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Note: I am indebted to two main sources for this page: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and Secrets of a Jewish Baker by George Greenstein. I would also like to thank Jeff Gadreau and Masha Solak for their advice.
Subject Headings - click to take you there
Yeast and Rising
- Bread has to be kneaded, and kneaded well. To prevent bubbles and crumbing, plenty of kneading is necessary. Not only does it break down the protein structures to form a smoother consistency, but also distributes active yeast and the oxygen it needs throughout the dough. Kneading is a stretching process, by which the little balls of gluten in the flour are stretched to form long strands which will give the bread its structure.
- Kneading should take at least 20 minutes on the first mixing. Another 10 minutes before shaping also helps redistribute yeast as well as eliminate the old gases which could suffocate the microphytes at work. Another benefit is aeration: those yeast plants need fresh air for the last workout in the oven!
- Over-kneading can break down the gluten too much, which is why I limit kneading to 20 minutes for regular white flour. If you are using a machine, this time must be shortened according to the instructions that machine has. Read the section on flour if you're planning to experiment with bread machine flour.
- Kneading should be done with the arms as straight as possible to avoid injuries. It should not consist of pushing down on the loaf, but rather pushing and stretching the ball out on a lightly floured surface. Use the heels of your palms by sinking them into the center of the ball, clench some dough with your fingers and push down and away from you. Eventually, you'll develop a rhythm.
- Stretch and slam the dough as much as possible. This helpful hint comes from the "Jewish Baker." It accelerates the straightening of the protein chains in the dough, heals breaks in the dough and creates tiny air pockets for the yeast to feed off of. After you've been kneading a ball for a few minutes, slam it around. Notice how the texture becomes almost fluffy. That's all the oxygen you're getting in there.
- The ideal way to knead dough to the right consistency is to start overly damp and dry up the dough by adding flour. The perfect consistency should be sticky enough so that two pieces of dough will heal together with medium pressure, yet not so sticky as to adhere to a lightly floured surface.
- Test: push your finger into the ball of dough and pull it out. If the dough sticks to the end of your finger but not the sides, you've probably got it right. If the dough is too dry, the yeast will not have enough moisture to thrive, and the starch in the dough will crystalize. If it is too damp, it will take too long to bake, not to mention being a mess to deal with in the first place!
- The best temperature for the type of dough used in prosphora is between 325-350 degrees Fahrenheit. Why? Simple: it bakes slow enough not to harden the crust before the inside of the bread has hit the tempurature necessary to kill the yeast and boil out the water inside. In simple terms: so the loaf won't blow up like a kernel of popcorn!
- If the crust hardens before the yeast in the center of the loaf die, the gases produced by the yeast will be trapped. This splits the crust (i.e. "popcorn" loaves) or results in what I call the "pita effect" (like pocket bread with a large bubble in the center).
- As the temperature at the center of the loaf increases, the yeast become more and more active. Bakers refer to this a "springing" in the oven, since the loaf will grow dramatically during the first minutes of baking before the yeast is killed by the heat. This is important to remember when dealing with bubbles: if the dough does not have a proper bubble and protein structure before baking, the heat of the oven will excite the yeast to produce gasses which will end up in all the wrong places.
- If the oven temperature is too low, the yeast won't be killed quickly enough. This causes excessive "springing," yielding not only massive bubbles but also stretching out the seal so that it is unrecognizable.
- The loaf should be baked (in the case of Byzantine loaves) until golden on the outside. Don't worry about a crust forming too hard for the priest to work with (unless it gets dark brown). The golden color indicates the center has reached tempurature. If the dough is not golden but still tan, you've probably still got a lot of uncooked dough in the center. Russian loaves don't need to reach this color because of their size. If you make them golden, chances are they will be rock hard from loosing all their moisture.
- If you're not sure if the center is done, flip the loaf over and tap the bottom with your finger. If it feels hollow, the loaf is done. If it feels solid, then there is still moisture that needs to get baked out of the center.
- For a softer crust, consult the Steam Baking page.
- This is one technique for preventing large bubbles from forming. Piercing does a number of things to the loaf. First, it ruptures large bubbles you may have missed during the punchdown and shaping. Second, the holes provide a chimney for gases to escape early in the baking process. Third, it forms a hardened area around the pierce which anchors the layers of dough together.
