On bread

This is going to get long: I warn you now.

A couple of years ago, I began baking bread. I do it for ritual, I do it to eat at home. I bring it to potlucks (as I mentioned, it’s a money-cheap way to bring something people will love for potluck).

Here’s how I do it, with some links to some other options. Note that these are optimised for my particular preferences and needs (and I talk about what those are, as we go along). Adjust as makes sense to you.

Things that affect my baking:

  • I am short: I hate kneading on the counter because it’s totally the wrong height. I knead in a mixing bowl, sitting on the floor so I can put my upper body into it. This is admittedly weird. Knead on the counter/table if you prefer.
  • I live in a little tiny house. It has a little tiny oven (just big enough for a standard baking sheet, one rack, etc.) I am not fancy about my baking.
  • I have very little storage space: I do not own a baking stone, fascinating other baking tools, or a mixer: I just don’t have space for them. This is the fairly minimalist version.
  • I am aiming for ‘good bread’, usually, not the ‘ultimate best bread ever’. Those usually take more time than I realistically have.
  • My preference for bread is a lighter (less chewy) crust, and reasonably dense. Your preferences may vary – the resources section has some other places to go learn more about variations.

Tools:

The basics are:

  • Something to mix your dough in/with
  • Something to measure ingredients with
  • Something to bake on
  • Something to cool on.

My choices:

  • Large (6-8 quart) stainless steel mixing bowl. Used for mixing dough, for kneading, and for rising.
  • Silicon spatula: used for initial mixing. (I find them easier to clean than wood.)
  • Measuring cup for liquids
  • Measuring cup for flour, and a tablespoon measure for other dry stuff.
  • Tablespoon and teaspoon measures (until you get the knack of it. )
  • A metal baking sheet
  • Either parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet (goes on the metal one)
  • A cooling rack (otherwise the bottom of your bread will cool oddly.)
  • You probably want an oven thermometer – hangs off the wire rack – unless you are absolutely sure your oven produces reliable and consistent temperature.
  • Something to cover the bread with while it’s rising to keep it damp. Plastic wrap that covers your bowl works, but I prefer a damp cotton dish towel.

Parchment paper is less of an initial investment than the silicon baking sheet (and you can generally reuse a sheet a couple of times), but I also like my silicon one. Both help make cleanup much easier, and mean you don’t need to worry about the loaf sticking to the baking sheet.

If you want to bake loaves, you’ll also need a loaf pan. Either ceramic or metal work fine, though they brown and cook slightly differently.

Ingredients:(for one loaf)

Flour : 3 cups (plus a little extra for kneading)

I suggest starting with white bread flour, but you can easily use all purpose if that’s what you have. I find wheat harder to work with, and am slowly adding it into what I make. (If you want to try whole wheat, try starting with 1 cup whole wheat to 2-3 cups of white.)

Water : 1 cup (plus a little extra for kneading)

It should be warm – comfortably warm on the inside of your wrist – but not too hot. Heat kills yeast.

Yeast: 2.5 tsp, or about 1 TBS

I buy my yeast in bulk from a local co-op and keep it in a small container in my freezer. Much cheaper and easier than packets. (You can also buy a pound of yeast at a time, in a brick: I don’t go through it that fast.) Note that quick rise yeast and regular yeast behave somewhat differently. In practice, I haven’t had any problems in this recipe using either, but they rise differently.

Honey : 2-3 TBS

I just pour some in until looks right: consider this a guideline. You can either mix it with your yeast and water (in proofing, see below) or put it in with the flour. Sugar in bread helps it brown and caramelise, and does such nice things to the flavor.

Salt : 1-2 TBS

Salt helps control the rise, and it is also a major flavor builder. You don’t need much: a sprinkle or two goes a long way. Note that salt will help kill yeast, so you should keep them separate until you start mixing together.

Oil: 1-3 TBS

Not something I use every time, but oil or fat in the bread helps keep it from going stale. You don’t need a lot. If you’re doing an herb bread, you can use infused oil, instead of or as well as dry or fresh herbs. You will want a little olive oil for the rising bowl, even if you don’t put any in the bread.

Herbs and additions:

I generally use dried herbs, and I am very generous with my proportions: a small to moderate handful per loaf, of whatever combination I pick. Particular favorites:

  • Dill
  • Lavender and dried orange peel (reconstituted in a little water, first.)
  • Herbs de Provence (a common herb blend that includes lavender)
  • Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
  • Basil (or even a little pesto)
  • Dill and onion (start with about 1/2 white onion per loaf, diced fine)
  • Cheese – cheese is a little tricky. Small diced pieces work.
  • I also have the ultimate winter spice blend, which involves a little bit of maple syrup instead of the honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamon, and orange peel. (This is the one that gets me huge rave reviews.)

I find my additions run seasonally: in the spring, I’m all about dill, in the winter, it’s spices, and I really like other cooking herbs in the summer and fall.

The process:

Proofing your yeast (optional, but reassuring)

‘Proofing’ involves getting your yeast going first – mix the yeast, your cup of water, and at least some of your honey together (I do this in the measuring cup or a mug) first, and let sit for about 10 minutes. If you have yeasty-smelling foam, you have good yeast. Dump the whole mixture in where it says ‘Add water’ below.

Mixing:

Mix the flour, salt, yeast (if not proofing), honey, and any herbs in your mixing bowl. (You can add more herbs later, if you like, but they’re easier to mix here.) Add the oil, if you’re using it.

