Bread Making For Dummies
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Every baker — from novice to professional — does, at some point, have a bread-baking flop. It happens to us all! Some people have them more often, though, so if you find your trouble is not a one-time thing, it’s time to dive deeper and look at some common mistakes that can cause trouble in baking bread.

Use a Digital Scale

There is a reason why grams are listed before volumetric measurements in many recipes: Weight measurements are more accurate than cups. Whether you consider yourself a beginner or an advanced baker, scaled measurements are better. A good digital scale is a $12 to $15 investment, and it’ll make all the difference in the quality of your breads!

Use a Digital Thermometer

A digital thermometer will help you make sure your bread is baked. After years of baking, I still pull out my thermometer and check. Oven temperatures can waiver, especially over time, and the result can be disastrous.

My favorite times to use my digital thermometer are when I’m making sweet stuffed or rolled breads, because fillings can quickly make breads behave differently. No one wants an uncooked bread. A good digital thermometer will run you about $20 and save you plenty of heartache.

Use a Stand Mixer with a Dough Hook

A stand mixer with a dough hook is an investment, but kneading dough by hand, although very satisfying and a great workout, can put your dough at risk for under-developing the gluten. With a stand mixer, you can mix a dough in 5 to 20 minutes, as opposed to about 10 to 30 minutes by hand. I’m exhausted just writing it!

stand mixer © Maren Winter /

There are many brands to choose from, including top-rated KitchenAid, budget-friendly Hamilton Beach, ever-popular Cuisinart, and the new rising star, Swedish-made Ankarsrum. You don’t have to break the bank buying a stand mixer, but less expensive models may have a shorter lifespan. My current KitchenAid mixer is over 20 years old and still going strong.

Use the Right Flour

Most recipes have been tested with the ingredients listed, but if you find yourself in a crazy situation — like, oh, for example, a pandemic — and the only flour you can find are low-protein flours, grab a bag of vital wheat gluten flour and add it to lower-protein flours to give them the gluten structure you need for a successful loaf. Vital wheat gluten flour is also a useful product to use if you want to make 100 percent whole einkorn or Khorasan breads, which are lower in gluten.

A good rule of thumb is 1 to 2 tablespoons of vital wheat gluten flour for every 2 to 3 cups of flour.

Use Less Flour

This lesson was probably the hardest one for me to learn. I had been raised hearing that bread should pull from the sides of the mixing bowl and create a slapping sound on the sides. For many breads, yes, but for enriched breads, I haven’t found this to be the case.

Actually, in many of the sweet and enriched bread recipes, you refrigerate the dough before you work with it. That’s a good tip to keep in your mind if the dough you’re working with is moister and harder to handle. Let the dough rise until it doubles in size. Then press out the air and try to shape it. Then put it in a bowl topped with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a couple hours or overnight. The chilling of the dough can really help with shaping.

Many bakers recommend kneading with wet hands, instead of adding more flour. This helps keep the dough from sticking to your hands and from surfaces.

The more bread you bake, the better you’ll get at identifying these subtle tricks of the trade.

Pay Attention to the Weather

Bread behaves differently in cold weather than it does in hot, and in dry climates than in humid weather. And altitude affects bread, too.

Yeast is alive, and because it’s a living, breathing thing, bakers need to understand how to work with dough in varying conditions.

Here are my suggestions:
  • Temperature: As temperatures creep up, you may find your dough doubling in size quickly, or your sourdough starter may bubble over the top, or your breads may look over-proofed. In hot weather, yeast gets more active. There are a couple things you can do:
    • Reduce the amount of yeast or sourdough starter you use. Cut it in half and see how quickly the bread responds.
    • Check your dough frequently to make sure it hasn’t doubled in size too fast. Cut the time to 1 hour in traditional yeast breads and maybe just 6 to 8 hours for a sourdough bulk ferment.

