Bread makes us feel well fed and there is something so elemental about it. And if it’s a bread that you have baked yourself, a lovely sense of gratification will undoubtedly follow. Making breads you cannot find in any bakery is a wonderful feeling indeed.
Basic Ingredients that make the difference
Using the right ingredients makes the difference between spectacular breads and “oh well” breads. If you are taking the time to make your own bread, you might as well use the best quality ingredients. The freshness of ingredients, whether it’s yeast, flour, herbs or spices also plays a crucial role.
Not all flours are created equal. Whole-grain, freshly milled flours are the way to go. Unfortunately, it is hard to find them. However, if you search hard enough you can surely locate a health-food store that grinds flours in-store and stores them in refrigerators. Otherwise, try to buy the best quality flour you can find.
Bread flour should always be your first choice. Try to avoid packages that say “bread flour for machines”. Alternatively, you can use the unbleached white, but it can be difficult to measure the right amount. You can start by using less than specified in the recipe, and then keep adding it until the dough is perfect.
Yeast is a tiny plant-like microorganism whose main purpose is to serve as a catalyst in the process of fermentation. It feeds on sugars and releases carbon dioxide which causes your bread to rise. Though flour provides all the food the yeast needs do its job, a bit of sugar mixed in the liquid in the proofing stage can kickstart the process. Make sure you keep the yeast in your refrigerator.
Water is the liquid commonly used in breadmaking, just be sure it’s a good-tasting water. To avoid any off tastes, buying bottled springwater is always a good idea. If you like to experiment, you can also try fruit juices, instead of water, to make sweet breads.
Making sure your liquid is the correct temperature is crucial because yeast works only at the right temperature (comfortable lukewarm , 95° – 110°F or 35 – 43°C). Too cool, and the process will slow down; too hot, and the yeast will be killed.
As previously mentioned, yeast thrives on sugar, so it’s a good idea to add a little sugar when the yeast is proofing. The amount of sweeteners you use will also determine how dark the crust will be. They add flavor and rich brown color to the crust. The most common sweeteners used in bread making are the following: honey, brown sugar, maple sugar and syrup, molasses, jams and dried fresh fruits.
Never use artificial sweeteners, but you can experiment with liquid sweeteners that will, however, need to be counted towards the total amount of liquid content of the bread.
If you want to use honey instead of regular granulated sugar, use 3/4 cup honey for each cup of sugar and reduce the total liquid by 1/4 cup. Also, keep in mind that honey has a more concentrated flavor than granulated sugar.
Make sure you don’t go overboard with sugar. If you put too much, the dough can over-rise and collapse.
If a recipe calls for butter, use butter, not margarine. Margarine is not good for bread making, though some people tend to use it. If it’s olive oil, use extra virgin since it’s the purest and has the best taste.
If you want to grease a pan you can use any fat, but a nonfat cooking spray is preferred and it’s available in most grocery stores.
Eggs are commonly used in bread making because they make the crust more tender and add color and flavor to the bread. They are to be treated as liquid ingredients so take them into account when measuring the total liquid.
Always try to use larger eggs, because small eggs can throw the recipe off the balance.
If you want to reduce the amount of fat and cholesterol, you can use 2 whites instead of one whole egg.
Salt-free breads will leave you feeling that something is missing from the taste. But, salt does something more than loafing around and tasting good.
- Salt increases shelf life. It attracts water and delays the staling in a dry environment.
- Salt makes the dough stronger and less sticky.
- Salt regulates yeast activity and keeps fermentation at a consistent rate.
- Salt reduces oxidation of the dough thereby decreasing the degradation of carotenoid pigments in the flour. This boosts flavor and affects crumb color.
Bread making techniques
Bread making techniques you will find below are used to make most types of yeast breads: proofing, ingredients combining, kneading, rising, shaping and baking.
Proofing gets the yeast off and running. To make sure your yeast is active, stir the yeast in lukewarm water, along with a bit of sugar (or replacements that we covered above) and let it sit for 5 minutes (or until the mixture gets foamy). If you don’t see any activity after 5 minutes, your yeast is dead and you must start over with a new supply.
Combining the ingredients
This process can vary, so make sure you check the recipe prior to combining all the ingredients. However, if you plan to use a food processor for this, you can put all the dry ingredients in it and give them a buzz before you proceed to add other things and process the whole mixture.
Traditional kneading is done manually, with flour hands on a floured board. However, today many use a food processor for this. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, you can knead using the mixer.
Either way, keep kneading until your dough is elastic and has lost all of its stickiness. Many have described a perfect dough as feeling like a baby’s bottom, or like an earlobe.
After the dough has been kneaded, put it in a greased bowl. Turn it around a few times until it’s greased on all sides and then cover it with a damp cloth, plastic wrap or foil.
Let it sit in a warm place (80° – 85°F; 27° – 29°C) for an hour or until doubled in size. A dough that has doubled in size will not bounce back after you poke a hole in it with 2 fingers.
