How to Bake Yeast Breads

Boy do I knead this! Week 16 of Chef School


For the next three weeks, I’ll be learning how to bake. It might seem easy to many of you, but I grew up in a household where breads and pastries were always bought at the local bakery. My mom knew the head baker by his first name and felt comfortable enough to saunter into the back for custom orders. I asked her once why she never tried to bake, as she was a terrific cook.

“Because if I bake it, I’ll EAT it,” she said. Like buying all those chocolate donuts and rugelach didn’t count because she didn’t baked them herself!

This week was all about dough with yeast in it. There are two categories of yeasted dough: Lean and Enriched. Lean dough is always flour, yeast, salt and water. Then you can add any extras. French baguettes are a good example. Enriched dough can have sugar, butter or oil, egg yolks and milk in it. When baking, lean dough needs a warmer oven, between 400-450 degrees. Baking enriched dough only needs a 375 degree oven.
Related Imagery
Prepping the Dough
Knotting the Challah
Download Recipe
Yeast is actually a single-celled organism that needs food to survive. The food in this case is bread dough. Yeast is airborne and is attracted to many kinds of food left out on the counter or even outside-  that little white coating on organic grapes you wash off is actually yeast!

Wild yeast, also called “fresh” yeast, is usually used by professionals. It gives bread a slightly different taste, but it’s very perishable. Unless you are baking all the time, it doesn’t make sense for you to use it.

Packaged yeast is dehydrated. According to May, when using it to bake, the yeast gets re-hydrated. When mixed with the rest of the dough, it eats the starch and changes it into sugar by “burping out” co2 and alcohol. I love when my teacher gets graphic. This burping action makes the bread lighter and fluffier, much like the process of making beer.

Water affects the taste of bread dough as well. New Yorkers know this well, especially when it comes to pizza dough. I challenge anyone not in New York to find better pizza than in the Big Apple! Or for that matter, great sourdough bread outside of San Francisco. No matter where you get the water, make sure to use tepid and not hot water. Yeast begins to die around 120 degrees.

There are also a few different kinds of flour which use different kinds of wheat. Cake, bread and all-purpose flours have different amounts of protein in them. Bread flour has a higher percentage, while cake flour has the least. All-purpose flour falls somewhere in the middle. Although you can use rye or whole grain flour, wheat flour is the classic choice for working with yeast. The protein in the wheat flour turns to gluten when water is added, and this gluten is what gives the bread its structure. Milk can be used instead but gives a different texture and caramelizes the crust because of the milk sugar.

We learned how to proof yeast. Proofing ensures that the yeast is still alive, plus it is very easy to do. Simply take a tablespoon or so of yeast, add a little warm water to it and watch it for a few minutes. If it starts to bubble and foam, it’s still viable.

Another tip from May: always start with LESS than the amount of flour stated in the recipe. Less flour makes the bread lighter. If you can get it to the right state of tackiness, the rest of the flour isn’t necessary. May then demonstrated a “gluten window.” She stretched a small amount of the dough into a square that she could almost see through. If you can make one of these from the bread dough you’ve just kneaded, it’s ready to rest. Just oil your resting bowl so the dough doesn’t stick, and then let it double in size.

I was very excited that challah was my assigned bread to bake. I use challah for my Thanksgiving stuffing base. Do you know how EXPENSIVE they are out here? Each loaf (a good one) costs around $6. I use at least three for my recipe. Now I can make my own! Who wants challah French toast tomorrow for breakfast?! 



1 t sugar
1 C warm water
1 T dry yeast
1/2 C oil
1/4 C sugar
2 T salt
2 eggs
3 3/4 to 4 C all-purpose flour
1 t poppy seeds
1 t sesame seeds
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tstp water for wash

Dissolve tsp sugar in 1/2 C warm water in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle yeast on top and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir to dissolve. Combine with oil, remaining water, sugar, salt, eggs and half the flour. Beat well. Stir in remaining flour. Dough should be sticky. Cover dough and let rest for 10 minutes. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for 10 minutes, adding flour as needed.

Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Stand until doubled. 

Punch down, then divide dough into three equal parts. Shape into strands. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet and braid loosely. Fasten ends securely. Let rise until doubled. Brush with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with seeds. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes or so, until golden brown.

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