Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Baking Bread from Scratch

Once a week I bake bread. Possibly twice this week because it went really fast. It took me awhile to get the hang of it, but I've got a system now and it's very simple. Because I believe everyone should bake their own bread for the money savings if not the health benefits, I am going to share my system with you.

This makes two lovely loaves.

First: the Ingredients

I use half whole wheat and half enriched white flour. This is a compromise that results in a nice, soft bread that the whole family enjoys. You can also add some soy flour for protein or oat flour for its many health benefits, but no more than a 1/2 cup.

You will need about 4 cups (probably a little more) of flour for this recipe.

Yeast isn't necessary for every type of bread, but it is for this type. I use regular active dry yeast. Not breadmaker yeast, not brewers yeast, not nutritional yeast. Yeast is leavening. It feeds on the sugars in the dough and produces waste in the form of air bubbles which result in a nice, fluffy loaf.

You will need 2 tablespoon of active dry yeast for this recipe.

I am convinced that my ultimate bread-making success is an issue of water. A transplant from New York, I have been telling people for years that New York pizza dough resulted from New York's mineral rich water, so when I moved from city water to a well, I believed it was the mineral content in my well that was the secret to my bread making success, but after further reflection, I think it's the complete lack of chlorine that does it. I am not 100% sure of this, but if you have city water and you are having trouble getting your bread to turn out right, try buying a gallon of spring water to see if that helps.

The water that you use to make bread should be quite warm. It should feel like a nice, warm bath. Not a hot tub. It should feel warm, but not hot, when you put your finger in it. I know there's a specific temperature it should be, but I have no idea what that is. The temperature of the water is important because this is what will wake your yeast up.

You can use milk instead of water or add powdered milk for extra protein and nutrition. You can even experiment with other liquids later, after you've got the system down. The only important thing to remember is to keep it nice and comfy warm.

You will need two cups of warm water for this recipe.

Sugar feeds your yeast and gets it active. You don't really need sugar using my method, it just gets things moving quicker. Your yeast can feed off of the sugars in the flour just fine, though the rising process may take a bit longer. If you're using milk, your yeast will enjoy feeding off that sugar as well and I personally haven't noticed any rising delays when using milk and omitting sugar. This is a good way to use up your milk or buttermilk when you are starting to suspect it's turned bad but it's not yet foul enough that you can throw it away without hesitation.

For sugar you can use: white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, syrup
But do not use: stevia, artificial sweetener

You will notice color differences in your finished product when using different amounts of sugar. The flavor will vary as well, of course.

You will need two tablespoons of sugar, honey or syrup of your choice for this recipe.

Salt adds flavor to the bread and really offsets the other ingredients, but that is not the only reason we add salt to bread. It is an important part of the fermentation process. It reacts with the yeast and also with the gluten in the flour, to help create the perfect rise and the perfect dough. While baking, salt helps retain moisture in the loaf and with experimentation you will notice that the amount of salt you use directly affects the nature of your crust. More salt results in a harder crust. 

I use two tablespoons of salt for my bread, you may wish to vary this according to taste. 

Oil is not necessary in bread. However, I have found that when I omit (or forget) the oil, my bread turns out somewhat dry and crumbly and doesn't stand up well to being spread with anything. Any oil or melted fat will work. I like to add the oil to the water before I mix both with my dry ingredients. That way, if you're using melted butter or lard, the heat will kind of disperse into the water and you won't scald your delicate little  yeasties.  I usually use safflower oil or coconut oil.

You will need two tablespoons of oil or fat for this recipe.

Next: The Tools

These tools make breadmaking easier, but every one is optional.

I have a big ceramic bowl that I use just for rising bread in. I recommend a nice, thick ceramic bowl for rising as the ceramic will help hold the temperature. For mixing a stainless steel bowl will do. If you don't have either of these, make due with what you have. The rising bowl must be big enough to hold at least twice the volume of dough that you have, bigger is better. 

A stand mixer or electric mixer can help with the sponge phase of breadmaking, but that isn't a big deal. They aren't much help with the rest of it as bread dough is much too tough for an electric mixer and even a stand mixer using a bread hook struggles with it. 

My recommendation is a really big whisk and a heavy duty wooden spoon. Or just the spoon.

Kneading Board
The hardest part of baking bread for me is finding the space to knead. I don't have a special board and you don't need to either. The kitchen table or counter top will work if you just wipe it off and dust it with flour. 

Loaf Pans
Since this recipe makes two loaves, you may want two loaf pans. I have a cast iron pan and a earthenware pan and I can't decide which one I like best. I also have an aluminum pan that I do not like one bit. You do need a loaf pan for quick breads, but this bread is nice and solid so you can just form it into a loaf and it'll pretty much hold its shape. It'll get fatter, but it'll stay the same shape.

