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What are the fermentation tricks for baking bread?

Fermentation has long been an important basis for bread making, and it can determine the final quality of the bread. In fact, bread fermentation is a complex process that can involve various aspects of physics, chemistry and biology, but these points are not difficult to understand.

Generations of bakers have researched and concluded that there are many factors that affect dough fermentation, such as the type and amount of yeast, the amount of salt and sugar added, the temperature of the dough, the ambient temperature, the humidity, the fermentation time and so on. This article focuses on the various factors that affect the fermentation of dough, as well as some methods and techniques for fermenting dough in home baking.

  • Yeast Factor

When we use different types of yeast to make bread, we will find that the rate of fermentation of the bread will vary somewhat. In modern baking, bread can be made with either commercial yeast or natural leavening varieties. Commercial yeast is further divided into fresh and dry yeast. In our daily use, fresh yeast is replaced with dry yeast in a ratio of 2.5:1 by weight.

As fresh yeast is only shallowly dormant in the refrigerated state, it will activate quickly when it meets water and melts, which means it will ferment faster when added to the dough.
Dried yeast is fresh yeast that has been dried and compressed into pellets, a small part of which has died, while most of it goes into a deeply dormant state and will only slowly awaken when it has fully absorbed water and has the right temperature, so fermentation is a little slower. If you want to increase the speed of fermentation of dry yeast, it is more effective to dissolve it in warm water not exceeding 40 ℃ before adding it to the dough.

Natural yeast contains yeast obtained from nature and even after our culture, its fermentation activity is still not as strong as commercial yeast grown by professional manufacturers.
If all natural yeast is used to ferment a loaf of bread, it must be fed several times to make it more active before it can be used. Alternatively, you can use some of the natural yeast to improve the flavour of the bread and add a small amount of commercial yeast to increase the swelling and create a bread with good flavour and texture.

When considering the amount of yeast to add to a bread recipe, it is important to keep the amount of yeast as low as possible and to extend the fermentation time of the dough as much as possible to ensure that the bread has a better flavour.
There are actually some other advantages of a long fermentation time, which I will describe below.

When considering the amount of yeast to add to a bread recipe, it is important to keep the amount of yeast as low as possible and to extend the fermentation time of the dough as much as possible to ensure that the bread has a better flavour.
There are actually some other advantages of a long fermentation time, which I will describe below.

  • Physical Parameters

As regular bakers know, there are two important physical indicators of the fermenting environment, they are temperature and humidity.

The warmer air moves upwards and the colder air sinks.
So when fermenting the dough, you have to be aware that in natural conditions the temperature is not evenly distributed in the space. In a fermentation oven, on the other hand, because it has an air circulation system, it allows the temperature and humidity to be distributed a little more evenly.

Circulation system for fermenters

Humidity is the amount of water vapour in the air and is usually expressed as relative humidity in everyday life.
At the right temperature, where water is present, it will evaporate to form water vapour.
At room temperature, the relative humidity of the air is generally in the range of 40% to 80%. The humidity of the environment affects the degree of wetness and dryness of the dough surface. It is only when the humidity of the air is high that a crust does not form on the surface of the dough, which affects the expansion of the dough. Higher temperature water vapour, when encountering a colder dough surface, will liquefy to form small droplets, which can properly hydrate the dough surface and compensate for the loss of moisture due to evaporation from the dough surface.

Assuming that the dough is moved from a cooler temperature to a warmer fermentation environment, the dough will start to warm up from the outside first and then the inside of the dough will slowly warm up through heat transfer, in the same way that water will slowly start to freeze from the surface when you put a bowl of water in the fridge.

Since rising (or cooling) the dough is a slow process, if you want the dough to reach fermentation temperature more quickly, the best way to do this is to get the dough temperature close to fermentation temperature, which is why it is important to control the dough temperature, which affects all subsequent fermentation times.
You can obviously feel that it takes longer to ferment bread in winter than in summer, and one of the factors is that both the dough temperature and the ambient temperature are lower.

The appropriate fermentation temperature and humidity varies from one bread type to another and from one fermentation stage to another. The temperature at which yeast is active is around 4℃ to 40 ℃, which means that the dough will ferment within this range, it is just a matter of how long it takes.
At around 40 ℃, yeast activity is at its peak.
Below 15 ℃, the yeast will ferment more slowly
And below 4 ℃, the yeast will be dormant.
In short, a low fermentation temperature will increase the fermentation time, a high temperature will decrease it.

