The Secret to Baking Fluffy, Homemade Bread—Without Kneading—Is All About Science

Psst! The secret is leavening agents.

What's better than warm, fresh, cloud-like, carb-filled comfort food? If you bake bread at home, you might use recipes that require you to knead the dough. But here's the good news: You have other options.

Which brings us to our recipe for no-knead sandwich bread. In this episode of Something to Chew On, I walk you through the science of leavening agents—aka substances that cause doughs and batters to rise via the release of gas—and why using them to your advantage can help you bake bread from scratch without having to knead dough.

To begin, there are three main types of leavening agents:

  • Chemical, i.e., baking soda or baking powder. These are typically used to leaven cakes, muffins, quick breads, and pancakes.
  • Steam, for baked goods like puff pastry
  • Biological, which typically refers to yeast and is the main method for making bread dough rise. That's the one we're focusing on today.

What is yeast, exactly? Yeast is nothing more than a single-cell organism called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It's technically a member of the fungi kingdom; over 500 species of yeast exist. Yeast cells are egg-shaped and are only visible with a microscope. Fun fact: it takes 20,000,000,000 yeast cells to equal one gram.

Yeast is the driving force not only behind bread-baking, but also in fermentation, which is the chemical process involved in everything from beer and wine to pickles, chocolate, and kombucha.

Yeast needs three things to thrive: food, warmth, and moisture. In the presence of warmth and moisture, yeast converts food—sugar and starch—into carbon dioxide and alcohol through fermentation. It's the carbon dioxide that makes baked goods rise.

The essentials of any bread dough are flour, water, and of course, yeast. In our recipe, we start by stirring active dry yeast together with flour, milk, sugar, and melted butter. This combination of the three things yeast loves most (food, moisture, and warmth) activates the yeast and "feeds" it, which invites fermentation. That kicks off the proofing stage, which is necessary for leavened dough. After adding salt, we cover it and chill in the fridge for eight hours or overnight. Next, we shape the dough into a round oval and place it in the pan to begin the second proofing process (or second rise).

Let your dough rest in a warm place (like the top of the refrigerator) until it has risen just over the lip of the pan, about two hours. Finally, bake at 375 F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and a thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf registers 200 F.

No Need to Knead?

Kneading is typically an essential part of bread-baking: It's what develops gluten in the dough, which is necessary for giving bread structure and a chewy, elastic texture. But in this recipe, the yeast is tackling this duty without us having to knead the dough. By mixing together our ingredients and letting them sit around at room temperature for a long, long time, the proteins are broken down so much that even the tiniest of mechanical actions can develop gluten. During the proofing process, the yeast metabolizes the simple sugars formed from the starch in our flour. It then exudes a liquid that releases carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol into existing air bubbles in the dough.

The effect: risen bread. Translation? Basically, the yeast is creating so many air bubbles that are moving through the dough that they're able to develop the gluten without us having to knead. Science!

Previously on Something to Chew On:

Gluten Is Seriously Misunderstood—Here's Why

This Is Why Caesar Salad Always Tastes Better at a Restaurant

If You Want to Be a Superstar Baker, You'll Need to Nail This Technique First

What Is the Maillard Reaction—and Why Understanding It Will Make You an Infinitely Better Cook

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