Rediscovering Traditional Breads
For millennia, bread has been such an important food source that it has taken almost mythical qualities. Such
expressions as “earning ones daily bread,” “man does not live by bread alone,” and “know on which side your bread is
buttered” all attest to the importance of bread in Western culture.
What is Bread?
Eaten practically every day by most Europeans and Americans, bread’s composition is striking in its simplicity –
flour, water, and sometimes yeast and salt are usually it’s only ingredients.
It is amazing that such an array of different tasting breads can be made with so few raw ingredients. This
diversity is partially due to the fact that bread dough is a living thing. Anyone who has hand kneaded bread dough
remembers the comforting satisfaction of working with such a vital substance. No machine will ever master the subtlety of
traditional bread making, nor will one ever replace the baker who can feel, touch, and experience the satisfaction of this
almost magical process.
The baking of bread dates back to the Stone Age, when people first learned to grind seeds, probably barley and millet, in
mills made from stone. It was not a great step from the first porridge to bread. Early bread, heavy and unleavened, was
cooked on heated stones. Over the centuries the process of milling was improved. The early Egyptians, with the help of
wind powered fans and sieves, developed a way of removing parts of the chaff and bran. The Romans and Greeks further
advanced cultivation and milling methods and produced different kinds of flour with various stages of refinement.
Baking bread has always had an important place in the European home. Different regions of various countries produce
breads that differ not only in flavor but also in shape. Although today most bread baking is commercial it is still a favorite
hobby of many.
Basically there are 3 types of bread products these include, loaf bread in many shapes, breakfast items such as Croissant
and Danish, and soft cakes such as muffins and doughnuts.
Banneton: A basket often lined with cloth, in which some breads are proofed after forming.
Biga: Italian for starter. Usually has a thin consistency such as pancake batter.
Couche: The canvas that cradles a baguette or Batard after shaping and through the final proof.
Dividing and scaling: Cutting and weighing the dough prior to shaping.
Gluten: A protein contained in wheat that when mixed with water, forms an elastic, “gluey” network that traps
gasses during fermentation.
Levain: French for starter. A levain is s piece of dough set aside to use as leavening the next batch of dough.
Oven spring: The last burst of energy from the leavening when the loaf hits the oven.
Peal: A long handled shovel like tool used to move the loaves in and out of the oven.
Poolish: French term for a starter with a consistency somewhere between a stiff sponge and a Biga.
Pre-ferment: Any one of various dough’s, such as a starter, sponge, or Poolish.
Proof: A single stage of fermentation of a dough or fermented loaf prior to baking. Sometimes a proof box, a
controlled - temperature chamber, is used to regulate the proofing time.
Retard: The process of slowing fermentation in order to develop flavor and texture be refrigerating the dough or
Score or Dock: A cut made in a loaf prior to baking. It relieves the surface tension and allows for the final burst
of leavening when the loaf goes in the oven. The pattern of the score affects the final shape of the loaf and
becomes part of that loaf’s identification.
Sponge: A preferment that may include yeast, the liquid, and some of the flour in the formula.
Starter: The term used most commonly to indicate a pre-ferment that has been developed slowly by enticing wild
yeast spores to take residence in dough. Such natural starters sometimes develop flavors unique to their
Stone: A ceramic or porous tile or stone insert for the home oven that simulates the hearth of a bakers oven.
Yeast: Single-celled fungi that cause the fermentation of carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Dormant bakers yeast is available in moist cakes, dry or active powder. All are recommended. Avoid fast-acting
yeast, which is treated.
