Making a great loaf of bread is a process that takes time — from the few hours to make a quick yeasted bread to up to 48 or more when working on slow fermented sourdough breads — so it’s usually a good idea to plan ahead a little bit. And in order to plan well, knowing all the steps involved in the project you are about to start helps a lot.
When you are familiar with the steps, you can work on your bread with confidence, without worrying about whether you forgot something or looking for ingredients you forgot, just when you should be mixing them in.
This is why today, in this post, I will share with you the 14 steps of bread making.
As always, I suggest you try it yourself — and experiment a lot! Change some elements from here and there and look at the results: What worked? What didn’t? Did the change help you with your bread making schedule?
The 14 Steps of Bread Making
1. Refreshing the sourdough starter or creating a pre-ferment
This first step is optional: if making a quick, yeasted bread, most of the time, you will begin from step 2. However, great bread is bread that has taken a bit of time to make: sourdough bread or just yeasted bread made with a poolish or biga pre-ferment.
In many cases, the first bread making step is done the night before you mix the dough, but there are also variations that take a longer time, such as the famous French method of building the production leaven in three stages.
2. Mise en Place
“Mise en place” is French (translates to “setting in place”) and a term used by chefs around the world. But the idea is simple: before you begin, go through your bread formula and collect all your ingredients and tools so that you won’t have to go looking for them later, when you have your hands covered in dough.
This step also helps you to make sure you have everything you need and either go fill up your pantry before you continue or adjust the recipe accordingly.
Weigh everything and set the bowls aside to wait.
If working on a quick dough, you may want to preheat the oven already at this point. But most of the time, that can wait (you don’t want to be wasting gas or electricity, after all).
Once you have all the ingredients at hand, it’s time to begin.
Take one big bowl and pour the flour and liquid in, according to the formula you are using. Usually, I leave the salt as well as the starter or pre-ferment out at this point and add them only after the next step. If using yeast, it’s easiest to add it already at the beginning.
Sometimes, you may also want to leave some of the water aside and add it together with the salt at a later stage.
The goal of this first mixing step is to mix all the ingredients evenly so that there are no dry lumps of flour in the dough and everything gets hydrated properly. No kneading yet!
I like to do this step (as well as working the dough) by hand, but if you have a mixed and like to use it, that’s OK too.
Once the flour and water (and sometimes other ingredients too) have been mixed, you can let time do some of your work for you and use the autolyse method to help the dough develop. To do this, you simply cover the dough and let it sit at room temperature for anything from 20 minutes to an hour (or more).
During that time, water and flour mix together and some fascinating chemical reactions begin to build the gluten network and bread some of the strength in the flour, making it easier to handle.
This is clearly an optional step, but it will make your work easier, and seeing the dough develop without you touching it is always a fun experience.
- Inside a Technique: Autolyse (Bread: Summer 2014)
5. Working the Dough
After the autolyse, add your sourdough starter or pre-ferment. Don’t put the salt in just yet (unless you are working on a quick dough and added it already when mixing the ingredients).
The goal of working the dough is to build strength into the dough and shape the gluten network so that the final loaf of bread will be able to hold its shape and keep the gasses produced by the fermentation inside long enough during the proofing and baking of the breads.
This much, we all agree on. But there are big differences in opinion and many different schools of thoughts when it comes to how working the dough is actually done.
I say, go with what works for you. If you like to knead the dough like your mother taught you, go for it. If you like some adventure, pick up the French slap and fold technique. A combination of autolyse and gentle folding of the dough every 30 minutes works wonders as well. It all depends on the bread you are making and the way you like to work.
At the beginning of this step, we still left out the salt. This was to give the fermentation a chance to get going without salt’s slowing down effect — but bread without salt is bland and doesn’t get quite the right structure either, so sooner or later, you need to put it in.
The right time for adding the salt depends a bit on the bread making process:
When working the dough more intensively, I add the salt after ten minutes or so of kneading or “slap and folds” and then continue working the dough for a few more minutes. And when doing a slower process with just stretches and folds every 30 minutes, I like to add the salt in the first fold, after the first 30 minutes have passed.
6. Bulk Fermentation
Now that the preferment or sourdough starter is in the mix, the yeasts and bacteria get to work and the fermentation process really begins its work. At the same time, the autolyse processes that began the minute you mixed your water and flour still continue. Together, these chemical and biological processes produce flavor and character into your bread. According to Ciril Hitz, “75 percent of the flavor of the bread is developed during this time.”
