Baking a great loaf of bread might seem intimidating at first, but with the right tools and instructions at your disposal you’ll be making picture perfect and delicious bread in no time.
Before you get started you’ll want to make sure you have a few key pieces of equipment. You can check out our full What to Buy list and get all the right gear, but you probably have enough to get started already.
What you’ll need
- A large bowl or food grade bucket for fermenting your dough. Ideally this is something that’s easy to reach into so you can perform stretch and folds at the beginning of fermentation. Also having the ability to put a lid on it is nice. If all else fails, you can use a large plate to set on top of the bowl (as long as it won’t make contact with your rising dough).
- If you don’t have a banneton, or proofing basket, using a flour dusted dish towel inside a bowl will work in a pinch.
- While many recipes give amounts in cups and teaspoons, using grams or ounces gives you much better control and repeatability when it comes to baking. If all else fails, you can use those measuring cups but in this blog we’ll be giving pretty much all amounts in weight. Investing in a kitchen scale will be extremely helpful.
- Water and dough temperature play a huge role in how your dough will ferment. Having a reliable instant read thermometer makes this a non-issue.
- If you don’t have a dutch oven or a way to trap the steam in your bread while it’s baking, at least try to bake the bread on a heated pizza stone.
Assuming you have enough equipment to get started, here’s the basic process you’ll follow from start to finish.
- Autolyse the flour and water.
- This is the process of mixing the flour and water and letting it rest for 20-60 minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients. This gives the flour plenty of time to absorb the water. It also helps promote gluten development which means less kneading time. The dough also becomes a little more stretchy which helps with rising.
- Mix the rest of the ingredients
- The salt, yeast (bakers or sourdough) and any other ingredients are added now and mixed extremely well into the dough. There are many methods to incorporate all the ingredients together but I like to use the ‘pincer’ method that Ken Forkish uses in his Flour Water Salt Yeast book. First, fold the dough over itself several times to roughly incorporate all the ingredients. Next, pinch off golf ball sized pieces and then mix those back together. Repeat this process a few times.
- Ferment the dough w/ some stretch and folds
- At this point the yeast is ready to start working its magic. Based on the Schedule / Timetable you choose, you’ll ferment for a certain amount of time and perform some stretch and folds during the first part of fermentation.
- Stretch and folds work by pulling up on the dough and then folding it in on itself. Do this four or five times, rotating the bowl each time so you’re pulling up a new portion of the dough. You don’t want to break the strands of gluten but instead are trying to stretch them out.
- After you’ve stretched all of the dough, pick it up and turn it over. This way, you’ll be stretching the gluten in a different direction next time. Cover and let it ferment until the next fold.
- Shape and proof the dough
- After the dough has finished bulk fermentation and has doubled to tripled in size, dump the dough out onto a floured work surface with floured hands.
- If you’re making two loaves, cut the dough in half and then individually fold each half like an envelope onto itself.
- Turn it over and then gently roll it into a ball, keeping the seem side down.
- After it’s formed into a ball, place the dough into a floured banneton or proofing basket, seam side down. I always use rice flour to coat my banneton so the dough doesn’t stick to it.
- Put your proofing dough into a plastic bag (such as a bag you put vegetables in at the grocery store) and wrap it shut. This will keep your dough from drying out during proofing.
- Preheat your oven
- Put your dutch oven inside your oven and preheat it to 450’F. Investing in an accurate oven thermometer is very helpful. I found out I need to set my oven to 475’F in order for it to actually hit 450. Without the thermometer I was constantly underbaking my bread. I like to let my dutch oven preheat for at least 45 minutes before using it.
- Transfer proofed loaf to dutch oven and bake
- Carefully transfer your proofed loaf into your dutch oven. You want to make sure you don’t burn yourself but you also want to make sure not to deflate your loaf too much.
- I simply turn my banneton over into my dutch oven and it works well enough.
- Bake your bread
- There are many different methods and ways to bake your bread but what I’ve found works well for me is to bake each loaf for 38 minutes with the lid on my dutch oven. After that, I take off the lid and bake for an additional 14 minutes. Baking with the lid off at the end helps the loaf brown up nicely.
- Let your bread cool
- This can be one of the hardest parts, but make sure to let your bread cool, preferably on a wire rack, for at least an hour before cutting into it. Letting the bread rest will prevent you from ending up with a wet loaf.
There are some ideal ranges you’ll want to aim for when mixing your dough to help give the yeast the best conditions possible for fermentation. Invest in an instant read thermometer and track all the variables you can.
The ideal temperature for your dough after mixing should be around 78’F. Ambient, water, hydration %, autolyse length and other ingredient temperatures all play a role in how your dough will end up.
My house stays around 70’F year round and I’ve found that with a 30 minute autolyse with about 78% hydration, I need to get my water to 92-93’F when starting my autolyse. After mixing my final ingredients I’m usually within a degree of my target 78’F.
As I’ll talk about below, take notes and record your ambient temperature, water temperature, dough temperature after starting the autolyse and dough temperature after mixing. Recording all of this will help you dial in what you should have your water at when adding it.
Keep notes on EVERYTHING
I can’t stress this enough. I still keep a log of every loaf of bread, pizza dough, bagel, naan, etc recipe that I make. Keeping notes will not only help you troubleshoot issues with fermentation and proofing, it’ll also provide you a good reference and recipe in case you want to go back and recreate something that was amazing.
I have a notebook and keep track of the following each time I bake:
- Ingredients with weights and temperatures (for water)
- A rough schedule so I know when to get ready to do something else with the dough
- Ambient temperature
- Time I started the autolyse
- Temperature of dough right after starting autolyse
- Time I mixed
- Temperature of dough after mixing (aiming for 78’F)
- How many stretch + folds in what amount of time
- Time I started proofing
- Time I transferred to the oven
- Oven temperature, duration in dutch oven covered, duration in dutch oven with lid off
- Notes on how the bread turned out
Here’s why I keep notes on the various stats
This is pretty self explanatory, but knowing what you’ll be using and how much of it is extremely helpful for prepping your bake day and for troubleshooting, reproducing or tweaking a loaf.
I write down a rough schedule for how the bread will go so I can set timers and make sure I’ll be at the house and ready to perform certain actions
The ambient temperature will affect how quickly or slowly your dough will ferment and proof. If it’s the middle of winter and your house is cold, expect fermentation and proofing to take longer. You’ll also need to increase the water temperature slightly to counteract the flour and ingredients being cooler.
Autolyse start time
This is good to know for future reference and troubleshooting
Dough temp after autolyse
This will help you learn the relationship between water temperature and dough temperature. You’ll start to recognize trends as time goes on. For example, I know that if my dough is 88-89’F right after I autolyse my flour and water, there’s a pretty good chance i’ll end up right at 78’F after mixing.
When you mixed
Again, this is good to know for future reference and will help you build your schedule in the future.
Dough temp after mixing
Again, you’re aiming for 78’F. This will help you determine any factors that need to change next time if you’re high or low
Number of Stretch + Folds
For future reference. My standard is 3 stretch and folds, 30 minutes apart in the first 90 minutes of fermentation
When I started proofing, When it went into the oven, Baking information
For future reference in building a new schedule and troubleshooting
Thoughts on how the bread turned out. Can help you tweak things for next time.