Flour, water, salt and yeast are the fundamental ingredients of bread making. Here we explain what to expect with each ingredient and their role in making that perfect loaf.
By volume, flour is the primary ingredient in bread. Different types of flour contain different amounts of gluten which mean they all behave slightly differently.
Types of flour
Strong White Bread Flour - Risen’s Mighty White Bread Flour
It is important to use bread flour when baking a loaf as it has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour. White bread flour has the highest protein of all, making it easy to get a good rise. This extra protein creates more gluten when kneaded in, creating a more elastic dough. You can also add strong white flour to other flours with less protein to help them lift and hold.
Wholemeal Bread flour – Risen’s Awesome Wholemeal Flour
Baking with wholemeal flour lends a nutty flavour as it contains the natural bran of the grain. Due to its lower gluten content, it makes denser loaves. Wholemeal flour absorbs more water than white so requires a slightly longer knead. To give your bread more lift, mix wholemeal flour with strong white flour.
Spelt flour – Risen’s Super White Spelt Flour
Spelt is low in gluten, making it easier to digest but, because of this, it does not hold its structure whilst proving and baking so it’s best to use a tin when baking. Spelt is more water-soluble than wheat, so you may need less water than with other flours. Be careful not to overwork the dough by kneading it in shorter periods. Try using spelt for 25% of the flour in a bread recipe, see how it comes out, and then increase the amount you use from there to suit your desired loaf.
This flour is made from a grass, but it is related to wheat and contains some gluten. It is low in protein so behaves differently from wheat flours. Rye flour can be a little trickier to work with as the dough can be heavy and sticky, taking longer to rise. It produces dense, dark and richly flavoured bread, so it’s worth mixing with wheat flour if you want a lighter loaf. Try using some rye flour with strong white bread flour for added flavour.
Milled from a mixture of soft and hard wheat varieties, plain flour has a moderate protein content and is best for cakes, biscuits and pastry. It is a kitchen stable and you can rely on it to create flaky pie crusts, chewy cookies, and fluffy pancakes. If you use plain flour in a recipe that suggests strong bread flour you may need to leave it longer to rise and the bread texture will be more crumbly.
Self-raising flour is mainly used for cakes as it contains baking powder, and needs no other rising agent. It is generally made from soft wheat with a moderate protein content. You can make your own by combining 1 cup of all-purpose flour with 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon of salt.
Sometimes an overlooked ingredient, water is a key factor in the formation of dough. It is in the presence of water that gluten forms and by hydrating the yeast, proteins and starch the fermentation begins. How much hydration you use will alter the texture of the crumb. Generally speaking, the more water in the dough, the more open the final bread’s crumb will be. Once you understand hydration levels, and how to adjust your hydration to get certain outcomes for your bread, it can be a real game changer.
Using tap water
Most types of water around the house are safe to use when baking bread as the chlorine levels won’t impact commercial yeast activity. Sourdough starters may be a little more sensitive so leave the water out overnight. It’s best if your water is of a medium hardness, as that contains enough minerals for yeast to eat and thus ferment, but not too few minerals that your dough is sticky and slack. It’s worth knowing that the levels of chlorine present in tap water is not enough to negatively impact commercial yeast activity.
The easiest way to control the temperature of your dough is through changing the water temperature. Some bakers prefer to use tap-cool water to get a slower rise to lend more flavour; the exception to this is sourdough as the yeast in the starter needs a little more help. Yeast will start to die and will stop producing gas at temperatures above 37C so it’s important to use water that’s no hotter than hand warmth. Find the temperature at which your dough rises well and adjust the water temperature each time you make dough to achieve this temperature.
Adding steam during baking doesn't just enable a great rise in the oven, it helps achieve that richly-coloured, crackly crust. Either spritz your oven before putting in your dough, add a tray of hot water at the bottom or bake in a preheated dutch oven for more steam to keep the surface of your dough moist, allowing it to expand easily.
