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Working with yeast

We run through what exactly yeast is. Plus there's a step by step on making perfect yeast-raised dough. And useful tips on selecting and preparing ingredients.

Yeast doughs may be divided into two categories: lean and enriched. Lean doughs can be produced with only flour, yeast, salt and water. Other ingredients such as spices, herbs, special flours and/or dried nuts and fruits can be added, but will not greatly change the basic texture. Lean doughs contain only a small amount of sugar and fat, if any. Breads made from lean dough tend to have a chewier texture, more bite and a crisp crust. Hard rolls, French- and Italian-style breads, and whole wheat, rye and pumpernickel breads are considered lean.

Enriched dough (for soft rolls, brioche and challah) is produced by adding fat or tenderizing ingredients such as sugars or syrups, butter or oil, whole eggs or egg yolks, milk or cream. Fats change the dough’s texture. Enriched doughs have a cake-like texture after baking. They may be golden in color because of the use of eggs and butter, and the crust is usually very soft. Enriched doughs are a little more difficult to work with.

The following formula for lean bread is known as a baker’s percentage. The basic ingredients are expressed as percentages, or parts, based upon the weight of the flour. Additional ingredients to enrich or flavor the dough may be added, including eggs, butter or oil, sugar, herbs and spices, cheeses, nuts or olives. Consult specific recipes for guidance.

Making yeast-raised dough

  1. Combine water and yeast. Place warm water or other liquid in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the yeast and mix thoroughly. If the sponge method is used or if the yeast should be proofed to test its power, combine the yeast with some liquid, some of the flour, and/or a small amount of sugar. Cover the bowl and let the yeast ferment in a warm place until frothy.
  2. Add remaining ingredients to yeast mixture. Drop the flour into the bowl, then salt and additional ingredients, such as eggs, butter or oil; sugars, syrups or honey; spices or herbs. Because all ingredients are added at once, this method is referred to as the straight dough mixing method.
  3. Mix until dough starts to cohere into a ball. Knead dough until it develops a smooth, elastic texture. Blend by hand or in a mixer set at low speed. This mixes all the ingredients into a homogenous, but very rough, dough. Once the dough has absorbed most of the flour, increase mixer speed to medium; this kneads the dough and develops the strands of gluten. This allows the dough to expand without breaking as the yeast ferments the dough and causes it to rise. When the dough is properly kneaded, it becomes satiny and stretchy.
  4. Let dough rise until nearly doubled or tripled, in the first fermentation. Place dough in a lightly oiled container and rub the surface with oil. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or clean cloths and let it rise in a warm area. Depending on the type of dough and conditions in the kitchen, the dough may double or triple in volume, referred to as rising or proofing. Test dough to determine if it has risen sufficiently by pressing it with your finger. The indentation should remain.
  5. Fold dough over, turn it out of the bowl onto a floured work surface and scale into pieces. Push the dough in a few places. This will gently expel the carbon dioxide, even out the temperature and redistribute yeast evenly. Fold dough over on itself to further expel gases. Scale the dough into the appropriate size. Weigh the pieces as you work to make certain all the rolls or loaves are consistent in size. Once cut to size, round dough into smooth balls by pulling the outer layer of each dough ball over the surface and pulling it taut on the bottom of the ball. Once the balls are formed, place them on a pan or floured surface; cover and allow to rest briefly before shaped.
  6. Shape dough before baking and place in or on prepared pans or molds; apply egg wash (optional) and proof the dough. Yeast doughs may be formed into loaves and placed in the pan in which they will be baked. Some breads, such as pizza and some round loaves, are formed and placed on cornmeal or parchment-lined sheet trays; these doughs are transferred into a deck or hearth oven with a peel. Let the shaped dough rise, either in a warm area or proof box. This is the final rise, known as pan proofing. Dough should rise about three-quarters of finished size.
  7. Score bread and bake at appropriate temperature until baked through. Cutting a slash in the outer skin permits interior steam to escape. If it cannot, the pressure could cause the bread to burst. To achieve a very crisp crust, use steam. If not, brush or spray the loaves or rolls with water as they are put into the oven to simulate the effect. Bake yeast doughs until they are a golden brown color. Thumping the bread to see if it has a hollow sound is a common test for doneness.
  8. Cool the bread on a rack. Yeast-raised breads should not be cut until thoroughly cooled.

Baker’s percentage

100 parts wheat flour or a combination of wheat and other flours
60 to 66 parts water or other liquid
2 parts yeast
2 parts salt

Select, prepare ingredients & equipment

Flour: Wheat flour is the basis of most yeast-raised doughs. It contains a high percentage of protein, which gives a good texture to lean doughs. A portion of the wheat flour called for in a recipe may be replaced with other flours. Consult individual formulas and scale the flour carefully. It is generally not important to sift the flour for bread.

Yeast: Yeast is an organic leavener, which must be alive in order to be effective. Bring it to room temperature before preparing the dough.

Liquids: Water, milk or other liquids used in a bread formula should be 68° to 76°F (20° to 24°C) for compressed (or fresh) yeast. Ideal temperature for active dry yeast is 105° to 110°F (40° to 43°C).

Salt: Salt develops flavor and also helps to control the action of the yeast. If salt is omitted, breads do not develop as good a color or texture.

Equipment: The way a pan is prepared depends on the type of dough used. For lean doughs, line the pan with parchment paper or dust it with cornmeal or semolina flour. For doughs with a higher percentage of milk, sugar and fat, grease the pan or line it with parchment paper. For extremely rich doughs (brioche or challah), grease, do not line, the pan.

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