During the rising stage, the yeast continues to grow and emit carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide becomes trapped by the gluten strands and pushes up on them like hot air in a balloon; this is what causes the bread to rise. Much of a bread's flavors are developed during its rising stages. Most recipes have 2 rising stages, while some have 3 or more.
For the first rising, the dough is placed in a bowl coated with cooking spray and turned so that all sides of the dough are coated. Then the bowl is covered (plastic wrap or a clean towel works well). These are precautions against the dough drying out as it rises. If the surface of the dough dries, the dough won't stretch and therefore can't rise.
The best environment for rising is a humid, draft-free area that's about 85 degrees. An easy way to create this environment is to place the dough in a cool, closed oven alongside a 1- to 2-cup glass measure filled with boiling water.
The dough needs to rise until doubled in size. Depending on the dough and the environment, this can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours. To check for effective rising, gently press 2 fingers about an inch into the dough. If the dough springs back immediately, it has not risen enough; if the indentations remain (as in the photo at left), the dough is ready. If the dough begins to collapse, though, it has risen too much. In that case, punch the dough down, shape it into a ball, and repeat the first rising stage.
Be patient―you can encourage bread to rise by controlling its environment, but don't rush it. Dough that hasn't risen enough results in dense, overly chewy bread.
Punch down the dough between rising stages by pressing into the center with a closed fist. This action releases excess carbon dioxide and redistributes the yeast for its next stage of growth.
After a 5-minute rest that makes the dough easier to handle, it's formed into the desired shape (loaf, rolls, etc.) in preparation for the final rise.
For the final rising stage, the shaped dough is placed on a baking sheet or in a pan. The dough should be lightly coated with cooking spray and covered, just as it was for its first rising. The rising procedure and method of checking for doneness remain the same as in the first rise.
Some recipes call for slashing or cutting into the dough. Originally done to identify the type of bread, slashing is still done for cosmetic reasons, and to allow the bread to expand as it bakes without tearing or cracking. Be sure to use a very sharp knife or sharp scissors to slash the dough.
An egg wash (a mixture of egg white and water) is sometimes brushed on the dough before it's baked to create a glossy, crusty surface.
Remember to preheat your oven. In the early minutes of baking, the yeast goes through a final growth spurt called oven-spring (in a well-lit oven, you can actually see the surface of the dough move) before it begins to die. The trapped carbon dioxide that was holding up the gluten strands evaporates just as the heat causes the gluten to harden in place. This series of events determines the bread's final shape and size―and all depends on an accurate oven temperature.
Completely baked bread will have a beautiful golden-brown color and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. If you are baking bread in a loaf pan, cover both hands with oven mitts and remove the loaf from the pan to tap the bottom. You should always begin checking your bread 10 minutes before the end of the recommended baking time, in case your oven tends to run hot.
Cool freshly baked bread on a wire rack (which prevents steam from softening the crust) for at least 10 minutes before slicing. Cool completely before wrapping. Wrap bread in a clean kitchen towel or several layers of cheesecloth―both of which allow bread to breathe. Store at room temperature (a bread box really is the ideal place). Keeping bread in the refrigerator will cause it to dry out. You can wrap most breads in heavy-duty foil and freeze them for up to 1 to 2 months.