How to Make Bread

I love bread. Always have. And a few years ago I got a real passion for learning about and making bread. I particularly like southern European breads. The perfect loaf for me is a sour dough with crunchy crust and light airy crumb. French, Italian and Maltese breads all have these characteristics and I love them.

Sliced Pain de Campagne

Sliced Pain de Campagne

At one level bread is pretty simple. There are only four essential ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. All other ingredients are optional. And regardless of the recipe the basic process of bread making will always involve:

  1. Leavening
  2. Doughing Up
  3. Kneading Dough
  4. Proving Dough
  5. Shaping Dough
  6. Glazing and Topping
  7. Baking Dough
  8. Cooling
  9. Problem Solving

But from that simple beginning a whole fascinating world of complexity unfolds.

1. Leavening

Leavened breads rise because of carbon dioxide gas trapped in the batter or dough. This gas is produced by one of:

  • Fermentation using yeast (known as the direct or straight yeast method). The yeast is activated in warm water before adding to other ingredients. Many recipes add sugar to provide a food for the yeast, but a sprinkling of flour also does the trick as flour contains a natural sugar called sucrose. It works best when the water is body temperature (37º C) but anywhere from 35- 40º C is okay. To approximate 37º C use 1/3 boiling water with 2/3 tap water.
  • Fermentation using a natural “Starter“. Similar to direct yeast method but using a Starter such as a sponge, poolish, or biga. Sourdough bread uses this approach.
  • Chemical agents (baking soda and baking powder) to produce quick breads. I’m not really interested in these so won’t say more about them.

Increasing the quantity of yeast decreases the rising time (and vice versa). But too much yeast increases the volume of the bread and produces a more crumbly loaf with inferior flavour. The bread may be sour if the dough is left to rise for long.

Yeast Conversions

When recipes call for a specific type of yeast, you can substitute the type you prefer easily. Instant yeast is much more potent than active-dry which is more potent than compressed yeast.
For converting by weight (e.g. 10 grams of Compressed yeast is the same as 4 grams of Active Dry yeast or 3.2 grams of Instant Yeast):

by Weight
Substitute with
Instant yeast Active-Dry yeast Compressed yeast
Recipe calls for Instant yeast x1.00 x1.34 x3.20
Active-Dry yeast x0.75 x1.00 x2.39
Compressed yeast x0.31 x0.42 x1.00

Instant yeast is also known as Instant Active Dry Yeast, RapidRise or Quick-Rise brand names, and Bread Machine Yeast. This often comes in 1/4 ounce (7 gram) packets.
Compressed yeast is also called Cake or Fresh Yeast. This often comes in 0.6 ounce (17 Gram) cubes.

2. Doughing Up

This is when you mix the flour, and salt (although this can be added after the first rising) with the activated yeast to make the dough. Although the ingredients can be mixed on a flat surface using the well method, more normally they are mixed in a bowl using a wooden spoon. Add small quantities of water to the dough if it is too dry.

You can enrich the dough to change the nature of the bread: Adding:

  • Milk gives a longer lasting bread, softer crust, tender crumb, greater elasticity, and a creamy colour.
  • Buttermilk, Sour Milk, and Whey have a similar effect but also add the respective flavours.
  • Potato or Barley Water have a similar result to milk, but give a heavier texture.
  • White Sugar helps fermentation and adds sweetness.
  • Honey gives a soft crumb and pleasing flavour.
  • Malt gives a rich flavour and good crust colour.
  • Golden syrup is a good moisture retainer.
  • Fats and oils increase the volume, soften the crumb and extend the life of the bread.
  • Soya flour is the best natural emulsifier, helping to bring the ingredients into a uniform mass.

Too much sugar (or similar) can cause the yeast to expend before the dough reaches the oven.

Recommended proportions of ingredients

Exact measurements are very important in bread making, and professional bakers use relative proportions to determine how much of each ingredient is required. These proportions are relative to the quantity of white flour in the recipe – everything is measured by weight (not volume).

