Baking Terms & Definitions
As you delve into the wonderful world of breads, you may be running into new baking terms and words that confuse you. So I am adding the basic ones here (in no particular order) as a quick and hopefully useful reference. This list will be added to at any time I run across a new unfamiliar term or people ask me.
Autolyse (pronounced “auto-leez”) is a period of rest allowed for dough to relax and hydrate. After the initial mixing of flour and water, the dough is covered and allowed to rest, usually from 20 to 60 minutes. This rest period allows for better absorption of water and allows the gluten and starches to expand and align. Breads made with autolysed dough are easier to form into shapes and have more volume and improved structure. (based on Wikepedia)
This term refers to the period of rest where the leavening agent(s) in the dough are allowed to expand. The word refers to “proving” that the yeast or sourdough is active enough for the bread to rise. There are typically two stages: “bulk proofing” where the dough first rises while in bulk form regardless how many final loaves it may later be divided into, then “final proofing” which is the rising period after the dough has been divided and shaped into its loaf, batard, ball or other final shape. There is also a short, 5 to 10 minute “rest” period given the dough pieces once the bulk dough has been divided but before the pieces are shaped. This rest allows the dough to relax and shape easier.
This is simply a French term referring to sourdough starter. A “pain au levain” is French for sourdough bread, as distinct from a bread made with commercial yeast.
The Mother Starter is the “go to” sourdough starter from which you would then cultivate new batches for each baking session. It is always maintained, typically (for occasional home bakers) it is kept in the refrigerator and fed weekly. In my kitchen, it is never completely used up so that I retain at least a couple tablespoons to grow more “mother” starter. Some recipes tell you to use the mother in building the dough, then keep some of the now built up bulk starter and turn it back into your mother. I don’t do it that way for the very real possibility that one day I’ll forget to “keep some back” and bake the whole thing, loosing my starter in the process. Yes, it happens even to experienced bakers. So instead I always use a “discard” from a feed to build up the required dough starter. It works precisely the same without the risk of baking your mother by accident. And you don’t want to bake your mother, right?
This is also referred to as a “chef starter” or simply “starter“.
And in my house, it has also been referred to, over time, as Audrey, Carl and, currently, PJ. Yes, my starter has a name. No, I’m not the only one with a named starter (in cases you were wondering).
French Fold or Stretch and Fold
This is looked at in details (with videos even!) on it’s own page. It’s a different way of working the glutens in the dough that replaces kneading. That’s right, you don’t need to pound the dough for ages on end. Unless you like to; some people find it relaxing and therapeutic.
This is a test to see if you’ve kneaded the dough long enough to develop the gluten strands adequately. Simply grab a small chunk of the dough and stretch it out so you have a very, very thin sheet that, if held up to light, is nearly translucent with visible gluten webbing.
If you can stretch the dough this thin without having it breaking or getting holes, your dough is well developed. If you get holes before you can get the sheet translucent, you need a little more kneading or stretching time. Check again after another 5 minutes of kneading or after another stretch.
You may also find that allowing the dough to simply rest or Autolyse (see above) will allow the gluten to develop properly.
Some doughs made with other types of flour such as rye will have real issues getting a good windowpane as they do not contain the amount of gluten found in wheat flour.
Lastly, some recipes require the dough to NOT be taken to full gluten development so as to get a softer dough that has a bit less “chew” or that will get further mixing in another step. In other words, you usually want to get good wondowpaning but there are exceptions.
A slashing technique that creates a more horizontal cut under the dough’s surface. As the bread bakes, the cut remains covered a little longer, allowing it to expand more before it bakes. This is also referred to as “ears” since the flap created eventually curls up and protrudes a little.
Not only do “ears” or gringe help the bread expand while baking (called oven spring) but they also give a pleasant ‘artisanal’ appearance. The slightly more baked edge add to the flavour of the bread as well as the baked wheat of the crust which is usually a fair part of the the whole bread’s flavour.
A lean bread is one made with the basic bread ingredients of flour, water, salt and leavening (i.e. sourdough starter or instant yeast) although there are also unleavened breads that fall into this category, such as matzo. A lean bread can also have extra items such as herbs, sliced olives, grains & seeds, raisins, etc. as these are not specifically part of the dough itself.
A bread is considered “enriched” when ingredients are added beyond the lean dough ingredients. Adding oil, milk, butter, sugar, honey, molasses, egg and so forth is considered “enriched” bread as these modify the dough structure considerably. These will affect things like rising ability, gluten structure and development, softness of the crumb, etc.. They do more than simply change the taste of the bread.
On the other hand, adding herbs, grains or seeds like sunflower or extras like raising or olives does not specifically change the dough composition; they are merely flavour/texture additions and are often referred to as inclusions.
This refers to a method more than the composition of the bread. A straight dough is where all basic ingredients are placed in a bowl then mixed into a dough. The specific ingredients are not really relevant to the definition. A straight dough may be easier defined by what t is not: it does not make use of a pre-ferment or sponge. A Straight dough is therefore a simple dough: mix, bulk ferment, divide and shape, final proof, bake. A straight dough will generally be one that uses a commercial yeast as this can be added directly to the bowl with the other ingredients.
