An Introduction to Bread Baking

Before you start baking your first loaves, take a moment to read this guide for a quick introduction to bread making. Together, we’ll cover what you need to know to get started with baking bread, how long it will take to learn and the equipment you need to start making some beautiful homemade loaves. I hope you enjoy this bakery introduction guide, let’s get started! 

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What is bread?

Bread is a really simple food that’s been eaten throughout history. From the ancient Egyptians discovering it, to British peasants collectively bringing their dough to the local bakehouse, and even causing a national revolution in France. Bread is an important, yet delicious food that is well-loved.

How do you make bread?

To make bread, only a handful of ingredients are needed, flour, water, salt and a levain (made from yeast). As they combine they develop a structure derived from the gluten in the flour. Alongside the formation of the gluten structure, yeast produces carbon dioxide gas.

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Kneading, time and temperature are used to perfect the gluten structure and the development of flavour in the bread. After sufficient development has occurred, the dough is shaped, proofed and once it’s risen high enough, baked in the oven. 

Where did bread come from?

The legend has it that in Ancient Egypt, wet wheat was left on a warm stone, probably by accident. A few hours later the farmer returned to find that the mixture had risen. The Egyptians experimented with baking and adding salt to make the stumbled on the first bread recipes. The earliest signs of bread are dated to around 9500 BC.

It is known that wheat and other grains were cultivated around this time. Humans were confident at cooking with fire by this time therefore we would expect that some sort of loaves or rolls was being produced, however, it has not 100% proven.

Commercial bakeries were discovered in Greece dating back to 1700 BC. There is an interesting article at The Spruce Eats if you are interested in finding out more on bread history.

The discovery of yeast

After the successful development of yeasts used for brewing, similar synthetic strains were fortified to produce bread. The strain developed for baker’s yeast is a version of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. It is the strain used in all yeast for bread which can also be found organically in sourdough cultures.

Before commercial bakers yeast appeared in 1880, a sourdough starter method was used. The use of baker’s yeast allowed production levels to increase with fewer quality variables.

How popular is bread today?

Bread is one of the most popular sources of food in the world. Most food staples across the globe are inexpensive, plant-based foods which are full of energy. There are more than 50,000 edible plants in the world, but just 15 of them provide 90% of the world’s food energy intake. Rice, corn (maize), and wheat make up two-thirds of this.

Bread provides calories and minerals that are easy to digest. In essence, it is an essential food source, whilst it can also be improved to become a product of beauty.

Why should you start baking bread?

Making bread at home has traditionally been a skill that all homemakers knew. It’s not as popular these days, however, it has never been easier to get started! Being able to make tasty bread for you and your family is a seriously rewarding and healthy hobby. It’s also something that you keep learning. There is never too much knowledge and even experienced professional bakers learn every day.

What I love about baking

What I love about baking is that I still don’t know everything about it, it’s not even close! There are so many local staples and alternative methods that you simply can’t know everything about it.

Bread can be elaborate to impress, or simple to indulge. Healthy, or naughty. The possibilities are endless and it is satisfying that such simple ingredients are used to make it.

How fast can you learn how to bake

Hopefully, with the right beginner’s bread recipe you’ll have success at the first attempt. Whether your first attempt is on point or not, keep practising and your bakes are bound to get better. After 3-4 months of baking once or twice a week, most beginners feel competent and comfortable working with dough. Though it’s often sooner, I’ve known people grasp the basics in a couple of days! 

How to choose the bread ingredients for bread

To make bread, you will need flour, water, salt and a levain (yeast). Of course, other ingredients can be added, but these are the essential ones. Let’s go over some pointers in this bread introduction guide to help you select the best varieties of each. 

Flour

The flour used to make bread contains more protein than cake or all-purpose flour. When the flour gets wet, the soluble proteins wash away to leave the gluten. The hydrated gluten becomes the basis of the bread structure and determines the elasticity and extensibility of the bread. 

