If you are interested in bread baking but are a complete complete beginner, this article will help. Learn the fundamentals of baking bread with yeast: kneading, rising, and baking, so that you can follow any recipe successfully.
Before I started baking bread, it seemed like something was very mysterious and impressive. The truth is, it’s easier than many kitchen tasks. I mess up dinner on a regular basis…but rarely do I mess up bread. Once you understand the basic steps and know what to look for at each stage, you’ll be able to confidently tackle any recipe involving yeast. A few key tools will make things even easier and really set you up for success.
The stages of any yeast dough recipe
Any bread recipe involving yeast has six basic stages.
- Mixing and kneading
- The first rise
- The second rise (also known as “proofing”)
I’m sure there is some recipe out there that follows a different chain of events, but as a general rule, they will all go like this. Let’s discuss them one by one.
Mixing and kneading
This just involves measuring out your ingredients, mixing them up and then kneading them. This is probably the stage at which things go wrong the most frequently. A big mistake that many bread bakers make is under kneading. Under kneaded dough will not rise as well and won’t have the soft and fluffy texture we are looking for.
How long should you knead your bread dough for?
As a general rule, longer than you might think. Many, many recipes, will say things like “knead until smooth”, or “knead 5-7 minutes”, and this is almost always not enough.
If you are kneading by hand, at least ten minutes. But to be honest, probably more like twenty. If I am kneading by hand (which I almost never do), I knead for ten minutes, let it (and me!) rest for five minutes, and then return and knead for another ten. This is tedious and I don’t recommend it. Most people will get tired of it before the dough is actually ready and will end up with an inferior product.
If you are kneading with a stand mixer, set it on a low setting (1 or 2), and let it run for five minutes, give it a five minute rest, and run it again for another five. If it doesn’t seem kneaded enough after that (more on this in a bit), then keep doing five minutes on/ five minutes off until it is done. A stand mixer can easily burn out its motor when its kneading bread dough, so it’s important to not run it for more than five minutes at a time.
The best way to knead bread dough is in a bread machine. Almost every single yeast bread recipe I make is made in one. While they are not great for actually baking the loaves, they will knead it perfectly. They all have a “dough” cycle, which will typically knead and rise the dough, then shut off.
How do you know when bread is kneaded enough?
The absolute best way to tell is to look for something in your dough called “windows”. You take a golf ball size of dough that you have already kneaded, stretch it out and see if it pulls into a translucent area that looks like a bubble from gum. If you see a window, it means that the gluten has sufficiently developed and you can move on to the next step.
The first rise
Once you have kneaded your dough, the next step is the first rise. In this step, the dough rises “in bulk”, meaning it is not shaped, it just rises in a bowl or bread machine bucket into one big puffy ball.
As a general rule, any recipe with a lot of fat or sugar, like a brioche or cinnamon roll, which rise slowly. Something without fat or sugar, like a simple French bread, will rise quickly.
This bulk rise will typically take anywhere from 45-75 minutes, with one hour being a good guideline.
If you kneaded by hand or stand mixer, transfer the dough into a clean bowl and cover it with a damp tea towel or greased plastic wrap. If you kneaded in a bread machine, the machine will simply switch to the rise portion of the cycle.
Temperature for rising bread dough
Warmth will help your dough rise more quickly. Some ovens have a “proof” or “dough” setting, but this is almost always too warm. The ideal temperature is about 90-100 degrees, and most of these cycles run about 120. I like to turn mine on, turn it off to start cooling down, and then put the dough in.
However, dough will rise at any temperature (except freezing). So if you would like to put something in your fridge overnight, it will rise in 12 hours or so. This is very handy for any type of breakfast bread so its ready for you in the morning.
A bread machine will warm up very slightly turning the first rise, and you will not need to worry about any of this. If you have kneaded a dough and want it to rise overnight in the fridge, just turn it off when the kneading portion is done. You can cover up the bucket with plastic wrap and just pop it in the fridge.
Shaping the dough
Once you have a nice puffy ball, it is time to shape this ball into the final shape. Two things to keep in mind: don’t handle the dough too much (no squashing it, pushing on it, punching it), and don’t add flour. You can flour your hands and your counter if you must. I prefer to spray them with vegetable oil spray (use a plastic cutting boar or plastic kid’s placemat). This keeps the dough from sticking, but keeps it light. Adding flour weighs down the dough and works against its fluffiness.
If you are making a sandwich loaf, you gently stretch the dough out and then roll it into a log. You gently place it in a loaf pan, and that loaf pan will give it its final shape.
For a round or oval free-form loaf, just pinch the bottom of your loaf until the top smooths out in a way you are happy with.
For baguettes, first shape the dough into a big log. Let it rest about 15 minutes, and then start pulling it into a long baguette shape.
If it looks good and you haven’t squished it too much, its fine. Don’t get hung up on the “correct” technique.
The bread’s final rise
If you are going to slash the dough at all, go ahead and do so. Add any toppings, like an egg wash, melted butter, seeds, etc. Then do the final rise.
Once the dough is shaped, it rises one more time. This is the exact same process as the first rise.
Cover the dough very carefully. I almost always use heavily greased plastic wrap for this. If your cover clings to the top of the dough at all, you will ruin it when you pull it off. You’ve come so far! Take the second to really spray your plastic wrap with vegetable oil spray.
Place it in a warm spot, just like last time. Keep an eye on it, because you don’t want it to over rise. If you are doing rolls, they will rise quickly.
Towards the end of the rising time, preheat your oven. If your bread is rising in the oven, don’t forget to take it out first!
Baking your loaf
Place the loaf on the center rack once your oven has preheated, and set a timer.
It can be hard to tell based on the appearance whether a loaf is baked through, so if you have a thermometer, that is very handy. You want it to be between 190-200 degrees.
I often leave my loaves in a few minutes longer than stated in some recipes. I like the bread browned, and nothing is worse than an underbred loaf. If in doubt, leave it a couple minutes more.
Let it cool at least 20 minutes before slicing into it, and enjoy!
Beginner yeast bread baking recap
- Knead the dough
- Let it become a puffy ball
- Shape it into what it should like it
- Let it puff up again
- Bake it.
Not so hard, right?
Helpful tools for first time bakers
You may have gathered that I am a big, big fan of the bread machine, especially for beginning bakers. It takes all the guesswork out of the kneading and the first rise, as well as saving time. Since you won’t be baking in it, a basic model will do just fine. I have this very simple one and it has served me very well.
Also, I highly, highly recommend using SAF Instant Yeast. I love it so much that I call for it specifically in all my recipes. It is one of those rare times when the less expensive option is also much better. It comes in bulk, in a one pound vacuum-sealed brick. You can just open it, put it in a mason jar, place it in the freezer (it does not form a block or anything, it stays granulated), and measure it out as needed. It will keep at least a year.
The best recipes for bread baking beginners
Now reading about techniques is one thing. Following a recipe is another, and I encourage you to go ahead and get started. Here are some great recipes for your first time.
- Easy French Bread in a Dutch Oven. One of my most popular recipes, this one is foolproof, quick to rise, and very popular to serve with dinner.
- Strawberry Breakfast Bread. This one is easy because there is no shaping of the loaf involved, and its just fun to drizzle icing on things.
- King Arthur Flour Hearth Bread requires only basic ingredients and is simple to follow.
If you like learning with video, my YouTube channel has a new baking video every week, and many of them are bread.
I hope some of these tips have helped you. The best thing to do now is to stop reading and to work your way through some of the recipes above.