The Stages Of Bread Making

Published on
11 May 2022
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

This article will help you understand each of the stages of bread making. We’ll cover what happens during each phase and how the bread benefits from utilising them. There are so many ways to make bread, yet, every recipe contains similar steps. Few recipes will use all of the 12 steps described, which is fine. They are not necessary for every type of bread. Adding a step won’t make every bread better, but it’s handy to know what happens when they are used. There are many links to articles which provide full detail on each of the topics discussed so you might want to bookmark this page for further reference! There’s is no right or wrong in bread making – there’s no bread police! – so once you learn the basics, feel free to experiment!

For great bread, you just need quality ingredients, time and technique. Less complicated bread is not necessarily low-quality bread. “

1. Creation of a preferment

The most popular levain used in bread baking is yeast, though there are others. Many bread recipes use a levain made from a preferment. A preferment is a combination of flour, water and (usually) a little bit of yeast. The mixture is left for 12-18 hours (sometimes less) to ferment. The method allows the yeast to multiply and ferment which develops flavour in the dough. Moistened flour also unlocks the gluten proteins which soften and stretch before being added to the dough. The advantages are described in more detail in the what is a levain article.

A preferment will have large bubbles and ripples on the surface when ripe

Sourdough is also a type of preferment. Feedings of the sourdough starter are made ahead of time.

For ordinary yeast recipes, often called “straight doughs” there is no need to take action in this step as a preferment is not required.

2. Weighing of ingredients – Mise en Place

Weigh your ingredients

Mise en Place is French for “everything in its place”. This means it’s time to get the bowls, equipment, recipe, ingredients, and yourself ready to bake. Throughout all the stages of bread making, organisation is important. There’s nothing worse than realising the yeast has expired once you’ve added the water or your work surface is filled up with dirty dishes when you are ready to knead! Start as you mean to go on and get your ingredients weighed, bowls ready and the work area tidy.

3. Autolyse

Autolyse

Autolyse is where the flour and water from the recipe are combined and left for 10-60 minutes, sometimes longer. Not everyone does it, it’s more popular with home sourdough bakers than professionals. Autolyse encourages the gluten strands to unwind so they can extend and form a strong gluten network. It also allows naturally occurring enzymes to activate and begin to break down starch into smaller sugars.

Autolyse is a handy step to reduce the time it takes to knead the dough and also improves the extensibility of the dough which is its ability to stretch. When autolysing you can add the salt or not. The levain can also be added or left out. After the autolyse, the remaining ingredients are introduced and kneading begins.

Further reading: Soaker or autolyse – what’s the difference?

4. Kneading

I divide kneading into three stages. First is the “incorporation stage”, then “slow mixing” and finally “fast kneading”. The three-pronged approach encourages the gluten structure to develop into a well-hydrated, strong structure that will retain gas. Good gas retention qualities are vital for good bread dough, and proper kneading is where it begins.

Hand kneading techniques

Bakers can increase or decrease the time and intensity of kneading. Different dough mixer speeds or changing their hand kneading technique alter the intensity. How dough is kneaded changes the characteristics of the bread, even when the same ingredients are used. The amount of kneading that a dough undergoes is referred to as gluten development. 100% gluten development is when the dough is ready to be moulded and proofed right away, whereas a lower level of development will require more kneading or a longer bulk fermentation (the next step).

Towards the end of mixing extra ingredients can be added that would have been crushed if added at the start. Common additions include; dried fruit, olives, cheese and herbs. Another method I like to use is bassinage. This is where extra water is added near the end of kneading. The addition of fat is also often delayed until the end of mixing. Fat makes it hard for the gluten to develop so delaying their addition improves the structure of the dough.

Further reading: Why knead bread?The windowpane testDesired Dough TemperatureCan I add extra flour when kneading?

5. Bulk fermentation

How long can you leave dough on the counter

Bulk fermentation is also known as the “rest period” or the “first rise”. It’s a stage that sounds complicated and lasts from ten minutes to two or three days. 

All you have to do to bulk ferment bread dough is place the dough in a container to rest. It’s then covered, and stored, preferably at a constant set temperature. Many things occur during this stage that develops the dough. The purpose of this step is to mature the dough so that it’s ready for the final rise. Here are a few key points, to see a more detailed analysis of this powerful step see the bulk fermentation article:

Enzymes

Naturally occurring enzymes break down the complex starches in the flour into simpler sugars.

Gas production

The yeast uses simple sugars to create carbon dioxide through respiration, and carbon dioxide and ethanol in alcoholic fermentation. Carbon dioxide makes the bread rise, whilst ethanol is important for flavour and the maturation of the dough.

