That is probably the most common question asked by home cooks when making their first loaves of bread, it certainly was mine. The other I pondered were: “What is making the crust split and bulge? Why does the bread cook faster on one side?”
The baking attempts that lead to these queries are also the cause of budding and enthusiastic amateurs to give up early on.
Almost all cooks go through this in the beginning … including myself. In this series of posts, entitled “From Dough To Bread“, I share some of the tricks I have learned (and pitfalls I have dug myself out of) in baking a decent loaf of bread.
From Dough To Bread
When baked in a warm oven, dough is transformed into bread with two changes that occur at roughly the same time:
- Expansion and rise
- Formation of a crust
Okay, there is a lot more happening than this. For the current discussions though, we are focussing on these two aspects.
To successfully bake a loaf of bread with an effective rise, light crumb and uniform, crunchy crust, it helps to understand how the dough rise and crust formation work together. Or, more accurately, don’t, unless actively encouraged to do so using a few simple techniques.
Scoring the Dough
Ever wondered why some loaves in bakeries or supermarkets have small grooves in the crust, for example a bloomer or a french loaf? These come from the baker scoring the dough with thin cuts before baking. It may seem that these are there to make the loaf look attractive. However, the real reason is that if the scores in the dough were not made during the baking process, the loaf would have the unattractive appearance of a minor bread explosion.
As dough becomes bread, the outer layer will change into a solid crust. At the same time that this impenetrable layer forms, the dough contained within will want to keep expanding for a period of time. Something has to give, and it will be the crust, at the weakest point.
Scoring the dough with shallow slashes defines where these weak points will be. The crust split is therefore controlled and the dough can rise safely and evenly. This leads to a pleasant-looking loaf of bread, instead of a volcanic dough eruption.
The scoring takes place just prior to the dough going into the oven. The cut is made swiftly using a very sharp knife, aiming to cut approximately 1inch into the dough. Bakers sometimes use razor blades on the end of sticks, called lames. It can be done along the length or across the width. Cut too deep and the loaf can split rather badly, as can be seen in the picture of the bloomer loaf – the deep cut down the full length caused it to explode from the middle.
It is also important to pull the hand directly backwards when scoring. It’s all too easy to put pressure on the knife as it moves towards you, resulting in a deeper groove on one side of the loaf. It takes a few attempts to nail this.
So scoring grooves in the dough to regulate expansion is a first step. However, this is not normally enough. The crust can form too quickly and dry out, leading to cracking and splitting. What can prevent this happening and assist with getting a good rise? Moisture.