Week of Bread: The Basics

January 28, 2008 at 12:19 pm 16 comments

Loaves of bread 

So, how does one follow up a fun and highly successful blog event like SFTF’s Week of Soup?  With an SFTF Week of Bread, of course!  Only this time I suspect this particular theme is going to span well beyond a mere week.  I can’t seem to help myself.  The more I explore the many bread recipes in my two favorite baking books, the more I want to try.  What a shame, right? 

But before I tempt you with such doughy delights as oven-dried tomato braids, pita pockets, sage soda bread, classic sourdough, quirky pumpernickel, a pesto whirl, oatmeal, rosemary olive oil, cracked grains, and several more, let’s talk about the basics of bread making.  I’ve been told bread can be a daunting undertaking if one wasn’t fortunate enough to have some tutelage from a seasoned baker.  As you can see, I got my training pretty early on.

Lil Jennie and bro Joe making bread

As I thought about the basics steps of making bread and the technique used, it was funny how difficult it was for me to break out the process in my head.  It would seem that over time, the bread baker’s brain goes on autopilot and it’s no easy task to put it back in manual drive.  So this outline might be a bit rough, but I think it’ll dispel some concerns of the absolute beginner.  If you have tried baking your own bread and had a few flops that got you discouraged, feel free to fire away with any specific questions that might not be addressed in this beginner’s tutorial. 

The Yeast

If you’ve never made bread before, you might have the best luck starting with the never-fail Miracle Bread recipe that I posted back in December.  That particular recipe eliminates the biggest potential problem by proofing the yeast prior to adding it to the rest of the ingredients.  You see, the yeast is what bread is all about.  If your yeast isn’t active anymore, the bread won’t rise and you’ll have a new doorstop to show for all your efforts.  Yeast is picky sometimes but as long as you make sure to keep it in your fridge, sealed in a plastic bag, and use it before its expiration date, you should be in business 98% of the time.  There is, however, that two percent that just doesn’t want to do its thing so don’t get discouraged if you hit one of these buggers.  It’s bound to happen, and it’s certainly not your fault.  Toss out the dough (don’t even bother to bake it) and start with a fresh batch of yeast. 


The Process

So in my experience, the vast majority of bread recipes (excluding the above mentioned Miracle Bread) use the same simple process.  It’s not very difficult, but you do need to be a patient person.  It starts with mixing all the dry ingredients together (this almost always includes flour, salt, sugar, and yeast), and then gradually introducing enough liquid (water always and occasionally oil, honey, etc.) to create a loose dough. 

Next you proceed with gathering the dough into a ball and kneading it for 5-10 minutes until it is very smooth and springy/elastic.  Now is when the patience comes into play:  the dough will need to sit for up to two hours, in a warm spot and covered with a cloth, until “doubled in size”. 

This loose measurement can be confusing to a beginner, especially since not all dough is created equal so some would never actually double in size while others may be so ambitious as to triple in size if you give them enough time.  What you really want at the end of the raising period is a dough that is very inflated and rather dry to the touch.  If you poke it, you should feel the air inside and notice a substantial hole when you remove your finger.   The dough should most definitely not be sticky (unless the recipe specifically says to expect it to be) so let it continue to rise if it is.  Until you’ve gotten a feel for what dough that’s properly risen feels like, always err on the side of letting it rise longer. 

If you aren’t seeing the dough rise much at all, you may have a dud batch of yeast.  But before jumping to conclusions, make sure your bowl is in a warm place and out of any drafts.  Double up the towel covering the bowl, just in case.  Give it another half hour, and if you’re still not seeing any progress, it’s time to start over.

If you dough is happy, proceed to the next step, which is “punching down” the dough.  In this step, you’re just looking to get all the air out of there and only need to work the dough for a minute or two.  I like to let my dough rest for 3-4 minutes after deflating it so it has time to come to grips with its new stature.  I find it much easier to work with afterwards. 