So is the higher the fermentation temperature the better? The answer is no, for two reasons-

  1. A long fermentation at low temperatures releases the full flavour of the wheat. The amylase enzyme in the flour breaks down the starch into small molecular sugars which are directly perceived by our palate. However, the enzymes are slow to work and need sufficient time to do their job.
  2. Low temperature fermenting makes it easier to grasp the critical point of dough fermentation. We always want to ferment bread just right, so that it expands fully but doesn’t over-ferment and produce too much sourness.
    At high temperatures this just right time period is short, whereas a refrigerated fermentation can remain the perfect point for a longer period of time, meaning that you can move on to the next stage of production within this perfect time period without compromising the quality of the bread.

  • Fermentation Time

When fermenting the dough, depending on the stage of fermentation (e.g. leavening, initial fermentation, intermediate fermentation, final fermentation, etc.) you can use a refrigerated (5 ℃) fermentation, a room temperature (25 ℃) fermentation, or you can use a fermentation oven (or oven) set at a higher temperature (28 to 38 ℃) to ferment the dough.
According to Peter Reinhardt in The Apprentice Baker, for every 9.5 ℃ decrease in temperature (about 10 ℃ for ease of calculation), the time it takes to ferment the dough to the same volume becomes twice as long.

For example, if a dough takes 1 hour to finish fermenting at 25 ℃, it will take 1*2=2 hours at 15 ℃ and 1*2*2=4 hours at 5 ℃.

As mentioned before, the heat transfer from the outside of the dough to the inside is slow, so this calculation is not very precise and you will end up having to make slight adjustments to suit the situation. After a few practice sessions, you will certainly be able to draw up a rule that suits your environment. Not only can you use this method for fermenting medium-sized doughs, but you can also try this combination of combinations when doing the regular initial fermentation (commonly known as primary fermentation) and the final fermentation (commonly known as secondary fermentation).
Needless to say, mastering this conversion will allow you to be more flexible with your bread making time.

  • Fermentation Methods and Tricks

Fermentation ovens

Fermentation ovens are specialist equipment for fermenting food. Their main advantages include accurate temperature and humidity control, large capacity and ease of use, but they also have some disadvantages: they require space and cost extra.
It’s much better than an oven, both in terms of space and insulation. Simply set the temperature, humidity and time and wait for the fermentation to complete. With a stable environment, the same recipe and the right temperature for the dough, the fermentation time does not change much from one production to the next. This makes it much easier for beginners to get to grips with the fermentation level.

Fermentation ovens on the market are mainly divided into domestic and commercial types, of which there are simple and professional types that can be collapsed for domestic use, and commercial types that can be refrigerated or frozen, with a capacity of 8.8 to 44 gal.
The principle of the fermentation box is very simple. To raise the temperature inside the box, it is only necessary to use a heat pipe like an oven, while the humidity is generated by heating the water into steam, and then the fan allows the steam to circulate inside the box, so that the humidity of the internal environment can be evenly distributed.

Although the temperature and humidity control of the fermenter is relatively accurate, there will still be small deviations (within 5° of the temperature and within 10% of the humidity). Therefore you need to measure the temperature difference and humidity difference when using the oven for the first time, just as you would with an oven.
Depending on the temperature difference, you can adjust the temperature setting appropriately so that the actual temperature matches the fermentation requirements. Humidity does not affect dough fermentation as significantly as temperature, but it is equally important to ensure that the humidity in the oven is appropriate.

Oven fermentation

Ovens are becoming more and more specialised, and with businesses doing everything they can to promote them, fermentation is now a standard feature in ovens. Unfortunately, the fermentation function in ovens is not professional and is certainly not satisfying for bakeries or bread lovers, but for the average home baking user it can meet the needs.

When using the fermentation function of a regular oven, the temperature control is generally less accurate and the humidity control is not. The reason for the inaccurate temperature control is that the oven itself has a wide heating range, from 30 ℃ to 250 ℃, and such a wide range of temperature control naturally results in a loss of accuracy, much like using a scale to weigh yeast. A low oven fermentation temperature is fine, but a high one (above 40 ℃) can easily cause the yeast to lose its activity.

