Since moving to the boonies where the closest grocery store is 63 miles away, I’ve had to learn to bake my own bread. We’re a family of sandwich eaters, so a tasty, sliceable loaf is a must have at our casa. So I’m gonna fill you in on some of the tricks that I had to learn the hard way before I give you my two favorite bread recipes.
Since I have neither an electric mixer, nor a bread machine, I make bread the old school way – by hand. So my instructions are all going to be for use without machines. To those of you who own them, I apologize, but urge you to GO GREEN and just try it without all the doodads. You might just discover your inner baker if you do. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a silken lump of dough in your hands, ripe and full of the potential for the perfect loaf of bread.
I’ll take a moment here to talk about tools…
Certainly you need a large mixing bowl. I’d recommend one that’s large enough to hold your dough once it’s doubled. I use a stoneware bowl that comes in a graduated set of three from Williams Sonoma, but glass or even stainless will do as long as it’s big enough.
You’ll need a cotton or linen towel that can be moistened with water to drape over your bowl while the dough rises. This allows the dough to breathe and also keeps the top from drying out. Make sure you don’t use these towels to dry dishes or your hands. Keep them dedicated to your breadmaking and you won’t have to worry about germs! You can also use plastic wrap, but you have to oil that so it won’t stick to your rising dough, and make sure it’s not too tight over your bowl or your dough won’t be able to breathe.
A comfortable, flat, non-porous surface to knead your dough on is next. You can use a large cutting board or even a countertop or tabletop will do. Just keep in mind that it will be covered in flour and sticky dough at some point so it must be easy to clean and at the proper height for you to knead on. After saying all that I must confess that, more often than not, I knead my dough right in the bowl I mix it in! I find it to be easier for me and it saves time on cleanup.
You may want to purchase a dough whisk. I first saw one in a King Arthur Flour catalogue, but couldn’t justify the $25 price tag. I made mine for free out of an oak branch and a wire coat hanger. I use it to mix the dough at the beginning stages, and it really helps since I don’t have an electric mixer. You also may want to purchase a bench knife. This is a tool that comes in handy to scrape dough and flour off your kneading surface as well as when dividing or cutting a ball of dough. You can get a bench knife at any good kitchen or gourmet store, or you might get lucky like I did and find one at a thrift shop.
Dough Whisk from King Arthur Flour
For artisan breads you’ll need a baking stone, also available at gourmet or kitchen stores, or you can even use a large piece of unglazed ceramic tile, stone, or even cast iron. Mine is a Pampered Chef baking stone (which is actually a high-fired, unglazed ceramic tile). You have to season a new baking stone much like a cast iron skillet, and they get darker with use but are nearly non-stick if seasoned properly and bake a beautiful, crusty loaf!
For sliceable loaves aka sandwiches, you’ll need a loaf pan or two. I prefer those that don’t have a non-stick coating. I just oil my pans or use cooking spray to keep the bread from sticking and haven’t had any problems. Any size will do, really. Your choice. Just make sure it has straight sides and is sturdy enough for lots of use. I can tell you that I got two silicone loaf pans at the thrift store, and they work great but are hard to clean. I prefer my metal pans.
Ok enough about tools. It’s time for some secret tips…
1. