On the Learning Curve with Artisan Breads Recipe

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After having turned into a bread nerd this last year, I decided to explore the mysteries of how bread ingredients affect one another, and what causes fermentation and the rising of dough. I've tossed so many loaves out the door for the birds that I began studying bread books to figure out what goes on scientifically, simplify it in my own mind, so I could cut down on the mistakes I make. This post is for bakers with some curiosity about what actually happens when certain ingredients are mixed together.

My year-long experience in plowing through bread books, mostly artisan, is that many pro bakers have some kind of a system they like to promote, such as no knead, stretch and fold, when to add salt, etc. All the methods I've tried have worked when directions were followed, but some were beyond tedious and one can achieve great results with two methods. I now either knead using a standing mixer for dough intended to produce a tight crumb, or a stretch and fold method for wet doughs where bigger holes are desired.



  • A Few Things I've Learned:
  • Yeast is a fungus. In combination with a liquid and a starch like flour, it begins to ferment, i.e., it produces carbon dioxide and alcohol.
  • Enzymes in the flour release sugar, upon which yeast feeds, causing carbon dioxide and alcohol to be produced, leavening the dough.
  • Salt adds flavor, controls yeast growth, strengthens gluten (which helps the dough hold moisture and carbon dioxide). Salt promotes better volume and crumb.
  • Kneading causes proteins - gluten - in the dough to bind together and the dough begins taking shape. Gluten traps moisture and carbon dioxide
  • With a bread like ciabatta, where big holes are desired, kneading is minimal, and more likely a stretch and fold technique is employed. Super wet doughs are almost impossible to knead by hand, so stretch and fold is the best way to go, unless you want to dump it in the standing mixer.
  • The first rise is called fermentation.
  • The second rise, called proofing, occurs when the dough is punched down or turned to decompress the carbon dioxide, and the dough releases fresh sugars for the yeast to consume.
  • Over-fermentation occurs when the yeast had run out of gas - sugar.
  • You can err on the side of overfermenting in the first rise, but the second must be timed correctly. Better an underproofed bread than one that has run out of sugar for the yeast, and may turn out flat and won't brown - bird food.
  • A note on quick breads, which are actually cakes. Baking soda needs an acid to leaven, often buttermilk, brown sugar (molasses),
  • and baking powder, called double acting because it contains two acids, requires a liquid to start leavening. If you're baking quick bread or anything containing baking soda or baking powder, get it in the oven as soon as possible, as decomposition quickly occurs.


  1. Suggestions:
  2. Keep yeast in the fridge or freezer.
  3. Instant yeast does not need proofing with sugar in the water.
  4. If using a standing mixer, most doughs are thoroughly kneaded in 7-8 minutes. Over-kneading will produce a tighter crumb than you may want.
  5. Don't add as much flour as the recipe calls for in the beginning. Weather and temperature affect the flour's absorption of liquids, so one day you might need 3 cups of flour, and the next 2 3/4.
  6. I've gotten in the habit of mixing flour and liquids, letting them sit on the counter 20 minutes (autolyse), then add yeast and salt. That way the flour has absorbed the liquids and it's easier to feel the dough to determine if anything needs to be added or not.
  7. Properly kneaded dough is elastic and tacky. When fermented and proofed, it will very slowly return to shape when you press a finger a bit into it. If it springs back, it's not ready yet. Wetter doughs are another matter.
  8. You can bake San Francisco Sourdough bread from a starter you began in your own kitchen, because yeasts in the air are pretty much the same all over the planet. No need to send off to King Arthur Flour or some website touting authentic San Francisco starter packets, which are expensive and frankly, not authentic.
  9. Steam is a leavening agent. If you want nice oven spring, put a small pan in the bottom of the oven. Just before putting dough in the oven, toss 5-6 ice cubes in the pan. Steam will be produced and you don't have to open the oven to mist the interior with a spray water bottle.
  10. Baking stones are extremely useful and not expensive. You'll bake better artisan breads and pizzas with one.
  11. To me, maintaining sourdough starter is a pain, so I gave mine the heave-ho. Pre-ferments, such as polish, biga, levain, etc., work quite well in terms of adding flavor and texture. If a heavier sourdough flavor is desired, a five day ferment sponge of 1 packet instant yeast, 1 3/4 C unbleached or bread flour, 1 T sugar, and 2 1/2 C warm water mixed in a bowl and loosely covered works fine. Stir it down each day and taste a bit. When it's sour enough for you, use it, keeping in mind the alcohol will burn off in baking. What you don't use, just freeze.
  12. If you mix a dough and it seems too heavy and isn't moist, consider tossing it and start over. I have learned that trying to fix it with water, add this or that, usually results in frustration and more bird food.
  13. When pre-heating the oven, do so setting the temp 25-50 degrees higher than you want to bake, as you will lose heat the second you open the door. Turn it down to the temp you want it to bake a few minutes later.
  14. If you have any suggestions or experiences to share, please post below. I'm still learning.


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  • A.L. Wiebe
    Myra, these are all great tips. I've been baking my own bread for many years now, so know the basics.
    However, I still have ready bird food on occasion.
    Recently, I have been on a quest for the perfect formula for Winnepeg Rye bread, and have yet to find it. The latest attempt was a disaster lol. Not sure if I'd even subject the poor crows to that. It was horribly dry, dense and flavourless. Oh well, on to the next formula.
    Thanks for posting this!
    I've cooked/tasted this recipe!
    1 reply


  • A.L. Wiebe
    January 8, 2016
    Winnepeg Rye is a nice light rye bread that has a slight sour taste. It's delicious, but evidently not when I make it lol. I'll keep trying different recipes and will post one when I get it right.
    1 reply

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