Bread Baking 101-Chef Susan Holding

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Bread Baking 101 – Chef Susan Holding

French Baguette (Pain Ordinaire)

1  tablespoon active dry yeast (or scant tablespoon instant yeast)

1 tsp. sugar  (or just a sprinkle)

2 ½ cups warm water (105-110 degrees)

6 cups unbleached flour (or may use all unbleached all-purpose)

1 tablespoon salt

Oil/butter for coating bowl, and greasing pans as needed

Cornmeal as needed 

Makes 4 loaves 

Sprinkle yeast on warm water with sugar.  Dissolve yeast and wait until foamy. 

Add flour into yeast.  Turn dough onto work floured work surface and begin kneading until soft and elastic.   Add salt and continue kneading until dissolved into dough.  Total kneading will be about 7-10 minutes.  The dough should be moist, but no longer sticky.

Place in an oiled bowl, turn dough to cover with oil.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow  to rise in a draft free area for 1 ½ to 2 hours.  If possible, push dough down and allow for a 2nd rise.   

Divide dough into equal portions.  Shape into baguettes.  Cover with towel and allow to rise again for about 45-75 minutes ( or until dough doesn’t spring back when touched)  Slash tops with very sharp knife or lame. Mist with water just before placing in oven.  Place in 450 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, reduce oven to 375-400 degrees and finish baking for approximately 15-20 minutes more.  Remove bread from pans, turn off oven and allow loaves to rest in hot/warm oven for 5 more minutes.  Try not to open oven during first part of baking until ready to remove bread from pans.   

Baguettes have a short shelf life and should be eaten with 1-5 hours.  If storing, wrap in plastic wrap.  Bread will soften.  To recrisp, place in 350 degree oven for 5-10 minutes. 

For a starter, combine 5 cups flour with 2 ½ cups water, and 1 tsp. yeast.  Mix and allow to rest at room temperature, covered overnight.  Combine with above bread dough.   Note:  This will make nearly double the number of loaves, but will improve the flavor due to prefermentation. 

French Fougasse

2  tablespoon active dry yeast

2 ¼- 2 ½  cups warm water (105-110 degrees)

6 ½  cups unbleached flour (or may use all unbleached all-purpose)

4 teaspoons salt

¼ cup olive oil

Oil/butter for coating bowl, and greasing pans as needed

Cornmeal as needed 

Olive Oil for basting

Herb de Provence 

Mix dough, knead until smooth, elastic and gluten well formed.  Cover and allow to rise in warm place until doubled.  Gently punch down and place in 3 oiled plastic bags or bowls with lids.  Chill overnight.  Remove from refrigerator and allow to return to room temp (about an hour).  Shape in leaf shape with slits.  Baste with olive oil.  Do not rest dough more than 15-20 minutes.   Place in 450 degree oven.  Mist with water spray just before placing in oven. 

Bake approximately 8-12 minutes until golden brown. 

Baste with olive oil a second time after removing from oven.


Hensperger, Beth. Baking Bread- Old and New Traditions (Chronicle Books, 1992).

Novak, Paul.  A Baker’s Dozen of Daily Breads & More (Only Connect Publications, 1991). 


King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue

RR2, Box 56

Norwich, Vermont   05055  For questions, bakery recipes and excellent product sources.



Helpful Notes


One way in which water has an effect on bread is in the form of steam that is injected into the oven at the time of loading. Anyone who bakes with a steam-injected oven knows the virtues of steam. Proper steaming has a profound effect on bread for a number of reasons. It promotes a rich color to the crust, a surface shine on the loaf, and also increases the volume of the bread.

Crust color is enhanced when steam is injected into the oven. This is because at the early stages of baking, there is a rapid increase in enzymatic activity on the surface of a loaf. These enzymes break down the starches in the dough into sugar-like compounds called dextrins, and other simple sugars called reducing sugars. Steaming the oven has a cooling effect on the dough, and this enables the enzymes to remain active for a longer period of time. This in turn contributes to crust browning through the Maillard reaction, and later through caramelization of the crust. In an unsteamed oven, the surface of the loaf quickly becomes too hot for these enzymes to function, and the resulting bread has a pale, lusterless crust.  

