How Bread Works

By: Marshall Brain

Let's Bake!

Mixing the ingredients
Mixing the ingredients

By now, you understand a whole lot more about the technology of bread!

  • You know that the bubbles in the dough come from yeast, and that enzymes convert flour's starch into maltose, which the yeast eats to produce the carbon dioxide.
  • You know that the gluten in the flour helps the dough capture the carbon dioxide and hold it in mini gluten-balloons.
  • You also know that the yeast produces alcohol. The combination of the maltose and alcohol explains why bread tastes a lot better than flour mush!

So, let's bake some bread and try it out! To make one loaf, you'll need:


  • 3-1/4 cups (.78 L) flour, separated into two 1-1/2 cup (.36 L) and one 1/4 cup (.06 L) batches
  • 1 cup (.24 L) lukewarm milk (warm it in a microwave)
  • 1/8 cup (.02 L) water
  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) sugar
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 loaf pan (or cookie sheet)
  • An oven

Here we go...

  1. Dissolve the yeast in the water and let it sit for 10 minutes or so to "come back to life" (you will likely notice it foaming slightly -- that is a good sign -- it tells you your yeast is okay).
  2. In a big bowl, combine the water/yeast, milk, sugar, salt and oil.
  3. Add 1-1/2 cups of your flour and start stirring until well blended.
  4. Stir in the other 1-1/2 cups of flour. At this point, the dough will be pretty stiff but still sticky.

Now, you need to knead the dough for about 10 minutes. Start by washing your hands.

  1. Since the dough is sticky, dust the top of it with about 2 teaspoons of the flour you saved.
  2. Get your hands into the bowl with the ball of dough and squeeze it, push it, mash it, etc. This is kneading, and it's hard work, by the way, but you have to do it to develop the gluten. Stick with it for 10 minutes (set a timer if you need to). Kneading the dough
  3. When the dough gets sticky again, dust it with some more flour. You may have to use more than the original 3-1/4 cups flour, and that's okay. Your hands may get covered with sticky dough. "Wash them" with dry flour. That is, when your hands get sticky, dust them and the top of the dough ball with flour.
  4. Over time, an amazing thing will happen -- the dough ball will stop being sticky, and will become satiny smooth and elastic.

Now, you need to let the dough rise in a warm place for between 60 and 90 minutes. The easiest way to create a warmish place is to turn your oven on to its lowest setting possible (around 150 F/ 65.5 C), let it heat up to that temperature, then turn the oven off and open the door of the oven wide for about 30 seconds to dissipate some of the heat. Rub the 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil onto the top of the ball of dough to prevent drying, and then stick your bowl of dough inside the oven and close the door. Traditionally, you cover the bowl with a towel, also to keep the dough from drying out. Look in periodically.

After about 60 to 75 minutes, your dough ball will have nearly doubled in size. The gluten and the carbon dioxide that the yeast produced worked!

Letting the dough rise in the oven
Letting the dough rise in the oven
  1. Take the bowl out of the oven. The dough will be sticky again, so wash your hands and this time rub a little oil on them.
  2. "Punch the dough down," which is baking-speak for pushing all the air out of the dough with your hands.
  3. Take the dough out of the bowl. If you have a loaf pan, grease the pan, shape the dough into a small loafish shape and put it in the pan. If you are using a cookie sheet, either shape the dough into a ball or a loafish shape, and place it on the sheet.
  4. Put the dough back in the warm oven and let it rise again for anther 60 to 90 minutes -- it will double in size again.
Letting the dough rise a second time in the pan
Letting the dough rise a second time in the pan

When your dough has again doubled in size, turn the oven on to 350 degrees F (176 C), and cook the bread for about 45 minutes. You will know it is done when the loaf has a nice golden-brown color and when you tap on the top crust, the tap sounds hollow.

Take your loaf of bread out of the oven -- don't forget to turn off the oven! Let the bread cool for a minute so you can get it out of the pan. Then cut off a slice and enjoy the miracle of fresh-baked deliciousness! You are tasting the great biological and chemical masterpiece called bread!