Baking Tips

Your Top Bread Baking Questions, Answered

We answer your most common bread questions, from knowing when dough is properly risen to ensuring a boulangerie-quality crust.

Published Dec. 3, 2019.

The way the most basic of ingredients—flour, water, yeast, and salt—can magically turn from a pale lump of dough into a beautifully browned loaf can seem like a total mystery. We’re here to demystify the process and show you that baking bread is more than doable at home. Below you’ll find the answers to your most frequently asked questions about bread—from rising to reviving. 

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How can I be sure that my yeast will work?

Yeast is a living organism, and its activity will decrease over time—even if the package is unopened. To check that your yeast is healthy, run the following test: 

In a small bowl, mix 1 teaspoon of yeast (active dry or instant) with ½ teaspoon of sugar and 1 tablespoon of room-temperature water. The mixture should look bubbly within 10 minutes; if it doesn’t, it’s time to buy a fresh supply of yeast. 

How does the temperature of my kitchen affect proofing?

The ambient temperature impacts yeast activity, which affects how quickly the dough rises and the quality of its flavor. Proofing in a cold (67 degrees or cooler) room slows yeast activity, but that can actually be a good thing since it allows more complex flavors to develop (we often proof in the refrigerator for this reason). An overly warm (80 degrees or warmer) room increases yeast activity, which, if it goes on for too long, can weaken gluten and compromise loaf structure as well as produce less desirable sour and/or boozy flavors. If your room temperature is significantly above or below 72 degrees, you should pay close attention to visual cues (see below) to determine how long to proof.

How can I tell when my dough has risen enough?

Recipes often call for letting dough rise until it’s doubled in size, which can be hard to gauge when the dough is in a bowl. These tricks can help.

For the First Rise: Mark the Container

Place the dough in a clear, straight-sided container and stretch a rubber band around the container at a point twice the height of the unrisen dough. The dough is ready when it reaches the band.

TIP: Grease and Cover the Container

Dough that rises in an ungreased vessel will stick and tear when you remove it. Covering the container with plastic wrap (lightly grease it first) prevents the dough from drying out and forming a skin as it rises.

For the Second Rise: Poke the Dough

Press the dough gently with your knuckle or finger. If the dough springs back right away, that means the yeast is still actively fermenting and producing gases that help the loaf expand, so it needs more proofing. But if the dough springs back slowly and leaves a small indent, that indicates that the dough has expanded as much as it should before it goes into the oven, and it’s ready to bake.

How do I form a perfectly round loaf (a boule)?

When shaping dough, it’s important to stretch it so that the exterior forms a strong, taut “skin.” This sets the loaf’s structure and prevents gases from escaping at weak points, which would allow it to rise and bake unevenly. Professional bakers tuck and secure the ends underneath the dough ball while it’s upright—a technique that takes lots of practice. Here’s an easier way.

TIP: Use a Flouring “Station”

When shaping dough, it’s important not to overdo it with the dusting flour. While you don’t want the dough to stick and tear, you also don’t want it to slide around freely; a little resistance between the dough and the work surface will help it develop a taut skin. Flouring the surface makes it too easy to overflour the dough, so we create a flouring station.

How do I shape a sandwich loaf?

Sandwich loaves take the form of their pan, obviously, but that doesn’t mean they can be baked without shaping. Rolling the dough into a tight cylinder before transferring it to the pan enforces the gluten structure and prevents the final loaf from being misshapen. To preserve air from the first rise, it is important to work the dough gently; in most cases we use our hands, not a rolling pin, which can overwork the dough. Make sure to lightly flour your hands as well as the counter to keep the dough from sticking. Placing the loaf in the pan seam side down ensures that it doesn’t split open as it rises.

How do I shape a torpedo?

Like with boules, the dough for long, rounded-end torpedos benefits from being pressed flat and then folded inward to build structure. But there are a few more steps you need to complete to make these attractive loaves. We use a stretching process to coax the dough into the right shape. Rolling the loaf seam side down before transferring it to a baking sheet or pizza peel helps the seam close as the loaf rises a second time.

How do I shape a bâtard?

Much like a torpedo loaf, a bâtard is oblong, but its shape is a bit more refined, with a larger center and attractive pointed ends. Thus, while the process for forming the two loaves is similar, there are a couple of extra steps required for shaping a bâtard. These rustic loaves typically proof on a couche that has been dusted with flour. 

What if the dough is hard to shape?

