You’re Not ‘Cool’ Until You Are ‘Bread Baker Cool’
I have come to find that you rarely impress anyone with your bread-making skills, unless you are the best in your area. While his reputation might be safe among the butcher and the candle-stick-maker, you don’t often hear about the glamorous life of the man who gets up at 3 AM so that the first loaves are hot and fresh by 5 for the public to buy from a counter-girl that smiles and can count change back.
Regardless, the role of a baker is not only essential to much of modern life, but as people who are gluten-intolerant have discovered very recently, many of the most delicious things in this world are made using baking. I, myself, have a soft spot for the substance, and have often found bread and a few complementary items a preferable meal to most everything that passes for one in some places. Since we consume a fair amount in my home, it made sense to work out how to bake bread myself, given my recent success with Granola and my general desire to lower my overall costs by any means necessary.
I Sort Of Have A History With This.
This is not the first time I’ve tried to make bread. In 2007 / 2008 I roomed with a gentleman named Marcus, and he was not only an artist and skilled in the kitchen, but taught me a lot about music I’d never heard of, and what I have ultimately come to call a Basic Bread recipe (and most of the Inter-Web-A-Tron seems to agree, too). In those days, we got into a pretty good habit of working together on dinner, where he would make the meal, I would make the bread, and together we would eat like kings, or at least long enough to watch a Nova Documentary.
But what became a habit with him quickly fell to the wayside when we parted as roommates, and while I made occasional loaves from time to time afterward, I never returned to the habit the way I did while I lived with him. (He moved back to California to pursue his work as an artist, and I moved in with an old roommate who had recently bought a house.)
The Phoenix Loaf.
My wife and I discovered that we had a couple packages of store-bought yeast on hand a while back, and she mentioned that her KitchenAid had a dough-hook, which was the catalyst for me to give it a shot again. Since then I have made four batches of bread, only two of which were successful. The good news about the ones that worked out is that they are great, and I learned a lot from each of the mistakes I made. And, of the two that did not work out, only one loaf was not even worth trying to eat; the other was fine if you cut the crust off.
I would say that at this stage, I have the process down, and everything is on track for me getting better and better at it with time and repetition. Now is when I need to start fine-tuning the process, and more importantly, keep practicing as much as possible. Making bread is variable, and getting to know your stove, your ingredients, and your equipment can change the game entirely. My only hope is that some of my mistakes are instructive, as well.
Here Are The Basics
To begin with, it might be useful to get a handle on the recipie. This is Basic Bread, and as such only requires three ingredients: water, flour & yeast. I add a bit of salt and sugar for taste, but in the past have made bread using only those three ingredients. As far a I can tell, everything else you add is just to tweak the flavor, but if I am wrong, please let me know. Most online online recipes mention salt, but also point out that adding too much salt could ruin a loaf (preventing the yeast and flour from doing their thing). These experiments I’m describing here involve me adding a Tablespoon of each to the dough.
1 Packet of Yeast
2 Cups Warm Water.
4+ Cups Flour
1 T Salt
1 T Sugar
-ish, I should add. You’ll get to know what needs to change as you practice. The first rule of thumb is that you will want to add about twice as much flour as you do water. (You can up-scale your dough batches accordingly from there.) If you are buying yeast in packets from the store, then you’ll want to use about two cups of water and about four cups of flour. It could be that you’ll need more than four cups of flour, which you’ll work out as the dough is kneaded. You might need a little less, too. I have found that I need to get comfortable with things being a little different each time I try.
I should point out that basic bread is perfect for beginners because the results are immediate and you will know right away if you need to do something different. Even if you have no style, charm, finesse, or make no effort whatsoever, if you mix those items together in a bowl and mix them long enough, you will get dough. But as you’ll find, balancing the way you mix these items, and how they get them to react to each other, is at the core of bread making, so the more you practice these things, the better your bread will be. But it’s nice to get something the first time, as it really gives you and incentive to want to keep with the practice. You will easily get loaves just trying. Getting ones you want to eat everyday will take work.
Here’s The Process You’ll Want To Follow, Basically.
In a bowl, add two cups of warm water, and a packet of yeast. Let the two react for about 20 minutes. Then add two cups of the flour to the water mixture, and begin mixing. You can mix with a fork or a mixer, if you have one. As you are mixing, add the flour in half-cup increments until you have something that is of a dough-like consistency. You will want to keep adding until the dough looks smooth, and is only vaguely tacky to the touch.