The opposite of a Straight dough: it uses some manner of preferment, whether that is a pâte fermenté, sponge, biga, poolish, sourdough starter and so forth. A preferment allows the flour to develop flavour over time by pre-wetting some or all of the flour in the recipe, sometimes with a portion of the yeast as well. Once the sponge or pre-ferment part is completed, it is added to the particular bread’s ingredients, making it a two-stage process.
Mise en Place
“Mise en Place”, pronouced “meez awn plass” (
Why do it? To avoid surprises mid-baking and the potential of missing an ingredient if you are in the habit of scooping or spooning out as you go along. Did you add those three teaspoons of butter already? Did you forget to put in your salt? If the salt is still on the counter then it’s easy to see you did not. If the little salt bowl is empty, it’s easy to see you did. If you normally pour it into the bowl from the container, you may not recall.
It also lets you confirm you do in fact have a half cup of buttermilk so you don’t go to the fridge and suddenly realize you need to rush to the store when you’re halfway into mixing the dough. All in all, it’s a simple way to be prepared so you can focus on simply putting your dough together.
“But it just makes more dishes!” Yeah, a bit. The dry ingredient bowls aren’t hard to clean and the wet ones are done with a quick scrub. It’s just part of being prepared and organized and a couple more little bowls in the sink or dishwasher won’t hurt.
Not visible but just as important in the Mise en Place: equipment and time. A recipe calls for a particular procedure and a certain amount of time, start to finish. Do you have the required equipment? Have you planned the time line to not coincide with dinner or dashing off to work? Will the results be the same if you substitute this pot for that container? Might you need to do some adjustment to compensate for faster/slower cooking time due to the thinner/thicker/different material? If you have to set things aside, is there room in the fridge to hold everything while you are out for a couple of hours? Will chilling impede anything? These aspects are just as important as the laying out of the ingredients.
THE YEASTED PRE-FERMENTS
There are three standard yeasted pre-ferments used in baking: Pâte Fermenté, Poolish and Biga. Although their compositions are different, they all aim to improve the taste of the bread by allowing a portion of the dough to age and develop it’s flavour before the main dough is built. The reason these are built separately and the actual bread dough isn’t simply left to age is that by making a batch of pre-ferment ahead of time, the final product can be added to numerous types of bread without having four or five different doughs sitting about for many hours fermenting. In a bakery, this would grind production to a halt.
Because adding just a small portion of pre-ferment to a loaf can greatly improve the bread’s taste, it’s also an easy and economical way to make a lot of better flavoured breads. Well developed dough also makes bread more digestible.
Pronounced “paw-t fair-mahn-tay”, this French term translates as “fermented dough” and is a sponge dough method of creating a more flavourful bread by allowing a portion of the final dough to rest for several hours, sometimes refrigerated to slow yeast activity. Typically this simple lean dough is made up of water, flour, yeast and salt, which is allowed to develop for 12 to 16 hours. Or it can be, as the original term indicated, “already fermented dough” saved from the previous bake, something a bakery that produces bread each day can carry over easily. For home bakers, not so much so it’s simple enough to create it as needed a day before. Pâte is the only pre-ferment where you’ll find salt included since finished bread dough kept from the previous day’s batch would have salt in it.
Unlike Pâte Fermentée, Poolish has a definite ratio of ingredients, mainly that it is made up of 50% flour and 50% water (therefore 100% hydration) plus a very tiny portion of yeast, .08 to 1%. It is therefore more of a batter consistency. The name “poolish” is derived from the immigrant Polish bakers who introduced the method to their French counterparts.
Biga, pronounced “Bee-gah”, is an Italian term for a pre-ferment. Unlike poolish, its hydration level is variable and ca be from 50% to 99%; at 100%, it is essentially a poolish. And like the poolish, it’s yeast quantity is 0.8 to 1% and it contains no salt.
Pie Dough: Flaky vs Mealy
Flaky or mealy pie dough is made using the exact same ingredients, the difference is in the size of the fat bits, the fat being either butter (unsalted) or shortening or perhaps a combination of the two. Generally, a flaky crust is used for the top of a pie while the bottom is a mealy crust. This may make more sense in a bakery situation where it is logical to make and use two types of pie dough. For a home baker, it may be simpler to decide which style works best with your pie filling, liquid or thick, and use one or the other.
In “flaky dough” you want the fat bits to be about pea sized, this will give a flaky crust as the larger fat bits melt, separating the flour into layers. This makes for a lovely, visually appealing top crust.
In “mealy dough” the fat bits are mixed until they are very, very small and dispersed evenly through the flour. When these melt, they make a more even texture (not flaky) crust. The benefit is that this dough is less prone to absorbing liquid from the pie’s content such as fruit or other very wet filling and therefore less likely to give you a soggy-bottom pie. Something like a custard or frangipan filling which is thicker would not necessarily require mealy dough though it will still work great.