There’s nothing quite as rewarding as making homemade bread. Sure, it may take time, energy, and hard work; but it’s always worth it when you pull out that fresh loaf of bread from the oven, with the crust a delightful golden brown, filling the house with the sweet aromas and filling hungry mouths with tastes as if it came fresh from the bakery.

Results like that can be done in no time at all and little effort in a bread machine, but in this article, we will be discussing how to make your bread by hand.

There are four major steps to bread making: mixing, rising, forming the loaves, and baking. In this article, we’ll address the first of these steps: mixing the dough.

Mix the Bread Dough

There may be more science to mixing the bread than you might have thought. You can still have that precious mommy-and-me time with your little one as you let them stir the ingredients and mix the dough, but there are a few key points in the process to keep in mind.

The three objectives to the mixing process are:

  1. To evenly distribute the ingredients.
  2. To develop the gluten.
  3. To initiate fermentation.

If you understand how these three objectives are accomplished, you can understand mixing.

1. Distributing the Ingredients

A misdistribution of ingredients can easily lead to any number of issues with your bread loaf, the most common being an odd amount of flour on the bottom or sides. This usually means that you simply didn’t mix the dough well enough.

Distribution of the ingredients is accomplished through mixing and is a straightforward process. Mixing the water and the dry ingredients together can be done by hand or by machine—a stand-type mixer, a bread machine, or a food processor.

Different ingredients, different water to flour ratios, and different equipment dictate different mixing times. In any of these instances, once the dough has been worked enough to develop the gluten, the ingredients will be distributed adequately.

2. Developing the Gluten

Gluten is what gives bread its chewy texture and is a critical component of a satisfactory loaf. Fortunately, with a good high-protein flour, like wheat or bread flour, gluten development is easy.

Wheat flour contains two proteins: gliadin and glutenin. When these two proteins are hydrated and the dough is mechanically worked, they come together to form strands of gluten. Think of them as tiny twisted ropes.

How that mechanical manipulation takes place is of little consequence. A dough hook in a stand-type mixer works marvelously well. But then, so do the heels of your hands.

Even if you are committed to your stand-type mixer, we recommend that you knead an occasional batch by hand. Mixing the dough by hand is an intimate experience that gives you a feel for the dough as it transforms through the kneading process. You will feel the dough change as it absorbs the water and the gluten strands develop.

Most people knead the dough by pressing the dough with the heels of their hands, folding the dough back over with a rolling motion, and pressing again and repeating the process; similar to softening out a fresh slab of clay. Depending on how fast you work, it will take about fifteen minutes to develop the gluten.

When the gluten is developed, the dough will be elastic. Traditionally, the “window-pane test” is used to gauge gluten development. Pinch a small piece of the dough and pull it away from the dough ball without tearing it. It should be elastic, almost rubbery, and pull away into a thin, window-like membrane.

With a few batches, you will be able to gauge gluten development by the feel of the dough, if you are mixing by hand. If you are using a stand-type mixer, it will be by the appearance of the dough ball. Again, gluten development is easy, especially once you’ve had some practice.

3. Initiating Fermentation

In this last key objective in the process of mixing the dough, the focus is on setting the mood for the yeast to work its magic. The fermentation process is initiated with the dissolving of the yeast and the distribution of that yeast through the dough.

Yeast is a living organism. As such, it requires three conditions to sustain itself:

  1. Moisture
  2. Temperature
  3. Nourishment

The first of those conditions is moisture. The yeast spores are encapsulated in the granules of starch or sugar that you find in your packet. If you are using instant yeast, the yeast granules will dissolve as they are worked through the wet dough.

If you are using active yeast, you will need to dissolve the yeast in a cup of water and then mix the resultant slurry into the dough. Yeast must be in a moist environment to be active but can stay dormant in a dry environment.

The second condition is temperature. When yeast grows, the yeast cells multiply and divide. It grows best at 70 to 80 degrees. At 40 degrees, the yeast becomes dormant. At 120 degrees, the yeast begins to die. Most recipes call for water at 105 to 110 degrees; the real target is to create a dough with a temperature around 80 degrees.

As you might have noticed, yeast is very sensitive to temperature. A difference of ten degrees in the dough temperature makes a big difference in how fast yeast grows. Because temperature is so critical, most experienced bakers use a thermometer.

The third condition is nourishment. Yeast is capable of converting starches to sugars which are then converted to energy, the carbon dioxide gas that forms the air bubbles found in the dough and by-products (mainly alcohol) that give bread its yeasty flavor.

Sugar or other sweeteners like honey or molasses accelerate the growth of yeast by providing ready nourishment. Incidentally, salt slows down the growth. As little as one-half teaspoon of salt more or less in a two-loaf recipe will make a significant difference in the growth of the yeast. Always measure salt carefully.

Three Caveats in Mixing the Dough

As with most things in baking, the mixing process comes with a few caveats. The three caveats in the mixing process are:

  1. Salt kills yeast. Either mix the salt through the flour before adding the yeast or place the salt and the yeast on opposite sides of the bowl before beginning to mix.
  2. Don’t over-mix. You have to mix the ingredients long enough to develop the gluten. Once the gluten is well-developed, stop mixing. If you continue mixing the dough, you will break-down the gluten. It’s not as if there is a narrow window between when the gluten is developed and the gluten starts to break-down; over-mixing usually occurs when a stand-type mixer is left running unattended. (By the way, many stand-type mixers will walk off the counter while mixing dough if left unattended.)
  3. Use the right water temperature. We always use a thermometer. Investing in a $13 insta-read thermometer will go a long way toward assuring consistent results.

The bread-making process is remarkably forgiving. If the temperature is off a little, the bread still works. If it is under or over-mixed, it still works. It may not be perfect bread (and who is to say what is perfect), but most homemade bread is darned good bread.

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