Friends, baking & mentoring go together perfectly! One of the basic tenets of living a simple life and living on a farm is to teach others. It always thrills me to no end when someone asks me if I can pass on my knowledge so they can broaden theirs.
So, when my friend Vicki asked me to teach her how to bake bread, I got a double dose of joy – one, I could be a mentor, and two, baking bread is one of my favorite things to do.
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For some reason, so many people I have talked with consider bread baking an intimidating undertaking. It really isn’t. Once you learn a few basic tips, you can hone your skill quickly and easily. Here are a few tips I shared with Vicki any any friends I am teaching to bake bread:
Baking the perfect loaf of bread means getting prepared ahead of time. At least an hour before you start to bake, take all ingredients out of the freezer and/or refrigerator and bring them to room temperature.
Does your recipe call for milk that does not have to be heated? Measure it out ahead of time. Also, go turn only the light on in your oven. I’ll let you know why in a bit.
Assemble your supplies. You will need dry and wet measuring cups, measuring spoons and a medium to large size bowl. To cover the dough while rising, you can use plastic wrap, but I prefer a clean cotton towel.
Most recipes will make two loaves of bread. I prefer using stoneware loaf pans, as bread seems to brown better on the sides with these. They are more expensive, but are well worth the price you pay.
Yeast is a living organism, and like most living creatures it works best when it is fresh and fed. I prefer purchasing the large bags of it, and measuring out the amount I need.
If you buy the three-pack envelopes, each pouch measures out to roughly 2-1/4 teaspoons. So, I measure that amount out multiplied by the number of pouches the recipe calls for. And then I add just a sprinkle or two more.
Just a little note: If you do purchase the larger bag of yeast, store it in the freezer. This way it lasts. I have had it in the freezer for up to two years and it is still viable.
In order for yeast to activate, you need to make it warm. That is usually done with a liquid (although some recipes call for you to mix your yeast in with the dry ingredients).
Regardless of whether you use water or milk, the temperature needs to be between 110 degrees and 120 degrees. Water too cool will not ‘wake up’ the yeast, and water too hot will kill it.
Add your yeast to the water and stir to dissolve. Then, sprinkle a bit of sugar on the top to feed it. Yeast is like most of us – it loves it’s sugar! From there, add the yeast to the other ingredients according to the directions.
If you are using a recipe that calls for the yeast to be added to the dry ingredients, make certain your liquids still fall into this temperature range.
A basic loaf of bread usually calls for bread flour, or all-purpose. Bread flour is a little heavier than all-purpose. Other flours, like wheat, rye, oat, etc. is even heavier, and is usually blended with a white flour.
These heavier flours may also need added gluten in order to rise properly – depending on what you use and how much.
If using white flour, you really want to use unbleached. Bleached flour can leave a bit of a chemical twang to your bread. Guess what? You don’t really need to sift your flour. Most flour now is pre-sifted, so a good stir with a fork will loosen it up just enough.
One complaint I usually hear is that their bread is as heavy as a rock. Generally, that means too much flour was added, and/or it wasn’t kneaded properly. If your recipe calls for 5-1/2 cups of flour, here is what I recommend: Add the first 2 cups to the liquid ingredients, and then stir until well blended.
From there, add ½ cup at a time, blending well each time. Once you hit the 4-1/2 to 5 cup range, quit adding the flour. You want your dough to be thick and just a bit sticky, but not too wet. Use the remaining amount to flour your board and hands while kneading.
Flour your board well, then turn your dough onto the board. Sprinkle the top of the still sticky dough with flour and begin the kneading process. To knead, use the heel of your hand, push away from you. Fold it in half, turn it one-quarter turn and push again.
Continue doing that for about 10 times. When the flour is incorporated and the dough begins to stick to the board, lightly dust the board with flour. Kneaded 10 times?
Now, grab your dough, raise your arm high, then slam the dough down onto the board. This not only helps the glutens to break down, it is also helpful in taking out any aggression you may have.
Repeat kneading 10 times, slam that dough, then just knead away. To tell if your dough has been kneaded enough, you will notice two things. First, if you push your ball of dough with a finger tip, the indention you leave will quickly spring back and disappear.
The second thing is that the ball of dough will feel warm and soft (kinda like a baby’s butt right after a warm bath). You will also notice that the dough really isn’t sticking to the board, in spite of the fact there is little to no loose flour on the board.
Your directions will tell you to lace your dough into a lightly greased bowl. Before you do that, try filling the bowl up with warm water first, then drain and dry. The warmth will help the dough from cooling down.
Always remember to rub your ball of dough in the grease on the bottom of the bowl, then turn it over. The light layer of grease on the top will help keep the rising dough from drying out.
For dough to rise properly (also called ‘proofing’), it needs to be in a warm, draft-free place. The best place for that is inside your oven with the door closed and the light on. No need to pre-heat your oven then allow it to cool. The light bulb will generate enough warmth to assist in getting your dough to rise.
Most dough recommends no less than an hour, some as much as two hours to rise. I do pay a bit of attention to that, but I am more concerned with the dough doubling in bulk. Dough can actually rise too much, which will cause it to sink once it gets in the oven.
If it rises too little, you can always use your bread as a cornerstone to any new home you are building – it will be that hard. This applies to both risings (and the third and fourth if you are baking French Bread).
Half way through the final rising time, gently remove the rising dough from the oven and set in a warm, draft-free spot. Preheat your oven. Once the bread is risen fully, then pop it in the oven to bake. To know when the bread is truly done, gently tip it out of the pan and tap the bottom. It will sound hollow.
Once it is finished, allow it to cool for at least 20 minutes or so. If you don’t, it will become doughy on the inside, and sink in on itself.
While your bread is rising, you have time to do other things. Clean up the bread prep area. Do a load of clothes.
Or just do like Vicki and I did. We enjoyed a delicious lunch she brought of beef tips and rice, salad and garlic bread, and sat at the table and visited. My friend Lorea had joined us, and it proved to be a great conversation. After all, it’s what friends do!
Then came the time to grade Vicki’s final product – and she definitely made an A+! It was golden brown on the outside with a slightly crispy crust. The inside was soft and spongy, and the flavor was incredible!
Don’t believe the rumors that baking bread is intimidating. With a little patience, perfect temperatures and a good slam or two, bread can be one of the most fun things you can do to increase your ability to live as self-reliant as possible.
Now, all you have to do is grab your ingredients, your friends, and start baking. And with a little bit of practice, you might just find yourself teaching others how fun and delicious this project can be!
(this post has been updated. It was originally published in August, 2018!)