How Ingredients change bread characteristics
As I described in How to Make Bread and then again in Basic Bread Recipe, most bread recipes include 4 ingredients (not counting the sugar that the yeast ate) and a very straightforward mixing method. There are infinite types of yeast breads out in the world, everything from bagels to pizza, focaccia to cinnamon rolls, cheese bread to the laminated yeast dough croissants.
If you study the recipes carefully, though, you will find that they are all based on these four ingredients. Yes, substitutions and additions can and should be made, but the basic four ingredients stand.
Now, let’s take a look at some of those substitutions and additions, as well as some tweaks to our baking procedure to give us exactly the taste and texture that we want.
Our standard recipe contains white bread flour. Many other types of flours can be substituted for part or all of the bread flour. Keep in mind that white bread flour will contain the most gluten, so breads made with a mixture of other flours will be more dense and will not rise as high.
Some types of flour, such as rice and corn flour, do not contain any gluten, so to get a decent rise, you must use at least part white bread flour. Other flours you can use include whole wheat, rye, buckwheat, chickpea, bean flours, sprouted wheat, spelt, oat and soy. I am certain that there are others out there, as well.
Fat that is incorporated in bread dough will inhibit gluten formation. The resulting loaf will not rise quite as high as a loaf made without fat. On the positive side, fats, especially butter and olive oil, add a lot of flavor to the finished product. Fats keep the crumb tender and can help improve the shelf life of your bread by a day or so. Almost any fat can be added to a bread dough.
Eggs added to dough help with rising. A bread dough rich with egg will rise very high, because eggs are a leavening agent (think genoise or angel food cake). As well, the fats from the yolk help to tenderize the crumb and lighten the texture a bit. Eggs also contain the emulsifier lecithin. Lecithin can add to the overall consistency of the loaf.
Adding more sugar to a recipe than the yeast can eat will, no surprise, add sweetness to the finished product. Sugar aids in browning, can help tenderize the bread and also holds onto moisture to help inhibit staling. Be careful, though—too much sugar will severely inhibit gluten production. So, unless you plan on adding additional gluten to the dough (in the form of vital wheat gluten or gluten flour), keep the sugar in the recipe to no more than 2 tablespoons/cup of flour.
We’ve already established that liquid is necessary to make bread, but that doesn’t mean we are limited to water. Replacing all or part of the water with milk will lend itself to a more tender, sweeter product. The sugar in milk, lactose, is not eaten by the yeast, so it is left to add a subtle sweetness to the finished bread. Milk also increases the nutritional value of the bread by adding additional proteins. A dough made with milk will brown more readily than one made with water.
This is where you, the baker, can get creative. If you are making a savory bread, you can add in anything from shredded cheese to roasted garlic to nuts to olives to, well, almost anything. If you are making a sweet bread, all sorts of toasted nuts and dried fruits can be added. And don’t forget about herbs and spices, either.
The Crust of the Matter
Even using the same recipe, it is possible to get a different crust just by doing one of the following:
Crackly, shiny crust: This is brought about by steam. If you don’t have a steam injector in your oven, you are not alone. I’ve heard of lots of different ways to get a really good steamy, humid atmosphere in your oven: boiling water in a cast iron skillet in the bottom of the oven, throwing ice chips into a cast iron skillet in the bottom of your oven, spraying the dough with water before putting it in the oven—I’m sure you can think of more ways.
For optimum crackliness, spray the dough and use one of the other methods. The water gelatinizes the starches on the outside of the dough, and this helps result in a crackly crust. You can also use a wash of water with a little cornstarch mixed in during the last five minutes of baking.
Soft crust: This is as easy as not introducing extra steam or water. Don’t spray the dough, and don’t make steam. Another way of getting a soft crust and also imparting some flavor is to brush the crust with butter when you remove it from the oven.
Golden, shiny crust: Apply an egg wash (egg and a little water beaten together) before baking, being careful not to let the egg wash get on the rim of the baking pan as this could, in essence, glue the bread down and inhibit a full rise.
Soft, sweet crust: brush with milk with a little sugar dissolved in it before baking.
Sweet, sticky crust: brush the crust with simple syrup or honey right when it comes out of the oven
Shiny, soft crust: brush the bread with olive oil before and after baking
Changes in Process Equal Changes in Product
The single most important thing in making flavorful bread is time. It takes time for yeast to completely run its life cycle and develop a complex flavor in the final product. While it is possible to get reasonably good bread with just a single rise, the more ways you can find to give the yeast time to do their thing, the better your bread will be.
Ways to increase the time it takes to make a loaf from start to finish include slower, cooler rises, refrigerating the dough overnight and using some leftover dough from a day or two before as part of your mix. You can also make a sponge and let it rest for several hours before continuing. A sponge is just a loose mixture that you make by combining your yeast, liquid and half of your flour. After the sponge has “worked” for 2-3 hours, you can add the rest of the flour and continue with the recipe.
I hope that you now feel armed to approach bread baking with less trepidation. Now that you know the function of all the ingredients in bread, the process of making it and have a good very basic recipe with which to practice, it is time to practice and “get a feel for” dough that is ready to be kneaded and dough that has been kneaded enough. Once you can leap those two confidence hurdles, there will be no stopping you.