Organic maturation

Allowing the dough to rest encourages the development of lactic, acetic and various other organic acids. These are produced when lactic acid bacteria multiply and ferment the sugars in the dough. They aid flavour, keeping quality, gas retention and have many other benefits. They can produce carbon dioxide too!

Gluten development

We don’t need to knead bread dough. In fact, kneading incorporates oxygen into the dough which has detrimental effects on longer-risen bread! Allowing the gluten to absorb water enables it to naturally form a strong gluten matrix capable of retaining gas.

“Stretch & folds” or “punching down”

Bakers often use stretch and fold techniques during bulk fermentation. These strengthen the gluten structure by realigning the gluten. Stretch and folds also redistribute temperature and the ingredients to keep a contestant environment and supply of food (simple sugars) for the levain.

“Punching down” is a version of a stretch and fold where the dough is punched down before shaping. This forces the gluten structure to rebuild. However, stretch and fold techniques are more effective.

All of these processes combine with others to produce a mature dough that is better at retaining gas and holding shape as it rises. You can find out more (and why skipping this step can be beneficial) in the bread fermentation process article.

Further reading: Why cover dough?How long can dough sit out?

How do no-knead recipes work?

Kneading isn’t essential to making bread, as long as it is replaced by time to allow the gluten to mature naturally. Some recipes follow a “no-knead” technique where the ingredients are gently incorporated before being placed in a bowl to bulk ferment for a long period (typically, 8 hours plus). During this time it forms the structure and flavour it requires.

6. Dividing

If making more than one bread from a batch of dough the end of bulk fermentation is the time to divide the dough into individual pieces. It’s best to use scales to weigh each dough piece so they are the same size and weight. If you don’t have scales, you can “eye-ball” it, but they are rarely very accurately sized.

Take the dough from its resting place and turn it onto a lightly floured work surface, get the scales out and you can get to work. A metal dough scraper is the perfect tool to cut dough. After cutting a piece that’s roughly the size you want, place it onto the scales and add or remove dough to achieve the desired weight, allowing a 5% tolerance. The expected dough weight should be provided in the recipe, if not see making in bread in bulk for some common examples.

Instead of flouring your work surface, an oil slick is a sensible alternative and arguably an upgrade as it avoids the incorporation of raw flour into the dough.

Top tip: Plan your bake

It’s a good idea to plan ahead before you start your bake. You don’t want to be doing the school run or watching the last minutes of the football when your dough needs attention. Create a schedule that fits your day around your bake before you start. This way your bread will be as true to the recipe as possible.

7. Shaping

Instead of shaping once, bread loaves are shaped twice. This gives the dough the strength it needs to hold its shape as it rises. During both the preshape and the final shape, the dough is “degassed” to remove big pockets of gas that would otherwise remain in the final bread crumb. To degas, simply push the air out of it the dough.

Preshaping involves taking a piece of the dough and shaping it into a ball or cylindrical shape, known as a “batard”.

The dough is left on the work surface to bench rest. Depending on the bread produced, bench resting lasts for 10 to 30 minutes. A more mature dough (and gassy) dough is left for a longer duration than a quick bread. This allows the gluten structure to be elastic enough to hold its shape after the final shape, yet sufficiently relaxed in order for the shaping to commence.

After the bench rest, it is time for the dough’s final shaping. Here, it is flattened on the work surface to degas, before being moulded into the desired shape. Here’s how the dough is shaped for tin bread:

After shaping, the dough is placed into a baking tin, tray or proofing basket for its final rise.

8. Final proof

Once the dough is shaped and placed in its proofing device it’s time for the levain to raise the bread. The “final proof“, “final rise”, or “proofing” (all the same) can be a matter of minutes to several hours, although for most basic bread it’s around 2 to 3 hours. The use of more yeast (or other levain) in the recipe increases the rate of the rise and therefore reduces the length of the final proof stage.

The final rise is also heavily temperature dependant as yeast is most active when it is warm. To speed up the rise, bread proofing temperature is raised. In a professional environment, a proofer is used for the final proof. This is essentially a box that maintains temperature and humidity to create the perfect proofing environment for the bread. Humidity is important, mainly to prevent the bread from drying up and forming a skin, but also as it accelerates the rate of transfer between cells.

Bakers without a proofer must cover their dough as it rises using a plastic bag, shower cap, box lid or something to reduce exposure to airflow. Many home bakers use a warmer environment for proofing, such as an oven with only the light on, or a DIY proofing box, though the Brod & Taylor home proofer has been a gamechanger for many home bakers in recent years.

