Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Secret of Bread Baking "Science"

I've heard people say that baking bread is a science, more like chemistry, you have to be exact about the measurements or it will fail. Not so! Some people try a few times, have the loaf fail, and then give up on bread baking altogether.

The real magic to baking good bread is learning how the dough should feel, adjusting the flour and water until it feels right.

One Christmas day, I accidentally doubled the amount of butter in my favorite yeast roll recipe. The dough was too wet; no surprise. I added extra flour until the texture felt right. The rolls were good as ever, and extra buttery too. Here are some tips to help the beginning baker find the perfect texture.

The Feel of a Nice Dough Ball
  • Get a fresh bag of bread flour, and stick with one brand until you get a feel for the dough. Expect to adjust recipes if you switch brands. I recommend a white flour, like Gold Medal or King Arthur Flour's Bread or All-Purpose Flour.
  • To learn the texture of good dough without an experienced baker standing at your elbow, you have to feel it. Look in the pan several times while it is kneading (assuming you're using a bread machine), and pinch it. Make this a habit. When the loaf is baked, how did it turn out? Beautiful? Or does the loaf look like tree bark? Think back to how the dough looked and felt. Eventually you will learn what a perfect dough feels like. Read on for more tips on what to look for in the dough texture.
  • In the first few minutes of kneading, the ingredients should come together to form a ball that does not ooze all over the bowl/pan. Newly formed dough balls are overly sticky, and become less so as the gluten develops during kneading. After the ball has kneaded fully, it should be soft, smooth, stretchy, and barely stick to your fingers when pinched. The "troubleshooting" section, below, has some tips if this does not describe your dough.
  • Pinch Test: If you pinch the dough ball, your fingers should meet little resistance until your fingers are about 1/2 inch or so from touching. At that point, you should feel a good springiness keeping your fingers apart. It feels similar to pinching your hand in the "web" between thumb and index finger
  • If you roll a ball of finished dough on a clean, bare countertop with your bare hand (make sure your hands are dry), it should roll easily and slightly grip the counter without clinging to or sliding on the counter, and without gluing itself to your hands. It is pliable, springy, not like stiff knotted rubber bands, and yet definitely not oozing.


  • If you have a bread machine, use it for kneading and first rise. I often bake in the bread machine also. This is my lovely Zo (Zojirushi). After ~7 years, it sounds like it's wearing out; I'll definitely get another!
  • A stand mixer with a dough hook, and some food processors will work also; Use instructions that came with the appliance. Kneading can be done by hand, if you have the time and inclination.
  • Check and adjust consistency during the kneading process, before first rise, but after the ingredients have come together into a dough and have kneaded for a few minutes. The dough should form a smooth ball, somewhat tacky at first. A whole-grain dough will be tackier and rougher than a white flour dough.

  • To do the first rise in a bowl, use a large bowl sprayed with cooking spray. Spray the top of the dough, then cover with plastic wrap. Make sure there is enough room for the dough to expand. Let rise until doubled in a warm room, or a warm place over the oven. It will eventually rise in a cool room or even the fridge, but will take longer.
Texture troubleshooting tips
  • When adding flour or water, add about one tablespoon at a time, and let it knead some before adding more. If it is very gooey, add two tablespoons.


    Dough is goopy, even after kneading; leaves sticky mess on your hands
    Too wet; add flour

    Dough clings and smears on the bottom of the bowl and fingers; does not form a ballToo wet or gluten is not developed; knead some more, add flour if this doesn't help

    Dough is hard to pull and shape, stiff
    Too dry; add water

    tight, looks like gnarled tree bark, not smooth

    Finished bread has alot of stretch marks, looks torn or gnarled on topDough was too dry

Pretzel Class: What to Bring, What to Do

My kids' preschool teachers have asked me to do the pretzel class every year since I was crazy enough to do it the first time when my oldest daughter was three. This morning I did it for the 5th time. I send in supplies and instructions for the "Prelude" activities (some experiments with grain and yeast), which the teachers do with the children before baking day.

This is the main article, laying out how to bake with the kids. The recipe and experiments are in other articles.

Baking pretzels with my daughter's preschool class: Everything you need to take with you to the classroom, and the steps for turning the dough into pretzels. Includes exploration of wheat and yeast, and how they are used to make bread.

A couple of the girls pose with the class's pretzels. In one photo, the grain crusher/flaker is visible to the left. In the other, the "yeast buddy" is in the upper left.