Ingredient Relative Proportion Example
White Flour 100% 1 kilogram
Water 60-70% (start with 50% then add as much as you need in doughing up) 650 millilitres
Yeast 3-4% 40 grams
Salt 2% 20 grams
Soya Flour Up to 2% 20 grams
Sugar, Honey, Malt, Golden Syrup Up to 4% 20 grams
Fats and Oils Up to 4% 20 grams

3. Kneading or Working the Dough

Once you’ve mixed it, leave the mixture to rest for 10-15 minutes, then knead. Kneading helps distribute the yeast and enables the protein in the flour to develop into gluten. This, in turn, aids the stretching and expansion of the dough necessary for a light and springy crumb. Dough that is not adequately kneaded results in bread that is too heavy and dense.
The most commonly described kneading process is:

  1. Fold the dough in half towards you.
  2. Use the heel of your hand and firmly push the dough away from you.
  3. Turn the dough (45º or 90º).
  4. If the dough is sticky, sprinkle it with a small quantity of flour.
  5. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic, readily springs back when pressed with a finger, and stretches really easily without breaking or snapping, and is soft but not sticky.

Strong flour usually needs 8 to 10 minutes of kneading and plain flour usually requires 5 to 8 minutes. If you rest your palm for 30 seconds on dough that is adequately kneaded, the dough will not stick to your palm after it is removed.

4. Rising Dough

Bread is normally left to rise, covered, in a lightly oiled bowl in a Warm Place until about doubled in size. This can take up to six hours. Temperatures of 25º C to 28º C make for a rapid rising (1-2 hours). Cooler temperature means a slower rise, but the flavour and texture of the bread should improve; 3-4 hours is optimal. Enriched dough (with butter, eggs) takes longer to rise.
Signs that the dough is ready:

  • Doubled in size
  • Air bubbles formed on the surface
  • 1.5 cm indentation remains when you press the dough with a finger (if it springs back quickly it hasn’t risen enough)

Some dough will be risen, punched down, and kneaded several times before shaping and the final proving. Punching deflates the dough, redistributes the carbon dioxide gas, and revives the yeast for the next phase of the rising process. If you do punch down the dough, then give it a knead and leave it to rest for 5-20 minutes.
The first rising is called “Bulk fermentation”; after this the dough is known as ripened dough. The last rising is called “Proving” as it is ‘proving’ that the yeast is working.
Some breads, e.g. sourdough, want large holes to form in the dough so you shouldn’t punch down the bread after it has risen.

Warm Place

You need warm, draught free, place in which to activate yeast and rise the dough. Optimum temperature for fast rising is 25-28º C (23-26º C when using dough starters), but anywhere in the range 15-40º C is okay. Above 72º C the yeast will start to die and below 8º C the yeast basically becomes inactive. You’ve several options for a warm place including:

  • Hot water or airing cupboard (I remember the days when I had one, sigh)
  • In Oven. Pre-warmed to 50° C, then turn off.
  • Next to hot Oven.
  • On top of a baking tray on top of a sink or bowl of lukewarm water.
  • In microwave. Give it 1 min burst on Defrost (30% power) every 5-10 min or when the bowl of dough feels cold.
  • A sunny draught free window sill
  • A shelf above a warm radiator.

5. Shaping Dough

Rest the dough for 10 minutes then shape and work the dough on a floured surface. Allow it to Rise a final time. Called proving this final Rise normally takes half the time of the initial rising, but you may only get 80% of the bulk of the original rising.

Pain de Campagne - shaped but unbaked

Pain de Campagne – shaped but unbaked

A slash in the crust provides a decorative effect, and a means for some of the carbon dioxide gas to escape resulting in a loaf that retains an even shape, and hence prevents the bread from splitting and cracking while baking.

6. Glazing and Topping

Glazes and toppings provide aesthetic appeal. They are usually applied after the final proving .

Glazes are brushed onto the dough and include oil (or butter), milk, water, honey, and egg. A butter glaze will give a soft, well browned crust.

Toppings add flavour as well as looks, and include flour, seeds, grains, nuts, cheese, herbs, sugar, and salt.

7. Baking Dough

Generally speaking bake basic breads (just flour, water, salt, and yeast) at high temperatures (200ºC or above) and enriched breads (with eggs, milk, or butter), at lower temperatures.
Baking times are at best a guideline. A loaf requiring 30 minutes baking time on a particular day may require 35 minutes on another day. But generally speaking baking times are:

  • 5 to 15 minutes Thin flat breads
  • 15 to 20 minutes Rolls and Buns
  • 15 to 25 minutes Thicker flat breads
  • 35 to 50 minutes Hearth breads, large country-style rounds, and breads baked on flat surfaces
  • 45 to 60 minutes Basic breads baked in loaf pans and other containers
  • 45 to 75 minutes Quick breads

