To make bread, you need flour, water, salt and a levain such as yeast or sourdough starter. Of course, other ingredients can be added, but the four mentioned are essential. Let’s go over some pointers in this introductory guide to help you select the best ingredients to make bread.
As flour comes in contact with water, the soluble proteins wash away, leaving the insoluble gluten proteins. There are five types of protein in the flour; glutenin, gliadin, globulin, albumin and protease. But it’s the glutenin and gliadin which we are most interested in. Collectively known as gluten, these two long strands are initially coiled up. With time and mechanical force (e.g. kneading), the hydrated gluten strands unravel and re-bond in a more linear structure. The new structure needs to stretch to retain gas and be moulded (extensible) whilst still holding its shape (elasticity).
There is a lot that can be done to alter the characteristics of gluten during the bread-making process. Still, one of the most significant alterations can be found when changing the type of flour.
The most important consideration is the protein content of the flour. Bread flour contains more protein than plain or all-purpose flour. The majority of the protein in the flour will be gluten. Therefore a higher percentage will be able to trap more gas to make a better risen (and therefore lighter) bread (more on this in a moment). The flour’s protein content is provided on the label or the nutritional information on the side of the packet. Most types of bread desire a protein content of around 11 to 13%.
Depending on where you are in the world, all-purpose or plain flour could contain enough protein, and if it does, why is bread flour better? Or is it?
Flour is not a consistent product, although it’s often sold as a commodity. In reality, it’s more similar to wine in that different grains, climates, growing conditions and milling processes produce alternative qualities. Suppose we were to select two flours grown in separate areas with the same protein content. In that case, we’d create different flavours, aromas, textures and rheology properties in the dough! There’s more to the quality of the dough than just the protein content. Other considerations include:
You can’t get this information from the side of the packet! Flour must undergo testing to gain this know-how. An example of this is provided for Primitiva flour here, but it is uncommon to get your hands on this information. Often you’ll have to email the mill, and it’s up to them whether they will provide it.
I won’t go into more detail as this is a beginner’s guide. I just want you to know that any-old bread flour doesn’t always make the best bread. Flour can be low quality. And depending on what type of bread you are aiming to make, a different flour can be preferred.
Here’s a table that describes the recommended protein content for flour when making particular types of bread. This is based on using regular, good-quality flour.
|Bread type:||Recommended protein %|
|Pizza||12% speciality flour|
|Extra-long fermented sourdough||10%|
|Traditional French bread||10.5-12%|
|Traditional Italian bread||11.5-13%|
The perfect dough will have the desired extensibility and elasticity to suit the bread. This becomes more apparent when you consider the characteristics of traditional bread made in their originative regions (such as the baguette). These are best replicated using flour from their native wheat.
It’s better to source flour from the same mills that supply professional artisan bakeries. You’ll get better results with quality flour than when using a supermarket’s own brand.
Ingredients of a professional bread recipe are provided in the baker’s percentage format. The weight of each ingredient is divided by the total weight of the flour and multiplied by 100 to give a percentage. The amount of water in a recipe is often called the dough’s “hydration”, typically ranging between 60-75% for standard bread doughs. High hydration dough with above 75% hydration needs a strong gluten structure to support the extra mass the water provides. Protein also absorbs more water than carbs, so the hydration of the recipe should increase by 2.5% when the flour’s protein is increased by 1%. Of course, other factors will contribute to the perfect amount of water in the recipe, notably its moisture content. Flour absorbs water at different rates from brand to brand and, even, packet to packet. It usually takes a couple of attempts and adjustments in the amount of water to master a new recipe or flour. You can learn more about how to do this in the how to prevent a sticky dough post.
You may notice from the previous table that long-fermented bread can utilise a lower protein flour. By fermenting for a long time, the damaged protein in the flour repairs, making the gluten strong enough to retain gas.
Quickly-made bread dough requires flour that’s high in protein. The gluten network has less time to develop in these doughs, so it receives minimal fermentation maturity, which means weaker gas retention properties. High gluten flour is used to reinforce the gluten network to counteract these weaknesses.
The selection of the flour will determine much of the flavour. The flour should smell pleasant and aromatic – If you take a smell and it is vile, it’s not going to make nice bread! The dough’s smell changes as it matures, but the raw flour’s fragrance reveals the wheat’s health.
