The Twelve Steps of Baking
Scaling – This is the measuring of all ingredients before mixing. All ingredients should be weighed when possible. This is the most accurate form of measuring in a kitchen. A cup of flour does not equal the same weight as a cup of sugar. A cup of flour on Tuesday may not even weigh the same as a cup of flour on Friday. If you plan on baking a lot at home, it will be necessary to get an accurate scale. This will help ensure a consistent product almost every time.
Mixing – Mixing is everything! This is where you control 80% of how your final product will turn out! Mixing can be done by hand or with a machine, such as a Kitchenaid style mixer (using a dough hook, of course.) There are two steps in the mixing process. The first step in mixing is incorporation. All ingredients are added into the mixing bowl in a certain order and then the mixing begins. Here’s a rundown:
- Add water
- Add yeast
- Add flour
- Add Salt
- Add remaining ingredients
- Start mixing (on speed one if using a machine)
This seems simple enough, but it’s necessary. The flour acts as a barrier between the yeast and any other ingredients that might have an adverse effect on the yeast, such as salt. Once the ingredients are very well incorporated, then we can start the second step, which is called development. This is where we develop gluten.
Bulk Fermentation – Now we do the first and primary fermentation. Fermentation is a biological process from the yeast. Yeast eats sugar and break it down into alcohol, carbon dioxide and various acids. The alcohol burns off in the bake, the carbon dioxide gets trapped and makes the dough rise, and the acids add flavor. The longer and slower the fermentation process, the better the flavor.
Punch and Fold – This step is kind of a part of the bulk fermentation step. Once the dough has doubled in size, then we will degas the dough, which redistributes the yeast, and then we fold the dough a few times, which helps to further develop the dough and redistributes the heat that is caused by fermentation. After punching and folding, we continue the bulk fermentation once more.
Divide – After the bulk fermentation and punching has been done, the dough is divided into its proper weight for the final dough shape. Loaves are usually divided into one to two pound loaves. This step is often more appropriate for bread professionals who are producing many loaves, requiring pounds and pounds of dough. For a lot of us at home, we’re only making one loaf of bread, so dividing won’t be necessary.
Pre-shape – Once the dough has been divided into pieces, the individual pieces are then rounded into a ball, called a pre-shape. In some cases, the pre-shape will actually be more of an oblong or football shape, as would be the case for making a long baguette. Pre-shaping helps with development and makes it easier to do a final shape.
Bench Rest – Handling the dough will toughen it up a little and cause it to be too elastic and difficult to work with, so it will be necessary to let the gluten relax and become more extensible again. A small amount of fermentation continues during the bench rest, but not a whole lot. Bench rest usually lasts from twenty minutes, up to an hour depending on the dough type.
Final Shape – Now the dough is shaped into its final shape. Common shapes are boules (rounded) or batardes (football) but there are hundreds of different shapes out there. The final shaping influences what the bread will look like when it is finished, and it helps to create surface tension, which is necessary for a good oven spring.
Final Proof – The final shape(s) need to sit in a warm spot, covered, and rise to their final poofiness. Generally, the dough will double in size. Proofing will take some practice, though. Not proofing enough will cause the dough to burst when it’s being baked. Proofing it too much might cause the dough to not rise enough, as the gluten will have stretched too much. In some cases, the bread could fall completely.
Bake – Bread baking is one of the shortest steps of the process, and often the most rewarding. Or disappointing. There are some things to know before throwing that bread into the oven, however. First of all, your oven is not a commercial one, so don’t expect commercial results. Commercial ovens are designed to keep within a certain temperature range at all times. Not so much with your oven at home. If you set your oven at 400 degrees F, expect temperatures ranging from 375 – 425 degrees F. Bread ovens are also equipped with steam capabilities. Steam helps to create better oven spring and will interact with the starches on the surface of the bread to create a sheen and enhance browning. There are things that can help adapt your oven, however. Invest in a baking stone. Sheet pans work ok, but baking stones are much better, as they help transfer heat evenly to the bread more efficiently when preheated properly. A pizza peel will also come in very handy for getting the bread in and out of the oven. I also recommend a spray bottle full of water. You can spray the sides of the oven a few times during the first five minutes of baking to simulate steam injection. Another way of to simulate steam injection is to keep a pan of water on the bottom rack of the oven. The dough will need to be “slashed” to relieve the surface tension of the dough and prevent it from bursting when it completes its final rise in the oven.
Cool – Now we cool the bread. Although tempting, a good quality bread should never really be eaten warm. The heat will actually disguise the flavorful nuances of the bread caused by the fermentation. It’s actually the same reason why bad quality bread tastes better when it’s warm. Olive Garden breadsticks, anyone?
Store/Eat – So, now you can store it or eat it. Hopefully you’ll eat it, since you worked so hard!
It can be (and has been) argued that some of these steps are so close together that they can be combined into one step. Some have learned this process as the ten steps of baking. But, this is how I learned it, and honestly it’s the same whether you call it ten or twelve.