Whether you like to dig and mix your bread dough with your hands, feeling the softness as you knead and release some stress, or let your mixer or bread machine do the work, mixing up bread dough requires a bit of TLC, close observation and sometimes a bit of intuition. Here are a few tips that I've stumbled upon with my baking - usually the hard way - that can help you mix up a great batch of bread.
Observe the recipe with flexibility. Many baking recipes, like cakes and cookies, can be followed to a “T” with a great result every time. Yeast breads are a little different. I can use the same recipe as my neighbor and have completely different results. Take your recipe one step at a time and watch for the cues from your dough – especially when adding flour.
Proof the Yeast Most bread recipes begin with something like this: “Add [some amount] of yeast to [some amount] of warm water”. Some recipes are specific about what they mean by “warm water”. In general, as long as the water coming out of your tap is warm and not steaming, you should be fine. The purpose of this step is to activate the yeast. In about five minutes you should see the little specs of yeast begin to soften, puff up and dissolve into the water. It is very important to make sure this happens – if the yeast isn’t growing in your water, then it’s not going to grow in your bread dough and your dough won’t rise. Sometimes, if your water is too warm, it will kill the yeast instead of waking it up. Other times, yeast may be outdated and not hold a leavening power anymore.
Incrementally Add Flour-Once you’ve gotten your yeast proofed and other liquids into the mix, it is time to add the flour. No matter what your recipe says, I do not recommend adding all your flour at once. Start with half the flour the recipe calls for. Mix that much in to get your dough to a batter-y type consistency. Then add remaining flour a bit at a time. Remember, the denser your dough is, the denser your bread will be. If you have not reach the full amount of flour that the recipe calls for, but your dough has pulled away from the bowl in a nice ball – you may very well have enough flour in your dough. On the flip side, you may have added all the flour that the recipe calls for and your pile of dough is still a sticky mess. Add additional flour 1-2 tablespoons at a time until you have a smooth ball of dough to work with.
Once you have mixed up your dough, place it to rise according to the recipe and walk away. Let it do it’s rising business and come back later to finish your process.