Some of you have guessed what I’m up to today, and some haven’t quite yet. Maybe you don’t care? After noticing that we were out of bread this morning, I opted to make some and show you how it’s done. Making bread is the greatest cooking skill you can learn. It meets all my criteria:
1. It looks hard but it isn’t.
2. People are impressed by it. “Wow! This is homemade?” I sort of love that.
3. My family loves it.
What do you need to have to make bread? Not much, really. In most cases, a bread machine is a completely worthless appliance (which I remind myself of every time I think about getting one). You need a mixer, a spoon, cookie sheets or bread pans and an oven. Nothing fancy at all. However, I do have a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer and it makes things much easier than the days when I did it with a hand mixer.
The ingredients are simple and readily available. Flour, most recipes call for All Purpose, which is fine. I use bread flour because it makes me feel smart. Whole wheat bread calls for whole wheat flour. Yeast, liquid (water or milk), butter or shortening, and this whole wheat recipe called for brown sugar.
Get yourself a cookbook like this one:
Comprehensive, clear easy-to-follow recipes, well illustrated. I challenge you to find an omission of a basic dish from this bad boy. I like the ring-bound, tabbed version because it lays flat on a counter and the tabs make it easy to find the section of the book your desired recipe is in. I commonly give this book as a wedding gift.
See? That’s your recipe right there. Don’t steal it. Buy the book. As you can see, it’s 7 ingredients long. Simple.
Now I’m going to digress for a minute and explain some things. First, remember yeast is alive. It’s dormant, but alive. It is heat-activated, but too much heat will kill it and your bread will become a rock. Second, I believe a common bread making mistake is overdoing the flour. Be careful. The amount of flour is listed as a range for a reason. It depends on humidity among other things. Your dough should be sticky or again, your bread will be a rock. Or a brick, if you prefer.
Let’s begin. I always begin by getting every single ingredient positioned at my fingertips before I start anything! I’ve learned this the hard way. Nothing is less fun as a baker than getting 2/3 of the way through a recipe and realizing you’re out of salt or something similar. Remember cooking is chemistry and every ingredient matters. Especially in baking. Salt is another leavening agent as well as a flavoring agent. So are baking soda and powder. They cannot be omitted but it is possible to substitute in some cases.
Most recipes have you mix the flour and yeast and set it aside. When I measure flour, I stir it up with a knife first and lightly fill the cup. Then tap the top of the measuring cup with the flat side of a butter knife and scrape it off so it’s level. Be precise and you’ll thank me later.
Next we turn our focus to the liquids. Pay attention to the recipe when it tells you how hot the liquid should be when you add it to the dry ingredients mixture. Any hotter and your yeast will die. Not hot enough, it doesn’t wake up and make your bread rise. I’d suggest a candy thermometer. I don’t own one so I use a meat thermometer. Don’t judge.
Stir your liquids a little bit to help the butter melt, but understand that your butter isn’t melting all the way in the pan. Temperature is what you care about here.
Like I said, don’t judge the meat thermometer. Make sure your thermometer isn’t touching the bottom of the pan. You’ll get a false reading. Once you’ve had a little practice, you’ll be able to guesstimate with your finger. But get some practice first.
Now it’s time for the mixer. Did I mention how much I love my mixer? Add the liquid all at once, mix on low for 30 seconds and high for three minutes.
Isn’t it pretty? Notice I use a paddle here but you can use the dough hook the entire time. My baker friend says it makes no difference.
This is a dough hook:
Here is the point at which I divert from the directions. I have a stand mixer and I will add the flour in increments to the mixer bowl with the dough hook rather than stirring by hand. It’s just easier. If you use a hand mixer, I don’t recommend this approach. Work it in with a spoon about a half cup at a time. When you’re ready to start hand kneading it will look like this:
It’s hard to tell from the photo, but it’s still pretty sticky. It will stick to your fingers more than you’d like, maybe. I like getting messy 😉
Throw some flour on your clean countertop. Not a lot. Quarter cup maybe? Remember, too much flour = BAD.
Now it’s time for
some therapy kneading the bread. As you knead, work in the flour a little at a time. Sprinkle a little flour on your dough sponge if you need to.
But take it easy! Your dough will still be sticky when it’s been kneaded enough. It will feel moist, but not stick to your hands. Once it stops sticking to your fingers, stop adding flour. Knead it for about six to eight minutes total. It’s fun. Trust me. I kind of use the kneading process to get the flour off the countertop. As you can see in this picture.
Then drop your sponge in a large bowl that has been sprayed with cooking spray or lightly oiled. Cover it with a warm towel and let it rise until it doubles. Some folks recommend a flat sided vessel so you can easily tell when it’s doubled. This is a great idea, but I don’t own one large enough. I should save an ice cream bucket! Other folks like to rise it inside the oven to keep it warmer. Put a bowl of water in the oven with it if you choose this option. It keeps your dough moist. (I preheat the oven for a few minutes and then shut it off and let it cool most of the way back down because my kitchen tends to be cool). The oven should be barely warm. Think warm summer day, not sauna.
Once your dough sponge doubles in size, punch it down and follow your recipe’s directions for resting and shaping the loaves. Put them into loaf pans and allow to double again.
When they’re double, pop them in the oven. Bake them as directed until you tap the top and they sound hollow. Enjoy the way your house smells while the bread bakes. Yummy!
Finished bread looks like this:
Cool it on a wire rack hidden from your children or it will disappear in under ten minutes.
Now, don’t tell your sweetie/roommate/spouse know that you’ve had this little lesson or homemade bread will become a need in your house. Unless you want it to. Then have them learn too! Remember, it looks hard. It’s not. I did it!