Bread Basics

By: Chuck Peppler

One thing is worth remembering: yeast dough cannot be overworked (the way pie dough can), and yeast dough’s are the most forgiving of mistakes.

FLOUR:  What distinguishes wheat flour is that it contains gluten.  Gluten is what makes flour stretch without breaking, thereby enabling it to trap the carbon dioxide that the yeast releases, thereby turning it spongy, i.e., it permits the bread "to rise".

Wheat flour comes in many varieties that significantly influence the flavor and texture of the end product.  There are four varieties of "regular" flour: bread flour, pastry flour, cake flour, and "all-purpose" flour.

An important thing to remember about flour is that its moisture content varies over wide ranges depending on the humidity, storage conditions; therefore all recipes involving flour as a major ingredient can give only approximations to the amount of flour required.  Don't take them too literally.  Fluff your flour before measuring.  A bag of flour that has been dropped or tapped (and the flour slightly compacted) may contain 20 percent more flour by weight for the same volume; that is a cup of compacted flour may contain 20% more flour than the same flour if it is sifted before measuring. Note that sifting does not make up for differences in moisture content.

DOUGH:  There are only two things that you have to remember about yeast dough:  Don't let it get much above body temperature (or you'll kill the yeast, and the dough needs to have enough flour in it that it will not stick to your dry (i.e., lightly floured) hands as you kneed it.  If you bake in Dutch Ovens then you can be very casual about how stiff your dough is.

Bread is only a mixture of bread (high gluten) flour, yeast, salt, and water.  That's all there is in a loaf of French (or Italian) bread.  However, it is possible to add almost anything to yeast bread and come up with a fine result.  This would include herbs, cheese, meat (cooked), dried or glazed fruit, butter, oil or other fats, nuts, other flours (whole wheat, rye, oats), eggs (raw or hard boiled), etc.  (Note: pasta is just a dough made with flour and raw eggs as the only source of liquid; no yeast, of course.)

Rising:  Most bread recipes call for letting the dough rise twice.  If you prefer (or need - i.e., pizza) a dough that will have larger bubbles after it is baked, let it rise just once but to somewhat more than double in bulk.  If you want a very fine textured product, let it rise three times, e.g., brioche.  Although most recipes say "let it rise until doubled in bulk" I suggest going under that limit for the first rising and an equal amount (say 1/4 of the bulk) over on the second rising.  Do let it rise in a warm draft-free place (so that one side of the bowl is not at a different temperature than the other).  Although many recipes say "dust with flour and cover with a cloth", you may be happier oiling the bowl lightly and turning your ball of dough around until it is lightly coated and then cover it with a damp towel.

SHAPING DOUGH:  There are several ways to shape bread in a Dutch Oven. 

Try these:

  1. Form a round loaf by rolling the edges under the ball and place in the D.O.
  2. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 9”x18”.  Make cuts from the sides about 1/3 of the way toward the center.  Then you can braid the loaf toward the center.  Before braiding you can fill the bread with a variety of ingredients.  (chilies and cheese, broccoli cooked chicken, Pizza toppings (they call it Calzone) cheese, fruits, nuts, etc.)
  3. Divide the loaf into three sections.  Roll them into long strands and braid them together.  Bruce Tracy in the World championships did a double braid and placed a smaller braid on top of a larger one.
  4. For Sourdough form into a ball and place in the DO.  Before cooking make slices across the top with a serrated knife and pour ½ cup of cold water over the dough. 
  5. For rolls:
    1. Roll small sections of dough into balls
    2. Take balls of dough and roll them into strands about 7” long and tie them into a knot. 

6.      Take balls of dough and wrap them around a marshmallow (you can add nuts or raisins if desired)   Take that ball and dip it in melted butter and roll in cinnamon sugar

LIQUIDS:  Water and milk are the most commonly used liquids. Water gives bread a crisper crust; milk provides a velvety texture and added nutrients.

SWEETNERS: Sugar, honey and molasses provide “food” for the yeast to help it grow, enhance the flavor of the bread and help brown the crust. Don’t use artificial sweeteners because they don’t properly “feed” the yeast.

SALT: Salt is a flavoring needed to control the growth of the yeast and prevent the dough from rising too much, which can cause the bread to collapse. If you reduce the salt in a recipe, you’ll need to decrease both rising times, too.

FAT:  Butter, margarine, shortening and vegetable oil make bread tender. In addition to tenderness, butter and margarine add flavor.

EGGS:  Eggs are sometimes added for flavor, richness and color.

FINISHING TOUCH:  For a shiny crust, brush the top of the bread with an equal solution of whole egg, water and milk. If desired, sprinkle with poppy, caraway or sesame seed or rolled oats.

For a softer, deep golden brown crust, brush with softened butter or margarine.

For a crisp crust, brush or spray lightly with water.

For a soft, tender crust, brush with milk.

After glazing (brushing with one of these ingredients), slash the top of the loaf with a sharp serrated knife, cutting about 1/4 inch deep, once down the center of the loaf or across the loaf a few times.


COOKING:  Except for excessive heat bread dough is the most forgiving and indestructible of bakery goods.  You cannot "overwork" it.  Just kneed it long enough until it is satiny to the look and feel.  If you do overheat it and the yeast dies, do not despair.  Dissolve some more yeast in water, kneed it into the dough, and add enough flour to bring it back to the consistency you want. Then proceed as if nothing has happened. 

In a 12” Dutch Oven use 24 coals to maintain 350 degrees.  (8 coals on the bottom and 16 on the top).  There should not be a bottom coal directly in the middle.  (this could result in a hot spot) The coals on the top should be in a circle around the outside lip of the lid.  Turn the pot and the lid 90 degrees in opposite directions every 10-15 minutes to eliminate hot (burn) spots on the bread.  The bread should brown up to a golden color and slightly pull away from the sides.  You should also see the same golden color on the sides.  To tell if bread is done, tap the crust. If the loaf sounds hollow, it’s done.

Remove loaves from the Dutch Ovens after 1-3 minutes so the sides remain crusty, and place them on wire racks away from drafts to cool.  Loaves left in the oven gain moisture and the crust goes soft.

CUTTING BREAD:  Place loaf on a cutting board or other surface suitable for cutting. Slice with a serrated bread knife.  You can cut wedges or slice the bread in half and cut slices from the center toward the outside. 



Great Traditional Yeast Bread and Rolls Are:
High and evenly shaped
Uniformly golden or dark brown
Even in texture with no large air holes

Not high - water too hot for yeast
- too little flour
- not kneaded enough
- rising time too short
- pan too large
Coarse texture
- rising time too long
- too little flour
- not kneaded enough
- oven too cool
Dry and crumbly - too much flour
- not kneaded enough
Large air pockets - dough not rolled tightly when loaf was shaped
Yeasty flavor - rising time too long
- temperature too high during rising time