This title presupposes that I am an expert on bread baking. Truth is, I started baking bread only a few years ago. My first few forays into bread baking were disasters - bread that turned out so hard they were more like mini missiles than anything edible, although my family was so sweet they ate them with barely a murmur. I started reading up on everything I could find on bread baking and getting great tips from professional bakers. I have written down, below, everything I found useful - the whys and hows of bread making, and the practical tips I have learnt that have helped me so much. So this is more an ongoing compilation of everything that has worked for me, which I will add to whenever I come across any note-worthy tips, as I continue trying new ways of baking different breads,. I hope this helps you too.
How warm should the water be for dry yeast to activate? Temperature of the water for the yeast to activate should be just slightly above body temperature, around 40 to 45 deg Celsius. If you're not sure, get a little water on a spoon and sprinkle it on your wrist. If it's feels comfortably warm, that is the right temperature (similar to testing baby's milk temperature before feeding)
What are the different types of yeast and how to use them? There are three most common types of yeast found in general supermarkets - Fresh (less commonly found), Instant or Easy Bake and Dry
Fresh yeast - This is best if you can get it. It's fully yeast, and can be just added to the dough mix and used immediately. There is no need to activate it. Very simple, convenient and 100% yeast.
Instant or Easy Bake - This is also very simple and convenient and my next preference if fresh yeast cannot be found. It is used the same way as fresh yeast, but it's not 100% yeast. It has some additives. I don't really bother with the additives - I've been using instant all along and have absolutely no issues with it at all, but if you prefer 100% yeast, no additives, go for either fresh or dry.
Dry - this is full yeast with no additives, but dry yeast needs to be activated before you can use it (see above for how to activate dry yeast). A little less convenient, but no additives.
Are these different types of yeasts interchangeable? Short answer is yes, but you should convert them to get the right amount. The book All You Knead Is Bread by Jane Mason has a very good rule of thumb, "the amount of dry yeast you need is 1% of the total amount of flour. The amount of instant yeast is 50% of that and the amount of fresh yeast is double that. Thus, if you are using 500 g of flour, you need 5 g dry yeast or 2.5 g instant yeast or 10 g fresh yeast."
Why is wooden spoon recommended? A flat edged wooden spoon is preferable for mixing bread dough as it is strong and will not break when stirring thick dough, and scrapping the bottom of the bowl. If you have a silicon spatula, that would work as well, although it is not as strong as a wooden spoon and it may be a little harder to scrap the bottom of the bowl. Plastic is fine but not as strong, and it may break when stirring hard dough.
Kneading - the make or break of bread baking
Kneading the dough causes protein in the flour to line up and form strands of gluten. It also adds tiny gas pockets into the dough that will expand during proofing and baking. Bread dough starts out sticky. When you start kneading, it can be quite uncomfortable kneading through the sticky dough and you will be tempted to keep adding flour for easier handling. Don't. That was my mistake when I first started making bread. Too much flour results in a hard bread. My first breads were more like weapons - I could injure people with my hard bread. As tempting as it is to add flour, resist. I usually put aside about 20 to 40 gram of flour for lightly dusting the kneading counter and adding to the flour if really needed. You will need to knead the dough for at least 10 minutes, most times, I knead for about 12 to 15 minutes, if kneading only by hand. The dough will become less sticky after a while, and at the end of the kneading, the dough will be smooth and un-sticky and your hands will be clean of dough.
Kneading by hand - lightly flour a sturdy counter top, then use the heel of your palms to push the dough forwards. Then turn the dough a quarter clockwise and push the dough forwards again with your palm. Keep repeating.
Kneading by mixer - always used the dough hook attachment. Start from low speed, then slowly increase to medium speed.
Why punch down the dough after first proofing? After the dough has risen for the first time (first proofing), it is punched down and kneaded again for about one to two minutes, to even out the texture in the bread and deflate any large gas bubbles that may have formed. Then the dough is allowed to proof for a second time.
To test if the dough is properly fermented, poke 2 fingers about 1 or 2 inches into the dough. If the holes do not close up after you remove your fingers, the dough is properly fermented. Punch the dough down, then knead it for a quick minute or two.
How to tell when the dough is properly kneaded? There are many ways to tell, but personally speaking, my preferred method is the windowpane test. Pinch and lift up about lime sized amount of dough. Using both hands, stretch it out gently and make a "windowpane", like a translucent skin. If the dough doesn't tear, the dough is ready. If it tears, you need to continue kneading it. You can test again after about 3 minutes. The dough also becomes smooth and un-sticky.
Egg wash - what, why and when
What - Egg wash is usually made up of egg (white and/or yolk) and liquid (water/milk/whip cream) mixture
Why - Egg wash is used to brush on top of pastry or bread to enhance it's appearance, give it a polished browned and glossy look after baking and, improve the texture of a baked good. It is also used as a "glue" to stick toppings on the bread or pastry or to seal openings.
When - Egg wash is gently brushed on with a food brush just before putting the bread or pastry into the oven.
Egg wash effects This is a fabulous table from cooksinfo.com showing the various effects you can get from different eye wash variations
Do you have any other tips on good bread baking? I would love to add them to this list.