Winter baking

Make environment-appropriate bread for the cold days ahead.

November 3, 2013 11:05
4 minute read.
Part of a baker’s skill is understanding how yeast and, hence dough, is influenced by environment

Part of a baker’s skill is understanding how . (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Bakers are craftspeople who take a collection of raw materials and, using their skill, elevate them to a higher level. Unlike most other craftspeople – metalworkers, for example – the raw material they use is not inert. If you take a piece of iron and leave it for five hours on your workbench, you will return to find the same piece of iron.

However, if a baker leaves his raw material on the work surface for five hours, he is liable to return to find that the raw material has overflowed onto the floor.

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Dough, the raw material of bread, is not inert – it is a living, breathing entity. The ingredient that gives dough life is yeast. It is a single-cell organism, a living creature that is affected by its environment. Just like humans who prefer certain environmental conditions, yeast also has its preferences – temperature, humidity levels, etc. Part of a baker’s skill is understanding how yeast and, hence dough, is influenced by the environment and how to compensate for fluctuations in that environment.

Let’s start with a simple example. Bread recipes tell you to cover the dough while it rises by either covering the bowl with a damp cloth or basting it with oil. For accuracy’s sake, however, the recipe should say “If the relative humidity level is less than 70 percent, you need to cover the dough.”

Dough reacts differently depending on the humidity level in the air. If the air is dry (less than 70% relative humidity), the crust of the dough will dry out and harden, preventing it from rising, and causing cracks on the surface. If the humidity level is over 70%, this will not happen. Regular recipe books rightly assume that most people do not have a humidity meter in their homes, so they “play it safe” by telling you to cover the dough. Here we see one environmental factor at work.

Another important environmental factor is temperature. Most people follow bread recipes to the letter but are flummoxed when they discover that the bread is not rising as expected. This is because the dough temperature is different, depending on the season.

Yeast reacts to temperature fluctuations, the optimum range for yeast reproduction being 26-30°. In this temperature range, dough will rise the quickest. If the temperature is below or above this range, the dough will rise sluggishly. Bakers strive for a dough temperature of 27°.

In summer, room temperature is in the optimal range for yeast reproduction, so all the dry ingredients will be around that temperature. The water coming out of the faucet will also be close to that, resulting in well-risen dough.

As winter approaches, however, temperature becomes a problem. All the ingredients in dough affect the final dough temperature.

We have little control over the temperature of flour, salt, sugar and yeast. The only ingredient we can easily play around with is water. By adjusting the water temperature (heating it in a kettle, for example), we can easily arrive at the correct desired dough temperature (DDT). The trick is in knowing to what temperature to heat the water, so that when combined with all the other ingredients, it will yield the DDT of 27°.

Assuming all ingredients (except for the water) are kept at room temperature, there is a precise scientific formula to solve that problem:

81 – 2 x (room temperature) = water temperature

For example, if the room temperature (in winter) is 18°, the formula is: 81 – 2 x 18 = 81 – 36 = 45°. This means that to obtain a DDT of 27°, you need to heat the water component of the recipe to 45°.

You can either purchase a cooking insertion thermometer to measure the water temperature and do this precisely, or you can do it instinctively by experimentation.

If the dough, after mixing, feels warm to the touch (a similar temperature to your forehead), you are pretty close. Either way, do not pour heated water directly onto the yeast or pour the yeast directly into the heated water, as the elevated heat may kill the yeast organisms. Rather, first partially mix the water and flour to achieve the approximate DDT, and then add the yeast.

Using the above tips will ensure that your baking schedule remains consistent the entire year, regardless of the season.


A robust, heart-warming bread for cold winter nights. Great for dunking in soup.

✔ 7 cups white flour
✔ 1 cup whole-wheat flour
✔ 3 cups water
✔ 2 Tbsp. instant powdered yeast
✔ 1½ Tbsp. salt
✔ 1 cup mashed potatoes
✔ 1 Tbsp. caraway seeds

Mix all ingredients until incorporated.

Hand knead for 15 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. Leave to rise covered for 1½ hours or until doubled in size.

Punch down and knead for another 5 minutes.

Shape into a ball and place on a flat tray. Leave to rise for 30 minutes. Using a sharp knife, make two slits on the top of the loaf in the shape of an X. Bake at 200° for 75 minutes.

Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is the owner of Saidels Bakery (, specializing in handmade, organic health breads and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.

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