When flour, liquids, yeast, and other ingredients mix, their transformation to bread begins. Before this amazing change can happen, yeast must activate and release gases that stretch the dough and increase its volume. The traditional method is to combine active dry yeast with lukewarm water -- 105° to 115° -- then with dry ingredients. Softening yeast in liquid also proves its viability. If a foamy cap forms after 5 to 10 minutes, it is alive and ready. But today’s commercial baker’s yeast is very reliable. If used before the expiration date stamped on the package or jar, such "proofing" is no longer necessary.
Another method is to blend yeast -- either active dry or quick rising -- with dry ingredients and then mix with liquids. Since flour insulates the yeast, the liquid must be warmer than otherwise: 120° to 130°. Careful temperature control is vital; yeast expires at just under 140° and becomes sluggish below 100°. This simple method is the one we use for yeast doughs partly mixed with an electric mixer. Completely hand-stirred doughs use a hybrid technique: the yeast is first softened in lukewarm water (see Technique: Softening Yeast) then mixed into a soft dough.
All yeast bread recipes indicate a range of flour, rather than a specific amount, and the flour is incorporated gradually. The goal is not to use every cupful, but just enough to develop dough of the proper consistency. Too much flour makes a stiff dough; too little, a sticky one that is hard to handle. From one bag to the next, from one brand to another, flour can vary in the amount of liquid it will absorb. Changes in humidity can also affect the dough. With experience, you will learn to judge by sight and by touch how much flour to add at each stage of mixing. This visual and tactile interaction is part of the pleasure of baking bread.
Be sure the liquid is neither too hot nor too cold by testing with an instant-read thermometer or a candy thermometer. Insert the probe into the liquid, but don’t touch the bottom of the pan. In seconds, a reading will register on the dial.
Mixing dough with Mixer
After adding the warmed liquid mixture to some of the flour and the yeast, beat briefly with an electric mixer on low speed to blend, then increase speed to high and beat for several minutes more.
Adding Remaining Flour
After several minutes of mixing, the dough will become so stiff that a standard electric mixer is unable to continue incorporating flour. Abandon the mixer for a wooden spoon and stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can.
Mixing Dough by Hand
To mix completely by hand, first combine the liquid mixture with some of the flour and beat well with a wooden spoon before adding the softened yeast. Then stir in as much of the remaing flour as you can.