“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”
Back in January I set a goal for myself.
I would bake all the bread we ate for the next 70 years (I’m nothing if not an optimist ).
Over the last six months that goal has been, err, modified somewhat as I got a full-time job and began to plan for my counseling internship. These days, I average baking 1-2 loaves every week to two weeks. Tom has a home-made sandwich for lunch everyday and we often have toast/yogurt for breakfast so, bread doesn’t last long in our house.
I love baking bread. The scent of yeast, rhythms of kneading and soft, floury texture of the dough are good for my soul.
“All sorrows are less with bread.” -Miguel de Cervantes
After a lot of experimenting I found, what has become, my favorite bread recipe. It’s included in this post (along with helpful directions I wish I’d known!) but is adapted from this delicious recipe over here at Annie’s Eats (thanks, Annie!). Making bread is NOT hard, it just takes time. However, the process is doughy and enjoyable. This recipe is intended for those without a Kitchen Aid or bread machine because…I have neither.
Guess what? You can still make bread.
(ok, technically it’s called American Sandwich Bread):
Gather ye together the following ingredients:
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons wheat gluten
1/3 cup warm water (approximately 110 degrees)
1 envelope (or 2/14 teaspoons) active, dry yeast
1 cup warm whole milk (approximately 110 degrees)
2 tablespoons unsalted, melted butter
3 tablespoons honey
Step 1) Prepare a warm place for your bread to rise.
Some do this by pre-heating the oven to 200 degrees, leaving it on for ten minutes then turning it off. When you’re done mixing the dough you can slide it in (after covering the bowl in plastic wrap) for an hour. I prefer to just let the bread rise on its own (though it takes a little longer). I love the natural way. You DO want somewhere warm and free of drafts (i.e, near the stove or a sunny window and not over your air conditioning vent ).
Step 2) Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl large enough for ALL the ingredients.
Whisk together 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (save the other 1/2 cup for the kneading process!), 2 teaspoons of salt and 4 teaspoons of wheat gluten. Do NOT mix the yeast into the dry ingredients (you’ll do something else fun with it first).
A note on flour & gluten: wheat gluten keeps the bread moist and helps it rise – it’s not essential but is helpful (particularly because I use all-purpose flour and not bread flour). I’ve found that bread flour is a bit too heavy for this recipe, it’s a flour with a high protein content which means it’s a little more dense.
My first five months of bread-baking I used a small oven with one rack and bread flour in this recipe would not bake out evenly – it’s density required a longer baking time which meant the crust burnt or, if the crust was done to perfection, the middle would still be doughy (gross). For me, using all-purpose flour, with added gluten to increase the protein and assist in the bread rising was the perfect compromise. Find what works for you – but, that’s some of the science behind it that would have been helpful to know…when my first batches of bread were sad, floppy and underwhelming .
Also, I use this brand of wheat gluten from Wal*Mart – just so, if you’re new to gluten shopping, you have a visual. Refrigerate it after you open it (I keep mine in a Tupperware container)!
Step 3) Activate your yeast and mix wet ingredients.
Technically, your yeast is already somewhat “activated” (which just means that it’s alive and rising) but my bread comes out significantly better if I mix the yeast and water FIRST and then the rest of the wet ingredients.
Heat 1/3 cup of water to approximately 110 degrees. If you don’t have a kitchen thermometer – take a guess at the temp. You should be able to place your finger for a few second without being scalded. If it’s too hot – let it cool down a bit, otherwise you’ll kill your yeast! Whisk well either one packet or 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast into the warm water and let it sit until the yeast rises to the top of the water.
It should look like this before….
This is from a marathon bread-baking day I had with my friend, Marie. The yeast is not risen yet in this picture.
…and this after! Waiting for the yeast to rise is one of my favorite parts of the process. It pops up so suddenly. Be patient this can take 4-7 minutes but it makes such a difference in the texture of the bread. My guess is, if you’re baking bread, you’re in it for the long haul -so, go ahead, let your yeast activate .
This yeast is RISEN & Ready to go!
While the yeast is rising you can melt two tablespoons of butter and mix it into one cup of warm milk (also, approximately 110 degrees), stir three tablespoons of honey into the mixture (this naturally sweetens the bread). After the yeast has risen whisk the water, yeast, milk, honey and butter together well.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix together with a wooden spoon (this saves you the headache of cleaning bread dough out of a whisk).