A properly steamed oven promotes a crust with a good sheen to it. This is because steam at the initial stages of baking provides moisture that gelatinizes the starches on the surface of the loaf. The starches swell and become glossy, giving us a shining crust. In an oven without steam, the crust undergoes a process called pyrolisis. Instead of gelatinizing, the starches, and the crust of the bread, remain dull. 

A properly steamed oven results in bread with better volume. When we load an oven without steam, the surface of the loaf quickly heats up. As a crust forms on the surface, oven spring is reduced, and the bread’s ability to attain further volume is impeded. On the other hand, in a steamed oven, the surface of the dough remains moist longer, enabling greater oven spring to occur before the formation of a surface crust, and the result is bread with superior volume.

The benefits of steam occur only during the first third or so of the baking cycle. If the baker neglects to inject steam at the time of bread loading, he cannot compensate by steaming the oven several minutes later. In order to ensure that the crust remains thin and crisp, it is important to finish the bake in a dry oven. For this reason, the oven should be vented or the doors notched partially open for the last portion of the bake.


Yeast is a living plant, and as such requires suitable conditions to thrive. These conditions include moisture, oxygen, food, and appropriate temperatures. Under suitable conditions, the yeast will reproduce, and it will generate fermentation. Fermentation is the conversion of sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, by yeast and bacteria. When food, water, oxygen, and a proper temperature occur, the life cycle of yeast will become activated.  

In Nature, there are dozens of Genus of yeast, hundreds of species, and thousands of subspecies or strains. Saccharomyces cerivisiae is the strain that has been chosen for commercial yeast, because it has characteristics that favor rapid gas production. Commercial yeast is available in a number of forms, from cream yeast (a liquid form of compressed yeast, it is usually delivered in tank trucks to storage bins, and is used in very large operations), to compressed yeast (also called cake yeast or fresh yeast), and finally dry yeast.  

Yeast requires moisture, oxygen, a suitable temperature, and food in order to multiply and generate fermentation. Generally speaking, bread dough is an ideal environment for the yeast, providing all the necessary conditions for its needs.

  • Water is needed by the yeast in order for it to absorb nutrients. It is well known by bakers that salt retards the activity of yeast fermentation. This is due to osmotic pressure exerted on the yeast cells by the salt. Salt, being hygroscopic (attracting moisture), draws water out of the yeast cell, reducing the amount available to the yeast, and this is why there is a decrease in fermentation from the presence of salt. Sugar acts the same way. It too is hygroscopic, and once a dough contains more than 9% sugar, a decrease is noted in the rate of fermentation.
  • Oxygen, obtained mostly by the mixing of the dough, enables the yeast to metabolize nutrients and to multiply. Although yeast requires oxygen for its reproduction, in reality there is almost no reproduction occurring in bread dough, and the rise we see is almost entirely due to gas production during fermentation. Available oxygen is used up within a matter of minutes after dough mixing, and fermentation occurs in an anaerobic environment.
  • Dough temperature is crucial for yeast activity. For commercial yeast, the optimum temperature for fermentation is 90°F or even higher. It is important to note, however, that a dough temperature in this range is inappropriate; although fermentation would be favored, it would occur at the expense of flavor development, which requires lower temperatures. Wild yeasts prefer a narrower temperature zone than commercial yeast, and in general perform better at slightly lower temperatures than commercial yeast.
  • During fermentation, food is provided to the yeast by the conversion of starches (by amylase enzymes) into sugar. The yeast ferments the sugar, and as a result of this fermentation, carbon dioxide gas and alcohol are produced. The CO2 is trapped by the gluten network in the dough, and provides volume to the baked loaf. The alcohol is largely evaporated during the baking of the bread. Another by-product of fermentation is heat.

The forms of yeast most commonly used by the baker are fresh yeast (also known as cake yeast or compressed yeast), active dry yeast, and instant dry yeast. When converting from fresh to dry, it is important to adjust the weight of the yeast. Although it is best to follow the conversion ratio provided by the manufacturer, there are general conversion guidelines that may prove helpful.

  • To convert from fresh yeast to active dry yeast, multiply the fresh quantity by .4. Active dry yeast must be hydrated in warm water before being incorporated into a dough.
  • To convert from fresh yeast to instant dry yeast, multiply the fresh quantity by .33. Instant yeast can be incorporated into the dough without first rehydrating it; however, it is sensitive to ice or ice-cold temperatures, and if the water temperature of the dough is cold, it is best to mix the dough for a minute or two before adding the yeast. In order to maintain dough yield, most manufacturers suggest making up the weight difference between dry yeast and fresh with additional water.