- Piercing is most effective went it is done inside the seal. Aim between the letter sets with a toothpick (between the I and C, X and C, N and I, K and A). then one more in the center, just off the crux a little high and to the left. These symbolize the five wounds in a way (the functioning symbolism for this is in the proskomide when the priest cuts the loaf, so this piercing method is only suggested and not necessary).
- With larger loaves, I make a ring of piercings all the way around the seal all the way to the bottom of the loaf, which allows the bread to split (if it does) on the underside of the loaf all around the bottom where my piercing comes through. This phenomenon has to do with the top crust hardening before the yeast in the center is killed off or steam looking for a way out. Since the crust will harden first on top, the bottom, with a thinner crust weakened by the piercing "exit wounds" will give way first and preserve the top crust.
Moderate Amounts of Salt
- Salt retards the growth of yeast. A little salt can keep the yeast from going nuts if it's an extremely active culture, thereby preventing over-rising.
Don't Overpress the Seal
- I've noticed in inspecting the cross-sections of loaves, pushing down too hard on the loaf with the seal can cause a pocket. How? By compacting the dough under the seal, the yeast seems to have a harder time forming its network of bubbles during the proofing. When the loaf goes into the oven and the temperature goes up, the yeast starts to crank out gases which have nowhere to go. This forms the pocket in the center once the adhesion between to layers of dough gives out. Even if the loaf is proofed, it may not have enough time for the yeast to fight against the tightly compacted area under the seal. It is recommended that you follow Subdeacon George's technique for getting a clear seal without this overpressing.
Yeast and Rising
- Prosphora needs to "proof," or set out for rising after shaping, between 20-30 minutes.
- Why does bread need to rise twice? You let bread rise over several hours to develop its flavor. The longer the yeast cells have to work (up to a point), the more maltose and alcohol they can produce.
- Why does bread need to rise in a warm place? Yeast cells are like most single-cell organisms - they are more active when it is warm. The whole idea behind a refrigerator is to make food cold so that the bacteria, which all foods contain, have a low level of activity and therefore reproduce less. Warm yeast cells do their work faster up to a point - beyond that point the temperature gets too high and the yeast cells die.
- Does the yeast reproduce in the bread? Yeast reproduces by cell division. Over the course of two hours yeast does not really have time to reproduce. The yeast cells in the envelope of yeast are the cells that do the work in your loaf of bread. That is why, if you use old yeast, your bread will not rise. Most of the yeast cells in an old envelope of yeast have died, so there are not enough cells to power the expansion.
- What is sourdough bread? Sourdough bread uses different strains of yeast or other bacteria (like Lactobacillus). Hundreds of years ago, before you could go to the grocery store and buy yeast, people needed a way to have yeast around the house. The way they did it was by keeping a pot of live culture (living in perhaps a quart of water/flour medium) and "feeding" it daily or weekly so that the yeast remained alive and active. To start the culture you take two cups of flor and two cups of water, mix, and then add in some sourdough culture that you obtain from a friend (sourdough, in times past, passed from friend to friend like this). When it came time to bake bread, a cup of this live culture would be added to the dough to provide the yeast needed to leaven the bread. The pot would be replenished by adding back an equal amount of flour and water. If you take some of the culture out and feed the pot more flour and water each week, the culture will stay alive. Most people let the culture live at the back of their refrigerator (otherwise it requires daily feeding). The strains of yeast and bacteria used in sourdough is acid-producing, hence the unique flavor of sourdough bread. (originally posted on howstuffworks.com)
- Prosphora freeze well, so long as they are baked properly to begin with and are stored in freezerproof bags.
- If your prosphora crumble and seem overly dry after thawing, there are two possible problems: First, you probably aren't kneading the dough enough to straighten the chains of gluten, which are still balled and haven't formed the elongated strands necessary to hold the loaf together properly for freezing. The second possibility is that the loaf was too dry to begin with. When things freeze, the water gets work out of them (think "freeze dried" foods). Prosphora dough is not supposed to be overly moist or chewy, but making it very dry also affects the dough negatively. Dry dough begets petrified prosphora when frozen and thawed, since the already low moisture content in the loaf cannot be entirely recouperated during the thawing process. Besides, the the low moisture does not allow the bread to attain a proper structure during the baking process.
- Hard crusts are eliminated by placing the loaf in a sealed plastic bag after several hours of cooling. Moisture from the middle of the loaf will be drawn out to the crust and make it pleasant for the priest to work with.
