15 Stages of Bread Making - by a Professional Baker

Here is a step by step guide on the stages of bread making. This is perfect for any beginner to understand the bread making process. There are so many ways to make bread and less complicated bread is not necessarily of lower quality.

Some recipes will require some of the stages to be skipped. These are to create qualities that are unique to the intended bread. I’ll point out a few types of bread that skip some of the stages as we go through.

It's a good idea 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.

The 15 stages of bread making

1. Creation of a preferment

For making a quick basic bread, this stage can be skipped and you can move straight on to step two. Preferments are a type of levain that is created from fermenting flour with yeast or a sourdough starter. They take a bit of time to prepare and are usually prepared the day before the bread is to be produced.

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Using sourdough or preferments such as biga or poolish create more flavour and strength in the dough amongst other things. For sandwich bread or soft rolls, this step can be skipped.

Further reading: How levain makes bread rise

2. Weighing of ingredients

Mise en place means “everything in its place” and is the purpose of this first stage. There's nothing worse than starting a recipe to find you've run out of salt! Through all the stages of bread making, organisation is important so it's best to start as you mean to go on.

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Get all your bowls, equipment, recipe, ingredients and yourself ready for the bake. Weigh the ingredients ready to commence. You can use the same bowls to weigh the many ingredients, providing you separate the liquids from the dry. Get all your bread making tools ready so you can begin.

3. Autolyse

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

Adding or removing the salt or yeast/levain creates different properties in the dough. This step is not necessary for any type of bread however I always autolyse the flour without salt when baking baguettes and focaccia, as it helps when shaping.

Further reading: Making an autolyse

4. Kneading - Important stage of bread making!!

This is divided into two stages usually. The slow mix or the incorporation of the ingredients, followed by a faster knead to oxidise and work the protein into gluten. 

We can opt to increase the time we do either the slow mix or the fast knead.

Changing the time and intensity of slow or fast kneading creates different characteristics in the bread. 

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Some recipes follow a “no-knead” technique where the ingredients are gently incorporated before being left in the 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 that can make new bread bakers hooked for life. 

Further reading: How to hand knead bread dough.

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 I use are 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 create additional texture and flavour in 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 ferments naturally creating 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 resting tray and covered. It's allowed to rest for a period of time, typically 2-3 hours.

Dough that is being bulk fermented can go in the fridge to slow down the process and allow more flavour to be crafted.

Stretch and folds (see below) can be used through the bulk fermentation stage. This stage can be skipped when making bread with close-knit crumb structures, like soft rolls.

7. Stretch & folds and degas

Bakers stretch and fold dough during the bulk fermentation time. This is when the dough is placed in a rough square and stretched outwards and folded in on all four sides. There are many ways to stretch and fold (article to come soon!).

By including a stretch and fold (or several) the dough strengthens and readjusts its core temperature allowing it to continually ferment. For dough that has had less kneading the quantity of stretch and folds should be increased.

Degas's or punching down is simple version of a stretch and fold. It is where the dough is pushed back down to make the structure be rebuilt. It does work, but stretch and folds create more strength in the dough so would always recommend you do these instead.

It is not necessary to stretch and fold or degas when the dough has been well kneaded, usually by a dough kneading machine.

8. Divide

When making more than one type of bread you will have to divide the dough into individual bread weights. Take the dough out of its resting place onto the work surface, get the scales out and get to work.

Use a dough scraper to cut it into the correct weights allowing a 5% tolerance up or down to remain efficient. You may wish to add a little flour to the table to prevent sticking. 

Bakers use the weight of the dough to maintain accuracy in the products quality and post bake weight. When making just one bread, this stage is omitted. 

9. Preshaping

This stage is pretty important to give the dough the strength to hold its shape whilst proving. Take the divided dough piece and shape it into a ball using a technique that stretches the outside membrane.

For most types of bread, take this opportunity to push out as much air (de-gas)  from the dough as possible. If you want on open crumb you may choose to do this lightly to retain some of the air in the crumb. For ciabatta, the pre-shape stage can be skipped for a more open and uneven crumb.