The Basic Steps
Le petrissage mixing the ingredients
Le piontage first rising
Donner un tour punching down
Le pesage scaling the loaves
La détente intermediate proofing
Le faconnage shaping the loaves
L’appret final proofing
Le coup de lame slashing the loaves
La cuission baking the loaves
Effects of Ingredients
Baking with yeast demands that the ingredients be in the proper proportion. Yeast needs sugar to grow, but too much
sugar can slow the process to the point where it stops altogether. Sugar also colors and flavors the bread. Salt is used in
yeast dough to add color and flavor and to retard the yeast just a little. When I see a loaf of baked bread that is pale
instead of a healthy brown color, I know that the loaf was either baked at too low a temperature or the salt was left out. Fat
will lubricate the gluten strands thus making a larger loaf. Seeds or grain added to dough when kneading will increase the
friction thus increasing the temperature of the dough. Too much water added to dough will make the dough ferment too
fast, the finished product may not hold its shape, large holes in the crumb may be present. Not enough water in dough will
do the opposite.
In formulating breads it is important to understand ratios of ingredients. The home baker will find it useful to have an
accurate scale. Measuring ingredients by volume (cups and quarts,) is not accurate, for example, a cup of flour (packed)
will not weigh the same as an unpacked cup of flour. Therefor it is important to use a scale. In determining a ratio, the
flour is always used as a base unit and always has a value of 1 or 100 % all the other ingredients have a value based on the
For example: a typical French dough may have a hydration (water) of say 60 %, yeast of 2%, salt of 2% thus,
Flour------100 Lbs. = 100% Flour------5 Lbs. = 100%
Water------60 Lbs. = 60 % Water------3 Lbs. = 60 %
Yeast--------2 Lbs. = 2 % Yeast--------0.1 Lbs. (1.6 oz) = 2 %
Salt----------2 Lbs. = 2 % Salt----------0.1 Lbs. = (1.6 oz) =2%
Other ingredients may be added such as butter, sugar, spices, herbs, nuts, etc. but should follow the percentage guidelines.
Yeast fermentation is damaged in temperatures above 115 ℉ and the yeast is killed at 140 ℉. At the other end of the
scale, yeast fermentation is slowed but not damaged at temperatures below 65 ℉. and stops at about 40 ℉. In certain
types of yeast dough, such as for Danish pastry, Braided white bread, and croissant, it is essential that the yeast be kept
cold to prevent fermentation while the dough is being shaped. There are exceptions to this rule and will be discussed
The discovery of natural yeast starters is usually attributed to the Egyptians, who probably made the discovery by accident.
A piece of soured bread dough was simply added to a new batch. The first leavened bread was no doubt much appreciated
compared to the heavy unleavened breads that were the only types available before its discovery.
Natural Yeast Starter (Levain Naturel)
Natural yeast starter, also known as sourdough starter, is a dough made of a simple combination of flour and
water that has begun to sour without the addition of manufactured yeast; simply by being left in a warm humid place. The
bread dough is then inoculated with the natural “wild” yeast starter. These wild yeast’s cause fermentation.
The natural yeast starter is kept active by periodically adding fresh flour and water (this is referred to as
refreshing the starter). Natural yeast starters often have more complex sourdough quality than dough made with
commercial yeast. This is because of the accumulation of lactic acid and acetic acid forming bacteria, which work
symbiotically with the active (wild) yeast cells. Until the discovery of systematic production of baker’s yeast in the
seventeenth century, a natural starter was the only method available to the baker to initiate fermentation of bread dough.
Yeast Sponge Starters
A sponge, which is the moistest of all the starters, originated in Poland. Viennese bakers brought this type of fermentation
to France, during the reign of Queen-Marie Antoinette.(which is why she cut their heads off !)
A sponge, a preliminary culture, is a semi-liquid starter prepared several hours before the dough is kneaded. The
sponge is usually composed of equal quantities of flour and water kneaded with a part or all of the yeast to be used in the
recipe. No salt is added to the sponge. The fermentation of this starter depends on the quality of the yeast and the
humidity and temperature of the work area. The sponge contributes to the flavor and shelf life of the bread.
The ideal temperature for the yeast to develop is from 78-82 ℉. with 85 % humidity. There are exceptions to this rule
and will be discussed later.
The dough should be kept as close to this temperature as possible by starting with a warm liquid, 105-115 ℉. however if
the liquid is too hot, the yeast will be damaged or killed. Use a thermometer until you know your judgement is accurate.
