return to the how to make bread main menu to discover the other content.

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