8 Essential Tips for Making Homemade Bread, According to a Master Baker
With zero intimidation factor.
Fact: there is a direct correlation between temperatures dropping and the amount of time that I spend thinking about shoveling slice after slice of warm bread into my mouth. Am I alone? And no disrespect to your store-bought loaf, but few things are better than homemade bread straight from the oven. And though many find the idea of baking bread from scratch daunting, the task will become second nature over time thanks to a few easy tricks.
We asked Chef Dominique Moudart, master baker at Le Cordon Bleu London, to share his insight for how to make the perfect loaf. As a member of the Association Ouvrière des Compagnons du Devoir, Chef Dominique traveled across seven regions of France to explore the local bread varieties and production methods, gaining a comprehensive knowledge of artisan bread making. He also holds a French Master Baker diploma. Here are Chef Dominique’s essential steps that will make baking homemade bread a breeze.
Weighing out ingredients—particularly flour—is far more accurate than using volumetric measurements (i.e. your imprecise measuring cups). “Exact measurements are an absolute must,” says Chef Dominique. “A milligram here or there can be a disaster.” Convert recipes without weights by weighing as you go—we promise you’ll thank yourself next time. “And really, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to read your recipe start to finish before you begin. And follow the timings exactly, too.”
Base this on the type of bread you're making. Some flours that are higher in gluten will help to give you a better rise. Take bread flour, for instance. With a protein content of approximately 14 to 16 percent, the high-gluten flour is your go-to flour for yeast breads, which are breads that use yeast as a leavening agent (French bread or sourdough, for example).
Know that you can substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour (and vice-versa) using a 1:1 ratio—and if you want to try using bread flour as a substitute for all-purpose flour in recipes for yeast doughs that call for all-purpose flour, your breads and pastries will get an extra little lift. Try using bread flour as a substitute for all-purpose in our No-Knead Onion Rolls, Basil Beer Bread, or Foolproof Whole Wheat Bread.
It sounds obvious, but this is a huge mistake many make when baking bread from scratch. Here’s a simple way to check that you’ve contributed enough elbow grease: you should be able to stretch your dough out 2 to 4 inches without it breaking apart.
If your baked goods have been consistently coming out too light, too dry, or are taking longer to bake than the recipe says they should, it’s possible your oven isn’t properly calibrated. Make sure the internal temperature is exact by enlisting an oven thermometer, and keep an eye on your bread while it’s baking to make sure it doesn’t start to burn.
Most bread machines require ‘fast-acting’ yeast, so double check what the recipe requires before you start baking. Make sure the yeast has not expired, too, as old yeast will not work as well.
Salt’s not just important for flavor: it has many chemical interactions with flour and yeast that give good structure and texture to bread. “Don’t be afraid of salt,” Chef Dominique says. “You want just enough so that the bread isn’t bland, but taste the dough to make sure you’re not using more than you need.”
Proofing is the final resting of a loaf of bread before it goes into the oven. Over-proofing dough can limit the rise on the bread if left for too long, because eventually the bread will sink back down. Under-proofing will have a similar effect. Make sure you get it at the right time by giving your loaf a soft poke with your fingertip: it should leave a small indentation and very slowly spring back.
Only slightly, but just enough so that the yeast isn’t slowed down by the fat in the milk.