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Baking yeast breads

Article by: Allrecipes staff  |  Picture by: Nobody's Girl
Baking yeast breads
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Bread baking is both an art and a science. Read on to learn how to proof yeast, handle dough and test for doneness.

For beginning bakers, the main idea to keep in mind is that yeast is a living organism that requires a warm, moist environment and a food source to grow and thrive.

Dried active baking yeast, instant yeast and fresh yeast

Fresh yeast is used by professional bakers and is available from specialty baker’s shops or in some supermarkets. It has a short shelf life, but can be kept in the freezer in small portions for up to three months.

Dried active baking yeast is the most commonly available form for home bakers, available in any supermarket. After opening, store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, or even in the fridge. Be sure to check the expiry date before baking, as this yeast is still susceptible to becoming stale even though it is 'dried'.

Easy-bake or quick yeast comes in smaller granules than dried active yeast, absorbs liquid rapidly and doesn't need to be hydrated or 'proofed' before being mixed into flour. This is often a great choice when baking bread in a bread machine.
Yeast conversions

In commercial baking, precise measurements are key. Home bakers generally don't need to reduce or increase liquid amounts to compensate for the type of yeast used since the quantities are so small.

If your recipe calls for fresh yeast, you can substitute 2 1/4 teaspoons dried active baking yeast for every 25g (1 oz) of fresh yeast. Or, for every 1 packed tablespoon fresh yeast, use 2 teaspoons easy-bake yeast or 2 1/2 teaspoons dried active yeast.
Proofing dried active yeast

Yeast makes carbon dioxide gas that acts as a leavening agent. Start by 'proofing' (also called proving) or growing the yeast: this ensures it is active and re-hydrated (this step is not required for fresh or easy-bake yeast):
  • Sprinkle the yeast onto warm (45 degrees C) water and stir to dissolve. The water should feel warm, not hot, to the touch. Yeast feeds on sugars by breaking down the flour's starches into sugar molecules.
  • Set the yeast aside until the mixture resembles a creamy foam. This should take between three to eight minutes.
  • If nothing happens, discard the mixture and try again with different yeast.

Mixing and handling

Mixing: Combine the liquid and proofed yeast at the bottom of a mixing bowl. Add flour and salt. Some of the best breads are 'lean doughs', consisting simply of flour, water, yeast and salt. Baguettes and ciabatta are examples of lean doughs. Enriched doughs, on the other hand, contain fat - whether in the form of butter, milk, oil or eggs. Hot cross buns, brioche and sweet doughs are enriched doughs. If your recipe calls for butter or egg yolks, mix the flour-water-yeast mixture to hydrate the flour and develop the gluten strands before working in the fat.

Kneading: Using a plastic bowl scraper, wooden spoon or your hands, scrape the dough onto a liberally floured work surface. Kneading develops long elastic strands of gluten, or wheat protein, which trap the gases produced by the yeast. Kneading by hand is not a complicated process, but it does require some stamina. With the heels of your hands, press the dough down and away from you. Fold the dough over, turn 90 degrees, and repeat over and over until the dough is smooth and elastic. If you're using a stand mixer, knead with the hook attachment on low speed until the dough is elastic. Flour or oil your fingertips and pinch off a small piece of dough. You should be able to stretch the dough to a thin 'windowpane' without tearing it.
Shaping

Once the dough has doubled – this can take between 45 minutes and 2 hours, as enriched doughs take far longer than lean – deflate it and expel the gas. If you're dividing the dough into loaves or strands for plaiting, use a sharp knife rather than tearing the dough.
  1. On a lightly floured surface, shape the loaves as desired: if you're baking in standard loaf tins, pat the dough into a rectangle to express the gas bubbles and fold up in three parts, like a business letter.
  2. Pinch the seam to seal.
  3. Place the loaves in tins or on a lightly floured tea towel. If you're topping loaves with seeds, now is the time to do it.
  4. Cover with a damp towel and let rise at room temperature while you preheat the oven.
Flour your index and middle fingers, and gently poke the sides of your loaf. The indentations should remain; if the dough springs back, it needs to rise more.
Scoring

Scoring the loaves adds more than a decorative touch: it also allows gas to escape without bursting open the seam and disfiguring the bread. Use a serrated knife to cut diagonal slashes over the tops of the loaves. Work quickly, cutting about 5mm (1/4 in) deep. Immediately transfer loaves to the hot oven.
Baking

The heat from the oven makes the gases in the dough expand, causing 'oven spring' and releasing moisture.
  • Baking stones help home ovens mimic hearth ovens by storing heat and moderating the temperature. Use a spray bottle to mist the walls of the oven, creating a blast of steam for a crisp, chewy crust.
  • For a soft and tender crust, brush the loaves with milk or egg wash before baking. You can also brush the tops of the baked loaves or rolls with melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven.
Bake until the bread is well browned. Test for doneness by picking up the loaf with an oven mitt and rapping on the bottom with your knuckles: the loaf should sound hollow when done. If it does not, or the sides or bottom of the loaf are still pale, return the bread to the oven to continue baking.

Looking for easy bread recipes? Check out our bread recipe collection for loads of ideas.
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