What is the secret to making good bread? A bread so delicious you can’t stop eating? Although finding a trustable bread recipe is one factor for a great outcome, there are some tips that make bread baking easier.
I couldn’t get a good artisan loaf when I started baking bread. I could do super basic sandwich bread, that one you mix flour, milk, eggs and hope for the best, no effort at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love easy recipes and I absolutely love my lazy bread and still bake it from time to time. But after baking a loaf that need a bit more of work and getting it right, you want to bake artisan bread every day.
When you’re starting, it might be difficult to bake bread like the ones you see in bakeries. To me, it was almost impossible, as I didn’t know a lot of stuff that nowadays just comes naturally to me. After a few tries and a lot of reading, I noticed some little things that worked and helped me every time, with every single bread recipe.
Keep reading, and I assure you: bread baking will get much, much easier after those 10 secrets.
#1: Read the recipe and follow it
I know, it seems obvious, right? Sometimes you just don’t want to read the instructions, they are huge, you’re too lazy, think you can pull it off with only reading the ingredients. I do that myself every other time. Most of the times, I end up regretting my poor decision.
In bread making, you need to read the full instructions, ESPECIALLY if you are new to this. Read it. Read it again to see if you got everything right. Don’t go substituting ingredients and hoping for the same outcome if the recipe specifically says you shouldn’t do it.
A good recipe will tell you everything you should know about it, what can usually go wrong and how you can avoid it, what should you use as X’s substitute if possible, and approximated rising and baking times (as usually it varies in bread making because of temperature).
In summary, get a good recipe, read it twice and follow every step.
#2: Measure your ingredients correctly
Best thing for bread making is having a kitchen scale. Measuring precisely the ingredients is the best way to start your fail-proof loaf. But who am I to say: sometimes we’re too lazy to get the scale, sometimes we don’t have it in our kitchen, sometimes we accidentally break it (been there).
Although you’ll probably get some grams off when using spoons and cups, it’s doable and not at all that bad. Most of my recipes here have only the ingredients in cups/spoons, because I know most of you prefer this way, am I right?
To measure correctly your dry ingredients, I usually spoon the ingredient into the measuring cup and use a knife to level it off. Never forget to level it off, or add less than necessary to fill the cup completely.
#3: Add salt – but avoid adding it on top of your yeast
Salt is wonderful, and I probably add it to every recipe, even if only a pinch. Adding salt to your dough will bring out the flavors, strengthen it and slow down the fermentation process. But why would I want to slow down my dough fermentation?
Well, you need time for the gluten to develop. A dough with well-developed gluten has a better structure, aka fantastic crumb and crust. If you don’t add a bit of salt, you risk having a fermentation that is just too fast for a good gluten developing. So don’t skip the salt, or you might get a loaf starchy and super bland.
Just be sure mix salt with the flour before adding it to your dough – or just add anywhere but on top of your yeast when mixing. I read that adding salt right on top of your yeast (or vice versa) can kill a good amount of yeast, causing some fermentation and rising problems.
Does this makes sense to me? A bit. Maybe if you’re new to bread making, are separating your ingredients, mix yeast and salt together and forget it for some good 10 minutes, it can make a difference in your loaf.
Have I tested it to check if it’s true? Nah, I just avoid it, and you should too. Simple thing to remember and do, just don’t mix these two directly.
#4: Never use hot water
Or milk, or any hot liquid to make the dough. It needs to be LUKEWARM, and I can’t stress this enough. Anything hot kills your yeast, and you’ll end up with a dense thing that resembles more a rock than bread.
Don’t know how hot is lukewarm? Lukewarm is baby bottle warm. You can test it on your wrist: the water is warm but doesn’t have that hot water bite? Then the temperature is probably good.
#5: Avoid adding cold ingredients
Temperature matter, guys. Hot water will probably kill all your yeast, but cold water and/or ingredients will slow down and can even make your yeast dormant.
So that egg you’ll need for your super yummy bread? Leave it for 30 minutes outside the fridge. Cold milk or water? Heat it until lukewarm.
#6: Check your yeast
That is super important.
A friend of mine tried one of my recipes and asked what has she done wrong, as the bread didn’t rise at all. She had no idea yeast could lose strength if kept outside the fridge – I also didn’t know that a few years ago.
So, before starting your bread recipe, be aware of two things: yeast has an expiration date and after opening it, you need to keep it well closed in your fridge. And always check the expiration date before starting a recipe. I would also write down the opening date on the lid of my yeast, as it loses its power 6 months after opened.
You can be extra sure and check your yeast by proofing it with sugar and water. Works with both active dry and instant yeast: mix with half the amount of (lukewarm) water or milk your recipe asks for, sprinkle yeast and a pinch of sugar on top, stir and wait a few minutes. If active, your yeast will dissolve into the water and the top will be bubbly.
#7: Careful not to under or over-knead your dough
Though is harder to over-knead your dough, under-kneading it is a common problem.
How to know if your dough is under-knead? If you can stretch it from 2 to 4 inches and it doesn’t break apart, it’s properly knead. Just note that there are some bread recipes that does not require kneading (like my pumpkin brioche). They usually have a higher hydration rate, as well as a longer resting time.
#8: Leave the dough rising in a warm spot
Temperature is super important here. As I already mentioned, you should avoid adding hot/cold ingredients into your dough. But the spot you leave the dough rising should also be warm (warm, not hot!).
If it’s summer, you probably won’t have problems in finding a warm spot. But if you’re in the middle of a cold winter, your place might be too cold. If that’s the case, try finding a warm spot for the dough, like near your heater, oven or stove.
Note that, if you have a place that is too hot (like my apartment on the summer), the rise might speed up a bit.
#9: Preheat your oven
Unless the recipe says so, preheating your oven is one of the most important steps. It needs to be on the right temperature, and you need to preheat it for at least 20 minutes.
For bread, it’s important to have the right temperature so the yeast can make the loaf rise enough before the flour set. Adding the dough directly to a cold oven may affect negatively its rising.
#10: Let the bread cool before slicing
When a loaf is out of the oven, all I want to do is slice it and eat it. DO NOT do it.
My dinner rolls and my sandwich rolls have a quicker cooling time, but they still can’t be consumed as soon as they’re out. Why?
Well, even when the bread is out of the oven, it’s still ‘baking’ inside. If you slice it while still hot, you’re not giving enough time for it to set and can end up with a mushy, soggy bread. Yes, fresh warm bread tastes wonderful, but trust me: a fully baked and cooled loaf will taste ten times more amazing. And if you want to have it warm, just reheat it on your oven for 5 minutes.
Bonus tip: Boost the flavor using a sourdough starter
For an extra boost on flavor, I sometimes add a bit of my sourdough starter to my dough, while still relying on the same amount of commercial yeast for it to rise. The starter gives the right amount of sourness, and with just 1/3 of a cup I can make a bread as tasty as one I’d buy on a bakery.
If you still don’t have your sourdough culture and want to start one, don’t waste another minute and go to my sourdough starter guide.
Now you’re probably looking for recipes to put all that information on practice, right? I have a lot of suggestions for you, from a delicious Japanese milk bread to the best ever whole wheat roll: go to my bread section and find all my tested and approved bread recipes.