Making yeast bread from scratch is a very rewarding endeavor. Home-baked bread tastes nothing like store bought bread. It's not even in the same league. When you first start baking bread, good recipes are essential and you may want to stick with recipes that are recommended as specifically being a good beginning bread.
As you become more proficient, though, you may want to start experimenting. There are so many great bread recipes out there! If you start to move away from the simple, basic breads, it becomes more important for you to understand the whys of bread making. If you don't know why bread works, you can't troubleshoot when it doesn't. This post outlines the most basic principles of bread making; if you want a more in depth treatment, I will outline a list of my favorite bread making resources in tomorrow's post.
Yeast Bread Making 101
The first important thing to understand is that yeast is a living, single-celled organism. When you purchase yeast, it is in a dry form and the cells are not active. Liquid, especially warm liquid, "wakes" them up and causes them to become active again. Yeast are somewhat sensitive though; temperatures that are too warm will kill them. The ideal temperature is between 90 and 100 degrees, about the temperature of a baby bottle, but yeast can grow in much cooler temperatures. You may see recipes that talk about let dough rise in the refrigerator. Yeast dough rises when yeast cells convert sugars to the carbon dioxide that causes the air bubbles in bread.
There are two main types of yeast that home bakers use: active-dry and instant. Active-dry yeast is what you find in the little individual use packets at the grocery store. Both types can be used for home bread baking, but there are a few differences that need to be taken into account. Active-dry yeast, because of the way it is processed, requires a more specific "activation." This generally involves mixing the yeast with some warm liquid and a little sugar. Instant yeast, on the other hand, can be mixed directly with the dry ingredients. Instant yeast is also a little more concentrated. When interchanging the two, the proportions are 1 part instant yeast to 1.25 parts active-dry.
Besides yeast, there is another very important player in bread making, and this player is gluten. Gluten forms when the proteins in flour absorb liquid, forming elasticity in the dough. Different types of flours contain different amounts of gluten. Whole wheat flour, for instance, contains less of these proteins than white flour. This is because these proteins are found in the endosperm of the wheat grain; white flour is composed entirely of the endosperm whereas wheat flour contains all part of the grain. Besides hydration, kneading also helps to develop gluten.
Salt is also a key component in breads. Salt acts as a regulator for the yeast. For this reason, salt should not usually be mixed directly with the yeast and should be added after the flour as it buffers the yeast.
Kneading is a critical part of most yeast bread making. While there are some "knead-free" bread recipes out there, most yeast breads require some amount of kneading. This can be accomplished either by hand, in a stand mixer, or - sometimes - in a food processor. Each bread dough is different: some require a lot of kneading and form a very stiff, smooth dough while some do not need to be kneaded as long and are very soft and sticky. These soft and sticky doughs are particularly nice to make in a stand mixer. Kneading by hand is fairly easy but can be good exercise! To knead, put the dough on a floured surface. If you have a particularly high counter top, you may want to consider using a lower table. To make kneading easier, you want to knead from the waist, not just in your arms. The closest analogy I can come up with is to imagine you are giving the dough ball CPR. Between pumps, simply fold the dough over and rotate. Pump and then fold and rotate again.
After the dough is kneaded to the proper point, it is left to rise. This is usually in a warm place, but it varies. As I mentioned before, sometimes dough is raised in the refrigerator. The dough is left to rise until it has doubled in volume. Dough should be lightly oiled and the bowl covered with plastic wrap or a damp towel to keep the surface from drying out.
Most doughs go through two risings with the second rise being after the dough is shaped. "Punch" the dough down to degas it. A couple of quick kneads is all that is required. Let the dough "rest" for a few minutes to make it easier to handle; resting allows the gluten to relax a bit and makes it easier to shape the dough. Shape the dough as specified for your recipe and then spray and cover again to rise until double. It is critical at this point to not let the dough rise too much. Doughs that are over-risen can collapse in the oven, a disappointing end for a loaf of bread.
Preheat the oven and do not put the loaves into the oven until the oven is completely preheated. Putting the loaf in the oven gives the bread a final "lift," but if the oven temperature is not right, it can lift too much and collapse.
The best way to tell when a loaf of bread is properly baked is by using a thermometer. Most breads are done when the temperature reaches 200 degrees F internally. This temperature does vary though. For a lot of breads, you can test them by tapping on them with a knife handle or some such thing and listening for a hollow sound. Remove bread from the oven and remove loaves from their pan onto cooling racks. Let cool completely before slicing, if you can.
Most breads can be successfully frozen and then thawed for later use. Be sure bread is completely cool before wrapping or condensation may cause you grief.
While this posting outlines the basics of yeast bread making, there are many other factors to consider when you start trying to more fully understand bread making. In future posts I will address some of these more advanced concerns.