Instead of a round ball for long shaped breads you can opt to form into a more cylindrical shape. 

Once shaped, leave the dough to rest for 5 - 30 minutes on the table to relax. 

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 allows it to relax just 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. Nearing the end stages of bread making, after final shaping we can sit and wait, whilst the dough proofs.

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 ready for baking the next day.

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

The 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.

In a professional environment a proofer is often used at this stage of the bread making process. A commercial proofer is used to final proof the dough.

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Proofers are essentially a box that controls temperature and humidity to control the final proofing environment. Home bakers can choose to place the dough in a warmer environment.

12. Cutting

When the dough has reached its intended size and is ready to go in the oven we can choose to cut it before it gets baked. As the dough is baked additional gas is produced forcing the dough to shoot up around 20% more.

By cutting the dough we allow some of the gas to escape which stops the crust rupturing uncontrollably. We tend to only cut white bread as they tend to shoot up more than wholegrain loaves. 

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 largely how "ears" are created in the final bread.

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 where others cut flowers and landscape pictures on theirs. If you wish to dust flour on the crust of your bread, just before you cut is the time to do it, but don’t add too much!

13. The bake stage

After cutting, it’s straight to the oven to meet its maker... Ok, bake. Oven settings tend to be around 220-230C (430-450F) for most types of bread but can increase for baguettes and lower for heavily sweetened bread.

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Longer baking times tend to create crusty, more flavourful bread. Shorter times are softer. The use of a baking stone helps to conduct heat into the dough which gives a better oven spring. We can choose also to add steam. Adding steam also supports the oven spring and creates crusty bread with a lighter crumb.

Further reading: The ultimate guide on oven spring - adding water to an oven to make steam

14. Cooling

When bread is baked it should sound hollow when tapped providing it’s a crusty loaf. Soft bread will not sound the same but you'll be able to tell it's ready by the colour of the bread. Once the bread is baked, remove from the oven and allow it to cool. The size of the loaf and how dense it is will change the time it takes.

Typically 2-3 hours is usual.

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 a table to help set them.

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15. The last stage of bread making - Finishing

The last stage of bread making is finishing, it's not always required though. Depending on your bread you may wish to add a further glaze or topping at the end of baking.

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. 

The end of the 15 stages of bread making!

That is the 15 stages of bread making, as mentioned earlier depend on the recipe, these stages can be skipped, doubled or increased. It depends on the recipe and the dough you are working with.

To learn more about dough, take a look at the other articles on the website. Before you do that, there are a few questions I get asked a lot below which you might want to check out.

15 stages of bread making

Frequently Asked Questions on stages of bread making

Can you let bread rise 3 times?

This question is asked if you were to bulk ferment, knock back down, bulk ferment again, shape and then final proof. You can do, it depends on the amount of yeast/levain activity in the dough. If it's quite high, the yeast in the dough might burn out and fail to rise in the final proof. 

However, instead of knocking down you implement a stretch and fold. This will mean you add more strength into the dough. In which yes you can.

My bread didn't rise, what went wrong?

First of all, did you remember to put the yeast in? I’m serious, it’s quite a common mistake! Or is it out of date? If using a sourdough or preferment, was it active enough? These are usually the cause of the issue of bread not rising, but there are a few others to consider. 

The room could not be warm enough to rise, or sometimes the dough has been bulk fermented in a place that is too warm and the yeast is killed off or exhausted too early. Salt hinders the yeast activity, was too much added? Was a long enough fermentation period given? Sometimes changing a recipe to replace fresh yeast with dried or sourdough the method will need to change to allow for slower fermentation rates.

Further reading: Should I add less yeast to my dough

How long should I knead bread dough for?

Usually around 10-15 minutes of hand kneading. If using a dough mixer a total of 8-10 minutes is to be expected. Depending on the technique used and the aggression given to the dough when kneading, kneading time can go up or down. It also depends on how strong you would like the gluten structure for the bread you are making.

Further reading: How to hand knead dough