Step 4) Knead the dough and allow it to rise for one hour.
This is my favorite part.
There’s no great trick to kneading dough – the goal of it to get the ingredients thoroughly mixed and to warm the gluten in the dough (which gives bread it’s elasticity and structure). You can fold it, punch it, pound it – just make sure you do it for 5-10 minutes. If you don’t knead it long enough it will stay dense (kneading puts little air bubbles in it which help it rise).
Yours truly: kneading dough.
To knead sprinkle flour on the counter and slowly add up to another 1/2 of flour as you knead. The dough should be soft and pillowy when you’re done. Form it into a ball and place it in a lightly oiled (or buttered bowl).
Make sure you roll the dough around so the TOP is coated with a light layer of oil. If you don’t it will get hard while it’s rising (and you don’t want crispy bits in your dough). Cover it with a towel, place somewhere warm and let is rise until it’s double in size – this take 1-2 hours depending on how warm it is.
After the first rising your dough will look something like this:
This is from a batch I made a few days ago: note how it’s pillowy and soft – perfect.
Step 5) Shape the dough into a loaf and allow to rise for 30 minutes.
Once the dough has doubled in size it’s time to form it into a loaf!
The goal this time is to get air bubbles out of the dough. If you don’t knead your bread a second time it will bake with out with air holes inside (which means holes in your loaf of bread). Punch it down a few times and place it on the counter to shape into a loaf. This recipe makes either one large loaf or two small loaves – up to you!
Shape the loaves.
Oil your bread pan(s) and place the loaf into it. Cover and let rise in a warm spot for about 30 minutes (again you want it to double in size).
A note on bread pans: I have found that glass bread pans work the best for me. They seem to bake more evenly than metal and, HUGE PLUS, when the bread is in the oven you can see how quickly the crust is baking. Again, use what pans you prefer.
Almost ready to go in the oven.
Step 6) Bake!
Pre-heat your oven to 350 and, on the stove top, bring two cups of water to a boil. Once the bread has risen put the pans into the oven (on the top rack) and put the pan of water underneath them on the second rack. The steam from the water keeps your crust soft while the bread bakes.
Allow the bread to bake for 25-40 minutes (mine always seems to take around 30 minutes). You’re looking for a golden crust and slightly firm top. To be sure you can stick a toothpick in the top to make sure it’s not doughy inside. This is another plus of glass plans – it’s a little easier to tell when it’s done!
Also, I’ve found that taking the pan of water out of the oven after about 20 minutes is helpful – this ensures I have a soft but baked crust.
Beautiful, baking bread dough.
7) Cool & Eat!
After you take the bread out of the oven, butter the top of the loaf (this keeps it soft) and allow the bread to cool IN the pans for a few minutes before placing it on a wire cooling rack (if you put it on the rack to soon it will get “wire lines” on the bottom of the loaf).
If you have trouble getting the bread out of the pan slide a greased butter knife around the edges (again, a plus for glass pans – you can usually see right where the loaf is stuck).
Tom is usually eagerly waiting at the edge of the kitchen when bread comes out of the oven. It’s fresh, yummy and fragrant. Also, this bread does freeze well! Just make sure you let it defrost naturally (and not in a microwave) as defrosting the frozen bread that way can make it soggy.
Results of the marathon baking day…
…and a loaf from a few days ago.
Thanks for reading! If you’re an experienced baker, umm, remember these are the things that I, a non-experienced baker have found helpful (though, my father was a baker for 39 years – maybe it’s genetic? ). Feel free to leave any tips of your own!
At the end of the day a key to baking bread is persistence. I wanted to know how to make bread without machines and, after six months and several bread flops as well as successes, I believe I’ve succeeded (and Tom would agree).
Keep trying, don’t be discouraged and enjoy it! It sounds complicated but I’m at the point now where I can mix up a batch in about 5 minutes – rising takes care of itself and the oven does the rest.
Presto, fresh bread!
(Next time: a pita bread tutorial! Store-bought pita doesn’t begin to compare to home-made).
Pita bread rising – yes, I clearly didn’t put this in a large enough bowl. It made for a lovely picture though.
“Bread is the warmest, kindest of all words. Write it always with a capital letter, like your own name.” – Unknown