I buy two or three 16-25kg sacks of flour from Shipton Mill every 6 months. Those of you in the States may use King Arthur Baking Company. This method works well for me and provides excellent value for money.
Drinking water is fine for making bread. There is no need to use bottled water unless there are super-high levels of chlorine in your area. Hard water contains more minerals than soft so it makes slightly better bread, but there’s not much in it.
If your tap water is highly chlorinated, leave the water out for 30 minutes before adding it to the dough. This lets the chlorine evaporate.
A levain is a raising agent used to create gas and make bread rise. The most common one is yeast or yeast-based. Others include sourdough, pâte fermentée, and bicarbonate of soda. They produce gas in one way or another. How they do this and what other properties they bring to the dough are explained in my how a levain works post.
If using yeast, there isn’t much difference between brands, but different types of yeast are available to you. Here are the three most common types of yeast:
Fresh baker’s or “cake” yeast is common in professional bakeries but hard to find for home baking. It is an active yeast that’s kept in the refrigerator to slow its activity, preventing it from going off. Ask for fresh yeast in your local bakery.
This is effectively dried fresh yeast. Removing the water from the cells deactivates the yeast so it can be stored for months. Active dried yeast must bloom in warm water for ten minutes before use. This allows the dehydrated yeast cells to become active again.
Instant yeast has a more complicated drying process than active dried yeast and forms smaller pellets. The alternative production process makes dried yeast that can be stored for months and doesn’t need to be bloomed before use. The best of both worlds! Although, it is the most expensive and does contain more additives than dried yeast.
Each yeast type has a different potency level, so a yeast conversion calculation should be undertaken when switching types. Providing you do this conversion, any yeast can be used for any yeast recipe with minor variations in flavour.
Sourdough is a little trickier! It has more variables, making it hard to get right at first. Before attempting sourdough, I recommend giving yeast-made bread a go first, but if and when you want to get started with sourdough, see my sourdough bread for beginners guide.
Salt controls the behaviour of the levain. It provides strength to the structure of the dough by controlling the rate of yeast fermentation, alongside improving flavour. Without enough salt, bread becomes tasteless and unpleasant. It also lacks gluten strength which leads to irregular crumbs and flat loaves.
Sea or kosher salt contains no anti-caking ingredients, so it is my preferred choice for making bread. You can use table salt, and when I have, I don’t notice a difference in the bread. Still, I like to reduce the number of unnecessary additives in my diet, so go for sea salt.
Butter and vegetable oils can be used in bread making. They add moistness to the bread and extend its shelf life.
Besides providing a sweet flavour, sugar and other sweeteners such as honey supply sugars for the yeast, which accelerates gas production. They also make the bread softer and have many other benefits described in the what does sugar do to bread post.
Eggs provide many desirable properties to bread dough. They add extra protein, which binds the dough structure together, add fat to tenderise and soften the crumb texture, plus add flavour and many other benefits!
Natural and scientifically derived dough improvers are typical in bread making. Some are provided in “bread mixes” or “bread improvers”, but they can also be added singular or in an ingredient that is high in its content. Dough improving additives is a massive topic. I touch hats with many common ones on the dough improvers page. You don’t need dough improvers to make bread. In fact, I very rarely do, so you don’t need to study them now, but maybe bookmark the page for later.
Ok! So you now have more knowledge concerning baking ingredients than many seasoned pros (no, I’m not kidding), so it’s almost time to start getting your hands dirty in the beginner’s bread recipe.
But before we do, this is where the course bit ends 🙁 and I watch as you quickly become a master baker and begin to plan your entries for the bread of the year competition, crediting me as the guy who got you started! Or not, but it doesn’t matter. Bread baking is for everyone, and I’m privileged to speak to experience home bakers, bakery owners and people who have stumbled across their grandmother’s recipe and want to understand how it works. It’s amazing.
Once you’ve tried the basic recipe a handful of times, try another bread recipe. Also, go back to the stages of bread making and explore the links on the page to understand more about the theory of bread baking. A bit of theory, a bit of experimentation and a bit of practice will take beginner-level bread to be a competent baker in a very short amount of time. And if you get stuck, search the site for relevant articles or drop a comment onto a post to ask a question. I or another baker will get back to you in a day or two.
And one final tip is to subscribe to the newsletter. In it, I do my best to provide you with the most suitable weekly baking tips to help you make better bread! Bon appetite!
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