Far too many home cooks have a mental block about homemade bread. This is a huge bummer: bread is among the most satisfying and rewarding things you can learn to make, but complex recipes and unnecessary gate-keeping scare off all but the most stubborn of newbie bakers.
The sad truth is that most common bread-making fears aren’t exactly unfounded. Even when you really know what you’re doing, bread dough can be super finicky and frustrating to work with.
Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, how humid it is, how wet or dry your dough is, the flour you’re using, the presence or absence of fatty ingredients, the temperature of the wet ingredients, the age of your yeast, and about a zillion other factors, you could make the exact same batch of dough every day for a week and have a different rise every time.
Despite this, most recipes give just one guideline for the all-important rising step: a rough time estimate.
Timers will only break your heart. Visual cues are the only reliable way to gauge dough fermentation — but unfortunately, knowing what to look for tends to come with experience. That’s where I come in.
I know a thing or two about yeasted doughs, and while the specific techniques will vary based on the type of dough you’re working with, the fundamentals never change. Know those and you’ll be well on your way to homemade bread heaven.
How to gauge changes in volume and resiliency
Even though what’s happening on a molecular level is incredibly complex, baking great bread doesn’t require a master’s degree in dough science.
As long as you know how to monitor the Big Two — dough volume and resiliency — you can bake anything you set your mind to.
Most recipes tell you to let dough “rise until doubled”. This is nowhere near the universal truth it’s made out to be. Some doughs fully double as they rise, but plenty more don’t — and what “doubled” looks like can vary from person to person.
The good news is that you don’t have to be exact; you’re just looking for a noticeable and sustained increase in volume. That’s it. Check on your dough after the first hour, then every 30 minutes after that. When you don’t see an immediately noticeable change from the last check-in, it’s time to move on.
Volume dictates the height of your loaf, but resiliency is what makes that possible. You can think of it as stretchiness or bounce-back: has the gluten developed to the point that it can support expanding gas bubbles without collapsing? If it has, you’ll be blessed with a well-structured loaf with great texture.
In stiff, kneaded doughs, resiliency is easy to gauge: gently poke the surface with a finger and watch how it bounces back. Non-enriched doughs (just flour, water, salt, and yeast) are ready when they bounce back almost fully, and you can barely see your finger indentation anymore.
Enriched doughs (anything with butter, eggs, oil, or milk) almost never bounce back all the way, but will do so faster and more fully as the gluten network develops. As for wetter, no-knead doughs, you can track resiliency by the size of the bubbles: the bigger the bubbles, the stretchier the dough.
Again, as with volume, you’re looking for the point when the resiliency of the dough stops noticeably increasing.
Bulk fermentation: mostly volume, but just barely
Just reading the words “bulk fermentation” may, as they do for me, inspire incredible amounts of sourdough-related anxiety. But while this phrase is commonly associated with long, complicated folding schedules, it applies to the part of any recipe where dough rises in a covered bowl.
This is the phase when the dough gets most of its volume — you mostly want it to rise as much as possible — but as volume increases, so does resiliency. Make sure you’re monitoring both.
Not only should your dough have inflated quite a bit, but you should see signs of increased stretchiness, like big bubbles, a smoothed-out surface, and increased bounce-back.
Shaping and second or third rises: mostly resiliency
Regardless of how simple or complex its final form is, every dough needs some time to settle into its final shape before it goes in the oven. Several super-important things happen during this rest period.
First, the gluten network rearranges itself to support the shape you’ve given it. The outer surface of the dough dries out a bit, creating a skin that then turns into a crust in the oven.
Finally, the bread takes on the very last bit of extra volume, so it puffs up as dramatically as possible when baked.
Knowing when to put a rested loaf in the oven is its own skill, and admittedly, it’s one that’s largely honed by time and experience. But even if you’ve never baked a bread in your life, you can pull it off if you know what to look for.
In a word, that’s “puffiness:” the shape should remain well-defined, but grow puffier and slightly bigger as it rests.
For a simple loaf-pan loaf, “puffiness” looks like a smooth, rounded, domed top, but I think complex shapes are the best illustrations. Take these filled, rolled buns for example:
All of these have the same shape, but see how much puffier the two larger buns in the front are than any of the others? That’s what you’re looking for.
If there’s one piece of advice I could give to new bakers, it’s to seek out recipes that describe the visual clues specifically and in detail. This is the mark of a recipe that wants you to succeed.
Be patient, trust your instincts, and don’t fear failure — it’s the best teacher there is. Besides, any real doozies can always be turned into breadcrumbs.