Salt performs several important functions. It is possible to make a loaf of bread without it, but your bread is definitely going to look and taste better with some salt added.
Salt gives your loaf the flavouring it needs as it brings out the aromas present in the flour. It also helps the colour of your crust as without it, it can be pale and dull. The other important role that salt plays is as to control the rate of yeast fermentation. Salt slows the rising process of a yeast bread dough, giving the gluten in the dough time to strengthen and develop. It helps the loaf to hold on to the carbon dioxide gas that is formed during fermentation, supporting good volume. This results in a better crumb and crust, particularly in doughs that have a long rising period to begin with.
Without salt, the yeast will ferment too quickly, producing large and irregular sized air cells in the crumb structure.
When to add salt to your dough
Generally salt is added later in the mixing process, to allow more time for enzymatic processes to happen before the salt inhibits them.
We recommend adding salt after an autolyse when making sourdough. A good way to do this is reserving some of the water from the recipe to dissolve the salt in, making it is easier to distribute. You’ll notice that the dough tightens up almost immediately after adding the salt. If you're using dry yeast, it’s actually quite immune to salt until its rehydrated and brought out of its hibernation, so you can add the salt at any time.
Salt levels are a personal taste but in general, bread recipes aim to add salt at a weight of 2% of that of the flour weight. So 2g salt in every 100g flour. In a standard bread loaf recipe using 500g of flour, you’d add in 10g of salt.
Yeast is the micro-organism that produces gas and rises your dough, creating the fresh, crusty breads we love to bake. Yeast can be found as fresh, dried, active or in sourdough starters.
Fresh yeast, sometimes called cake yeast, is a block of fresh yeast cells that contains about 70% moisture that must be stored in the fridge. It’s pale beige in colour and soft and crumbly in texture. It has a short shelf life will only last about 2 weeks in the fridge and must be stored in an air-tight container. Fresh yeast slows down and becomes less effective the longer you store it, so try and use it quickly after buying it. Alternatively, it can be frozen in individual portions, if wrapped well, and can last up to a year. One benefit of using fresh yeast is that it can be more robust, and produce gas better, when used in enriched doughs - those made with fats, eggs and sugar.
To use fresh yeast, crumble it into small pieces first. After that, you can add it to the dry ingredients or soften it in warm water and proceed with the recipe. Fresh yeast is great in breads that require a long, slow rising time, as it activates more quickly than dried yeast and also stays active for a longer period of time. Adding sugar to fresh yeast makes it easier to mix into the water and encourages it to ferment.
Dried yeast, or active dried yeast, is the more traditional kind and has been used for generations to bake bread. It comes in the form of fairly large granules and must be re-hydrated in lukewarm water before adding it to the dough, using some water from the recipe to do this.
It can be unstable so it is best to always test it before using it. If the yeast mixture does not produce bubbles or foam within 15 minutes, it is no longer useable. This type of yeast can be stored in the cupboard or fridge and will last up four months after opening as it is quite perishable when exposed to air, moisture and heat. To extend its shelf life, store sealed packets in an airtight bag in the freezer. Dry yeast should be a room temperature before you use it so let it sit for 30 – 45 minutes before using it if taking it out of the freezer.
Instant/Active dried yeast
This is a popular form of yeast as it is more finely ground than active dry yeast and can be added straight into flour when making your recipe, making it more convenient. It absorbs water more quickly so the yeast cells become active, in less time, enhancing the bread's rise. Instant yeast contains ascorbic acid, vitamin C, which helps the rising action, meaning that you can make bread with just one rise.
It is sometimes also referred to as bread machine yeast, rapid-rise yeast or quick-rise yeast. This can be stored for up to 4 months in fridge and a year in the freezer.
Sourdough starter/wild yeast
A sourdough starter, or a levain, is a paste of flour and water in which the naturally occurring wild yeasts flourish. It can be stored at room temperature, or in the fridge, and requires regular feeds. It can last indefinitely. For more information go to our Sourdough Starter article.
For more on yeast go to Getting to Know Yeast