How to Make Better Bread

High angle view of various bread loaves

Pinghung Chen / Getty Images 

Ever wonder why bakeries make such wonderful bread but your homemade loaves do not quite measure up? Bakeries simply have better tools to hand. Their ovens are hotter and have a steam injection, they have pre-measured bread mixes, and they have the time to devote to just making bread. They can check their flour for protein content and add enzymes and dough conditioners to help their product shine.

Even artisan bakeries eschewing mixes and conditioners have consistent baking conditions and special, dedicated tools as well as trained bakers who do nothing but bake.

But in the last decade or so, many advances in home baking have been made. Some clever people have created ways for baking homemade bread in less time, better flours and yeasts have become available to the home baker, and sourdoughs and the use of time to bake a great loaf has once again come into vogue.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your bag of flour:

Things to Think About

Start with a simple recipe. Many different kinds of bread use only four ingredients; flour, water, salt, and yeast.

Follow the directions carefully but use your common sense and experience. I hate to say it but many old recipes should be thrown out. So much progress has been made in bread creation as well as recipe writing that you will get good results more quickly by updating your recipe files and cookbook collection. The caveat is that bread baking will always have slight variations due to the moisture content of the flour you are using.

Keep records. Teach yourself to check ambient temperature, water, and dough temperatures and write down the steps you took, on the side of your recipe or in a notebook. You will probably bake bread a few times a month and you will forget what works for you—that you added two extra tablespoons of water, or cut down on the salt—if it's not written down.

Bread Dough Tips

Take your time. Many recipes call for smaller amounts of yeast than you may be used to. Yeast is alive and grows by dividing. Using less yeast means a longer time before you see the dough rise which allows time for more flavors to develop. Retarding (slowing down) fermentation by using cold liquids or refrigerating the dough helps with flavor development as well.

Also, whole wheat doughs work better when the flours have time to rehydrate. This awakens enzymes that work on complex sugars in the flour as well as softens the bran in whole grains. Bran flakes work like little razors, cutting the gluten (protein) strands and preventing the dough from stretching like dough made with white flour. When starches are divided into glucose molecules, the yeast has more food to eat.

Weigh, do not measure. When you can, use a scale to weigh the same amount of flour, salt etc. every time. Bakeries rely on baker's percentages which make their bread consistent from day to day and so can you. Convert recipes without weights by weighing as you go. Try not to add too much flour, the leading cause of dry, tough loaves.

Use sourdough starter in conjunction with yeast. Unless you are a purist (and bless you for being one), most breads are great with a little sourdough in them but not as the main leavening agent. Sourdoughs from Germany can be quite sour, very unlike our supermarket sourdough. In many European bakeries, almost all the bread are sourdoughs. Adding baker's yeast will help the dough rise before it becomes too sour.

Sourdough is good for keeping bread fresh and Germans say it is good for the digestion as well. Sourdough is essential for rye bread, where the acid keeps the starch molecules from breaking down, thereby allowing a gluten-like structure to form and keeps the finished product from being gluey. You can mimic sourdough with acidic ingredients or additives, as well.

To improve your crumb (grain of the loaf) you may try using a stand mixer and keeping the dough tacky. You're more likely to knead it for the specified period in the recipe and your hands are free for other tasks. You can also use less flour than when kneading by hand. This wetter dough seems to give the bread a better chance of rising.

There are also minimal kneading methods which fold a wet dough like a letter.

If you want an open crumb, do not over knead. If you knead the dough after the first rise, you will end up with an American-style, closed crumb bread or German "Toastbrot." This may be good for sandwiches but is not what many people look for in artisan bread like focaccia or Bauernbrot. Shape, but do not knead the bread after the first rise. If a recipe says "to punch down" deflate gently and knead a few times to redistribute the gasses.

Do not omit the salt. Salt has many chemical interactions with flour and yeast. European bread tends to have quite a bit of salt, often between two and three percent (Baker's percent). This gives the bread flavor but gives the EU cause for concern. For health reasons, they would like to limit salt to under two percent. The baker's guilds in Europe have been fighting against the EU changing their traditional recipes and keeping salt content off the labels of fresh bakery bread.

You may try and decrease the salt in any given recipe, but make sure you have noted it in the book so you can compare results in taste and texture.

Develop your own bread specialty. Practice makes perfect. Use a recipe that you like over and over. Make it your own. Your family and friends will start to request it, look forward to it. Because you practice it often, you will get very good and very streamlined in making it.

Baking Bread Tips

Use a baking stone for a great crust and oven spring. They are heavy and take a long time to heat up but baking stones help create a brick oven atmosphere for the bread. The crust does not crack on the bottom and the bread can bake through without over-browning.

Calibrate your oven. Especially if your loaves are coming out too dark or too wet or taking longer to bake than the recipe says they should. Also, bread may need lower temperatures when your baking stone is properly preheated.

If you don't have an oven thermometer and want to fix an overly dark loaf today, turn your oven down by 25 F. You may get the best results when you turn your oven to 450 F, not 500 F as they say in some books.

Preheat the oven. With or without a baking stone, heating the oven for 1/2 an hour with no stone or 1 hour with a stone is essential for professional-looking and tasting results. While you may want to put bread into cold ovens to economize turning the oven on for this length of time costs only 15 to 30 cents extra. You may want to have several loaves to bake in a day, which lowers the cost per loaf, as well.

Know which crust you want.

  • Artisan, chewy style crust needs steam for the first few minutes, then dry heat.
  • Dusting with flour gives a rustic look to the loaf.
  • Egg wash turns the bread golden and gives a softer crust.
  • Milk washes in the last few minutes are good for a sandwich style loaf and give a glossy brown, soft crust.
  • Brush loaves or rolls with oil or water and roll in seeds or grains to coat before baking.
  • Oil softens the crust, water keeps it crisper.
  • Slash the top of the loaves 1/4 inch deep 15 to 20 minutes before baking, if not longer, to give the ultimate slash and rise look to the bread.

This is not as true for small, white flour loaves and rolls. Some of them are designed to be eaten hot-out-of-the-oven.

Keep bread for one to two days in a paper or cloth bag at room temperature. Sourdough breads and rolls can keep two days longer.

Don't forget to freeze the extras, but do not refrigerate your bread, or it will dry out too quickly. Wrap in plastic wrap and then in a freezer bag and keep for up to three months in the freezer. Thaw at room temperature and crisp up for several minutes in the oven, preferably on the oven rack, directly.

There is nothing better than homemade bread and soup on a Thursday night after a parent-teacher conference. The bread is in the freezer and the soup can be made in half an hour.

Let the bread cool before slicing. The bread should reach an internal temperature of at least 180 F before you take it out of the oven. At this point, the bread is still baking and drying out. Let it cool two hours before slicing. If you cut into it before that it will look underdone or soggy.