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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Breadmaking and Baking with Yeast 101--Tips, Tricks, and Explanations

Although I haven't been using yeast for long, only about a month, I have played with it enough, watched enough videos, and read enough recipes to learn a few things here and there.  I am still by no means an expert, but I've learned how to avoid some commonly-made mistakes as well as some tricks for manipulating the texture of breads and other yeasted doughs.  I'll share with you the ones I've found to be most critical.  Please feel free to share with me any tips that you may have.  If you have any questions, go for it and I'll try my best to answer them.

#1 Dry yeast is inactive.
Activating dry yeast requires mixing it with warm water.  If you make your water a little warmer, it expedites the rising process.  However, never make your water hot hot.  It should just be warm to the touch, never hot enough to burn or cook anything.  Hot water kills yeast, which is a living organism, much like the active cultures in yogurt.

Because yeast is inactive, yeast should be allowed to proof, which essentially means to activate.  This is done by mixing the yeast in 1 cup of warm water until it is dissolved then placing this mixture in a warm place (no need to cover at this stage) until it forms a froth.  Typically, if you leave the mixture for 10 minutes, you are good to go.  Depending on the environment, less time may get the job done but, when in doubt, stick to 10 minutes as a rule-of-thumb.  Some yeast proofing is done prior to adding flour and some is done once the dough is formed.

#2 Salt Counteracts Yeast
Almost all recipes with yeast also contain at least a minimal amount of salt.  How do these recipes work if salt counteracts yeast?  Salt does counteract yeast, however, this issue is resolved fairly easily.  The key is to never let salt come into direct contact with yeast.  What that means is that when you are allowing your yeast to proof, although it is perfectly fine to add in things like oil and sugar into your yeast liquid, do not add the salt at this point.  Any salt should be added once you have moistened the dough with any liquid until there is no more loose liquid present.  At this point, the salt-yeast contact is no longer direct, so the yeast is able to do its thing with no problem.

#3 Sugar Helps Yeast Grow
In most cases, when using yeast in baking, your recipe for call for you to add a teaspoon or so of sugar to the yeast and water liquid.  The sugar aids the yeast in proofing.  You will taste the sugar's sweetness in the final product even though it is part of a chemical reaction.  The sweetness does not go away once the reaction is completed and your dough is cooked.  So what that means is, don't call yourself being a super genius by trying to double the sugar in hopes of doubling the proofing time.

#4 The Key to Crunchy Bread is Water
If you want a nice, crusty bread, such as a ciabatta, a traditional focaccia or a similar rustic/artisan bread, water is essential.  I don't mean that you need to make the dough really runny.  What I mean here is that the strategic use of water during the cooking process after the dough has been formed is what creates the perfect crunch.  The steam delays the formation of crust so that once the crust forms it is thinner and crispier.

There are a variety of ways to achieve this.  You can put a pan full of water on the rack beneath the baking bread or you can spray the top of the bread with water before baking.  I have even seen someone spray the sides of the oven.  I haven't used this method yet, but I can tell you that my preferred method would be to just spray the top of the dough with water.  By the way, if you opt for the pan of water, don't be a silly little mess maker!  Put the empty pan in the oven first, then add the water to it using a bowl that you have filled with water.  Such a small step can avoid a huge mess.  Just a few drops of spilled water is all it takes to make a total mess of your floor.

#5 Chewy, Pliable  Baked Goods Start with Soft, Sticky Dough
So, remember when I told you that baking with yeast was easy?  Well, it is, but but the worst of it comes when you are making what you want to be an especially chewy, pliable final product.  What I am talking about here are things like hodduk (Korean sweet filled pancake), really soft and fluffy naan, and the like.  Basically, anything that is either marked by a distinct chewiness or pliability is likely to require a sticky dough. The reason for this is that the chewiness comes from a high liquid-dry ingredient ratio.  When you think about it, it is similar to cakes.  When you make really moist cakes that are also really dense yet springy, your batter tends to be thicker and stronger, if you will.

You don't have to be afraid of making anything chewy now.  Just adjust your technique for handling the dough.  Keep your hands well-oiled at all times following the dough's first proofing (rising).  You may even need to drizzle a little oil or sprinkle a little flour on top of the dough prior to handling it.  I would suggest maybe even drizzling a TB of oil in a small boil to dip your hands into throughout the process. The key here is to resist the urge to add extra flour.  Kneading develops gluten which strengthens the dough and reduces the wet stickiness that you initially experience. 10-15 minutes of intensive kneading should do the trick for super sticky doughs.

Also, keep any surfaces the dough touches in the prep process very well-floured--that means the space you are working the dough on, the rolling pin, etc.  With all of these surfaces, flour and re-flour after each time you lift the dough and go to work with another portion of the dough in the same spot.  Once you fully develop the gluten, the stickiness will go away and the dough will form a ball, pulling away from the counter, rather than sticking, during kneading.

*Use a plastic dough cutter to scrape doughs off of the counter when they are still sticky.

#6 Tricks for Accelerating Proof Time
The part that most people fear with yeast baking is the proofing time...well, that and the kneading, of course.  For the proofing, I can tell you that I have seen some ridiculous time estimates reaching as high as six hours.  Let me tell you, six hours is just outrageous and definitely not necessary.  I have never spent more than an hour to allow dough to proof and with a few simple tricks, I generally get it done in 30 minutes.

The first trick is one that I have mentioned before.  This particular trick comes courtesy of my grandma.  Preheat your oven to 200 degrees for literally about a minute.  When you open the oven after turning it off, you shouldn't feel a burst of heat, rather just a mild warmth.  You should be able to touch the grills without being even slightly burnt.  The grills should just feel warm to touch, not hot enough to cook anything.  Once you get the oven to this point, you have achieved the oh-so-important warm place in which you can allow your dough to rise.

The second trick I have shared before as well.  Just cover the bowl with oiled plastic before placing it in the warmed oven that, remember, is turned off.  This traps the gases of the yeast, intensifying its action on the dough.  You remember chemistry class--it's like when you shake up soda and it explodes because the gas has so little room to work in.  A similar principle is at work here.

The third trick is one that you can use lieu of the oven trick.  You just take your bowl of yeast that you've covered with oiled plastic wrap and put it into a bowl of very warm, but not hot water. Again, we don't want to cook the dough and kill the yeast.  We just want to coax it into working a bit faster.  We have lives and things to do, so we need this thing to happen yesterday, lol.  This trick works like a charm just like the oven trick.  Be sure that the water does not go more than halfway up the side of the bowl with the yeast in it.  You don't want to risk any water seeping into your dough.

#7 Cleanup
If you're an at-home baker like me, you are probably rolling out your dough on your counters.  If so, you just  might have a brief freak-out moment when you see the sticky mess on your counters.  Never fear!  Just wipe off the excess flour and pour some little puddles here and there and then pour some baking soda into the puddles.  The baking soda and vinegar mix will bubble up and the effervescence will help remove the sticky crud.  No worries.  It always works like a charm!

Useful Vocabulary:
- proof - allow the yeast and water liquid to activate and froth or allow the dough to double in size

- strong flour - bread flour (there is a difference and it is very noticeable, so if your recipe calls for it, I
          recommend against substitutes.  I will discuss this in further detail in a later post).  Bread flour is higher
          in proteins and gluten and helps create the chewiness that you associate with things like bagels and
          other breads but not, say, cakes and cookies.  This type of flour absorbs more water, so you cannot substitute without making significant adjustments in the amount of liquid.

- knead - knock the air bubbles out of the dough by folding and rolling it with your hands until you feel the
          dough becomes stronger and denser.  Kneading is key for achieving the right texture in the final

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