Bread is pretty much flour and water, with bits of other things thrown in to make it rise.
White bread is made with white bread flour. That’s simple enough - and white bread flour is a highly refined flour, with just the right amount of protein - gluten - to make bread rise, and less of the fiber and nutrients (healthy stuff) found in whole wheat flour.
Gluten is what gives bread dough the consistency needed to trap the carbon dioxide generated by yeast. These captured gas bubbles are what makes bread rise.
Think of gluten as the rubber in a balloon - without enough gluten bread will not rise. Too much gluten and the bread rises a lot, but tends to fall when baked (the baloons burst because they are too full).
Leavened breads (breads that rise) typically have gluten in them.
Flour can be made from a variety of grains - but what we normally consider white flour comes from wheat. As does whole wheat flour. Different varieties of wheat have different gluten contents - which means that bread flours are made from varieties of wheat that have enough gluten - around 14 percent - needed to make bread rise. Whole wheat flours typically have less gluten, making whole wheat bread means we need to add some gluten to increase the protein content so the bread will rise.
Hence my simple rule of thumb. Each cup of whole wheat flour needs a tablespoon of added gluten.
I find that Bobs Red Mill and King Arthur whole wheat flours produce consistently great breads. There are several others that just don’t rise as well - likely they need more added gluten.
So, we have flour, and gluten. I mentioned yeast and carbon dioxide earlier in this post. Yeast are small bugs (microbes) that consume sugar and generate carbon dioxide. Yup, making bread is a microbiology experiment!
In fact, each time I make bread I first combine the warm water (in the 80 to 105 degree range), yeast, and sugar and set it aside in a warm oven to make sure the yeast are alive and well. If they are the water will have a thick layer of bubbles in 10 or 15 minutes! Interestingly, yeast are very happy with glucose or fructose, or even molasses, but honey (which is mostly glucose and fructose) doesn’t make then quite as active - so give honey 20 or 25 minutes for a good layer of foam.
So far we have flour, water, gluten, sugar and yeast. That leaves salt, vinegar/lemon/lime juice, and oil.
Salt controls the growth of the yeast, strengthens the gluten structure of the dough and brings out flavors.
Vinegar, lemon or lime juice makes bread rise higher. It tenderizes the gluten and extends the life of the bread while keeping it soft without changing the breads flavor.
And, lastly oil. Oil give breads a longer shelf life by keeping them moist and makes the bread more tender and flavorful. Too much oil inhibits rising.
See - this is not as complex as you may have thought. Tomorrow we will talk about how I make bread. In fact, tomorrow morning I will be making two different types of bread!