Let's Talk About Making Bread
I have been making bread for 28 years. A friend of my husband's taught me. I still love it and hope you will as well!
WAIT! Does Bread Making Involve Chemistry?
Because I flunked Chemistry in college. Twice!
Having learned bread making from a pro (well I considered her a pro, she had two children when I met her as a newlywed) I fell in love with both feet! Bread making made me feel relaxed, empowered, strong, at one with all the elements and satisfied. Hubby never complained, he ate all my attempts and declared my efforts "well done." He loved me then and now, so if the birds got the majority of my early attempts, what did it matter?
A joy and a treat can be created with just a bit of yeast, warm water and flour. Want to branch out, spread your floured wings, so to speak? Add some butter and sugar and you have a sweet dough which can be the base for a multitude of delicious desserts. Experiment even further and add mashed potatoes, yoghurt, sour cream, buttermilk, eggs and your results will astound you!
My friend that initiated me to bread making used to say "The more you put in it, the better it will be" and the older I get the more true this statement becomes. Making bread is like life in that respect.
That said, I admit to a great fear that came over me when my daughter took Breads and Pastries in culinary arts. She came home and announced to her Dad and I that she couldn't make bread, "because it is all about the chemistry, Mom!"
Oh my goodness what would I do now? I cannot do chemistry! Now that I knew it involved chemistry would my luck turn against me? Would I never be able to make bread again? I struggled with this new truth for a while.
Well, at least several moments, then the memory of the smell of yeast dissolving and the feel of the dough under my hands as I kneaded brought me back to my senses.
Well then, let's discuss some basic instructions.
In other words, give me a clue here!
There are so many sites, books, recipes and people, myself included, that are hammering out "this is what you need to know" information on bread making how can anyone sort it all out? One just becomes mesmerized flipping through all the sites or books that it is all one accomplishes! Where are the common sense step by step tips that will ensure success?
By success, I am not guaranteeing that your bread will be a blue ribbon winner or that your recipe will go viral on the web and turn you into the next millionaire overnight! Success means bread that is satisfying, good tasting and does not end up becoming bird food!
The number one tip that must be stringently adhered to is good hygiene. Diverging from the number one tip is the best way to make yourself and all who eats your bread very sick! Everything has to start out squeaky clean, from the utensils, bowls and the countertop itself.
If you have a solid surface countertop you are in luck, use it for your kneading but beware! A solid surface is cold. Cold and bread do not best friends make. Solid surface countertop then is best done in the summer, even better in the afternoon if the sun shines on it most of the day. Wood is best, of course, but only if you are kosher about the wood. Use the wood surface for anything other than bread and you are not adhering to the number one tip. Not to mention you may end up with onion rolls instead of dinner rolls!
Next, think about how much bread you plan to make. Right. Not what kind of bread but how much bread. Remember that wonderful Lucy episode where she and Ethel decide to bake bread? Enough said. The rule of thumb is eight cups of flour to two packets of yeast will make two loaves of bread. However, the more you put into the bread the more you will get out of it applies as well. Do not be afraid, two loaves will dissapear rapidly!
Following a recipe precisely is a good idea when you are just learning and this is the best way to increase your confidence. Eventually, you will find yourself cleaning all your supplies, scrubbing the kneading surface and going for it! You will be kneading along and it will dawn on you that a recipe was not even on the counter! All you were thinking of was the aroma of fresh baked bread! It is at that point you will realize you have arrived at the pinnacle of making bread!
Now you can think about the type of bread you want to bake. This involves not just what type but the flour and other ingredients that will go into your bread. A wheat bread is great for making sandwiches but can be dense and heavy if you love to knead, as I do. In other words, be careful about kneading too aggressively or for too long as this will make your bread tough. Your anxiety and mood will be lighter but your bread will come out the opposite. True connoisseurs of bread making will talk about pan bread, hearth breads, leavened and unleavened breads. I say, just get your hands in the dough for a while before trying to make any specific "type" of bread.
As far as basic instructions go they are simple and few.
Did I Say Simple and Few?
Never mind, just come along, you will have a wonderful time!
1) Start out with fresh yeast. Do not be tempted to buy the pretty brown jar! Buy the little packets, three at a time and make sure you check the expiration date before putting it into your grocery cart.
2) Yeast has to grow. This means it is best done in a separate bowl and do not rush the process.
3) The bowl itself should not be metal or plastic. Earthenware is the best choice, even better are old ceramic bowls from the swap meet. Just be sure there are no cracks or chips on the inside of the bowl. Buy them up, big and small, no one wants them anymore and they NEED (a pun) a new home!
4) Get your little bowl nice and hot...do not be afraid, it will cool off rapidly. Now put about two to three tablespoons of very warm water in the bowl. Books and websites (not to mention Baby Girl the Chef) say at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit. A better way is to put your hand under the running water from the faucet and when it is almost too hot for you take a shower, that's the correct temperature. Way too hot you declare? You will kill the yeast you fear?
But remember, the water is cooling from the time you get it into your bowl, then you have to get the kitchen scissors and clip the yeast packet, sprinkle it on the water, stir it to dissolve. The spoon is cool as well. Do not use your wooden spoon to dissolve the yeast either, it will soak into the spoon and make it smell after a while. The latter is for everyone who do not put their wooden utensils into their dishwasher. Myself, with wooden spoons at the dollar store for under three dollars there is little reason to try and save one for a hundred years. Save quilts for your children, not your wooden spoons!
5) Now, in another, saved from the dumpster, ceramic or earthenware bowl pour in your wet ingredients, adding the yeast last. Mix it on low speed with your mixer and your dough hook, if you are lucky enough to have it, and slowly add the flour a cup at a time.
6) Take your time. This is the one thing you can do to guarantee perfect bread! You do not have to worry about how long you mix when you are using the mixer, isn't that strange? So take this process slowly, enjoy the different textures of flour and wet ingredients as they go around the bowl. You will gradually increase the speed on the mixer the more flour you add. Once all of the flour is incorporated keep the mixer going until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. The longer the mixer goes, the better.
Well, unless you have a hand mixer, then you need to stop before the mixer overheats! Course, if it is close to Christmas or your birthday, burning up your mixer is a good way to get a new one as a present! This time, drop the hint that your bread would be even tastier if you had a mixer with a dough hook! It isn't true, but hey, can't hurt!
7) Wash your hands and your countertop or surface. Never mind the dough sitting in the bowl, it needs a rest. Flour your countertop or board and pour the dough out onto the surface. Pour is the word, the dough will be soft and loose but not so loose that it is unmanageable.
8) Now rest again. The dough, not you. The dough has to rest because it is all dizzy from going round and round with your mixer! You do not get to rest. You have to wash your hands again then wash and dry the same big bowl and grease the insides lightly.
A word from my daughter, the Chef: resting allows the bread to form gluten, the function of which eludes me but makes the bread delicious.
9) Finally it is time to knead. This is the fun part. Use your entire upper body, not just your hands, to knead. Push and pull the dough, fold it onto itself, roll it into a log then repeat with folding, pushing, pulling. Kneading is a wonderful feeling, relaxing and fun!
Add a sprinkling of flour around the dough, not on top of it then move the dough into the flour when the dough starts to stick to your hands.
10) The dough is ready when you no longer feel a sticky film on your hands and the dough is no longer shiny. If it is a bit sticky that is all right, do not knead it to pieces. Roll it into a nice ball and let it rest.
Again? Right, the dough, not yourself. Wash your hands and place your ball of dough in the lightly greased bowl. You can turn it over so all sides get greased, this will keep the dough from sticking to the plastic wrap or the damp towel, whichever you use.
11) The first rise is usually 1 to 1 1/2 hours in a warm place. You can put it in the oven with a bowl of boiling hot water under it if you want to see if it makes the dough moist. But setting it next to the oven, out of drafts and covered with plastic wrap works beautifully. Also, you won't have to worry about shorting out your oven when you spill the bowl of water taking it out of the oven! Sad but true story. On the other hand, that was how I received my glasstop stove and it had an extra wide oven so both loaves fit at one time on the same rack! Man, I miss that stove!
When the dough has risen, you have to punch it down. This does not give you liberty to pretend it is your worst enemy's face. Just push it almost but not guite to the bottom of the bowl and leave it there.
(My daughter the chef tells me this helps the dough create air holes for the yeast to form that gluten stuff again, whatever that is. Something to do with chemistry, probably.)
12) Now, resting time again. You get to wash your hands and flour the working surface!
13) Take the dough and roll it in a circle on the floured surface but not very long! Just enough to flour the ball. Next take an ordinary knife and cut the ball in half. I like to do two different recipes with my bread. I will use one half for french bread and one for cinnamon rolls. Or one half for a loaf and the other half for kolacky. You choose, it will all be gone in 48 hours anyway!
14) Guess what comes next? Rest and wash!
15) OK smiles all around! Last rise is usually only an hour, or less...just watch it.
16) Bread does best at medium temperatures and a sharp eye. Set your oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, bake it for 20 minutes and that will be the perfect time. You have to adjust time and temperature for your oven's temperment and gas versus electric also plays a part.
How fun was that? Now you get to rest!
Stay vigilant, however, for husbands, teenagers, neighbors, church goers and the like! They will come visit right when the bread comes out of the oven!
Give everyone the Chef's warning.
If you eat hot bread you will get sick! The bread will swell up inside your stomach and you will explode! Squishy insides all over the walls and floor; horrible to clean up!
It isn't exactly true but hey! It can't hurt!