Some high-end home ovens have better fermentation features than entry-level ovens. They use imported sensors with more accurate temperature control, and they also provide humidity (forget about controlling humidity).
There are currently two main options for creating humidity in ovens
To fill the matching water catch tray with water, which is heated at the bottom of the oven to produce a small amount of steam to raise the humidity inside the oven。
An oven with a spray function, which comes with a water tank, so as long as you make sure there is water in the tank, you can spray the water mist into the oven to increase the humidity during fermentation.

If your oven is not precise enough to control the temperature and you cannot create humidity, it is best to turn off the oven and use only its sealed space to put in a bowl of hot water to provide temperature and humidity. At this point the oven is the equivalent of a sealed container with an insulating effect, and the temperature and weight of the hot water put in determines the temperature and humidity inside the oven.
The higher the temperature of the water the more water vapour is produced, thus increasing the humidity inside the oven, and the higher temperature of the water vapour also warms up the interior of the oven.

Put in hot water followed by a thermometer, this will allow you to monitor the temperature and humidity inside the oven. If the oven temperature is too high, open the oven door promptly to allow the temperature inside the oven to drop And when the temperature is too low, turn on the oven’s fermentation function briefly or replace the hot water.
Alternatively, humidity can be controlled by opening and closing the oven door and adjusting the water temperature. This can be a little tricky, but in the absence of equipment support, it is possible to control the degree of fermentation of the dough more accurately.

Another thing to keep in mind when fermenting in the oven is to avoid getting the dough too close to the heaters or hot water, as this can easily lead to the dough getting too hot in close proximity, the dough fermenting significantly faster in that area than in others, or the yeast losing its activity.

Other Containers

You can also use other closed containers for fermentation if you don’t want to take up the time of the oven. In everyday life, tools that can be used as fermentation spaces are steamers, storage boxes, thermal covers, foam boxes, etc.
Essentially, using these tools to ferment dough is the same as putting hot water in the oven to ferment it, it just acts as an airtight environment that keeps the heat and moisture in.

The steamer is probably the most common household cooking utensil and is almost always needed for making Chinese pasta. In the early days when there were no fermentation ovens, people used steamers to ferment steamed buns with excellent results.

Compared to other tools, the steamer has the obvious advantage that there is no need to replace the hot water. You only need to heat the bottom of the pot several times and briefly to keep the water temperature within a certain range to achieve a constant temperature.
Of course, be careful not to overheat the water, otherwise the dough inside will steam instead of ferment! The downside is that it has a limited capacity – small loaves can be accommodated, while large baking trays are basically impossible to fit. It is not very convenient to put a thermometer inside the steamer, the best way to feel the temperature is by touching the bottom of the pan with your hand, as long as it is slightly above hand temperature.

Fermenting in a storage box, insulated cover or foam box is basically the same – put in a basin of hot water to provide temperature and humidity. Their advantage is that they are large and cheap, but their disadvantage is that the hot water needs to be replaced. In terms of insulation, the foam box is the best, the hood the second best and the storage box the worst. Again, it is important to avoid the yeast losing its activity due to the high temperature, and to change the hot water in time according to the insulation of the container.

  • Summary

Fermentation is the process of allowing food to fully cook. For dough fermentation, it is a process in which yeast, by drawing nutrients from the dough, produces carbon dioxide and alcohol, allowing the dough to expand and produce flavour. During this process, factors such as yeast, recipe, temperature and time all affect the final degree of fermentation of the dough.

It’s important to learn to observe the state of fermentation of the dough, such as how it springs back when pressed by the fingers, the change in volume of the dough, the smell of the dough, etc., rather than rigidly applying the fermentation time to a recipe.

Novice bakers often do not have sufficient experience in making bread, which makes them even more dependent on accurate recipes, the right dough temperature and a controlled environment to ensure a stable dough fermentation. Relying on specialised equipment, such as thermometers, air conditioners and fermentation boxes, can provide you with reliable quantitative indicators to make the most of the pleasure of making.
Bread making is therefore not just a craft, it is a science, and knowing the principles behind it will allow you to use it with ease.

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