Take care to keep the dough covered and away from drafts at all times.
The rule used to determine the temperature of water is as follows:
Desired temperature times 3 minus the sum of the (room temperature + flour temperature + friction factor)
Example: the desired temperature of the final dough is 76 ℉
Room temperature is 80 ℉
Flour temperature is 80 ℉
Friction factor is 12 ℉
Thus you should use 56 ℉ water to obtain a final dough of 76 ℉ after kneading.
Note: friction factor is the amount of increase in temperature that your mixer raises the dough temperature during the
The steps used in machine kneading are divided into three stages:
• Calculation of temperatures and preparation of raw ingredients
• Preliminary kneading (Frasage) which requires careful control of temperatures and the consistency of the dough.
At this stage the mixer is in low speed.
• Final kneading, using the mixer at medium speed.
Ferment ation Process
During Fermentation, sugars are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide in two stages.
The first fermentation depends on sugars already present in the flour. These sugars are composed mostly of sucrose (table
sugar) and glucose.
The second fermentation depends on the action of the enzyme amylase on the flour. Amylase converts starch contained in
the flour into maltose. The maltose in turn converts into glucose through another enzyme maltase. Once this enzymatic
process is completed, enzyme complexes in the yeast( sometimes referred to as zymase and cozymase), catalyze the
breakdown of glucose into carbon dioxide and alcohol. See fig # 1
Two external factors affecting fermentation:
• The humidity in the rising area
• The temperature of the rising area
First rising / Ferment ation (Pointage)
The first rising, or fermentation, is the period which the dough is allowed to rise before it is shaped into loaves. The time
required for the first rising depends on several factors:
• The amount and quality of yeast used
• Work methods
• The temperature of the dough at the completion of kneading
• The temperature and humidity of the work area
Place the dough in a bowl or bucket, cover it with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.
Punching the Dough (Donner un tour)
Not really punching the dough but rather folding it upon itself then turning it upside-down. This may be done in a bowl or
on a table. It is important to cover the dough with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.
Scaling the Dough (Le Pesage)
Cutting the dough into pieces or scaling is done with a metal dough scraper. The dough is placed on a table in an oblong
It is then cut into the desired weight, rounded, (when rounding take care to keep the dough from tearing keeping it
smooth, you are creating the outside of the loaf), then left to rest for 10 –15 minutes. They are relaxed enough when they
can be formed without tearing.
Shaping or Forming (Fa connage)
Before the loaves are shaped into their final forms, each piece should be flattened in order to expel any gas that might
cause an irregular texture or unwanted air pockets. This step once again starts fermentation at a new stage. There are
exceptions to this rule.
Proofing / final Rising (Apprêt)
The final rising, called proofing takes place between the shaping of the dough into loaves, placing them into pans or
Bannetons, and the baking of the bread.
Most bread doughs should rise to double in volume, but this includes the rising that will occur in the oven before the bread
C), when the yeast is killed. Therefore, prior to baking, the bread should rise to just before it has
doubled in volume, to allow for the final rise in the oven (there are some exceptions in individual recipes). Test by
pressing the dough lightly with your fingertip: a slight indentation should remain. A loaf that has risen too much is very
crumbly, dries out faster because of the extra air, and has less flavor because the flavor does not increase with the dough's
volume. On the other hand, if the bread is not allowed to rise long enough, the gluten will not have formed all the
elasticity it needs to expand and, as a result, the loaf will crack (usually on the side) and will be compact and heavy.
The most ancient methods for proofing bread are still practiced today. The tradition survives from the time when
all breads were sourdough, when they were made of extremely wet dough that would not hold their shape without some
kind of support, and when they were all baked, not on trays, but on the floor of a brick oven. The bannaton and the couche
help hold the loaves during the long final proofing that is necessary for sourdough bread.
The bannaton is a basket lined with linen, a wet loaf of rounded is placed in each basket. A couche is a sheet of linen
(ordinary canvas duck or a plain dishtowel will do) about 3 feet wide. The proofing baguettes or batards are placed on the
couche, separated from one another by an up-ward loop of the canvas between each loaf.
