Baking bread from scratch inspires a host of emotions, ranging from terror to exhilaration and everything in between. Often, the scary part is due to not really knowing how to "build" a bread properly, and that's truly what it is: construction, with a little bit of science thrown in. Educating yourself on the building blocks of breadmaking – flour, yeast and more – will help you design and execute your perfect loaf.
1. Bread is universal
The world of bread is vast and varied, from chewy pita to fluffy brioche, but breads around the world generally fall into three basic categories.
2. Choose your flour wisely
The type of flour you use to make bread will change everything from baking time and supporting ingredients to texture and flavor.
Wheat-based flours are ideal for bread, as all that gluten gives bread structure while keeping things light on the inside. Bread flour, also called strong flour, is high in protein and made from hard winter wheat; all-purpose flour, whole-wheat and white whole-wheat flour are also favorites for crisp, airy loaves.
Gluten-free flours are most often made from a mix of rice and sorghum flours; potato and tapioca starch are usually added, as well as a little xanthan gum, to do all the things gluten isn’t around to do. It provides elasticity and structure while holding onto the moisture gluten-free flours can struggle to retain.
Alternative flours, or those made from corn, semolina, tapioca, quinoa, rye, spelt and coconut, can often make a traditional bread fall flat when used alone. They can be workhorses of flavor and texture, but too much can make bread gummy and deflated. Try mixing alternative flours at no more than a 50:50 ratio (and sometimes less) with a wheat-based flour.
3. That dough isn’t gonna rise on its own
Other than flatbreads, bread rises, but in order for that to happen, it needs either yeast or a pre-ferment, also called a starter. For straightforward breads, yeast does the trick: It reacts with the gluten in dough by consuming sugar and releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide, causing the dough to rise.
Active-dry yeast is living bacteria that needs to be dissolved in warm water before you mix it into your dry ingredients.
Instant yeast doesn’t need to be dissolved and can help your bread rise faster.
For more complex flavor, however, you may want to consider a starter. The process is longer and more labor-intensive, but with far superior results. Certain types of bread favor different kinds of pre-ferments: Sourdough starter is, of course, used to make sourdough bread, while biga is great for Italian breads like ciabatta. Poolish is often used for baguettes or country loaves, and sponge is best for enriched doughs like brioche and croissants. Pâte-fermentée, on the other hand, works well with almost anything. They all rely on varying combinations of water, flour and yeast – both added and wild – and a fermentation time ranging from weeks to merely an hour. Adding one of these pre-ferments to your dough immediately ages it, imbuing it with unique flavors it couldn’t develop using an instant yeast.
4. Pick the perfect pan
Your baking vessel can help shape a bread or give it room to grow.
Heavyweight steel sheet pan: Free-form loaves need nothing more than a high-quality sheet to ensure they bake properly all the way around. If you don’t have one, it’s a good investment you’ll use often.
Baking or pizza stone: A pizza stone preheats in the oven and then returns that heat to the dough, pulling moisture out and making a supremely crackly, light crust.
Loaf pan: Loaf pans are ideal for tender, soft breads that need a little help with height, or have a tendency to spread outward rather than upward, such as those made with spelt and cornmeal. Stoneware is great for this, but a high-quality steel pan will work, too.
Baguette pan: Baguettes have a very specific texture, both inside and out. That’s thanks in large part to baguette pans, which are perforated to allow air to circulate as the loaves bake, resulting in a bubbly, crispy crust and chewy interior.
Dutch oven: Preheated much like a baking stone, Dutch ovens offer something no other baking pan does: a lid. That lid keeps moisture in, allowing bread to steam itself into a soaring loaf with a crispy crust.