Dense loaves. When asking people who attend our courses and demonstrations what challenges they have had with bread making, the most common response is the dough not rising or the loaf was too dense. No-one leaves a class without having made a perfect loaf of bread so whats the problem? We have even started offering dried yeast alongside our normal fresh yeast, which isn’t quite so easy to find, and still the results are good.
I suspect its largely down to temperature and time. If using dried yeast, I prefer the very fine Dove Farm granules which can be added directly to the flour. The Allinsons dried yeast is fine but it has to be reconstituted in water first. Either way, the first trick is to use 2/3 cold water from the tap (make sure it really is cold) and 1/3 boiling water. If reconstituting dried yeast, add a pinch of sugar to the water before you add the yeast and check that bubbles are produced before adding to the flour.
It is not strictly necessary to leave the dough somewhere warm to prove/rise. Unless your house is freezing, anywhere will do; dough will even rise in the fridge if you leave it long enough. So, don’t be impatient; in a warm room it should not take more than 60-90 minutes but maybe longer in a cold space or if the dough contains lots of sugar, alcohol or spice (see Hints and tips; teatotal yeast).
If after several hours it has not risen, don’t put it in the oven hoping that ‘oven spring’ will fix it. You will end up with a partially risen loaf and a dense layer of undigestable dough at the bottom of the loaf. Better to mix it again (possibly halving the dough and mixing in two batches), adding more yeast, flour and water and trying again.
Sourdough. Lots of interest in sourdough and the taste is certainly worth the effort of feeding your culture daily. Personally I don’t go for the grapes and apples which Paul Hollywood uses to start the culture. Normally there is more than enough yeast in the air. One of the challenges is getting those large bubbles in the finished loaf especially as the dough is very wet. Placing the dough in a Banneton works but, once it has risen, it needs to be gently turned out onto your baking tray and placed in the oven immediately so that it doesn’t have time to spread.
Another alternative is to place the dough in a well oiled, vertical sided casserole. I tried this Saturday and left the lid on to keep it moist but it rose rather quickly and got stuck to the lid! So, suggest you leave the lid off while it is proving, covering it with a dry towel and only put enough dough in the casserole so that it won’t reach the lid when proving or baking since leaving the lid on helps with the cooking. After about 2/3 of the baking time, remove the lid to brown the top. Since the dough is constrained, it won’t matter how wet the dough is. In fact, the wetter it is, within reason, the more likely you are to create those attractive large holes. Check out this excellent video re; high hydration doughs: http://www.weekendbakery.com/posts/baguette-movie/
Steam! One of the advantages of a commercial bread oven is the ability to inject steam into the oven and, at a later stage, remove the steam. This creates a nicely coloured, crisp crust because the water/steam solubilises the sugars in the surface of the bread and the heat caramelizes them. Enough of the science. How to replicate in a domestic oven? Lots of ideas here: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/lessons/tentips_1_steam (and a great web site for amateur bakers) but what works for me is:
placing an old, shallow but wide baking tray in the bottom of the oven and pouring water into this as the oven heats up (another advantage of this solution, especially if the pan fills the bottom of the oven, is that it catches any drips from loaves etc and keeps the oven floor clean!)
spraying the loaves and interior of the oven with water when I place the loaves in the oven (a small garden sprayer is ideal).
Theoretically you should remove the tray of water half to two thirds the way through the baking but this can be tricky and dangerous so I leave it in there. If your oven is hot enough it should still give you a crisp, brown crust. I recently bought a new oven and the difference in temperature is amazing. Be warned, if there is a lot of water/steam in the oven and it is on at a high temperature and there are few leaks, you will get a blast of steam when you open the door so stand well back!
Airing cupboard. Many bread recipes suggest placing the dough to prove in an airing cupboard or other warm place. This is not strictly necessary. The speed at which dough rises is a function of several variables including the amount of yeast, the temperature of the flour and water, the air temperature and time. It is also affected by the concentration of salt, sugar and alcohol (see below). Dough will rise overnight in the fridge if there is sufficient yeast and overnight in a warm room with very little yeast. So, no need to block the airing cupboard with rising loaves, simply work out the most convenient rise time and adjust the other variables accordingly. Generally, the longer the rise/prove, the more flavour is developed.
Teatotal yeast. I make a lot of breads with dried fruit: love buns, caraway and raisin knot rolls, Stollen and Panettone at Christmas and malted granary. These sweet doughs take longer to rise because of the sugar content and, if you decide to add alcohol to your recipes, maybe by soaking dried fruit in brandy, the same thing will happen. The reason is that yeast does not work so well when the concentration of sugar, salt or alcohol is higher than optimum. It’s all to do with osmosis and , if you are interested in the science: www.theartisan.net/The_Artisan_Yeast_Treatise_Section_One.htm or, for a simpler explanation: www.joepastry.com/category/baking-basics/ingredient-basics/yeast/a-yeast-primer/
My solution is to increase by 50% the weight of yeast in a recipe with additional sugar, fruit or alcohol.
Fresh yeast. There is nothing wrong with using dried yeast though I find it a little more fussy than fresh but finding fresh yeast can be a bit of a challenge. A local baker may sell you a 1Kg block and you should not pay any more than c. £2 a Kg though some charge 10x this! Most supermarkets will also let you have around 100g if you ask at the bakery and generally don’t charge for it. If you wont use all the block it will last in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 weeks or you can divide it into smaller blocks and freeze it.
Water temperature. Beginners seem to struggle to get the right temperature for the water added to the flour and yeast and the simplest way of ensuring you dont kill the yeast and get the dough moving is to use 2/3 cold from the tap and 1/3 boiling water.