Monday, April 19, 2010

Bread Basics

I started baking my own bread when a trip to the grocery store revealed that most of the whole-grain breads used mostly of enriched [non-whole wheat] flour and all of the sandwich breads used corn syrup. Bread need only have flour, water, yeast and salt, and if you are looking for a squishier bread some fat and sweetener, but they should be lower on the list than everything except the salt.

Over time, I've developed a very loose formula for bread. Baking your own bread is not inherently difficult... There is a certain mystique attached to it these days, but small children used to do this in olden times and you can, too! [I've even included some step-by-step pictures after the jump.]

It may take a few gluten bricks to get the hang of it, but you can always slice them very thin and use them for crostini or take your true failures to the park and feed the ducks [...or, if you're my brother, the varmits which you will later shoot]. Soon you, too, will be able to amaze your friends and family by serving homemade bread(gasp!) without breaking a sweat.

I think a natural yeast starter (aka sourdough starter) makes every bread more interesting {and not necessarily sour}, but you can certainly just use dry yeast and pump up the flavor with other things. I usually add a teaspoon of dry yeast along with the starter, because the one I have now just doesn't seem as strong. If you are interested in building a natural yeast culture (or "fridge pet"), I referenced this website called Sourdough Home when I was getting started ~4-5 years ago now. I abandoned my original starters (I had two) last summer because it was too much effort to keep them going on the month long car trip to Yankee Land. I created a new one once we settled in our little attic.

[As for people who pride themselves on the longevity of their starters, I have to say that an individual yeast cell doesn't live indefinitely and there are only a few strains of yeast that can handle the life of a fridge pet, so sooner or later your unique-to-your-house wild yeast culture will whittle itself down to a couple strains from your larger geographic region. I'm pretty sure my starter is the same as every other in the greater Bay State area {and I bet there're plenty)... and that's perfectly okay.]

Recipe: Basic Bread
Sweeteners and fats are optional for more tender sandwich-style bread. Filling options are listed below the recipe. With the exception of spices, nothing should be added before kneading as it will tear the gluten strands you're trying to build. Free-form loaves -- those not baked in a pan -- are best when baked on a baking or pizza stone.

~1 cup starter [optional]
1 cup liquid [water, milk, yogurt, beer, juice, meat stock, a splash of soy sauce...]
1 tablespoon sweetener for a golden crust [honey, sugar, maple, sorghum]
1 tablespoon fat for sandwich-style [various oils, butter...]
2 1/2 - 3 cups flours [no more than 1 cup of l rye, barley, buckwheat, or oat)
1 tablespoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 teaspoon table salt

1 egg, beaten, to glaze [optional]

Combine everything but salt and egg glaze in bowl of standing mixer, and stir into shaggy ball with a rubber spatula. Cover and let sit for at least 17 minutes for gluten formation. Uncover and add salt. Attach dough hook and stir on medium-low speed [“3” on my KitchenAid] for 7 minutes. Add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, if dough does not clear sides of the bowl after 5 minutes. Add more liquid -- a tablespoon at a time-- if dough does not form solid ball around hook.

Let dough rise in bowl until doubled in size ~1.5-2 hours. Scrape onto floured countertop or pastry cloth [pictured] and stretch into 8x12 rectangle [and scatter with optional fillings, below].
To make a simple loaf: Roll tightly from short end, tuck ends under, and pinch the seams together.
To make a twisted loaf: Roll tightly from the long side, pinch the seam, and roll it out a little skinner (like a play-dough snake). Pinch the log in the center to make two sausage links, and twist the links over one another.
After shaping, place loaf seam side down on parchment or in a lightly greased loaf pan.

Turn on oven to 400F. Let rise again until roughly doubled in size and dough no longer springs back when poked, ~45 minutes-1 hour. Brush with beaten egg, place in oven and reduce temperature to 375F. Bake ~50 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 200F. Cool on wire rack ~2 hours before slicing.

* You can fill your bread with up to 1 cup of whatever combination of fresh or dried fruit, cheese, nuts, veggies, olives, herbs can be added after the first rise and before shaping the loaf. Anything that may release water or oil (really anything but dried fruit, nuts, and herbs) should be dusted with flour to absorb some of it and prevent big holes from forming while it bakes.


  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing this article. This helped me a lot. You know, my daughter wants to know how to make bread but I am not good at it myself. So I will use this article of yours to teach my daughter and myself as well. LOL

  2. Thanks for explaining what the purpose of each ingredient is! It's exactly what I was hoping to find!