Week of Bread: The Basics
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!