Prelude Activities:

Prior to pretzel baking day, have the children do the following, if possible:


  • dough, ready to "punch down" at the right time in the class discussion; for a nice touch for the kids, use some home-ground flour in place of some of the regular flour, so you can tell them that it's in there.
  • dough knife

  • silicon mats for rolling dough on
  • ruler
  • pot
  • measuring cup
  • 2 Tbs baking soda
  • burner
  • whisk
  • slotted spoon
  • cooking spray-oil
  • 3 baking sheets
  • 2 cooling racks
  • parchment paper
  • pretzel salt
  • 2 timers
  • hot pads
  • spatula
  • paper towels
  • foil
  • pen
  • oven, such as a portable convection oven, and baking sheets that fit in it.
  • bowl of rising dough, timed to complete first rise as the class discussion starts; over-proofing some is ok here.

Discussion Props:

  • a slice of regular bread
  • a flour tortilla
  • the "yeast buddy" from the yeast experiment
  • a small bowl of flour, preferably including some that the kids made themselves, and a small cup of water, for making a demo dough ball
  • sprouted wheat
  • wheat life-cycle photo
  • an already-made pretzel
  • the bowl of pretzel dough
  • access to the "stations", described below, for demonstrating pretzel baking steps.


Before making the pretzels, gather the kids. This discussion will tie together all of the activities the kids have been doing leading to baking day, and show them how to do the pretzels.
  1. Remind the kids how they crushed grain and sifted it to make flour. Show them the wheat life cycle photo and the sprouts, demonstrating that the grain is also seeds.
  2. Put some flour (preferably what they have made) into a bowl, add water, and knead into a small ball. They will be surprised to see the powder turn into a springy, stretchy ball.
  3. Show them a flour tortilla, explaining that it is made of dough. Show them a slice of bread, and that the difference between the flat tortilla and soft bread is the holes.
  4. Show them that you can make a balloon out of the small dough ball, by shaping it.
  5. Talk with them about the yeast experiment, where the yeast in a water bottle eat sugar and blow up a balloon.
  6. Ask them how they think you could get all those little holes into the bread. Hint about the yeast, if someone has not already guessed (someone guessed immediately today). If necessary, explain that if you put the yeast into the dough, they will blow it up, making the holes they can see in the bread, and that the yeast will also blow up the pretzels.
  7. Show them the pretzel dough, in a large bowl, puffed from its first rise. Tell them this is the dough you made for them to make pretzels out of, and that it is already puffed up. Make sure that everyone is watching. Slap the top, and let them see it sink to less than half the size. Usually they find this pretty cool.
  8. Show them a sample pretzel, if you have one, and say they will be making one today. Demonstrate rolling the rope, twisting the pretzel, boiling, and salting it.

Steps (Set up stations before the discussion):

1. Dough Station: Using the dough knife, cut dough into enough pieces for your class, up to 32 pieces. Place them on a sheet of parchment, on a cookie sheet. Get each child a piece of dough, after they wash their hands.

2. Shaping station: Set up tables with silicon mats, a ruler, and a copy of the pretzel-shaping chart, below. If the mats are large, two children may share a mat. I like to have room for four kids to work at once, with two helper moms.

Each child will roll a long rope. Use the ruler to make sure ropes are about 15", and use "pretzel shape" picture for shaping steps.

Some kids may mash the pretzels, or pick them up; this should be discouraged. The moms will need to coach most of the kids on how to roll the ropes out evenly and long. Roll the dough gently, starting with hands together in the middle, spreading your hands apart as you roll. For each child, cut a square of foil and indent the child's name in the foil with a pen. Spray it with the cooking spray. Take the foil and pretzel to the boiling station. Place any "extras" for teachers and helpers onto a parchment sheet, or sprayed foil.

3. Boiling station: Get six cups pf water boiling in a pot or deep saute pan. I prefer a portable induction burner. Whisk in baking soda. Next to the pot, have a timer and a spider/large slotted spoon. Also set up a baking sheet lined with paper towels, and a cooling rack on top. Spray the rack with cooking spray. Have extra water nearby to replenish as it boils off.
Boil the pretzels for 1 minute, placing up to four pretzels at a time in the pot. If you let the kids put them in, place the pretzel on the spoon and lower gently; don't splash the boiling water. Take care to remember which belongs to whom. Use the slotted spoon to scoop out the pretzels onto the rack, and have the pretzel salt ready to sprinkle on wet pretzels. Let the kids put on the salt after watching them boil, then place the pretzels on the named foil squares.

4. Baking Station: Preheat a portable oven (preferably convection) to 450. Nearby, set up a cookie sheet with cooling rack inside. Have hot pads, timer, and a spatula handy.

