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The Deal with Bread Dough

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I was having dinner with my friends @melomel and @elBueno@melomel bakes delicious cupcakes every week for her Cupcake Friday Project, but @elBueno does the bread-like doughs because she just didn’t have the knack yet. So I took advantage of my visit to solve the mysteries of bread for this cupcake baker.

Based on our conversation and the fact that she’s very used to the ways of pastries, I started with the basics of gluten. With cupcakes, cakes, muffins, pies, and similar pastries, you barely want any gluten at all, because the methods of creating air bubbles in pastries are subtle compared to bread. With pastries, you get:

  • Little pockets of air hidden inside of butter;
  • A delicate egg foam waiting to burst or set depending on how you cook and cool it;
  • Some carbon dioxide wafting in a gentle chemical reaction.

All of these things are great in their place, but bread has hearty yeast cells bursting with life doing their best to turn sugar into, among other things, gasses. The gluten you need for pastries is a goldfish net; it has to have small holes to catch the goldfish, and you don’t want to kill it when you transfer it from one tank to another. The gluten you need for bread is a tuna net; tuna would tear through a goldfish net as if it weren’t even there, so it has to be strong.

Therefore, all of the pastry reflexes will cause someone to completely underdo the gluten formation for bread. In pastry, overworking the dough will cause tough and unappetizing baked goods. In bread, it is essentially impossible to overwork the dough by hand, and takes a serious effort to do in a mixer. So for bread, you use high-protein flours and work at the gluten formation (caveats apply for artisinal bread).

The next difficulty for a patisserie is that it’s hard to know when the dough is ready if you don’t know what to look for. Texture in the dough is helpful, but each dough is a little different in what it needs, so until you are familiar with a particular style or formula, you aren’t really going to know what is right. However, for all straight-dough methods of bread making, there is a simple test to let you know if you have enough gluten: the windowpane test.

A proper gluten net is able to stretch a long distance without breaking. What you should be able to do is work the dough between the thumb and index fingers of both hands and stretch out the dough until you can hold it up to a light source and see light come through as if it were a particularly tasty bit of stained glass. If it tears before you can stretch it out, or even if it’s tricky to get it to the point where you can stretch it out without tearing, go ahead and work the dough some more.

Window pane sample

Those are the major bits of knowledge that will help you take any given bread dough recipe and turn it into a proper bread. There are definitely more things that will help you achieve the perfect loaf, but if you understand the basics, it will help you work your way though a mediocre recipe with the expectation of a good, fresh loaf of bread at the end.

For more detail on the gluten side of things, check out an early Kitchen Mystery, Gluten: In Depth.

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