Add the water, and mix with your spatula until the dough starts forming a large ball that’s pulling off the side of the bowl as you mash it together.

Once you have the large mass of dough, start kneading it – push it flat against the bottom of the bowl, fold it over on top of itself, push down and flatten again, and repeat, turning the bowl around every time you fold over (equivalent to 5-10 minutes on a clock). Add extra herbs if you like.

The idea with kneading is that you are folding air into the dough, and encouraging the gluten to stretch and extend. Ideally, you knead until you get a ‘windowpane’ of dough, where it stretches and becomes translucent without tearing. I have a horrible time with this – I normally knead for 10 minutes, and call it good, and my bread is fine. You can knead in a heavy-duty mixer, like a Kitchen Aid, if your hands won’t take it. Some people use the knead cycle of a bread machine, then bake the dough manually.

Flour holds variable amounts of water. If you are like me, and live in Minnesota, some of this is seasonal – I add more water in the winter, less in the summer. You may need to add extra flour (if everything is way too sticky) or extra water (if it’s way too dry.) If you do too much, add a little of the other one, and knead in and try again. Give it a minute or two between adding things: sometimes kneading will redistribute and the dough will start behaving properly without more additions.

First rise:

Now, take your dough, and dump it on the counter for a minute and clean out your mixing bowl entirely. When it’s clean, pour a little olive oil in the bottom and run it around the edges (all the way up: the dough is going to rise. Feel free to use the dough to spread it around the bowl, too.) Otherwise, you can spray with an olive oil spray.

Cover it lightly with something that will help keep it damp – like I said above, I prefer a damp cotton cloth, but plastic wrap works. Stick the entire bowl + cloth somewhere warm: near a heating vent works in winter, or in an oven you’ve turned on low for 3 minutes and turned off again. I do mine on the stove: my pilot light burns fairly hot, so it gives off some heat right above the stove. (Make sure it’s not *too* hot: you’ll bake your bread. Somewhere in the 70-90 degree range is about right.)

Let it sit until it’s roughly doubled. This usually takes 60-90 minutes. Go do something else.

Shape:

Take your dough and punch it down, deflating the risen bread. Take out your baking sheet (and parchment or silicon baking sheet) and set them up. Form the bread on top of it

You’ll get the best/most rounded round loaf if you pull around from the top to the bottom, pulling all the extra bits on the bottom of the circle, sort of like a hot air balloon: this increases the surface tension of the dough. However, there’s all sorts of other options – you can shape the dough into a braid, a spiral, a loaf, or many other options.

I particularly like the instructions in Peter Reinhart’s The Breadbaker’s Apprentice book, but the website The Fresh Loaf also has some great tutorials and commentary under the shaping keyword.

Once it’s shaped, let it rise again for another 30-60 minutes. If the shape I’ve chosen suits this, I usually cover it with my upside down mixing bowl – it helps keep the dough moist, and avoids trying to pull a clean cloth off the dough.

About 15 minutes before you’re ready to bake, turn on your oven. I bake at about 375, usually, though some kinds of bread need different temperatures.

Baking:

Stick your bread in the oven. My loaves bake for 25-35 minutes usually, and I check them half way through. In some ovens you may want to turn them at this point, so they bake evenly.

Your bread is done when it ‘sounds’ right: if you take the bread out, turn it over, and knock on it (like you would on a door – but gently, because after all, it’s still bread), it should sound more hollow than solid. After a few loaves, you’ll get a sense of how long you need in your oven.

Finishing:

Stick it on a wire cooling rack (otherwise, the bottom will compress weirdly) and let it cool.
It’s ready to eat within about 15 minutes, but you can also let it cool all the way.

Storage:

Homemade bread does not have the preservatives of store-bought. This is a bonus, really, but you need to be prepared to use your bread or have it go stale.

  • I normally store my partial loves in the fridge in a sealed plastic bag. People’s opinions on this varies, but I’ve found that for my home and set-up, it seems to work best.
  • I slice and freeze anything I won’t use in the next 2-3 days. Freezing bread stores it indefinitely: slicing it before you freeze it makes it easier to just pull out what you need. A sandwich-thin slice will defrost on the counter in 20-30 minutes normally.
  • Stale bread can be excellently used for breadcrumbs, croutons or various Italian bread salad recipes (among other things.) You just need to catch it before it goes moldy.

Resources:

I got started with Peter Reichart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice which I like for several reasons – it’s got fantastic photos, he talks a lot about different ingredient choices and what they mean, and he’s got a wide range of interesting recipes, so you can try things out. Most of his recipes, however, are a two-day process. You start by making some kind of starter (a sponge, poolish, etc.) and then let it sit overnight. This produces great bread, and I do it when I can, but it’s not the approach I take here.

(I’m particualrly fond of his cranberry-walnut celebration bread, the cornbread recipe, and the pain l’ancienne recipes.)

The Fresh Loaf is a website and community all about bread. Seriously, you have questions? They’re answered there. With photos. I use the Pita Bread recipe from here, and found it very useful in troubleshooting how to get my pita breads to puff properly. Check out the Lessons and FAQs sections.

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  • Rebecca

    Great recipe and tips. This is the easiest and most well explained recipe I’ve found. I’m trying to make bread for the first time and your clear cut recipe is a tremendous help. Thanks for all the tips and info.