On Yeast Dough

I already professed my undying love for a yeast dough. I love it in any shape or form – being it basic whole grain bread to accompany a filling soup, hearty artisanal loaf, or egg-enriched buttery sweet bread. I have to say, though, that it definitely wasn’t love at first sight on my side. My first encounters with yeast dough were rather frustrating, and I don’t care to count how many pounds of flour and butter ended up in the trash during my early experiments. Many, many times I swore to never touch yeast ever again, and yet not even a week went by, and I was back in the kitchen trying once more.

Looking back it’s clear to me now that I simply didn’t understand basic principles of working with yeast dough. Ever since I first set my foot into the kitchen many moons ago, cooking and baking has been more or less a play for me – let’s fire up that pan, toss a little bit of this and a little bit of that in, and see what happens. Well, yeast dough doesn’t work that way. It can be a little fussy, like a high maintenance girlfriend/boyfriend – you need to be careful in its presence, handle it with care, and give it time and attention it requires. But once you understand what it needs, it pays you back, and a whole world if endless possibilities opens up in front of you. And you can start playing again, adding a little bit of this and little bit of that, and you’ll be rewarded with surprisingly delicious results every single time, I promise.

Many people seem intimidated by yeast dough, even though they really don’t need to be. There are only two things you need to keep in mind when working with yeast dough: temperature and time. Every dough starts with just three key ingredients: flour, liquid, and yeast. After you mix them up, the yeast starts feeding on the sugar and makes carbon dioxide bubbles that get trapped in the dough and make it rise. When activating the yeast, you need to use liquid that is just the right temperature – not too cold, or the yeast won’t “bloom”, and not too hot, or you’ll kill it, and your dough won’t rise. The liquid should be just lukewarm (100 – 110 °F, 37 – 43 °C). Adding a little sugar helps the little beasties to wake up and start doing their thing. After about 10 minutes, the yeast mixture will look foamy, and you’ll be ready for the next step. You mix in the flour and all the other ingredients according to your recipe, knead it until it’s soft, smooth, and elastic, and there you have it – your basic yeast dough. Now the only thing it needs is time, so that it can show you its magic and double in volume. Once it does that, you’re free to shape it any way you want. And after shaping and a short second rise, you slide it in the hot oven, and you can get ready to be amazed.

Key ingredients in yeast dough:

1. Yeast (fresh or instant; I prefer instant which is more reliable)
2. Liquid (water, milk, whey, buttermilk, potato water, or a combination)
3. Flour (bread flour which has higher gluten content, all-purpose flour, whole wheat, rye)
4. Fat (optional, depending on the recipe – butter, olive oil)

My basic recipe:

• 250 ml (1 cup) milk
• 1 teaspoon sugar or other sweetener
• 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
• 450 – 500 g (1 lb.) all-purpose flour (or bread flour)
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 egg yolks, room temperature
• 56 g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened

If you want to make a sweet yeast pastry, add:
• ½ cup white sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
• 1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)

Method:

1. Heat the milk until lukewarm, add sugar. Sprinkle in the yeast, stir, and set aside for about 10 – 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
2. In the meantime, put all the other ingredients in a bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with a dough hook.
3. After the yeast mixture looks foamy, add it to the ingredients in the bowl, and start mixing at a low speed. The dough should start to come together pretty quickly. If it seems too dry, add a little milk/water (not too hot), if it’s too wet, add a little flour, one tablespoon at a time.
4. After a couple more minutes, the dough should start pulling away from the sides of the bowl and forming a ball. Continue kneading for another 10 – 15 minutes, until the dough is soft, smooth, and elastic.
5. Turn the dough ball into an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm spot 45 – 60 minutes, until doubled.
6. Shape the dough: For bread, form the dough into a loaf, and place it seam side down into a buttered loaf pan. For rolls, divide the dough into pieces, each weighing about 100 – 150 g (3.5 – 5 oz.) and place them onto a lined baking pan. Let the bread/rolls rise again, while you preheat the oven. Give them an optional coat of egg wash, and bake at 350 – 375 °F for 20 – 25 minutes for rolls, and 40 – 45 minutes for the bread.

Cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven, made using the recipe above

Cinnamon rolls

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