- Underbaking a loaf to avoid a crust is a bad idea, since you'll end up with a damp center. A little wine and warm water, and you've got a stick mess at the bottom of the chalice, not to mention what a time the priest will have breaking up that soggy piece to begin with! If you are concerned about color, large prosphora usually end up with crust the same color as a paper bay, while small Russian commemorative prosphora ahve the same creamy tan as (good) Swiss cheese.
- Avoid oils and sugar when mixing the dough. These both can cause hardened crusts (if overbaked) by making the crust rubbery (the oils harden or "vulcanize," something like rubber). This is especially dangerous to the priest, who uses a rather clumbsy "spear" to cut the bread and can easily lead to an accidental wounding if the bread crust is too difficult to work with. A rubbery crust is not only hard to cut, but also to fracture during the Anaphora. Not only that, but it leaves the priest's hands greasy and thus slippery (also dangerous), and often priests do not have a way to wash up with soap and water without leaving the Altar. This area is addressed elsewhere in this website.
- If your crusts are bursting during the baking process, try lowering the temperature and increasing the proof time before putting the loaves in the oven. The crust is forming before the yeast is killed off. Also, you may try adding more flour to the recipe, since cracks can also be caused by steam build-up. If your cracks are occuring after the loaves are brought out of the oven, place a slightly dampened towel over them right after setting them on the cooling rack. This will give them a steam bath to soften the crust, and also slow down the cooling process. Cracks of this type are caused either by the crust drying out too quickly or cooling too fast in relation to the inside of the loaf. Also, see the Steam Baking page.
- How does crust form on bread? (posted on an internet message board by Kent Stewart, Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Univ. of Texas at Austin)
There are two parts to my answer.
A) The chemical reaction that makes the crust brown is called the
"Browning or Maillard reaction". It has rather complex chemistry but is
basically a reaction between the sugars in the bread dough and the proteins
in the dough. It occurs at the rather high temperatures that are found at
the surface of the bread in baking (see below) or at the surface of the
bread slice in toasting.
B) The bread dough is a rather poor conductor of heat, thus when the dough
is exposed to the high heat of baking, the surface of the bread attains the
temperature of baking and the Maillard reaction occurs. However, since the
bread dough is such a poor conductor of heat, these high temperatures found
at the surface of the bread are not found in the interior of the bread
dough, even only a few millimeters into the bread dough. Since the high
temperatures are required for the Maillard reaction, there is no browning
in the interior of the bread dough.
- The best way to reliably shape bread is to roll it to the desired thickness and to cut it using a form. Forms can be made tin cans with the proper diameter, from tomato paste cans to large coffee cans. For even larger sizes you can find any number of round plastic containers in wholesale stores (be prepared to eat a lot of coleslaw or potato salad, though).
- To join layers of dough, moisten the top of the bottom piece, then lay the upper piece on top. The wet top will make a glue which will cement the two layers together. Piercing also helps join them together.
- If your small Russian prosphora are turning into "little people" or the tops and bottoms are completely separating, there are a number of remedies: 1) make the dough drier by adding more flour to your recipe, 2) roll the dough thinner [~ 1/4"], 3) don't let them sit out as long before you put them in the oven [you may have to work in smaller batches]. The most reliable recipe we have for these small loaves can be found here.
Commercial Bread Versus Home-baked
- Ever wondered why your bread and the stuff you get in the store are so different? Simple: commercial bakeries use special machines and a different kind of flour. The flour they use is a hard wheat flour which is impossible to knead by hand unless you're Arnold Schwartzenegger and have a lot of time on your hands.
- Your home baking flour is a soft wheat variety. This kind of flour, when put into an industrial machine, would break down in a manner of seconds. This is why they use hard wheat flour. Bread machine flour is a combination, so I don't recommend trying it if you're going to knead by hand.
- Another point to keep in mind when you marvel at the fine and even bubbles in commercial bread is that those bubbles are not made the same way you make yours. Yeast in commercial bread is more for flavor and the final spring. The bubble structure is created by the bread machines whipping air into the dough, something like whipping cream. During final spring, the yeast merely enhances what the machines put there already.
- Your yeast plants do a lot more of the work than commercial counterparts. This is why your bread will have more irregularities, since nature is at work in your loaf.