Although most people use a greased bowl (including me), some accomplished bakers use a floured bowl instead. Some even leave the dough on the kneading surface and just cover it with an upside down bowl.
Deflate the dough by banging your fist into the center. Turn it over and repeat the process, then fold it a bit. Keep repeating this until your dough is completely deflated.
Then flatten the dough into a rectangle. The shorter end should be the length of the bread you want or the length of the pan you will use. Roll up your dough tightly from the short end, then pinch the ends and tuck them under. If you want a round loaf, flatten it into a square and tuck the edges under.
You can bake a bread on a baking tin or right on the oven’s racks. But for breads that aren’t baked in pans, using a baking stone is an ideal way to bake a perfect bread. They are pretty expensive, but a cheaper alternative would be an unglazed terra-cotta or quarry tile that can be found in every store that sells ceramic tiles.
When it’s done, the crust should be dry, firm and deep golden brown. If the crust is pale, give it a few more minutes.
If you are still unsure, take out the loaf and give it a firm thump. The bread should sound hollow when it’s done. Try doing this every few minutes towards the end so you can hear how the sound changes. This is a great way to perfect this technique.
To give your loaf and appealing shine, you can rub the top of a baked, warm loaf with a little butter, milk, or an egg wash (an egg or just a yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons of water)
Let the baked loaf sit on rack until it’s completely cool.
Basic Bread Recipes
It’s too bad that so many people are scared off by dogmatic rules about breadmaking. Bread is very forgiving. No matter what you do, the chances are very, very good that you will turn out a creditable loaf of bread. If you don’t, it’s not such a big deal. The ingredients you’ve used aren’t expensive. Just toss out the loaf, if you must, and try again!
Basic White Bread
There are many recipes in the world for a good, basic, home-style white bread. I just happen to feel that this is the best. The recipe can be cut in half, but as long as you’re going to go to this much trouble, it seems to me you might as well make two loaves!
1. Heat the milk in a medium-size saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter plus the sugar and salt. Stir until dissolved.
2. Stir the yeast into the lukewarm water in a large bowl. Make sure it’s dissolved, then set aside to proof for 5 minutes.
3. Add the cooled milk mixture to the proofed yeast. Beat in the flour, 1 cup (275 ml) at a time, then turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead.
4. Place in a greased bowl and turn the ball of dough around so it’s greased on all sides. Cover. Let rise in a warm place until doubled.
5. Punch down the dough, turn it out onto the floured surface again, and knead once more, briefly.
6. Shape the dough into two loaves. Place them in two well-greased, large (9-inch; 22.5 cm) loaf pans. Cover. Let rise once more.
7. Preheat your oven to 400°F (205°C).
8. When the loaves have doubled in size, slash their tops in two or three places. Melt the remaining butter and brush half of it onto the loaves.
9. Bake for 40 minutes, then brush the loaves with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Bake for 5 minutes more, then remove from the pans and allow to cool on a rack.
Makes 2 large loaves
Cinnamon Raisin Bread
When you’ve made the dough for Basic White Bread, you’re well on the way to making Cinnamon Raisin Bread, which is a favorite with so many people.
1. While the white bread dough is rising, combine the raisins with the water in a small bowl and let sit, stirring from time to time.
2. When the dough has risen, punch it down and put it on a lightly floured surface. Divide into two sections. Roll each into a rectangle that’s about ¾ inch (19 mm) thick.
3. Combine the cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle over the dough.
4. Drain the raisins and sprinkle them with the 2 tablespoons of flour. Toss well to combine, then spread them evenly over the two dough rectangles. Press the raisins in lightly.
5. Now roll the loaves one at a time. Starting at a short end of a rectangle, roll up the dough into a log, tucking in any raisins that escape. Roll tightly, but not so much so that the skin of the dough tears.
6. Seal the seam of the log by lightly pinching its edges together with your fingers. Place the loaf, seam-side down, in a greased 9-inch (22.5 cm) bread pan. Repeat with the other rectangle of dough.
7. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place until the dough has risen well above the edges of the pans. This may take close to 2 hours.
8. Preheat your oven to 400°F (205°C).
9. Bake for 45 minutes, checking often to make sure that the raisins on top of the loaves aren’t burning. If they are, cover the tops of the loaves lightly with foil.
10. Remove from the pans and allow to cool very thoroughly on a rack before slicing.
English Muffin Bread
If you’re looking for a perfect bread to slice and toast for breakfast, this is it. I prefer this to commercial English muffins. (And it’s just loaded with nooks and crannies!) English Muffin Bread is one example of batter bread, which requires no kneading.
1. Heat the milk and water in a medium-size pan until just below the boiling point. Add the sugar and stir until it’s dissolved. Let cool until the mixture is lukewarm (95° to 110°F; 35°–40°C), then stir in the yeast and proof for 5 minutes.
