The Science of Baking

Bread is the staff of life.— English Proverb

Cited as“The proverb was first recorded in 1638 in Penkethman, Artachthos” in Martin H. Manser, The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (2007), 33.

I love, love, love to experiment in the kitchen. Everything about cooking, about baking is science. It’s all about denaturing proteins, chemical reactions, fermentation. Oh, I love that word. Fermentation. Sends a shiver down my spine.  Biochemistry is all about fermentation.

Remember when I told you that I’m a stay at home mom? Remember how I said that I was afraid that was boring? I didn’t mean boring to me, I’m never bored. There’s too much to do. It was by choice that I decided to change my career to take care of my family full time. I cannot imagine it any other way. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way. It’s just our way. Way back, in that other life, I worked at a University for a Professor. She really seemed to understand me and I would not be where I am today without her influence. When I left her lab, she gave me a cook book. It inspires me to this day.  


Still, I need my science. I love my science. I’m going to share some of my science with you.

We’re going to make bread. Real bread. Not the “white what is this made of anyway” bread that you buy at the store. That’s not real bread.  Real bread only has 4 ingredients (well 3 actually, but that’s another post).  It’s fermentation at it’s finest. You need time though. Biochemistry always takes time. We used to joke in the lab that the most important piece of lab equipment was a sleeping bag. Don’t worry, this won’t take that long. Give yourself about 4 hours.

This recipe is for french bread. To make the genuine article you need a wood-fired oven but, since the dreamer hasn’t built mine yet (D are you reading this?), this recipe will have to do.

You will need:

4 cups of flour

2 teaspoons of salt

2 ¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast

1 ½ cups of warm water


Mix together the dry ingredients. You can use all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, maybe add some rye flour. The more all-purpose you use, the lighter the loaf will be but less flavorful. If this is your first time making bread, I recommend all-purpose. It’s just easier to work with. I use my mixer but you can mix by hand. Make a well in the center of the ingredients and pour the water in. Knead the dough for 10 min. It should form a ball.


It shouldn’t be dry and powdery but also shouldn’t stick to your fingers when you poke it. Play dough, it should feel like play dough. If it’s dry you can add a tiny bit more water, 1 TBS at a time. If it’s too sticky add 1 TBS of flour until it no longer sticks. Oil the ball of dough. Why, you ask? You don’t want to let the dough dry out. If you do, you can always kneed it back in but that’s more work. Let it rise until doubled, about 2 hours in a warm place. I preheat my oven to 100, turn it off and stick the bowl in. A sunny window or near a register will work too. Now it’s time to let the yeast ferment. They eat the sugars in the flour and release carbon dioxide (makes it rise) and alcohol (makes it taste good). 

finished dough

Punch it down. Take it all out on your bread. Feel better? Good. Form the dough into two rectangles (I weigh my dough on a kitchen scale to make sure they’re even). Roll the squares into long skinny loaves, they don’t have to be perfect. Oil, cover and rise. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400. Right before baking, to keep your loaves from tearing, take a sharp knife and score them 3 or 4 times.


Now about steam. It’s more science. The secret to a good loaf is steam. When the bread goes into the oven, the yeast has this final burst of activity and the gases trapped in the loaf heat and expand rapidly (remember high school science). This is called ovenspring. Steam is so important because it keeps the crust moist and allows for the expansion. It also dissolves sugars in the dough that will caramelize on the surface.

I don’t need caramelized crust, said no one ever.

But how do I get steam in my oven? Easy peasy. Just add a cup of water to a baking pan on the bottom rack. Put the loaves of bread on the middle rack and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the pan and reduce the temperature to 350 and bake for about 20-30 minutes more. When the crust looks crunchy and golden, tap on the bottom. Literally. Does it sound hollow? Then it’s done. Let it cool. Bread tastes it’s absolute best when it has cooled to an internal temperature of 85. Too technical for you? Wait at least 20 min.

There, you did it. You made bread. I’m proud of you. Can I come over?



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