Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bread 101, or How to Become a Bread Snob in 8 Easy Steps

My apologies to those of you with dial-up connections; this post has quite a few pictures.

Despite recent evidence to the contrary, I make pretty good bread. I learned from my mother at some point in my childhood or adolescence, and I've always preferred it to anything I could buy in a store or even a bakery. And in case you're wondering, bread made in a bread machine doesn't count; I find it only slightly more tolerable than the stuff from the store. I'm sure if I went to some upper-crust (heh) fancy-pants French-style bakery downtown and was willing to pay $7 per loaf, I could buy some pretty good stuff, but I'd rather make it myself, thank you. Because at least a couple of you have expressed some interest in a tutorial on the how-tos of good bread-making, and because I'm a teacher at heart and just can't say no to anyone who's willing to let me tell him or her what to do, I'm going to devote a series of posts to tutorials on bread-making. Some of you (Steph! Joe!) are already quite adept at this; feel free to give this entry a skip. I don't mind, really.

This is "Bread 101" because it's the simplest method I currently use. There are many, many ways to make yeasted bread (as well as many, many books telling you how), and in the future I'll show you more, but this is a good starting point.

Here's what you need for this recipe.

1. a large bowl or bowl-like object (if all you've got is a big ol' soup kettle, by all means, use it)
2. a stirring implement, such as a wooden spoon or strong rubber spatula
3. measuring cup and spoons (I just eyeball the smaller measurements, but for this recipe, you need the exact amount of flour and water)
4. baking sheet

Seriously, that's it. It helps to have counter-space or table space for kneading the dough, but you can even do that in the bowl on the floor if you live, say, in a tiny apartment with no room!

1. 4 cups of flour (up to 1 cup can be whole wheat) I use bread flour because it has a higher gluten content (King Arthur brand is a favorite of mine), but all-purpose flour is just fine. Don't use self-rising flour or cake flour or pastry flour.
2. 1 tsp. salt
3. 1 and 1/2 cups warm water
4. About 2 T. oil (I use olive oil, but you could use canola oil or unsalted butter if you like)
5. 1 T. yeast. You ought to be able to get this in packets in the baking aisle of a grocery store, or in bulk in the refrigerated section of a natural foods store.


1. If you have a Little Helper, make sure he or she is sufficiently occupied with some toys, lest he or she find his or her way into the cupboard and start his or her own bakery business right there on your kitchen floor. Ahem.

2. Measure out the flour and put it in the bowl (I used 1 cup of whole wheat bread flour, and 3 cups of white bread flour.) Make three little wells in the flour, one for the salt, one for the yeast, and one for the oil. There's a theory out there that the salt and yeast should not touch one another directly, hence the separation of these ingredients before everything's mixed up. If you see an errant grain of salt or yeast in the wrong territory, don't sweat it. This whole business is fairly inexact.

3. Get yourself 1.5 cups of warm water, either warm from the tap, or heated up a bit in the microwave, and pour right in the middle of the flour mixture. It's very important that the water not be too hot, because it could kill the yeast. There are bread recipes out there that say to heat water to boiling and then let it cool, or heat it to a particular temperature, but I'm telling you there's absolutely no reason to be that fussy about it. If you can't hold your finger in it to the count of 10, it's too hot. Actually, the water could be room temp for all I care, but then it just means the dough takes much longer to rise.

4. With your Stirring Implement, start stirring from the middle, gradually incorporating the flour from the sides. You need a minute or so of stirring the really liquid-y stuff in the middle to properly develop the gluten. This is crucial to good bread. The gluten feeds the yeast and gives bread good texture. You'll know it's going well when the dough is getting niiiiiiiice and strrrrrrrrrrretchy. (Hee hee, I'm so corny.)

5. When it's too stiff to stir with a spoon or spatula, knead the dough by hand for at least five minutes. You can do this in the bowl, or on a counter/tabletop, or both. Whatever floats your boat. Kneading is, in my opinion, the most satisfying part of making bread (besides, of course, eating it). If you have some anger or aggression or stress to work off, take it out on bread dough. I'm not saying it will solve your problems, but you might feel a little better afterwards. There's no right way to knead dough; you can fold it, slap it, massage it, roll it, all of the above and more. I appear to be handling the dough rather gently below, but it's just because I had to stop moving so the pictures wouldn't be all blurry. It's impossible to knead bread dough too much. How do you know when you're done? When it's smooth but not sticky. The beauty of this particular recipe is that the flour and water almost always work out just right so you don't need to add any more of either. (That said, in this example, I had a little too much flour, probably because the it's very cold here and the air is very dry, so a little went to waste.)

6. When you've finished kneading, form the dough into a ball. Admire it for a few seconds, and make a mental note of its approximate size. I put a pencil in the picture for scale because that's what Scientists do, right? Put a very thin layer of oil around it (probably a teaspoon total) and put back in the bowl, covering with a wet towel or plate so it doesn't dry out. Let it rise until it's doubled in size (I am a poet and didn't know it).