Cover the dough, leave it aside, either at room temperature for a quicker rise or in a cool place to slow the process down and thus give it more time to develop flavor and character.
- Retarding Dough For Flavor Enhancement and Process Control
- Questions with a Master Baker (BREAD: August 2013)
7. Stretch and Fold
During the first fermentation, you can continue building strength into the dough by doing a series of folds every 30 minutes or so. As Chad Robertson explains in his book, Tartine Bread, this can be used to completely replace the kneading — or working your dough — step. Time, together with these folds will do all the work for you.
But, it’s also important to notice that you can do a bit of both: stretches and folds during the fermentation are useful also when you do work the dough in advance. They give some additional strength to the bread but also break the gluten bubbles, giving all those little yeast cells more fuel and new pockets for the carbon dioxide to enter and grow.
8. Dividing and Preshaping
When the dough is well rested and has developed in strength, volume and personality, it’s time to start the shaping.
Flip the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured work surface and get to work. At this point, it’s important to be firm but gentle. You want to get some of the gas out of the dough’s small gluten pockets and create still some more so that the yeast cells can do their work in the final proof but not all.
Preshaping is an optional step that helps you prepare the dough for shaping. It also gives you a final chance to do a stretch and fold and build some strength. To do it, divide the dough into pieces and shape each of them loosely to the desired shape.
Then cover the loaves and leave to rest for about 20-30 minutes so that they relax and are ready for your real shaping.
The actual shaping is your last chance at touching the dough. In firm and decisive moves, mold the bread into the shape you are after. The goal is to build a shape that can keep its form as it rises and has good surface tension — this will help it expand and open beautifully when baked in the oven.
Don’t touch the dough more than you need to, but don’t be afraid of the dough either: I find that most beginning bakers are rather too gentle than too forceful with their doughs.
The best way to learn shaping is by practice, and then some more practice. Videos come close second, so I’ve collected a few in the list below.
Additional Reading and Videos
10. Final Proof
Now that your breads have been shaped, they need time to rise again and be filled with carbon dioxide again before you put them into the oven for baking.
At this step, you have a variety of options to choose from, depending on your bread and your preferences: if you like tin loaves, you can place the shaped breads into bread tins, you can also use proofing baskets (they give the bread support as it rises and produce a nice pattern on top of the loaf), you can place the shaped loaves on a couche, a floured linen cloth designed to keep the breads from sticking, and so on.
And just like with the first fermentation, you can again delay the process by placing the breads in a cool place. With all these little decisions, there are no right or wrong answers: each of them make your bread a bit different, so the best thing to do is to experiment!
Once the breads have risen and are ready for baking, it’s time for the final artistic moment: scoring.
This step was traditionally made to mark breads before they got baked in a community oven. Every family had their own pattern that they used to find their breads once they were ready and it was time to bring the bread home. Following this idea, you can get artistic and carve your initials or some other symbol into the bread.
But there is also another benefit to this step. The way you cut a loaf’s surface will direct how it expands in the oven, and so, you can use your cutting to make sure most of the expansion goes towards the top of the loaf, giving you a beautiful, big oven spring.
Now, there is just one step between you and a finished loaf: baking the bread. This is the step where the bread takes that last jump (called oven spring) and grows into its final shape before the crust sets and the carbon dioxide escapes from its bubbles. It’s also the step where the loaf gets the most of its aroma in — my favorite part — the dark and flavorful crust.
The key in the baking step is having enough heat and conducting it into the bread in the right way as well as keeping the bread moist during the first 15 to 20 minutes of the bake so that the crust doesn’t set too early.
- Oven Hacks (BREAD: Heat / Winter 2012)
The bread is ready and fills your kitchen with the most delicious fragrance. What do you do next? Grab a knife and cut the bread?
Sure, you can do that at times to enjoy butter melting on warm bread. But for the best bread, you need to wait. Even though the bread looks ready, it is still developing as it cools down. So, take some time (at least half an hour) to listen to the sound of the crust cracking. Smell the bread. Look at it.
14. Eating or Storing
And then, eat the bread. Sourdough bread lasts well even if left on the kitchen counter, but in general, if you are not going to eat all of the bread in the next couple of days, I think it’s a good idea to slice the bread and freeze it. This way, whenever you want to have some bread, you can just take a few slices, defrost them and enjoy fresh bread right away.
And that’s it. The fourteen steps of bread making.
If you have other steps that I didn’t include, or questions, or other comments, share them in the comments! And then, let’s bake some bread!