Alternatively, in cold weather, things really may slow down. You may need to rise your bread for 4 hours in a cold house or put it into an oven with the heat off and light on to warm the space. Typically, I don’t recommend adding in more yeast, but if you find yourself in a hurry that may be the solution you need.

  • Humidity: Humidity may require you to bake your breads longer to evaporate the moisture. On the other hand, in dry, arid climates you may find your breads overbake quickly. Where I live, in the summer, the humidity goes up, so I cut back on water and just use wet hands to knead to help address this situation. If you’re having trouble, take notes on the temperature and humidity on the day you’re baking, and try a single recipe multiple times until you figure out what’s best. After all, baking is a science!
  • Altitude: If you live high in the mountains, there’s a good chance you’ve already discovered the frustrating reality that breads made at altitude behave differently. Most recipes are tested at sea level, so if you live above 3,000 feet, you’ll have to make adjustments. Some facts to consider:
    • Water boils faster at altitude.
    • Moisture evaporates quicker at altitude, which is also why the air is often drier.
    • Gas expands more rapidly at altitude, so your bread may be fluffier.

To adjust for these conditions, you may need to:

    • Heat your water longer.
    • Add more water (working with wet hands helps).
    • Keep your flours fresher.
    • Bake longer or increase the oven temperature and bake less.
    • Use less yeast.
    • Use a higher-protein flour or add in vital wheat gluten flour.
    • Decrease rise times.

Search the web for “high-altitude bread baking” and see if you can find a recipe baked in your area. This can help you get an idea of how to adjust recipes. Whatever you do, don’t give up! You can bake bread at altitude — and it’s worth the effort to get it right.

Use High-Quality Baking Pans

A cast-iron Dutch oven and a heavy baking sheet are my go-to picks for baking. Cast iron can handle very high heat (well above 700 degrees F), so you’ll be safe using these products. I have a cast-iron baking sheet and Dutch oven that I use primarily in baking. I recommend avoiding nonstick pans, because the coating is often not safe when heated to high temperatures like the kind used in bread baking. Stoneware is best with temperatures less than 450 degrees F. Aluminum is safe in household ovens with temperatures below 600 degrees F. Find a high-quality baking vessel and take good care of it.

My method of keeping my cast iron seasoned and in top shape is to season it by frying thinly sliced potatoes until black. (Clearly, I don’t serve these potatoes to anyone.) Also, any time I use the pan, I clean it with oil and coarse salt, not soapy water. I may rinse with water, but I never use soap. When in doubt, check with the manufacturer of your cast iron to see how they recommend you care for it.

Experiment with Flours

Using white or wheat flours is easy, but the depth of flavor you get with grains like spelt, rye, and einkorn is interesting to explore. These grains will give you a new respect for the way grains are grown, how they behave in recipes, and their unique flavor profiles. In my own kitchen, I regularly use spelt and rye, and I dabble with einkorn and Khorasan.

Don’t Skip the Salt

Do you have health concerns that make you want to drop the salt? If you’re thinking of cutting back on salt, I don’t recommend using less than 5 grams per loaf.

Salt works with gluten and creating the ever-important matrix. To give your bread structure and flavor, you need salt.

Play with Different Baking Techniques

Steaming (putting boiling water in a hot pan as you place the bread in), using a bread stone, covering bread and then uncovering it halfway through the baking process, using a little sourdough starter and yeast combined, using less yeast and letting a dough rise longer, trying out a tangzhong or yudane to extend the shelf life (see Appendix C for more on these techniques). There are so many great ways to play with breads.

Before settling on just one favorite recipe, do your best to try new recipes and techniques. You may be surprised which techniques and recipes become your favorites.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Meri Raffetto, RDN, founded Real Living Nutrition Services (, which pro- vides one of the only interactive online weight-loss and wellness programs.

Wendy Jo Peterson MS, RDN, enhances the nutrition of clients ranging from elite athletes to pediatric patients, and is currently a culinary instructor at Mesa College.

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