While the weather still seems to be procrastinating between icy showers and balmy sunshine, the almond trees have already exploded in blossoms, a reminder that spring is waiting bashfully to show its face. Today it is not the weather that I want to speak about, nor about the numerous revolutions that have occurred in the Middle East in the last decade. The spring I have in mind is the one in your oven.
You may be thinking that I am two-bolts-short-of-a-widget, but rest assured, I am not about to launch into a discussion about the mechanics or electronics of your stove. What I want to talk about every baker has seen many times, but perhaps does not know by its official term – “oven spring.”
This is the phenomenon that occurs when you place bread in the oven to bake and within three-10 minutes it quickly rises or “springs” up. Oven spring is the culmination of the bread rising process. Bread dough usually rises twice outside the oven, first after mixing, and second after shaping. The third and final rise is the oven spring at the beginning of the bake and is the litmus test of whether you have done everything right preparing the dough. They call us bakers and not “kneaders,” “braiders” or “basters,” because baking in the oven is where things get to the crunch. If you have done everything right, your “bake” will be successful, or the opposite.
Let’s examine why oven spring occurs and use this to learn about our dough-preparation technique and perhaps improve on it a little.
While your bread was rising in the first and second rises, the yeast and bacteria have been having a carnival in your dough, enjoying a free lunch, scoffing on the glucose that is in the starch that is in the flour. Like anyone who is enjoying a good meal, the yeast and bacteria give a hearty belch, in fact many hearty belches, and fill up the dough with little bubbles of CO2. Because you have done such a great job kneading that dough (by putting in the elbow grease and kneading for at least 10-15 minutes like the recipe says and not taking any shortcuts), you have developed gluten fibers in the dough, all nicely and symmetrically arranged like an intricate spider’s web. These gluten fibers trap the bubbles of gas made by the yeast and prevent them from escaping into the atmosphere. Since they are elastic, the gluten fibers stretch as more and more bubbles are formed and the dough begins to balloon up, or rise.
AFTER THE bread has risen, we put it in the oven to bake. The sudden shock of heat from the oven does two things to the dough.
The yeast and bacteria in the dough begin a belching frenzy as the fermentation rate is accelerated by the sudden increase in temperature. This borborygmi bonanza does not continue for long, however, because too much of a good thing is never a good thing. And when the dough temperature rises above 40°C (104°F), the yeast and bacteria begin to die.
If you remember your high school physics, when you heat something, it expands. The increasing temperature causes the multitude of little CO2 gas bubbles in the dough to increase in size.
This combination of a sudden injection of additional gas bubbles, and their subsequent expansion is affectionately called by bakers, oven spring.
Well-risen bread is light and fluffy, compatible with our modern palates, and we want to get as much air in the dough as we possibly can.
If there are not enough air bubbles in the dough – either because you did not let it rise long enough, or there are not enough gluten fibers to trap the gas bubbles, because you didn’t knead for long enough, or you are using lower gluten flour like spelt, rye or oats for example, and the gas bubbles escape – there will less oven spring and the bread will rip/crack as it bakes and will come out dense and heavy.
The opposite is also not good. If there are too many gas bubbles in the dough and they have stretched whatever gluten fibers there are to the limit of their elasticity. When confronted by the sudden heat of the oven the yeast will still frenzy and the bubbles expand as described before, but because the gluten fibers cannot stretch any further, they snap and can no longer hold the shape of the bread and it “pancakes” in the oven.
We can prevent these problems by kneading our dough well and developing more gluten to help it retain its shape. When using low-gluten flours, or gluten-free flours like rice flour, soy flour, etc., you either need to add a gluten substitute, like xanthan gum, to help the bread retain its shape (baking in a pan also helps), or learn to live with denser breads. This is a subject all on its own and beyond the scope of this article.
Timing the second rise (after shaping the dough) is critical. You do not want to put the bread in the oven too early (insufficient bubbles), or too late (excessive bubbles). Following a recipe in a book is not a guarantee for success because climate fluctuations affect the rising rate. Experience is the best way to learn what time to put the bread in to bake, and is based on results. If the bread ripped and/or is dense, you put it in too early. If the bread “pancakes,” you put it in too late. You will know next time.
So, apply these techniques and don’t let your bread spring any surprises on you!
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com) that specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking, and is the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health, nutrition and authentic Jewish bread.
Almond Bread (No, not Mandelbrot the dessert, this is a bread)
• 3 cups flour
• 1¹⁄3 cups water
• ½ Tbsp. salt
• 2 tsp. instant dried yeast
• ½ cup chopped almonds
Mix ingredients and knead dough for 10 minutes by hand (eight minutes in the mixer). Leave to rise for 30 minutes. Punch down. Shape into an oval loaf and place on a baking tray. Leave to rise for another 70-90 minutes. Baste crust with egg white and decorate with flaked almonds. Bake at 180°C (356°F) for 30-35 minutes (golden brown).