The final piece to the puzzle is to shape the loaf/roll/braid/whatever and place it on a baking sheet or in a loaf pan.  You let it rise again for another 30 minutes to get some air back in its sails before you bake it off until golden and generally hollow sounding when tapped. 

The Kneading 

In my humble opinion, your technique for kneading the dough highly affects 1) how much you enjoy the bread making process and 2) the overall quality of the resulting bread.  If you develop an efficient and effective technique, you’ll not tucker out during the five or ten minutes of kneading necessary to develop the dough’s gluten, which makes it pliable and happy.  I am sure there are different strokes for different folks, so the steps I’m about to show you are for those that don’t yet have their own method.  This is how I knead bread dough.  I’m hoping my rough sketches below get the idea across; taking pictures wasn’t working out so well as I seemed to be short a hand to hold the camera. 

Step 1. Gather into a Ball
Push firmly with the heels of your hands
Pull dough back on itself
Push dough out again with the heels of your hands
Step 5.  Rotate ball a quarter turn and repeat

When it’s all said and done, homemade bread is one of those things that really benefits from practice and a willingness to just enjoy the process.  The whole process takes somewhere around four hours, which sounds absurd in today’s go-go-go mentality.  In reality though, it’s one of the most effective ways I’ve found for slowing down my day in the best of ways.  You certainly don’t have to spend four hours constantly tending to the bread.  There’s really only about 45 minutes of hands-on effort.  But it does require the maker to be aware of how time passes and to make the commitment to be there when the dough says its time to move forward with the next step.  If I were a better philosopher, I’d hope to explain this bread baker’s existence.  Instead, you’ll just have to try it for yourself. 

Embrace the dough; become one with the dough, young grasshopper.  Then you shall reap your rewards.  And by rewards I mean the most heavenly of aromas that ascend from that first warm slice as it melts the butter you spread on it…  Bet you can’t wait to get started with the recipes this week!


Entry filed under: Bread, Recipes. Tags: , , , , .

Earning It Week of Bread: Dried Tomato

16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joel  |  January 28, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Looks right to me! I love making bread… very calming. I’ve got french, sourdough, and focaccia down, and I’ve even replaced some of our grocery store purchases with home made. I can’t seem to produce a reasonable sandwich loaf though… any suggested recipes?

  • 2. Jennie  |  January 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Joel – I love to make sandwiches using my basic miracle bread recipe (see link above in paragraph about yeast) that I usually make with half whole wheat flour and half white flour. Slices nicely and has a good crumb that’s not too dry for sandwiches. Or, if you’d like, wait a day or two until I post my recipe for pita bread – they make great sandwiches!! 🙂

  • 3. gintoino  |  January 28, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Jennie, what can I say? Thank you very much. I’ve been adventuring myself in bread making and I really needed some coaching. My latest atempts haven’t ended in the best way (it’s improving, tough) I hope to learn a lot with this SFTF week of bread.

    Portuguese cheese sugestions ;-):
    Queijo de Nisa (similar to queijo de Serpa)
    Queijo fresco de cabra (a type of cotagge cheese made of goat’s milk)
    and if you can find it there are small dry sheeps milk cheeses in olive oil (can’t remember the comercial name) that you should try (You will be able to find all these cheeses in a good supermarket or a good delicatesse shop – there are several in Lisbon)

  • 4. Kim  |  January 28, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    I’m looking forward to this week of bread! I really wanted to take on bread baking this winter, but I haven’t yet. I WILL make bread this weekend, after reading here all week. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Thanks for the tutorial!

  • 5. taylor  |  January 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Bread philosopher says: do unto others as you would do unto bread.

    “I like to let my dough rest for 3-4 minutes after deflating it so it has time to come to grips with its new stature. I find it much easier to work with afterwards.”

