In my pursuit of living a more simple life, I look for things that could be construed as steps along the lifetime journey. One of those steps just happens to be my favorite – baking bread! The first time I thought about attempting it, I have to admit a certain degree of intimidation. I was young and still had the tendency to be somewhat concerned about what others would think. Was baking your own bread too old fashioned? Fortunately, I didn’t worry about that for too long. Instead, I dove in and got busy.
Making your own bread really is an easy thing to do. It does take patience as there are many steps to take, and between each one is a waiting period. But when you smell the aroma coming from the oven, and then take the first bite, you should be hooked.
Breads come in many different flavors – rye, whole wheat, buttermilk, and whole grain to name a few – and with each flavor there are hundreds of varieties. But when you get down to basics, there are few ingredients needed. Just a standard loaf of bread requires flour, salt, a form of liquid and yeast. French bread, from the mixing standpoint, is one of the most simple, requiring flour, salt, yeast and water. The less simple process is how to get that crusty outside, which actually requires misting and steaming the loaves once they are in the oven. Some rye breads will include caraway seeds in the ingredients; sometimes sugar or honey is added for a hint of sweetness. I have an apple bread that calls for chopped apples, cinnamon and other spices, and can be quite messy to make, as with the final step before placing the dough in the pan is to chop the dough into small pieces. Trust me, you will spend some time cleaning up that mess from your board – but it is well worth it!
Where most breads fail is the temperature of the water or liquid added and insufficient kneading. In most recipes, the liquid needs to be between 110 and 115 degrees. The normal process is to add the yeast to that water, stir until it is dissolved, and wait five minutes or so to allow it to begin bubbling. A simple trick I learned years ago was to add a sprinkling of sugar on top of the dissolved mixture. The yeast begins feeding on the sugar, figuratively ‘waking it up’ and providing food. Once that happens, you add the yeast to a large bowl, then begin adding the other ingredients.
When you add the flour, it is best to add it one cup, or one half cup at a time. This makes it easier to incorporate the flour into the dough. Once all the ingredients are blended together, it will result in a rather shaggy-looking ball. To me, it is better to add a little less flour, leaving you a bit wetter shaggy ball. You will need flour to knead the dough, which in turn incorporates more flour into the dough. Too much flour will cause your bread to be as heavy as a brick.
Once the dough is at the shaggy stage, it is time to turn it out onto a flour board. Thanks to my cousins, Steve and Rose, I now have a huge granite island in my kitchen. One of the benefits of granite or marble is that you can cool it down or warm it up to help with working with dough. Pie crusts, croissants and other pastries really beg for a cool to cold working area. Breads prefer it warmer. So, I heat a couple of towels in the dryer and lay them across my island before I begin kneading. It adds just enough warmth to keep my dough at a good temperature.
To knead bread, you use a push / fold /turn motion. With the palm of your hand, push down the center of the dough. Fold it over, give it a one-quarter clockwise turn, then push down again. Here’s the tough part. You need to continue to do this for approximately 8 to 10 minutes. As you knead, the dough will become smoother and elastic. By the time you are finished kneading, you should be able to push your finger in the center of the dough and watch it spring back. When it is to that point, then you place it in a lightly greased bowl, cover it with a clean dish towel and set it aside.
The first rising can take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. The goal is to have it double in size. From this point, each recipe may differ. For some, you can simply turn the dough out onto a floured board, shape it, place it in the pan to let it rise a second time. Some recipes call for additional kneading and a second rising, before shaping and allowing it to set for a third rising. The French bread I make requires me to only punch the dough down in the bowl, then re-cover until it has doubled. I then will be required to re-knead it, shape it into baguettes and let it rise again. Follow your recipe accordingly for the best results.
Once the bread is shaped and in the pan, it’s time to put it into a pre-heated oven. I have some recipes that require pre-heating to 450 degrees, and then turning the temperature down to 425 degrees when I place my bread in the oven. Preheating, regardless of the requirements, is a necessity with bread. Without a hot oven, your bread can start to fall, then try to regain its height. This causes your bread to toughen or just flat out not bake evenly.
The best place to start is with a basic bread. Once you have that successfully tucked under your apron strings, be brave and branch out. Tackle making your own sourdough starter. I looked on line and found the starter that Panera Bread uses, and it is one of the best I have found. It takes a bit more work, but is well worth it in the end. (The bread in the photo is made with that starter.)
Once you are comfortable that you could make bread in your sleep, I challenge you to learn to make your own pastries. There is nothing better than a homemade croissant, and I love making pastries like bear claws and cheese Danish. Even better, your family will love you for the treats.
For a simple recipe, try the Country White Bread you can find if you wander over to the Kitchen page. You will have to scroll down a bit, but as you do, you may find a recipe or two to use for dinner that would be a perfect accompaniment to your fresh bread!
Let me know how baking bread works for you. If you have questions about it, don’t hesitate to ask. I will be happy to help in any way I can!