Yeast doughs

Some of my favourite things to make are yeasted breads- there’s something incredibly satisfying about squishing some flour, water, salt, and yeast together to create something that’s so much better than the sum of its parts. There’s a bit more waiting involved than with something like a muffin or a cake, but the delayed gratification is well worth it (and the same can be true of sourdough, with even more waiting but even more flavour). Commercial yeast is pretty straightforward, and most yeast breads you’d make at home follow the same method:

The Straight Dough Method

As the name of the method might suggest, everything goes straight in the bowl in the same stage for mixing. Instant yeast can be added at the same time as everything, while active dry yeast should be bloomed in the water first to make sure it dissolves fully. The straight dough method is good for:

Lean doughs: usually just flour, water, salt, and yeast- no fats or sugars added. They produce crisp crusts and airy, chewy interiors like baguettes and pizza doughs. These doughs get maximum gluten development, tend to have the most dramatic rises, and tend to go stale quickly.

Enriched doughs: like lean doughs but with a moderate amount of fat and/or sugar added, they produce slightly denser breads with soft crusts. Things like cinnamon rolls and babkas are made with enriched doughs using this method. They ferment a bit slower because of the fat and sugar, both of which also interfere with gluten network development. These doughs tend to be much softer than lean doughs, and stale more slowly.

1. Mixing

Everything in the dough is mixed together at a low speed until combined, and then the mixing continues (often at a slightly higher speed) until the gluten network is developed. When making an enriched dough with this method, some of the sugar, egg, or fat may be added after the other ingredients in order to avoid coating the yeast with fat or to allow for better gluten development. Doughs in the mixing stage start off shaggy and brittle- they tear easily and look rough. As the gluten develops, the dough starts to stick to itself and becomes smooth and elastic.

You can check your gluten development by using the windowpane test: take a small piece of dough and stretch it as thin as you can- if you can get it into a thin membrane that you can see light through without tearing, it’s fully developed.

When the dough is fully developed, you can stretch it thin enough to see shadows through it. Enriched doughs can usually do this too, but they tend to be stickier.

2. Bulk fermentation (first rise)

Once fully developed, the dough is shaped into a ball and let rest, covered, in a warm place until roughly doubled (depending on the recipe). Enzymes in the flour break down the starches, and the sugars they produce are eaten by the yeast. The yeast produces carbon dioxide and ethanol (in addition to aromas from things like esters, aldehydes, and sulfur compounds). Big gas bubbles are produced by those yeasts and are trapped by the dough, causing the dough mass to grow in volume. The gluten is relaxed and the gas produced by the yeast interrupts the gluten network, which causes the dough to feel softer.

The bulk fermentation step is often (but not always) ended with a “punch down” or “knock back” step, where the dough is pressed down and degassed. This step accomplishes a couple of things. It redistributes or eliminates large gas bubbles, so the final texture has a more even distribution of gas bubbles, and the dough is more uniform for shaping. The yeasts get moved around and are put in contact with more food, as they have been depleting the sugars directly in contact with them. In larger masses of dough, it equalizes the temperature between the inside and outside of the dough. You can literally punch it if you’re starting to get hangry and realize that this is going to take longer than you thought, but it’s better to press it out a little more methodically.

3. Divide and Shape

This process can vary pretty widely depending on what’s being made, but the dough is usually divided into units (like individual buns, rolls, etc.), sometimes rounded and rested (pre-shaped), and then shaped into its desired shape. For something like pretzels, the dough might be divided into individual portions, rounded and rested, and then elongated and knotted. A single loaf of bread would be shaped, but not divided. In the case of cinnamon buns, it would be rolled out first and then divided, but is in its final desired shape by the end of this step.

4. Proofing

Proofing is the final (usually the second) rise for a yeast dough, after it has been shaped. This allows the yeasts to create more air bubbles, this time more regularly distributed in the dough. Generally, underproofing will result in a denser end product, while overproofing may leave you with an irregular texture and distorted shape.

To tell if something is fully proofed, poke it:

  • If the dough is underproofed, the finger dent will spring back quickly and fully
  • If it’s overproofed, it won’t spring back at all
  • Properly proofed dough will spring back slowly but not quite all the way

Items sitting on a tray can be shaken gently- they should wobble slightly. Clearly, checking if an item is proofed is very scientific and not goofy at all.

5. Baking

When the dough is fully proofed, it gets baked. The bubbles grow rapidly as the yeast go into overdrive before it gets too hot for them to survive, and the gas they produce expands. This rise is called oven spring. Then, the crust hardens and some of the gas bubbles that were expanding burst into each other, stabilizing the structure. The starch gelatinizes, the proteins coagulate, and the structure sets. Depending on the recipe, items may be washed before baking (brushed with something like egg or milk) for shine and colour.

6. Cooling

During cooling, the moisture in the loaf redistributes- the outside has dried considerably more than the inside, and the moisture from the inside diffuses outward. The starches also start to fully solidify. This is really the worst part, because it’s when the bread or whatever smells the best but it’s really better if you wait until it’s mostly cooled.

The Sponge Method

The sponge method is less common for home recipes, as most of its advantages are relevant to a bakery (scheduling flexibility, using less yeast, etc.) but you might use one for something like a brioche.

In the beginning, part of the ingredients (all of the yeast and some proportion of the flour, water, and sugar) are mixed until just combined and then risen (this is called a pre-ferment), and that mass is punched down and mixed into the dough. Then the steps are the same as the straight dough.

This method is good for generating flavour, since the sponge can ferment for a longer time than a straight dough. For very rich doughs (like brioche), high proportions of fat and sugar inhibit yeast activity, so using a sponge is a way to improve the fermentation since the yeast gets a head start before being mixed with the fat and sugar.

Sourdough

Sourdoughs are sort of a type of pre-ferment, but since the yeasts in a sourdough culture are different from commercial yeasts (and come with a host of other factors), they’re usually treated as a separate type. The steps in sourdough bread making are similar (sometimes identical) to commercial yeast dough steps, but there are enough variations and considerations that they warrant their own post.

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