An Interesting Relationship

There is an interesting relationship in what we call San Francisco Sourdough between the wild yeast, Candida milleri, and the dominant lactobacillus strain, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. C. milleri cannot utilize maltose during fermentation, while L. sanfranciscensis is happy to use it. And once it does, it excretes glucose. This is fortunate for C. milleri, because it is fond of glucose, and ferments this simple sugar readily. At the same time, competing bacterial species are inhibited by the presence of so much glucose, and this is to the benefit of L. sanfranciscensis, whose development is therefore favored. A last factor in this relationship pertains to acidity. L. sanfranciscensis produces a lot of acetic acid, which contributes significantly to the flavor we associate with sourdough bread. C. milleri is more tolerant of an acidic environment than many yeast varieties. The high level of acidity prevents competing yeasts from dominating the culture, much to the benefit of C. Milleri.


The subject of preferments is one that can cause immense confusion among bakers. The variety of terminology can bewilder even the most experienced among us. Words from foreign languages add their contribution to the complexity. In this discussion, we will try to demystify some of the uncertainty and misunderstanding surrounding this topic, and bring a measure of clarity to a topic that often seems rather obscure. 

A preferment is a preparation of a portion of a bread dough that is made several hours or more in advance of mixing the final dough. The preferment can be of a stiff texture, it can be quite loose in texture, or it can simply be a piece of mixed bread dough. Some preferments contain salt, others do not. Some are generated with commercial yeast, some with naturally occurring wild yeasts. After discussing the specific attributes of a number of common preferments, we will list the benefits gained from their use. 



These terms all pertain to preferments; some are quite specific, some broad and general. The important thing to remember is that, just as daffodils, roses, and tulips all are specific plants that fall beneath the heading of “flowers,” in a similar way the above terms all are in the category of “preferments.” Let’s examine several of the terms listed in more detail. 

Pâte fermentée is a French term that means fermented dough, or as it is occasionally called, simply old dough. If one were to mix a batch of French bread, and once mixed a portion were removed, and added in to a new batch of dough being mixed the next day, the portion that was removed would be the pâte fermentée. Over the course of several hours or overnight, the removed piece would ferment and ripen, and would bring certain desired qualities to the next day’s dough. Being that pâte fermentée is a piece of mixed dough, we note that it therefore contains all the ingredients of finished dough, that is, flour, water, salt, and yeast. 

Biga is an Italian term that generically means preferment. It can be quite stiff in texture, or it can be of loose consistency (100% hydration). It is made with flour, water, and a small amount of yeast (the yeast can be as little as .1% of the biga flour weight). Once mixed, it is left to ripen for at least several hours, and for as much as 12 to 16 hours. Note that there is no salt in the biga. Unlike pâte fermentée, which is simply a piece of mixed white dough which is removed from a full batch of dough, the biga, lacking salt, is made as a separate step in production.  

Poolish is a preferment with origins, clearly, in Poland. It initially was used in pastry production. As its use spread throughout Europe it became common in bread. Today it is literally used worldwide, from South America to England, from Japan to the United States. It is by definition made with equal weights of flour and water (that is, it is 100% hydration), and a small portion of yeast. Note again the absence of salt. It is appropriate here to discuss the quantity of yeast used. The intention is not to be vague, but it must be kept in mind that the baker will manipulate the quantity of yeast in his or her preferment to suit required production needs. For example, in a bakery with two or three shifts, it might be suitable to make a poolish or any other preferment and allow only 8 hours of ripening. In such a case, a slightly higher percentage of yeast would be indicated in the preferment. On the other hand, in a one-shift shop, the preferment might have 14 to 16 hours of maturing before the mixing of the final dough. In this case the baker would decrease the quantity of yeast used. Similarly, ambient temperature must be considered. A preferment that is ripening in a 65°F room would require more yeast than one in a 75°F room.

Pâte fermentée, biga, and poolish, are the most common preferments which use commercial yeast. As such, we can place them loosely in a category of their own. In a separate category we will place sourdough and levain. 