    Oh, you are so wise! ; )

  • 6. Jennie  |  January 28, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Gintoino – Is there anything you don’t already make? 🙂 I’m so glad you are as excited about the Week of Bread as I am. Now, you know what goes great with bread?? CHEESE!! That last one you mentioned sounds especially lovely… Abrigada! 🙂

  • 7. Jennie  |  January 28, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Kim – Perfect! You’re just the audience I was looking to inspire. 🙂 I can’t wait to hear about your first attempts at bread making! BTW, nice blog you’ve got there! 🙂

  • 8. Jennie  |  January 28, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Taylor – you crack me up! I love that you pulled out a snarky quote to showcase in all its glory…. you’re gonna make a great travel companion – once I deflat you and let you rest of course. 😉

  • 9. Week of Bread: Pesto Whirl « Straight from the Farm  |  January 31, 2008 at 10:31 am

    […] in turn hugs around the garlicky cheesey pesto.  This recipe follows the process I outlined in The Basics to a “T”, making it a great bread to try if you haven’t had much experience before.  I tried […]

  • 10. Caitlin  |  January 31, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    I have to admit that after buying a stand mixer, I didn’t think I’d ever want to knead bread by hand again, but I do love the rhythm of it. Something I’ve done since I was a little kid and my mom got tired of kneading 🙂 Bread is a wonderful thing, and a week of bread? Splendid!

  • 11. Jennie  |  February 1, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Caitlin – See, now, you’ve brought up a good point. I have a cookbook from a really well-known bakery here in Philadelphia that has lots of bread recipes but they all call for working the dough in the stand mixer with the hook attachment for 20 minutes or so, which is very intimidating for someone who doesn’t have either a stand mixer or a dough hood attachement. I wish I could try some of those recipes but I’m just not sure how to accomodate that lenght of time for kneading by hand. Any thoughts since you’ve done both by hand and with the mixer?

    That’s too cute that as a kid you helped finish kneading for your mom when she got tired. So glad you like the Week of Bread event! 🙂

  • 12. Rachel  |  February 1, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I have never been successful at bread making, but after reading SFTF’s week of bread and rereading your miracle bread recipe I was inspired and I gave it another go. Again, I have the same problem–how do you get it done (baked through) on the inside? The outside looks good, then cut in to it and the upper 1/2 or 2/3 is ok, and the bottom is just heavy gunk. Any tips?
    Thanks! Enjoying the Week of Bread

  • 13. Jennie  |  February 2, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Rachel – A couple suggestions for your problem… lower the rack in your oven for starters. Also, kneading the dough a little longer may work more air into it and help the bottom develop more quickly in the oven. And then most importantly, using a dishtowel or two, carefully pick the loaf up out of the pan when you think it’s done and turn it over to tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it’s ready. If it doesn’t, leave it in longer. The top of a loaf does generally brown long before the bottom is done so don’t trust the top crust for indicating “doneness”. If all else fails, cover the top with foil to keep it from getting too dark and let the loaf bake until the bottom sounds hollow. If you have already been trying those tricks, you may need to test your oven temperature?? IT may be too high. Not sure. Hopefully this is helpful! 🙂 So glad you’re enjoying the Week of Bread!

  • 14. rachel  |  February 11, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Ok, tried again this weekend-same as last one loaf of wheat and one loaf of wheat cinnamon. I tried your tips–lowering rack, knead more, and listening for the hollow sound. Improvement! I’m still impressed with how you can bake bread like breathing. I’ll keep trying. Got some wheat gluten from LoveLand yesterday. Will try that next time, too.

  • 15. Jennie  |  February 12, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Rachel – So glad there’s been improvement in the final outcome! Funny thing about that wheat gluten from Loveland… I have a big back of it myself but always forget to use it. Let me know what you think of it when you add it to your dough(s). Meanwhile, I’ll try to dig my bag out of the cupboard so I don’t forget it for the next batch. 🙂

    “Bake bread like breathing”…that’s such a cool phrase and I’m highly flattered. 🙂 I guess it’s in my blood or something. But practice definitely does help. I noticed a distinct improvement in my efficiency by the end of the “Week 2 of Bread” posts.

  • 16. justfoodnow  |  May 16, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    One of the best bread making articles I have ever read. Congratulations. I will, certainly
    try your miracle bread.


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