The Science of Baking Bread (And How to Do it Right)
When you think about it, baking is a tiny miracle as it transforms that humble little dough into delicious and filling bread. This is one of the oldest foods of mankind and over the centuries, it became the most important staple. The whole process has remained unchanged, though the bread produced over the years has. There are flatbreads and there is raised bread. They can be either sweet and have other ingredients, while there are also salty versions.
The Science Of Baking Bread
Before chemistry even developed as a branch of science, bakers have been using it to transform some grains or flour into bread. The key is to mix it with important ingredients and when the dough is left outside for a few days, the magic continues. The dough starts to rise and can be put on the fire to bake.
The flour in bread requires the so-called leaveners and it is their complex interaction that leads to the porous but tender properties of raised bread. There are two kinds of leaveners: yeast and baking powder or soda. The latter works fast, thanks to the chemical reactions happening between alkaline and acidic compounds. This will lead to carbon dioxide production that will make the batter or the dough inflate. This kind of leavener is used for quick bread with delicate structures, like biscuits and cornbreads.
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On the other hand, yeast is composed of a live fungus that has a single cell. There are lots of different yeast species that exist all over but the yeast that people know comes in small packets. The yeast inside is dormant until it comes into contact with warm water. Once this happens, the yeast starts to eat the sugar present in flour before releasing carbon dioxide to make the bread rise up, but this takes longer compared baking soda or powder. It is also yeast that gives out the smells and flavors of bread.
These leavening agents will still need flour to contain them. While various kinds of flour are used to create bread, the most common is wheat flour. The reason for this is because it contains gliadin and glutenin, 2 flours that form gluten when it combines with water. When you are kneading the dough, the gluten turns stretchy and gum-like. It also fills up with gas bubbles that signal that the yeast is at work.
At the same time, starch, which is a carb that comprises about 70% of the flour in terms of weight, starts to work. When the enzymes found in flour attack these granules, it will trigger the release of sugars that become food for the yeast. It will also reinforce gluten and works to absorb the water during the baking process. Thus, it will help the gluten contain gas pockets from yeast production.
The baker may also let the dough rise a few times so that the gluten can develop completely and for the yeast to release more flavor.
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The Transformation Into Bread
While the ingredients of bread are simple, the process that is taking place on a molecular level is complex. From the moment the yeast gets in contact with warm water, the transformation of these ingredients into delicious bread begins. It culminates when the whole mass is put into the oven.
The baking process turns the dough into bread that is crispy on the outside but soft on the inside. The dough heats up and becomes more fluid, while the gas cells start to expand. This leads to the so-called oven spring, or the process of the dough rising. No matter how much the dough expands from the beginning up to this point, it will still continue to fluff up in the oven.
This process happens in the first 10 minutes when the yeast, due to the heat, quickens up the fermentation and respiration processes. It will also cough up some more carbon dioxide. As this CO2 becomes hot, the water evaporates before it expands, making the bread itself fluff up as well. This is the reason why your bread magically grows while in the oven.
One other important step in the process is scoring. This presents more than just an aesthetic purpose of making the bread look nice or have a distinctive appearance. In fact, scoring allows the gases trapped in the dough to escape, albeit in a controlled way. Otherwise, there is a risk of the bread to rupture and then collapse before it could truly set and be able to keep its shape. During the processes of expansion and evaporation, scoring allows for the controlled release of these gases.
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Know When Your Bread Is Perfect
Experienced bakers develop an instinct for knowing when their bread loaves are finished. If you are still a newbie, the simple guideline is to look at its color, feel the bread, and listen to it.
The first is to look at the color. The dark crust achieves its color due to the Maillard and caramelization reactions. Different people have their own preferences on the color of their loaves but the general rule is that the darker it is, the better it holds the crust. The flavor will also become more intense although as expected, it might be a bit tougher to chew on.
The second is to grab the loaf, making sure you use gloves to avoid burning your hands. The bread should feel light. If not, it might have puffed up a lot but has not really fully baked inside, so turn the oven lower and continue baking for about 10 more minutes.
The last test is to check the sound when you tap on the bottom. Baked bread should sound hollow and thumpy but when it sounds muffled, then it means there is still water that needs to be cooked out. Same as above, you need to lower the oven’s temperature and bake longer.
This ancient technique has led to billions of bread being baked and being a huge part of man’s diet all over the world. But behind the scenes is a wonderful story of how the ingredients transform into delicious bread.
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