Six steps to brilliant bread
From kneading know-how to knocking back, our top tips will help everyone make a lovely loaf - even beginner bakers...
Yeast is activated or brought back to life at 37C/100F (just above blood temperature). For most breads (except sourdoughs), which require long, cool fermentation, the water needs to be at least this temperature to get the yeast going. If you don’t have a thermometer, the water should feel just warm, not hot, to the touch – if the temperature is too high, it will kill the yeast.
2. Make kneading a pleasure
Most breads require kneading (the process of stretching the dough) to develop the gluten and evenly distribute the ingredients. An easy way is to hold the dough with one hand and stretch it out over the work surface with the other, then bring it back to a ball and repeat with the other hand. Keep kneading until it has a smooth texture and can be stretched without tearing – this typically takes 10 minutes. Make it relaxing by turning on the radio and setting a timer.
It’s possible to over-knead dough if you’re using a tabletop mixer. The gluten can be stretched too far and start to ‘shatter’, resulting in a flat and heavy bread. If you’re worried, stop the machine after three minutes and finish kneading by hand.
3. The secret of successful rising
Coat your dough with oil or cover it with oiled cling film while rising or ‘proving’ so that the surface doesn’t dry out and form a skin. Most recipes call for the bread to double in size – this can take one to three hours, depending on the temperature, moisture in the dough, the development of the gluten, and the ingredients used. Generally speaking, a warm, humid environment is best for rising bread.
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For deeper flavour (and convenience), most doughs can be put in the fridge for their second rise and left to prove overnight. This sounds wrong, given that doughs rise fastest in warm conditions, but it really does work. Put the dough in the fridge straight after shaping, covered with oiled cling film. It will start to rise but slow down as the dough chills. In the morning, allow it to come back to room temperature and finish rising 45 minutes to one hour before baking as usual.
4. Is it ready?
To check that your dough has risen to its full capacity, gently press a fingertip into the surface - if the dough springs back straight away, it means the gluten still has some stretch in it, so you can leave it for a little longer. If the indentation left by your finger doesn’t move, the gluten has stretched as much as it can and the dough is ready to bake.
Don’t leave it any longer or the air bubbles will start to collapse, as the gluten will be unable to support them.
5. Knocking back
This is a technical term for punching or pressing down on the dough after the bread's first rise. This process bursts the tiny air bubbles that have formed in the dough and then forces them to reform again in the final shape you want, which results in a smoother texture. For some bread recipes – such as ciabatta – irregular holes are desired, so the dough is not knocked back.
When can you use a bread machine?
In theory, it's possible to do the first rise of most bread recipes in a machine, scaling the quantities to your machine and following its instructions for timings. However, you then need to finish, shape and bake the bread by hand.
Our recommendation is to use the bread machine for an everyday loaf, but to make it by hand for a really special bread. See our review of the best bread makers.
Our favourite bread recipes...
Watch our video for making three basic bread recipes from a simple dough mixture.
Visit our baking section for more flour power.