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Gourmet Geek

Let Them Eat Bread

By Rose Grabowski

Features Columnist

Living in the age of electronic appliances for the kitchen, very few people make bread completely by hand anymore. Most homemakers are intimidated by all the stages and complexities, and therefore proxy a bread machine for good old-fashioned elbow grease. That, or they resort to supermarket loafs that would make any Frenchman scoff.

The average college student, having neither funds nor space for such a domestic device and neither time nor experience enough to learn about other methods, is rarely willing to try making bread himself. Making bread actually isn’t that confusing if you just know what is going on with the molecules -- once you know what is happening inside the bread, all of the steps make sense and are much more clear to follow.

The first step in bread creation is simply to mix together the yeast, flour, and water. As these are blended, gluten proteins begin to unfold and form a water-protein complex. Damaged starch grains absorb some water and swell a small amount. Starch enzymes break down a portion of the damaged starch into sugars, and yeast feeds on that sugar, multiplying and expelling both carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Before there were small packets of “Active Dry” yeast you could buy in the grocery store, people would just combine the flour and water and let the concoction sit in a dark place for days. The natural yeasts in the air would get into the mixture and replicate themselves, but since the level and types of yeasts in the air are varied from day to day and place to place, that scheme gives unpredictable results. You can try this at home if you like, but be prepared for some false starts; i.e. slightly foul baked goods that you wouldn’t even subject your roommate to. If you’d rather stick to modernized home bread, get the packets or jars of yeast at the market.

After these first basic ingredients have intermingled, the dough becomes too thick to stir with a spoon and so it should be dumped out onto a surface to be kneaded. Kneading aerates the dough, critical to having a fluffy and light loaf, and further develops gluten. Gluten is both plastic, changing shape under pressure, and elastic, returning to its original shape after that pressure has been eliminated. This balance means that bread dough can expand as carbon dioxide is produced and expanding, but will also resist stretching enough to keep the loaf from bursting or stretching too thin. So gluten is what makes bread spongy and chewy -- qualities generally valued in bread products.

The aeration of the dough is critical because the yeast itself does not create new air pockets, only contributes carbon dioxide to existing pockets. So kneading, folding the dough over and over again, drastically increases the number of air pockets. Kneading also encourages cross linkages of the gluten network, strengthening the dough and improving the elasticity. The extended molecules form sheets of aligned strings, leading to a smoother, finer texture. This step can take up to 15 minutes and seem tedious, but is extremely important and a good way to get buff forearms.

The third step in bread making is the rising, where the dough is set aside and covered, preventing water loss and contamination. The gluten continues to develop and the yeast ferments, multiplying cells, expanding the gas pockets with carbon dioxide, and releasing minor compounds that give bread that “yeasty” flavor. The dough doubles in size at about the time when the gluten is stretched to its maximum elasticity, and so you punch it down (yes, literally punch down) and let it rise for a short time more. This relieves stress on the gluten, divides the gas pockets, and redistributes the yeast for a more consistent dough.

Finally, the dough is placed into a pan or shaped into a loaf and let to rise one final short time, then put into a hot oven for baking. In the first stage of baking, the yeast quickly produces a lot more carbon dioxide, which expands the air pockets and therefore the bread loaf. In the second stage, the yeast is killed as the dough reaches 140°F inside, the gluten coagulates, and starch gels to form the final semi-solid foam state of the loaf.

In the last quarter of baking, browning reactions occur on the bread surface, improving color, flavor, and texture. The breads you buy at Star Market in cheap plastic bags tend to have very weak crusts, but a good hearty Italian or French loaf usually has a nice thick brown, chewy outside. This brown crust is valued by bread artisans, but is too often shunned by our Wonder Bread-ized American culture.

The critical steps of making bread are really just the initial mixing, the kneading of dough until firm and tough, rising, and then baking. It’s that simple, and since you know what is happening inside the loaf you can properly judge the product of each stage as you are doing it. And if your first few tries aren’t a huge success, just remember that a few cups of generic flour, a pack of yeast, and some tap water weren’t that expensive anyway.

Rose Grabowski is a member of the class of 2005 and may be reached at roseg@mit.edu.