I should ad that it can feel as if you are mixing and adding an endless amount of flour when you are in the thick of mixing it, but trust me, this is normal the first several times you make dough. You’ll think you’ve been working forever, and you still have a lot more work to go. Just keep mixing. This is where having a mixer with a dough hook comes in very handy. In the old days I mixed by hand. The KitchenAid has made my baking experience so much simpler.
Once you have dough, you’ll want to knead it a bit more to get it as round as you can. Most of the work has been done in the mixer, but you still want to hand-knead it to get it all the way there. Once that’s done, put it in a bowl, cover it, and let it proof for an hour or two in a somewhat warm-ish place. Not hot, you don’t want it to bake. But if it is the winter, you’ll want to make sure you let it rise in a place that is not actively cold, at the very least.
After it’s proofed, you’ll want to punch the dough down, and knead it again for another 15 minutes. This is where you will be shaping it for the final form that you want it to take when you bake it. You can break it into several loaves, one big one, bread-bowls, etc. Once you’ve shaped the loaves, let them proof for another 30 minutes, as you pre-heat the over. You’ve just given the dough some final punishment, so this final proof allows it to relax before baking.
Bake at 450 Degrees for about 45 minutes. If you are doing several smaller loaves, I would bake for 20 minutes, check, then add 10 minutes as needed (if at all). When you’re done, let them cool.
Kneading the dough takes more time and work than you think it does, and even then, you’ll probably want to keep kneading your dough more. I once asked Marcus if you could knead dough too much, and he never really gave me a straight answer, except to say that it wouldn’t hurt to keep kneading it more. I would be careful you don’t push that logic too far, but when it comes to kneading, you’ll want to do 45 minutes of continuous kneading (at least), and then continue as kneaded.
I would also avoid doing the whole ball of dough as one huge loaf. You can get away with that, and it would absolutely work. But I have found that smaller loaves – even three for the recipe I’ve described – has been more successful and, more importantly, toaster-friendly. Obviously, let the muse move through you when it comes to the way you shape your bread, but you will find that when you do this often, a certain size and shape will become consistently reliable.
Learning From My Mistakes.
I did everything technically right with my first loaf back on the backing horse, and pulled the loaf out 20 minutes early because the outer crust was brown already, and seemed hard to the outer “squeeze.” As it was late at night, I went to bed, woke up and found the center was still soft dough. I thought I could save it by re-baking it, but I only managed to further ruin the loaf.
What I learned here was to follow the instructions. For that recipe, it should go for at least 40 minutes, and maybe a further five just to be sure for the single-loaf. Under-baked will not do the job, and will just lead to ruined bread.
As for my second flop, I went too long in the proofing stage, then over-baked the three separate loaves by at least five minutes, giving them each a crust that was impenetrable. If the crust is removed it was fine, but even then, there was something about the bread that tasted “off.” The lesson here is don’t over proof your bread, and if you are doing several small loaves, monitor them a little closer in the oven near the end of their baking cycle.
I would end by saying that the shelf life is not as long as you think it might be. Yes, store it in a bread-box or some other storage device that keeps it cool and dry. But your best efforts will not give them the same kind of storage lifespan as something you buy in the store. The store-bought stuff is treated with all sorts of stuff to preserve the bread for ages. The stuff you just made will go bad in a week or two, and is absolutely best within a day or two of baking. So, don’t do like I did, and plan on eating something that you slice up to find is largely green on one side.
Baking bread, like almost all of the most enjoyable pastimes, is a sport of meditation, and requires the baker to really be in-tune with the environment and the way that you make that bread. The recipe is certainly a roadmap, and the guidelines will get you a loaf when all is said and done. But the thing about baking is that it is a game of getting better. You can achieve a better loaf through improvement, and that is done by getting to know your kitchen better, and getting to know the process intimately, through practice and research.
I have found that reading about other people, and their efforts to bake bread, has also been enlightening. I would never had added the sugar and salt if I hadn’t read about it, and while I still think the loaves need more improvement on the part of the baker first, the taste is more than just “bready” now, and that is a change.
Most importantly, really look at your process. Is there too much flour? Not enough kneading? (Usually the problem, early on.) As bread can be consumed quickly an needs to be made daily, this gives you a lot of opportunity to practice and get to know your process very well. Tweak and change little bits here and there, and find the combination of changes that lead to a loaf you really love.
Keep at it, and become comfortable with the work of the experience. Bread baking does require your concentration, and so it offers you a chance to get away from the computer, and everything else, and just be in the space you are in, doing one task. It’s a great opportunity to give yourself a chance to do something that does not require you to be engaged in any other way.