Place the pretzels, foil and all, onto the oven's baking sheet. Fit as many as reasonable. Convection ovens can bake multiple trays at once. Bake until nicely browned on top, 12 min (6 if it's a convection oven). You may need to rotate the pans to get even browning. When done, use the spatula to move pretzels to a cooling rack.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Prelude to Pretzel Class: Yeast Experiment

This is one of the experiments that the preschoolers do before the pretzel baking day. It's fun, easy, and proves very clearly that yeast produces gas.

Blow up a balloon with yeast:
  • Tell the kids that you have some yeast. Yeast is a fungus, like tiny one-celled mushrooms. They eat sugar, and "burp" air (CO2). The kids will laugh.
  • Pour a packet of yeast into an empty water bottle. Ask the kids what plants and animals need in order to grow. They'll probably come up with food and water.
  • Water the yeast: pour in 1/2 cup water.
  • Next feed them: add 1/4 cup sugar.
  • Swirl the bottle around to mix.
  • Now catch the CO2, to prove that the yeast really makes some. Stretch a balloon over the top of the bottle. I used yellow smiley-face balloons, and the kids call it the "yeast buddy".
  • The kids were very excited, expecting the balloon to fill immediately. The balloon started to stand upright in about 15 min, and continued to grow larger over the next few hours.
  • For older kids, you could experiment with different amounts of yeast and sugar. Measure the balloon every 15 minutes at first, recording how quickly it grows.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Recipe for Pretzel Class (and just to eat): Soft Pretzels

These are definitely worth the trouble to make now and then, regardless of the pretzel class. Larger pretzels are generally prettier. The smaller ones made in the class tend to end up thicker, and sometimes will be doughy in the middle. Make an open pretzel shape, since the dough will puff when it boils.

2 1/8 cups room-temperature water
1 Tbs salt
3 cups Bread Flour
2 1/2 cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 Tbs sugar
2 tsp non-diastatic malt powder or sugar
1 Tbs active dry yeast or 2 teaspoons instant yeast

pretzel salt

1. In a bread machine, add ingredients in the order listed. Run on "dough" cycle, adjusting water/flour during kneading to make a soft but not sticky dough.

If making for pretzel class, pull the dough out of the machine when it finishes kneading and enters the "rise" cycle. Place the dough into a large, greased bowl. Spray the top of the dough with cooking spray, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Keep in a warm place until you leave for class.

2. Divide the dough into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a log, and shape the logs into pretzels. The picture indicates a 15" rope, which is appropriate for making this a 32-pretzel recipe. Longer is better for making 16 large pretzels.

3. In a large pot, boil together 6 cups of water and 2 tablespoons baking soda. Put 4 pretzels at a time into the boiling water, and cook for 1 minute. Transfer boiled pretzels to a lightly greased baking rack. Sprinkle with salt or seeds while still wet. Add more water if too much boils off before all the pretzels have boiled. Boiling makes the dough rise quickly, and changes the proteins on the surface. The surface becomes shiny and sticky, and has a different chew and flavor. The stickiness will diminish as it dries, so don't forget to salt right away.
4. When all the pretzels have been cooked, bake in a preheated 450°F oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the pretzels are well-browned. Yield: 16 soft, chewy pretzels.

Yield: 16 or 32

Serving Tips

Dip in melted Cheese Wiz, or mustard.

These old-fashioned "Philadelphia-style" pretzels are similar to bagels -- smooth and shiny on the outside, chewy within.

Recipe Source

Based on King Arthur Flour's pretzel recipe

Recipe: Challah Bread

Challah is a Jewish holiday bread. It is one of our favorites, especially on Easter. We usually save it for special occasions, since braiding takes longer than a loaf shape. The eggs and butter also make it a richer loaf.



1 cup water
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 tsp salt
5 Tbs butter
4 cup bread flour
2 Tbs sugar
2 tsp yeast


1 egg
1 Tbs water
2 Tbs poppy seeds


  1. Prepare dough in a bread machine, and let rise once.
  2. Shape dough as desired. The 6-strand is classic for this loaf. A three-strand braid is also nice.
  3. Place braid on a piece of parchment, on a pizza paddle. Spray lightly with cooking spray, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled (about 45-60 min).
  4. Preheat oven to 350. Let it heat for at least 15 min, if not 45.
  5. Brush top of loaf with egg wash (beaten egg & water), and cover with poppy seeds.
  6. Transfer to baking stone. Bake for 15 min, then insert temperature probe timer. Bake until internal temp is 190-205.
Risen bread, just put into the oven onto a hot stone.