There are different characteristics that varieties of flour provide so I’ve found that switching flour to a “proper” mill seems to resolve many baking problems. Look for flour with a protein content of 11 – 13%, anything higher than this can cause bread to come out too dense. Flour absorbs water at different rates therefore it usually takes a couple of attempts and adjustments to get a new recipe or flour to work well. The flour used for quickly made loaves will generally have a higher protein content than those used in long-fermented, artisan products.

The selection of the flour will determine much of the flavour. A lot of home bakers get bored with the flavour of their flour and lose interest. The remedy is to ditch the supermarket’s own brand and source your flour from a mill.

I buy two or three 16kg sacks from Shipton Mill every 6-9 months for home use. Those of you in the States may use King Arthur Baking Company. This method works well for me and provides excellent value for money.

The flour should smell pleasant and aromatic – If you take a whiff and pull a face it’s not going to make anything nice! Though not all of these smells come out after the oven (see – dough fermentation process), the smell of raw flour reveals the health of the wheat.

Water

Flour needs water to wash away the insoluble proteins and for the gluten to extend and unravel. It also bonds the dough ingredients together. Any drinking water is ok, there is no need to use bottled water unless there are high levels of chlorine in your area. If the dough is overly sticky, use less water next time.

The levain

A levain is a raising agent that is used to create gas which makes the bread rise. The most common one is yeast, but others include sourdough, pâte fermentée, and bicarbonate of soda.

They all produce gas in one way or another. How they do this and what other properties they bring to the dough are explained in the how to select a levain post.

If using yeast, it doesn’t really matter what type of yeast you use. The recipe can be adjusted to compensate. Instant and fresh are added directly to the mix whilst active dried yeast has to be activated in warm water for ten minutes beforehand.

Sourdough is a little trickier! It has more variables and often scares new bakers so you might prefer to give yeast-made bread a go first. If you want to bake with sourdough, I have a sourdough bread recipe for beginners

Salt

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 salt, bread becomes tasteless and unpleasant. It also lacks gluten strength which can lead to irregular crumbs and crusts.

I prefer to use sea or kosher salt as it is pure for most of my baking. I’ll check the labels just to check there are no anti-caking ingredients added. Though it is possible to use table salt. I do use it occasionally and don’t notice much of a difference.

The equipment you will need to make bread

What’s great about baking is that you can make it with just a set of scales, a bowl and an oven. The other equipment is used to speed up production or improve quality and consistency.

Here are a few tools that will give you the biggest benefit initially. For a full list head to the baking equipment essentials page.

Scales

Weighing in grams is essential for controlling consistency

Baking scales

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Baking stone

Retains and distributes heat to the bread. Needed for crust and oven spring perfection

Baking stone

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Baking tin

Use a tin to proof your bread when making sandwich loaves

Loaf pan

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Dough divider (metal scraper)

Used for dividing, lifting and cleaning dough from the workbench

Dough divider

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Thermometer

Use one to control the speed of fermentation

Thermometer

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Dough scraper

Has the right amount of flex to mix the dough and clean bowls

Dough scraper

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Mixing bowls

Use these for weighing, mixing and storing your dough

Mixing bowls

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Timer

It is much better to cover a timer in dough than your mobile phone

Timer

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What oven to use to make bread

For bread, the oven used should be convection, preferably with the option to heat the bottom element independently. If you don’t have this option, using a second baking stone above the bread helps massively to control the exposure to the heat. 

If you struggle with baking in your oven or can’t turn the fan off, you should consider a Dutch oven. Using one of these will limit the range of shapes and styles that you can make, however, they are perfect for using a banneton. A Dutch oven is a popular choice for bakers making sourdough at home.

The stages of bread making

I’ve broken down the steps taken to make bread into 15 stages. We don’t necessarily use every stage in every loaf, but you’ll find it useful to understand each one and the reasons they are used.

You can view this now in the stages of bread baking post

A conclusion to my bread introduction

This has been a quick overview introduction to bread making. I  hope that you’ve found it useful. Check out the How to make bread homepage for starter guides, basic baking tips and my bread recipe for beginners. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions!

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