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


  1. What kind of bread machine do you use and do you recommend it?

  2. Hi,
    I didn't have my email notifications turned on, I'm so sorry! I have a Zojirushi, and I do recommend it. It is a relatively large capacity machine. I've had it for about 7 years now.