2. Combine 3 cups of the flour with the salt and baking soda. Add to the liquid mixture and beat until well combined. (You can do this beating with a mixer, hand-held or otherwise, or by hand.) Now add the rest of the flour and beat again.
3. Grease two 5-cup (1,175 ml) pans and sprinkle them with the cornmeal. Using a spoon, divide the batter between the two pans. Cover and let rise until doubled.
4. Preheat your oven to 400°F (205°C). Bake the loaves for 25 minutes.
5. Remove the loaves from the pans immediately. (You may have to run a knife around the inside of the pans in order to do this.) Let them cool on a rack.
Makes 2 fairly small loaves
A true French bread will go stale in about half a day, because it contains no fat. So that’s not the sort of recipe I’m giving you. This bread might as well be called Italian (and it does make a wonderful garlic bread). So call it whatever you want! The ice cube trick will give you somewhat of an approximation of a French baker’s oven, and I think you’ll find that it’s fun to do.
I make this in a food processor, putting the flour and salt into the bowl, then adding first the yeast mixture, then the combination of the rest of the water and butter.
1. Proof the yeast in the warm water along with the sugar.
2. Put the cold or room-temperature water and butter into a small saucepan and slowly heat just until the butter has melted. Cool briefly. Combine all the ingredients except the cornmeal, then knead well, form into a ball, and allow to rise, covered, in a greased bowl until doubled.
3. Punch down, knead briefly, and let rise again in the greased bowl.
4. Punch down again and form the dough into a loaf that’s about 13 inches (32.5 cm) long. Sprinkle the cornmeal on a baking sheet. Place the loaf on this and let it rise once more.
5. Preheat your oven to 450°F (232°C).
6. Using a very sharp knife or single-edge razor blade, cut three long diagonal slashes in the top of the loaf. Put the baking sheet in the oven.
7. Immediately throw four ice cubes onto the oven floor. (This will create the steam that would be present in a French baker’s oven.) After 5 minutes, throw in four more ice cubes. Ten minutes after that, turn the oven down to 400°F (205°C) and bake for about 20 minutes more.
8. Cool on a rack.
Makes 1 loaf
Potato Bread makes lovely toast, and can also be used for sandwiches. It has a subtle taste that most people (including me) find delicious.
1. Boil the potato until soft. Drain it, but reserve the cooking liquid. Put the potato through a ricer or food mill.
2. Combine the milk with ½ cup of the potato water in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Remove from the fire. Add the potato and the butter, salt, and sugar. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
3. Proof the yeast in the lukewarm water, then add it to the cooled potato mixture.
4. Stir in the flour, then turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead until it’s smooth and shiny.
5. Put the dough in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise until almost doubled in size, then punch it down and turn it out onto your floured surface. Form it into a loaf, and put it into a greased 9-inch (22.5 cm) bread pan.
6. Let the dough rise again, lightly covered. Preheat your oven to 350°F (177°C).
7. Bake for 30 minutes.
Makes 1 large loaf
Here you can add whatever pleases you. Make a three-grain bread, a five-grain one, or whatever you like. One suggestion: Keep a written record of what you use and how you feel it works out, so you’ll be able to repeat your favorite combinations (although there’s a lot to be said for constantly trying new flavors, too).
1. Proof the yeast in the warm water with the honey in a large bowl.
2. Stir in the combination of grains and the salt, then the whole-wheat flour and 2 cups (550 ml) of the white flour.
3. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead in the rest of the white flour.
4. Let rise in a greased bowl, covered, until doubled.
5. Punch down. Shape into two loaves and place in greased 8½ × 4½-inch (21 × 11 cm) pans. Let rise until doubled again.
6. Preheat your oven to 350°F (177°C).
7. Bake for about 1 hour.
Makes 2 fairly small loaves
When I lived in Manhattan, a bakery near me made an onion bread I had a hard time resisting. Now I no longer live there, but I’ve learned to make my own!
1. Using a large bowl, proof the yeast in the lukewarm water along with the sugar. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt.
2. Beat in 2 cups (550 ml) of the flour. When well mixed, beat in ½ cup (140 ml) more.
3. Turn out onto a board or other surface on which you have spread ½ cup (140 ml) more flour. Knead well, until all the flour has been incorporated and the dough is shiny and elastic.
4. Put in a greased bowl. Turn the dough around in it. Cover. Let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
5. Punch down the dough and divide it into halves. Put each in a greased 9-inch (22.5 cm) round cake pan.
6. Brush the top of each loaf with butter and sprinkle on the onion, then, using your fingers, poke down the onion pieces into the dough. (The tops of the loaves will look dented.)
7. Let rise until doubled again (the loaves do not need to be covered).
8. Preheat your oven to 450°F (232°C) (very hot).
9. Sprinkle remaining salt on the loaves. Bake for about 20 minutes.
Makes 2 round loaves