The words sourdough and levain tend to have the same meaning in the United States, and are often used interchangeably. This however is not the case in Europe. In Germany, the word sourdough (sauerteig) always refers to a culture of rye flour and water. In France, on the other hand, the word levain refers to a culture that is entirely or almost entirely made of white flour. While outwardly these two methods are different, there are a number of similarities between sourdough and levain. Most important is that each is a culture of naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that have the capacity to both leaven and flavor bread. A German-style culture is made using all rye flour and water. A levain culture may begin with a high percentage of rye flour, or with all white flour. In any case, it eventually is maintained with all or almost all white flour. While a rye culture is always of comparatively stiff texture, a levain culture can be of either loose or stiff texture (a range of 50% hydration to 125% hydration). With either method, the principle is the same. The baker mixes a small paste or dough of flour and water, freshens it with new food and water on a consistent schedule, and develops a colony of microörganisms that ferment and multiply. In order to retain the purity of the culture, a small portion of ripe starter is taken off before the mixing of the final dough. This portion is held back, uncontaminated by yeast, salt, or other additions to the final dough, and used to begin the next batch of bread. 

One important way in which a sourdough and levain are different from pâte fermentée, biga, and poolish, is that the sourdough and levain can be perpetuated for months, years, decades, and even centuries. When we make a preferment using commercial yeast, it is baked off the next day. We then begin the process again, making a new batch of preferment for the next day’s use. It would be tempting to say the pâte fermentée can be perpetuated, since each day we simply take off a portion of finished dough to use the following day. This is not actually the case. We could not, for example, go on vacation for a week and come back to a healthy pâte fermentée, whereas we could leave our sourdough or levain culture for a week or more, with a minimum of consequences.

During the initial stages in the development of a sourdough or levain culture, it is common to see the addition of grapes, potato water, grated onions, and so on. While these can provide an extra nutritional boost, they are not required for success. The flour should supply the needed nutrients for the growing colony. Keep in mind, however, that when using white flours, unbleached and unbromated flour, such as those produced by King Arthur Flour, are the appropriate choice. Vital nutrients are lost during the bleaching process, making bleached flour unsuitable.  

How does the baker know when his or her preferment has matured sufficiently and is ready to use? There are a number of signs that can guide us. Most important, it should show signs of having risen. If the preferment is dense and seems not to have moved, in all likelihood it has not ripened sufficiently. Poor temperature control, insufficient time allowed for proper maturing, or a starter that has lost its viability can all account for the problem. When the preferment has ripened sufficiently, it should be fully risen and just beginning to recede in the center. This is the best sign that correct development has been attained. It is somewhat harder to detect this quality in a loose preferment such as a poolish. In this case, ripeness is indicated when the surface of the poolish is covered with small fermentation bubbles. Often CO2 bubbles are seen breaking through the surface. There should be a pleasing aroma that has a perceptible tang to it. Take a small taste. If the preferment has ripened properly, we should taste a slight tang, sometimes with a subtle sweetness present as well. The baker should keep in mind that a sluggish and undeveloped preferment, or one that has gone beyond ripeness, will yield bread that lacks luster, and suffers a deficiency in volume and flavor.  

There are a number of important benefits to the correct use of preferments, and they all result from the gradual, slow fermentation that is occurring during the maturing of the preferment:

  • Dough structure is strengthened. A characteristic of all preferments is the development of acidity as a result of fermentation activity, and this acidity has a strengthening effect on the gluten structure.
  • Superior flavor. Breads made with preferments often possess a subtle wheaty aroma, delicate flavor, a pleasing aromatic tang, and a long finish. Organic acids and esters are a natural product of preferments, and they contribute to superior bread flavor.
  • Keeping quality improves. There is a relationship between acidity in bread and keeping quality. Up to a point, the lower the pH of a bread, that is, the higher the acidity, the better the keeping quality of the bread. Historically, Europeans, particularly those in rural areas, baked once every two, three, or even four weeks. The only breads that could keep that long were breads with high acidity, that is, levain or sourdough breads.
  • Overall production time is reduced. Above all, to attain the best bread we must give sufficient time for its development. Bread that is mixed and two or three hours later is baked will always lack character when compared with bread that contains a well-developed preferment. By taking five or ten minutes today to scale and mix a sourdough or poolish, we significantly reduce the length of the bulk fermentation time required tomorrow. The preferment immediately incorporates acidity and organic acids into the dough, serving to reduce required floor time after mixing. As a result the baker can divide, shape, and bake in substantially less time than if he or she were using a straight dough.
  • Rye flour offers some specific considerations. When baking bread that contains a high proportion of rye flour, it is necessary to acidify the rye (that is, use a portion of it in a sourdough phase) in order to stabilize its baking ability. Rye flour possesses a high level of enzymes compared to wheat flour, and when these are unregulated, they contribute to a gumminess in the crumb. The acidity present in sourdough reduces the activity of the enzymes, thereby promoting good crumb structure and superior flavor.