Although the gluten relaxes during the dough’s first rise, any manipulation of the dough after bulk fermentation can work to bolster the gluten network once again. So as you’re shaping, the dough may seem difficult to stretch or roll, and it could potentially snap back to its original position and fail to form the desired shape or to roll out to the correct size. If you experience this during shaping, simply incorporate a rest into the process: Cover the dough on the counter with plastic wrap and let it sit for 10 to 20 minutes until the dough is easy to manipulate once again. This brief rest gives the gluten network time to relax. Remember to cover the dough so that it doesn’t form a skin.

Don’t forget:

When you divide dough into pieces, every cut you make creates a weak point in the gluten network from which gases can escape. Slicing cleanly—not ripping—through the dough prevents undesirable results.

Even-size dough pieces will rise uniformly. You can weigh pieces to help you.

What’s the purpose of slashing the dough?

Making slashes through the dough’s taut exterior creates designated weak spots in the surface that allow it to expand in the proper direction during baking, further guaranteeing a perfectly shaped loaf. When done well, slashes also allow you to embellish the crust with eye-catching designs. Most doughs can be slashed with a sharp paring knife or single-edge razor blade (bakeries often use a dedicated tool, called a lame, which we call for in our baguette recipe).

Two Tips for Slashing

Act quickly and decisively; otherwise, the tool will drag and create messy lines. Cut slashes between ¼ and ½ inch deep.

How do I make the crust really crisp?

Though it sounds counterintuitive, the best way to ensure a crackly-crisp crust is to introduce steam. Steam produces a thick, crisp crust on rustic loaves, as the moisture converts the dough’s exterior starches into a thin coating of gel that bakes into a glossy, crackly surface. Professional bakers use steam-injected ovens, but we found that you can mimic their effect in two ways.

1. Bake in a Dutch oven 

The lidded pot traps steam, which helps produce a shiny, crisp crust on single round loaves. We start the dough in an unheated pot in a cold oven; though it takes a little longer to bake than if you add the dough to a preheated pot in a hot oven, it works beautifully and it’s easier.

2. Pour boiling water on lava rocks

Lava rocks, which are sold at hardware stores, offer abundant surface area that helps create an initial burst of steam and continues to produce some steam thereafter. To use them, adjust the oven rack to the lowest position (below the rack with the baking stone). Fill two aluminum pie plates with 1 quart of lava rocks each and place them on the rack below the stone before heating the oven. When you're ready to bake a loaf of any shape, pour ½ cup of boiling water into one of the plates of lava rocks and close the oven door for 1 minute to create an initial burst of steam. Then, working quickly, transfer the loaf to the oven and pour ½ cup of boiling water into the second plate of rocks.

How can I tell when the loaf is done?

Bake bread until it looks right: There is a wider window for doneness on the inside of a loaf than on the crust, so when you’re baking bread, trust your eyes first and foremost. Feel free to use a thermometer for reassurance (we typically aim for 190 degrees for enriched breads and 205 degrees for lean breads), but if the bread is still pale, keep baking it, even if it’s at or above the recommended temperature. And if it looks good, pull it from the oven, even if it is 5 to 10 degrees below temperature on the inside.

How can I slice bread without squishing it?

Our best practices for slicing bread ensure that the sliced loaf retains its stature. 

Cool completely before slicing: It can take 3 hours for a loaf to cool—and you can’t rush it. As the loaf cools, its gelled starch sets, becoming firmer and drier. A firmer loaf doesn’t squish as easily, and its drier crumb doesn’t cling to the knife. 

Slice rustic loaves on their sides: When slicing a loaf with a thick crust, turn the bread on its side. This will allow you to make clean, tidy cuts through both the top and bottom crusts. And don’t forget to use a serrated knife; a chef’s knife—even a sharp one—will squish the crumb as you press down on the bread.

Can I revive stale bread?

Yes. The key is to heat stale bread to 140 degrees or higher, which temporarily reverses the retrogradation of its starch, making it soft again. But since the effect won’t last, use revived bread immediately.

How to revive unsliced bread: If the bread is crusty, briefly pass it under a running faucet of cold water (for softer loaves, skip this step). Wrap the loaf tightly in aluminum foil, place it on the middle rack of a cold oven, and set the temperature to 300 degrees. After about 30 minutes (15 to 20 minutes for small or narrow loaves such as baguettes), remove the foil and return the loaf to the oven for about 5 more minutes to crisp up the crust.

How to revive sliced bread: Bread slices can simply be toasted, though they don’t need to get dry or even browned, just heated to 140 degrees or higher.

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