Tapping the bottom of the loaf is the most common test of done-ness. When done it should give a hollow sound.
Don’t open the oven in the first 10 minutes of baking. During that time the dough will continue to rise (rapidly) as the yeast continues to work. Once the dough has reached a sufficiently high temperature the yeast will be killed off, the dough will stop rising, and the crust will form. Further baking causes the sugar in the dough to caramelise hence the usual golden brown colour.
Moisture in the oven allows the bread to form a thin, golden crust while allowing the interior to remain soft and moist. There are several ways to achieve this but I favour putting one or more ice cubes on the floor of the oven. One day I’ll get some unglazed clay tiles – apparently these will retain the natural moisture of the oven as well as holding the heat.

8. Cooling

Generally it is a good idea to cool bread on a raised wire rack. Cooling on a rack prevents the bottom of the loaf from becoming damp, means the crust will soften a bit as moisture escapes, and means the bread will be easier to slice.

9. Fixing Problems

Okay, this section won’t help while you’re making your first loaf, but it might help over time.

Symptom Usual cause
Dark crust Bread is over cooked. For most breads the Crust should be golden brown.
Spongy bread Undercooked.
Holes in the centre or underneath the crust of a loaf Over-proving (although with sour dough breads you’re actually trying to get those holes in the centre) .
Loaf collapsed somewhat during baking Over-proving or too much liquid.
Sour bread Left to rise too long.
Hard bread Over cooked.
Tough crumb and crust Too much sugar in bread
Dough breaks or snaps when stretched Gluten not stretched enough. Knead more.
Bread with a biscuit/scone style centre Gluten not stretched enough. Knead more.
Small, heavy and dense bread Insufficient kneading (gluten not stretched enough), too much fat (butter, oil, shortening) too much salt, flour too soft, or yeast killed by rising in too hot a place.
Crumbly loaf with inferior flavour Too much yeast.
Dough rising unevenly Sift the flour (possibly three times), this not only adds air to the flour but distributes the gluten content evenly. Distributed gluten makes for even rising.
Dull grey loaf (as opposed to golden brown) Too much salt
Dry coarse grained bread Over rising, insufficient kneading, or too much heat in the first period of baking.
Chewy, coarse grained bread Over kneading (although unlikely if kneading by hand).
A ‘flying top’ when the top crust breaks away from the loaf Under-proving. Dough surface dried out during proving. Oven too hot.
Crust splits at one side of the loaf Loaf baked too near side of oven.
Loaf has a flat top Flour too soft. Too little salt. Dough too wet. Poor shaping of dough
Crust surface cracks after removal from oven Over-proving. Oven too hot. Cooling in draught after baking
Coarse, open texture Too much liquid. Over-proving. Oven too cool
Uneven texture with large holes Dough not knocked back properly. Dough left uncovered during rising
Sour, yeasty flavour and smell of alcohol Over-proving. Too much yeast. Stale yeast or fresh yeast creamed with sugar
Bread stales quickly and is crumbly Too much yeast. Flour too soft. Rising too quickly in too warm a place. Under-rising. Over-proving
Wet coarse grained bread Too little rising.
Crust too thick Oven temperature too cool, insufficient rising, or too much flour

Equipment: Things to consider buying

This is really just a note to myself about specialist equipment I am considering buying.

  • SuperPeel (variant of a Pizza Peel)
  • Baking stone (perhaps FibraMent), Pizza stone (square not round), or unglazed floor tiles
  • Dough bowl, kneading trough, dough trough
  • Banneton or rising basket


Crust: The exterior of the loaf that is caramelised during baking.
Crumb: The rest of the loaf, aside from the crust.
Dough: The mixture of flour, yeast, water, salt, and sometimes other ingredients, which when baked becomes bread .
Doughing Up: The process of creating a dough.
Elasticity: The ability to stretch, and when released, to return back to its original form.
Extensibility: The degree to which the dough can be stretched before it breaks.
Sourdough: A dough in which excessive acidity has been allowed to develop. This gives a dark crumb, pronounced acid flavour and smell.


Flour Advisory Bureau: Hints and Tips for Successful Bread making
Love to Know: Recipes: Bread Hints
Recipe Tips: Bread
Schofield, C. (1995). Making Bread at Home. Author.
Tallyrand’s Bread: A few cooking tips (broken link due to disappearance of Geocities)

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