Many people are intimidated by yeast bread, but it’s not really that hard to make. You don’t need a lot of culinary experience or a counter-hogging machine. Just remember these three basics, and you can turn out delicious loaves for your friends and family.
Great bread takes time, but not as much as you might think. You can leave dough for up to 24 hours the first time it rises, so you can start your bread, stick it in a warm place while you sleep or work, and finish it whenever it’s convenient the next day. Just be sure to prevent the dough from drying out by greasing it and covering with plastic wrap or a damp towel.
Temperature is important to bread. The ideal water temperature for activating yeast is 120°-130°F for compressed yeast, 105°-115°F for dry yeast. If the water is too hot (over 130°F), the yeast dies; if it’s too cold the dough will be sticky.” When rising, dough should be kept at 80°-90°F.
All this is not as complicated as it sounds, however. Simply choose a recipe that calls for active yeast (most do), and make sure your yeast has not expired. When you mix the yeast with water to activate or “prove” it, make sure the water feels warm-not hot-to the touch.
To create a warm space for the dough to rise, warm the oven and check it after a few minutes. If it seems a little warmer than the room, turn off the oven and put the dough in. If it’s too hot, leave the oven door open for a few minutes until it’s just warm. On a warm day, you can leave your bread outside, but not in the sun, and not when it’s over 90°F.
Finally, make sure everything that touches your yeast is room temperature or slightly above. Try to use wooden utensils and plastic or glass bowls. Cold metal can be warmed-but don’t let it get too hot. Also, make sure to warm ingredients from the fridge, such as eggs, to room temperature, and cool hot ingredients, such as melted butter, to lukewarm.
Kneading helps gluten form in the bread, creating a texture with air pockets where gas released by the yeast is trapped. Be sure to knead vigorously for the entire time recommended by the recipe. Use the heel of your hand to press the dough down. Add flour if called for; then fold the dough over and turn it (for a demonstration, see here). When you slice into your bread, releasing its delicious aroma from hundreds of tiny air pockets, you’ll know you kneaded well.
Gardiner, Anne, and Sue Wilson with the Exploratorium. “Yeast is Fussy About Temperature.” The Inquisitive Cook. An Owl Book. New York: Holt, 1998. Used in Exploratorium. The Accidental Scientist. Science of Cooking.