Now: Let's Do This

1. Make the Sponge
For this part, there is two of everything: 
2 cups of flour (I use all whole wheat flour for this part) (you will need at least 2 more cups later)
2 cups of warm water
2 tablespoons oil 
2 teaspoons salt 
2 tablespoons sugar. 

1. Make the Sponge First, I combine the oil and water in a 2 cup measuring cup and all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Then I dump the water & oil in the bowl and mix until I get a smooth batter, kind of like pancake batter. (sorry, I neglected to take a picture of this)
This is a nice, bubbly sponge
Then I go write an article or play with the baby or clean something. In about an hour I come back and check on the batter to see if it is bubbly. If it's not I go do something else and check again in another hour. If it is, I move on to the next step. If it never gets bubbly, I grow concerned about the health of my yeast and do some experiments to make sure it's alive and start over with new yeast if necessary.

2. Mix the Dough Now I gradually add 2 more cups of flour to the sponge, about a half cup at a time. If you are using a stand mixer, you should use the dough hook for this part. If you are using a spoon, mix gently, scooping along the outside and gliding in. Do not "cut" the dough with your spoon.

I usually use white flour or a combination of whole wheat and white for this part. Keep adding flour until it is really hard to mix the dough and it is forming a solid ball.

3. Knead the Dough Sprinkle some flour on a clean counter top or other surface and dump your ball of dough onto it and sprinkle some more flour on top. Now you will knead it. To knead your dough, push down in the center with the heal of your hand, then catch the end that squishes out in front of your hand and fold it back over the top, rotate the dough a quarter turn, switch hands and repeat. (I like to switch hands because it's easier on my bad elbow.) This is an excellent workout.

As you knead, whenever your dough starts to feel sticky, sprinkle some flour over the top and knead it in. Your goal is to be able to knead your dough 100 times without adding any flour. The dough should feel smooth and dusty and when you pinch a bit it should feel like an earlobe between your fingers. How much dough you use here depends on humidity and such factors beyond my control, so I can't definitively say how much flour you'll use here. (Honestly, after the sponge phase I don't measure anymore. I just keep adding flour till it's right,)

I'm sorry I don't have any pictures of the actual kneading process, it's kind of impossible and probably wouldn't help much without video anyway.

4. Let it Rise Drizzle a little of your favorite oil or some melted butter into the bottom of a large bowl. Form the dough ball into a nice round. um. ball. Plop it in the bottom of the bowl and roll it all around so it's completely coated with oil. Cover it with a damp cloth and put it in a warm, draft free spot.

Now go for a walk, run out to for a quick trip to the store, weed the garden, fold some laundry or play a rousing game of Kinect Super Party with a toddler. In an hour or two come back and check on your dough. When it's twice the size it was before, it's ready for the next step. (And I neglected to take a picture of that too.)

I keep my house at 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in the winter and my dough always rises just fine. Of course I usually have a bunch of other stuff going in the kitchen so it's a little warmer in there. On warmer days the dough will rise faster, on cooler days it'll rise slower.

**If you have to go to work or bed, you can wrap your dough tightly in waxed paper or plastic and put it in the fridge for several hours or even a day or two before you move on to step 5. A few hours before you're ready to bake them, take them out and continue with step 5. They will take longer to rise, but otherwise will be fine.

A free form loaf on an old pizza pan
5. Shape Your Loaves Make a fist and sink it right in the middle of your risen dough. Punch it good, several times. Then take it out of the bowl and put it back on your floured counter. It will feel quite different now, and that's okay. Stretch it out into a long oval and twist it in the middle to break it into two pieces, then shape it to fit your loaf pans, or shape it into a stand-alone loaf or several buns or sub buns or whatever you like.  Turn on your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
A loaf in a cast iron loaf pan
Then cover these with a damp cloth and wash up your bowl, clean up your flour-covered counter and then go catch up your Hulu queue.

Come back and check on them in an hour or two.

ready to bake
 6. Bake Some Bread Once your dough has risen to about half again the size it was before, you're ready to bake. Make sure your oven is preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and pop them in. If you like a really chewy crust, put a pan of water in there with them.

Set the time for 45 minutes and proceed to do whatever else you need to do around the house.

7. Enjoy! I like to let the loaves cool for about 15 minutes in the loaf pan and then take them out to finish up cooling on a towel. Although fresh, hot bread is amazingly delicious, it slices better when it's completely cool, so the first slice is usually breakfast the next morning.

For freshness, store your bread in an air tight container and don't slice it till you're ready to use it.

Yum! This is some delicious breakfast!

My two favorite loaf pans: