Never punch down the dough when making bread!
bread baking secrets
The way to make good bread, I mean seriously good bread, with a complex intricate and changing flavor, a crusty crackling crust and an irregularly shaped bubbly interior, is through both time and proper handling.
Time simply means giving the developing dough enough time to develop the flavors that will occur through natural enzymatic processes if allowed to occur. In bread baking…fast is always bad. Bread needs time, and in general, the longer the better. The great flavors of bread occur from the enzymes and acids that emerge as the yeasts slowly consume the sugars in wheat and release carbon dioxide.
Never use bread improver, and try not to use sugar in your dough's, both of these will speed up the activity of yeasts too much, and will make it hard to get the flavors you really want in a loaf of homemade bread. Bread dough should be made over a day, and not over an hour. It doesn't take more work, it just takes better planning, but when you can manipulate the activity of yeast by changing the temperature, the use of dough refrigeration allows you to control dough development to fit your schedule.
The second secret to great bread is through proper dough handling. Those gases that are forming as the dough develops and the yeasts consume the sugars are your friends, and you should never try to get rid of them. Once the dough has risen completely, the dough needs to be moved, to allow the yeasts to continue to feed on new sugars, and this is why we "punch down" the dough, but unless you are looking for an even textured crumb reminiscent of wonder bread, you should never actually punch down the dough. You want to retain as much of that gas as possible, while still moving the dough slightly. The French term of turning the dough is actually a much better phrase to describe what should be done, and gently folding the dough over on itself, and trying to keep as much gas as you can, is all that really needs to occur.
So the next tine you're making a loaf of country bread, let that dough rise a number of times, don't put any sugar or bread improver in, and think about using a lot less yeast than you might normally, to slow things down even further. Additionally, be gentle with the bread dough. It needs to be turned gently, but by retaining as much gas as you can, you are far more likely to end up with an interior crumb filled with irregular shaped holes, reminiscent of the great breads of the world, and the best artisan bakers.
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