Yeast is alive.
It needs the correct temperature to work. Not cold, not hot but warm. Around 100-120 degrees.
Yeast releases gases, kind of like burping, as it “eats”. These gases leaven the dough.
Yeast dies in the presence of high heat, like from your oven.
Now I know you have heard that making bread is hard. I disagree. I will admit that it takes practice and patience. A lot of patience for the following reasons…
Gluten: So far in all of our baking adventures we have tried our hardest not to produce gluten, the protein that is formed by kneading or mixing dough. Gluten gives elasticity and chewiness to products, which we don’t want in a delicate muffin or cake but we do want in a piece of bread or pizza. To produce enough gluten in bread you must spend time kneading it.
Kneading: Kneading dough requires you to use a little muscle. I tell my students that if you are not a little tired in the end, you probably haven’t kneaded enough. To knead dough, start by placing the ball of dough on a lightly floured surface. Use both heels of your hands to push down and forward into the dough. Fold over the top piece of the dough onto itself and turn the dough about 180 degrees. Repeat these steps until the dough is satiny, smooth and elastic. It should not be mushy anymore and should feel significantly more dense and tough. Add flour to the surface until it is no longer sticky.
Rising: During this stage your bread enters the initial fermentation. The yeast produces carbon dioxide bubbles that leaven the dough. This varies in time depending on the recipe. It is usually done in an oiled bowl so the rising dough is able to “climb” the sides. It should be kept covered in a warm draft-free place. In this time it should double in size. To test for doneness, it can be pressed with two fingers, if it holds the indentation its ready. Once it has risen, which can take an hour or more, the dough is punched down gently. This gets rid of excess carbon dioxide, relaxes the gluten and helps to equal out the temperature.
Proofing: Here the dough enters the second rising stage. At this point, depending on the recipe, the dough is shaped into a round or long loaf or put into a container or pan.
The following bread recipe was one of the easier bread recipes I have made. The taste was amazing and it was wonderfully soft and chewy on the inside while nice and crusty on the outside.
Julia Child’s French Bread – adapted from Joythebaker.com
4 cups bread flour ( has higher protein content needed for bread making)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups water
Place 3 3/4 cups of flour and the salt in the bowl of an electric stand mixer and mix well to distribute the salt. Salt will kill yeast if it comes into direct content in large quantity.
Heat up the water to 110 degrees and dissolve the yeast in the water. You should see the yeast begin to bubble as it “wakes up” and releases gases.
With the mixer on low, combine the yeast mixture with the flour mixture until the dough comes together.
Then switch to the dough hook and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Let the dough rest 5 minutes in the bowl.
Mix again for 3 minutes and then place on a clean work surface that has been dusted lightly with some of the remaining 1/4 cup of bread flour.
Knead the dough and add the remaining flour until the dough is no longer sticky and the dough is satiny and smooth. Form the dough into a compact ball by pinching the dough together at the bottom.
Place in an oiled bowl. Cover with a clean towel and place in a draft free, warm place for 1 1/2 hours until the dough has doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and reform into a ball again. Cover and let the dough proof for an additional 30 minutes.
Cut the dough in half and form into 2 round loaves by pinching all the edges together so the top is smooth and the gathered pinch is on the bottom.
Cover with a damp cloth and let it proof for the final time for 45 minutes. At this time pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees and place in it a baking stone or heavy inverted sheet pan so it becomes very hot. Also place a metal ( not ceramic or glass which could shatter) baking pan on the bottom of the oven to hold water we will need to create steam.
Before placing the bread rounds, which are called boules, into the oven, slash them with a very sharp knife in a decorative pattern. This will allow the bread dough to expand while baking.
Open the oven and take out the inverted sheet pan or baking stone and place the boules on it. Place them in the oven and quickly pour a 1/4 cup of water in the metal baking pan on the bottom of the oven and shut the door immediately. This will help to create steam which helps create crust on the bread.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 190 -210 degrees.
Cool completely before serving.
P.S. This is delicious with spinach artichoke dip.