In a discussion about baking bread, this ended up being way too big for a comment. So now it’s an even bigger blog post. But this is pretty much everything I know about baking basic bread.
You don’t need any exotic tools to bake the occasional loaf of bread. You need a big bowl, measuring cups and spoons, and a wooden spoon. But if you bake bread regularly, here are some completely unnecessary things that can make life easier.
A digital scale. Baking by weight produces more reliable results than baking by volume. Get one that you can wipe clean easily, and that weighs in grams and ounces. I have this scale by Escali, and it cleans up well with a damp towel. Read the reviews before you buy one, some scales are hard to read or clean.
Chopsticks. Use these instead of a wooden spoon, they are far, far easier to clean.
Big wooden cutting board. Rest your dough on it when the counters are cold, or use it for working sticky or greasy breads to keep your counters clean.
Proofing tub. Helps you measure dough volume. Also, I make iced coffee in mine. Cheaper at restaurant supply stores.
Bench scraper. For easier counter cleaning.
Baker’s lame. Works better than a knife, for prettier slashes in your loaves. Totally unnecessary. :-)>
Bread flour makes lighter, fluffier bread. You don’t have to use it for the basic bread recipe below. It’s heavier than all purpose flour, so a cup of bread flour weighs more than a cup of all purpose. Baking regularly (3 loaves of bread and a dozen bagels per week), I go through about 15 pounds of bread flour a month. Yeah, I know. *cringe* I’m looking into buying it in bulk.
Instant yeast in the little 1/4 oz. packets is good enough to start with. But if you’re going to bake regularly, buy it in pound bags and keep the open bag in your freezer to keep it fresh. I can’t remember if I go through a pound of yeast a year, or two.
Salt and fat inhibit the activity of your yeast. Sugar increases the activity of yeast. Salt and fat are important for taste and to keep the yeast from burning itself out, but don’t add them straight to your proofed yeast. Buffer the yeast with a couple cups of flour, then add other ingredients unless the directions specify otherwise.
Kneading stretches the gluten, which traps the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, which makes the bread rise. Whole wheat and rye breads have less gluten, so they rise less and are generally tougher to knead. If you get tired while kneading, rest for 5-10 minutes, then go back at it. The rest will relax the dough and make it a little easier to knead.
To knead, fold the dough from the top back towards you. Push it back out with the heel of your hand, using a long rolling stroke. Don’t do this so hard you’re tearing the dough. Rotate the dough 90 degrees, and repeat. There are other methods, but this is what I do.
This is the bread recipe I grew up eating and learned to make as a little girl. It is denser and crustier than your typical store white bread and makes fabulous toast. Using bread flour will make it fluffier. You can make this recipe with up to 1/3 whole wheat flour without impairing the rise. I increase the recipe by half and bake it once or twice a week.
4 cups (600g) flour
2 tablespoons (30g) sugar
2 teaspoons (14g) table salt
1/4 oz. (7g) packet of instant yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
additional ~1/4 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups warm water
Combine the yeast and ~1/4 teaspoon sugar in a 1 cup liquid measure, and pour in 1 cup of the warm water. Stir this and let it sit for a few minutes, until it starts to foam. Don’t forget about it!
Stir together the 4 cups of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 2 teaspoons salt in a big bowl. Set aside. When the yeast has proofed, pour it into the bowl of flour, and stir to combine. Add the additional 1/2 cup of warm water, and work it in as much as you can with the spoon. Work the dough the rest of the way with your hands, then turn it out onto the counter or a large board for kneading.
Knead 6-8 minutes, or until it balls smoothly without tearing. Use just enough flour to keep from pulling chunks of dough off with the counter or your hands, it should be a little sticky but not so sticky it’s pulling apart.
DO NOT put this dough in a Kitchenaid mixer, it is too heavy and will probably bust your motor.
Wash the bowl you mixed it in, dry it, and plop your dough back in it to rise. Cover and let rise until doubled.
Punch the dough down, divide it in two, and form loaves. For sandwich bread, try to push out all the large air bubbles. Cover and let rise again until doubled. While it’s rising, preheat your oven to 400 F.
Bake for 25 minutes. Cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.
That’s it for bread. Bagels sometime next week.