Overnight rises are popular, especially when partially conducted in the fridge.

Note: There's an extra stage, whilst the bread is rising - do the washing up!

How to tell when bread is ready?

Dough fully proofed

One of the most popular ways to tell if bread is ready to be baked is using the poke test. Here the dough is gently poked with a wet finger. If it retracts right away it needs longer to prove. If the indent remains for 3 seconds before springing back, it is ready to bake. If it stays down longer than 3 seconds it is over-proofed.

If you want to see common proofing times for particular bread types, see my proofing guide tables.

9. Scoring

Once the dough has reached its intended size it is scored before going into the oven. Cutting through the surface of the dough with a sharp blade allows some of the gas to escape during baking. See, as the yeast gets warm in the early stages of baking it rapidly increases gas production and the dough rises. This is called “oven spring”.

Scoring stops the escaping gas from exploring weak points in the dough and rupturing the crust. We only tend to cut white loaves as they have a plethora of simple sugars available to feed the yeast. Whole wheat doughs made from other whole grain flours such as rye and spelt do not need to be scored.

A clean cut from a sharp blade improvers the look of the loaf and the quality of the crust. To achieve this a specialist baker’s lame is preferred, but a serrated knife can do a reasonably handsome job.

10. Baking

After cutting, it’s straight to the oven to bake. For best results, a baking stone is placed at the bottom of the oven when it is cold and preheated to temperature before the dough goes in. A baking stone conducts heat into the bread to bake the base of the bread and increase the oven spring. Bread will rise in the oven by around 20% during oven spring, and sometimes more. Adding water to the oven to create steam is also vital for a crispy crust.

Dough risen in a banneton is tipped onto a device called a peel. It is then scored and slid onto the hot baking stone to bake. Bread tins and rolls are placed straight onto the stone. Free-standing bread such as ciabatta is best proofed on large peels or boards which can be used to transfer the dough to the oven.

Oven settings for bread are around 220-230C (430-450F) for most lean bread types. Lean bread is lingo for bread that does not contain any enrichments such as fat. An enriched dough is one that contains fat, or fatty products such as eggs and oil. A high baking temperature is used for crusty products and a setting as low as 180C (350F) is preferred for enriched doughs to prevent them from burning.

The final proof stage

During baking, the gluten structure loses moisture and the structure hardens to form the crust. The starch will cling to the gluten to provide moisture and flavour to the crumb. To retain moisture in soft bread types, the baking time is reduced to prevent moisture from escaping. The Mailliard effect browns and caramelises the crust of the bread in the oven. A dark brown or blackened crust will impart an extra special flavour and aroma throughout an entire loaf.

When is bread ready to come out of the oven?

When crusty bread is properly baked it sounds hollow when tapped from the base. Softer loaves of bread will not sound the same, but you’ll be able to tell they are ready by the dark-coloured crust. See how to tell when bread is done for a detailed guide.

Further reading: Baking bread in a home oven guideStop oven issuesFix common oven temperature problemsHeat spots in the ovenCan I open the oven door?

11. Finishing

How to choose a glaze, wash or topping for bread

The last stage of bread making is not essential for every bread recipe. Depending on the style of bread being made, a glaze or topping can be added after baking, or once cool. A glaze (often warmed apricot jam) is applied with a pastry brush. Fruit and nuts can be sprinkled on after a glaze to adhere to the sticky surface. For a savoury glaze, a drizzle of olive oil can be dripped onto the bread after baking.

12. Cooling

Once the bread is ready, remove it from the oven and leave it to cool. The cooling time is determined by the size of the loaf and how dense it is, 2-3 hours is typical. It can be tempting to tuck into your delicious bread when it’s warm but a better crumb and crust texture is achieved if you have the willpower to wait! Bread continues to lose moisture as it cools, making it lose weight. See how much weight is lost when bread cools to learn more!

Tip: When removing soft rolls from the oven, give the tray a bang on the work surface. This helps them set and reduces the likelihood of wrinkles appearing.

The stages of making bread – conclusion

Depending on the recipe, some stages can be skipped, doubled or increased. If you see a recipe that doesn’t follow these stages, it’s not a problem. This is a general guide for you to understand the terms that get thrown around that maybe you didn’t understand. What did you learn? Is there anything that you wish was included in this guide? Let me know in the comments below.

Previous: An Introduction To Bread Making

Next: Equipment For A Home Bakery Set-Up

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