Salt is a major component in bread, and performs several important functions. We will discuss these functions in detail, as well as some other attributes, with the goal of providing the baker with a thorough understanding of the characteristics and correct use of salt in bread baking.

Salt provides flavor. Bread baked without salt will have a flat and insipid taste. On the other hand, bread made with an excess of salt will be unpalatable. Generally, the correct amount of salt in bread dough is 1.8 to 2% of salt based on flour weight (that is, 1.8 to 2# of salt per 100# of flour). The lack of ability to coax fermentation flavor from bread sometimes causes the baker to use an excess of salt. But it should be borne in mind that, while salt provides flavor, it is not a substitute for the fine flavor of well-fermented flour, and the role of salt is to enhance, and not take the place, of true bread flavor.  

Salt tightens the gluten structure. The tightening gives strength to the gluten, enabling the dough to efficiently hold carbon dioxide, which is released into the dough as a byproduct of the yeast fermentation. When salt is left out, the resulting dough is slack and sticky in texture, work-up is difficult, and bread volume is poor. 

Salt has a retarding effect on the activity of the yeast. The cell wall of yeast is semi-permeable, and by osmosis it absorbs oxygen and nutrients, as it gives off enzymes and other substances to the dough environment. Water is essential for these yeast activities. Salt by its nature is hygroscopic, that is, it attracts moisture. In the presence of salt, the yeast releases some of its water to the salt by osmosis, and this in turn slows the yeast’s fermentation or reproductive activities. If there is an excess of salt in bread dough, the yeast is retarded to the point that there is a marked reduction in volume. If there is no salt, the yeast will ferment too quickly. In this sense, the salt aids the baker in controlling the pace of fermentation. Nevertheless, we should note that a careful usage of yeast, control of dough temperature, and the type, maturity, and amount of preferment used are better tools for fermentation control. Salt quantity, as we have noted, should stay within the 1.8 to 2% range. 

Salt indirectly contributes to crust coloring. This attribute is a result of the salt’s characteristic of retarding fermentation. Starch in the flour is converted into simple sugars by the amylase enzymes, and these sugars are consumed by the yeast as it generates fermentation. Since the salt is slowing the rate of the sugar consumption, more of what is known as residual sugar is available at the time of the bake for crust coloration. In the absence of salt, the yeast quickly consumes the available sugars, and the crust on the baked bread is pale and dull. 

Salt helps preserve the color and flavor of flour. The carotenoid pigments, naturally present in wheat flour, are responsible for giving flour its creamy color and wheaty aroma. It is extremely important for the baker to understand that an unbleached flour, such as all of King Arthur’s flours, contains a complete profile of carotenoids, and that bleaching flour destroys these fragile components. For this reason alone, choosing a high quality unbleached and unbromated flour is preferred for all breadmaking. Other than bleaching flour and thereby destroying the carotenoids, overoxidizing of the dough during mixing, which occurs when a dough is mixed too intensively for too long, also destroys them. Salt has a positive effect on the preservation of carotenoids, because dough oxidation is delayed in the presence of salt. For this reason it is preferable to add salt at the beginning of the mix. In this way, salt benefits the eventual flavor of the bread by helping to preserve the carotenoids during the mixing of the dough. When salt is added during the later stages of dough mixing, it can be detrimental to the carotenoids, which may become overoxidized.

One other use of salt is useful to note. It is common to include a portion of salt in a levain culture during warmer and more humid months. This addition of salt, at a rate of .2 to .3%, retards the action of the natural yeast, and thus prevents over-maturing of the culture. In the preparation of German-style rye bread, there is a similar technique that is occasionally employed, called the Salt-Sour Method, in which all the dough salt is used in the sourdough phase. The result is to slow the activity of the sourdough yeast cells, reduce the production of acidity, and have a strengthening effect on the gluten structure. 


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