As far as judging when bread is ready to be baked, as always, experience helps. A loaf put into the oven a few
minutes before it is "ready" (that is, when it still springs back quickly at the touch of a finger) will have an extra bloom
(but if put in the oven too early it might explode in an irregular fashion). Loaves put in the oven a few minutes after it is
ready will sag and lack a full, deep color. Also, by an instinct so long-followed that it has become a rule, the baker will
bake a "young" loaf in a cooler oven to prevent any irregular bursting and an "old" loaf in a hotter oven to give it some
The time for proofing depends on several factors.
• The amount of yeast used in the dough
• The time allowed for the fermentation
• The method of fermentation
• The temperature and humidity of the rising area.
• The desired out-come of the bread.
Slashing the loaf (Le coup de lame)
The artistic signature of each baker is the cuts that are made in the loaf just before placing it into the oven. This is to give
the loaf an attractive appearance so that it has planned and predictable spot in which to burst. The cut is practicable as
well as aesthetic. It is much better for the structure of the crumb for the loaf to burst on top rather than the bottom or side.
For the baguette the two rules about the cut concern direction and angle. The cuts should be straight and
overlapping( parallel with the length of the loaf), with the blade held at a very shallow angle from the horizontal so that it
cuts under the surface of the loaf rather than down into it. The straight, overlapping cuts on top allow the loaf to open
longer and wider; the angular cuts made into the loaf allow the heat and moisture of the oven to penetrate the loaf more
Baking the loaf (La cuisson)
Because yeast grows quickly when exposed to heat and humidity, the first moments in the oven give the dough an
accelerated push in volume. The push lasts for the first five to seven minutes in bread containing commercial yeast and
the first ten to twelve minutes in natural sourdough bread. Eventually the heat destroys the yeast.
For centuries bread was baked on the floor of an oven lined with bricks. That is still the best way to achieve a
superior loaf. American bakers say that loaves baked on the floor of an oven, rather than on trays, have "bloom"-a full-
bodied appearance that can only be achieved when the heat rises through the loaf from the bottom up. Some bakers to
denote a full, rich color also use the word “bloom”.
Modern convection ovens, as time- and energy-efficient as they may be, seem to attack the loaf with heat from all sides.
But they have their place. Modern rotary rack ovens, with perforated trays and low-pressure steam (necessary in the first
few minutes of the bake-off for a shining, crackling crust), can do a remarkable job for some breads. The modern feeling
in America as well as in France seems to be that it is permissible to bake baguettes, pain fantaisie, and enriched pan
breads in a convection oven on trays. But the rustic hearth breads-especially sourdough-are best baked right on a deck-
oven floor. A deck oven is similar to a pizza oven in that the floor is lined with bricks; it can be fired by gas, oil, or
Home bakers would do best to use a gas-fired home oven for breads because the heat is more controllable. Whether you
have an electric or gas oven, it would be useful to place an oven thermometer in the oven both before and during bak ing.
This makes it easier to observe any variations in temperature and make whatever adjustments necessary.
To use a baking stone, place it on a wire shelf in the oven before preheating it. Loaves that are to be baked on a stone
are usually given their final proofing in bannetons or in couches. When such loaves are ready, sprinkle a little cornmeal
or flour on a rimless cookie sheet and turn each loaf onto it by inverting the basket. The loaves in couches are either lifted
gently or rolled out onto the cookie sheet. The loaf can then be slid right onto the baking stone to bake. If you don't have a
stone you can always use a metal tray that has been greased lightly or one that has been lined with parchment paper.
The Bread Builders, Dan Wing,&
Breads from the La Brea Bakery, Nancy Silverton
Bread Alone, Daniel Leader & Judith Blahnik
The Village Baker, Joe Ortiz
The Italian Baker, Carol Field
Baking with Julia, Dorie Greenspan
Suggested Web Sites
Bread Bakers Guild