How long does it take to rise? Well, that depends. Here, in the dry winter air, it took at least a couple of hours. If it's warm and humid, it might take an hour or less. If you're getting impatient, like if you started this process in the evening, you can do one of two things at this point:
1. Stick it in the fridge and wait until the next day to finish.
2. Warm up the oven just a smidge (turn it on for a minute, then turn it off) and put the bowl in there with a wet towel on top. That usually speeds things up.

6. Punch the sucker down and let it rise again. For some reason, it's really important to let the dough rise twice before you shape it into a loaf. I used to just let it rise once and as often as not, the bread wouldn't turn out right, all shriveled and tough. This is not a good place to cheat. You've been warned.

7. Deflate the dough again and shape it into a loaf on a greased baking pan. If you're feeling particularly Euro-trash, score it a few times with a knife while uttering French, or if you don't speak French, French-like sounds. "Ooh, la la!" and "Oui, oui! J'aime beaucoup le pain!" will do just fine.

8. When the loaf has risen to about twice its size, heat the oven to 400, and bake it until it's nice and crusty and golden all over. For me, this usually takes 30-40 minutes, but I would start checking it when the mouth-watering fumes of fresh-baked bread start permeating your home.

And that's it. Easy, right? I hope you didn't find these instructions too half-baked. Even if you're a little nervous the first time you try it, take a deep breath and try not to crumble under the pressure. If it helps, I'll butter you up by promising another tutorial in the future.

Someone stop me now.


katie said...

Okay, so I wonder about by recent bread making disasters and what could be the reason. Do you know if it matters whether the yeast is cold? I keep my yeast in the freezer -- should I not? Also, I know it's not satisfying and it's obviously mechanical and all that, but my mom got me one of those Kitchen Aid mixers, and I wonder if you've ever tried the "kneading hook" on one of those, or if you know -- does it do the job?


Suze said...

Katie, I always keep yeast in the freezer and I've never had a problem. Sometimes, you just get a bad batch of yeast. You could try getting some more and see if it works. Also, I don't have a kitchen aid mixer or anything with dough hooks, for that matter, though that's what my mom used (and taught me with) until hers finally bit the dust recently...yes, they do the job.

Mrs. Ann said...

So, it has to rise again after you form it into the loaf and stick it on the pan? DO you have to cover it? I'm gonna try all this as soon as I can. Thank very much for your effort.

Suze said...

Yes, it has to rise after it's been formed into a loaf; sorry I didn't put up a picture of that. And by that point, I don't bother to cover it; since dough rises faster each time, it doesn't have time to dry out before it needs to be put in the oven.

Animal said...

Wow, what a great blog Suze! Entertaining to read, as well as instructional. You're witty AND corny, but all of that makes for very good reading. I can't promise I'm going to try it (although the final product DID make my mouth water!) but it was certainly a "slice" (whoa!) of good readin'.

BTW: don't you get little bits of dough under your ring if you don't take it off? Drives me CRAZY!

Becca said...

Because I am an idiot and I need everything spelled out for me--how much yeast? Like a whole envelope, and what kind? I know there's active, inactive, cake, and some other kind, and I don't know what they do which is why I've never bought yeast.

I'm dying to know how to make my own bread. We don't go through it very quickly, and it's expensive, so I usually buy it at Costco or at Safeway when I get two loaves for the price of one and freeze the extra loaf till I need it.

I'm also lucky enough to have a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook, so I would love to know how to use it--just in case it's a time saver. Although punching dough sounds like fun.

Suze said...

Animal, my ring doesn't get doughy, or if it does, the dough washes off when I scrub my hands anyway.

Becca, 1T. is 1 package of yeast. Baker's yeast is sold in bulk in natural food stores, or you should be able to find it in the grocery store in the baking aisle with the flour etc. Red Star is a pretty popular brand. I've not tried this particular method using a mixer, but it would certainly work. Check and see if there are instructions for bread-making with the instruction manual. If not, I would put the water, yeast, salt, oil and about a cup of flour in the bowl to start with, and add the rest of the flour little by little as it mixes up.

Mrs. Ann said...

a stupid question: so, when you say you put a thin layer of oil around it, you mean, like, you rub the whole thing with a little oil, not like you put the ball in the bowl and make a little circle around it with oil. Really. I'm really asking that question.

Suze said...

ann, what i do is put about a teaspoon of oil in the bowl and roll the ball of dough around once so it's covered. it's just so the dough doesn't dry out; you're not trying to mix the oil in. does that make sense?

Jenn Hacker said...

Great post! Although, the whole yelling for lots of pain in french scared me a bit. That was what you said to say, right? My french is a little rusty, as poor jenn hasn't said or done a "french" anything in far, far too long... LOL!

Minnesota Marcus said...

Nice post. I'm gonna try this!

jen said...

I made your bread today, adding a glop of honey & two handfuls of oatmeal (like the precise measurements?) and it is SO GOOD OMG. A little on the flat side, but I attribute that to my nearly-tepid kitchen water. I'm going to make another loaf now & let it rise in the fridge overnight :)

Kim A. said...

I just saw this blog and was so excited. I was almost ready to go to goodwill to purchase a bread maker. I'm currently making this bread now and I'll let you know how it turns out. For me so far, it is taking pretty long to rise. I'm so hoping this turns out good. Thank you so much for posting this.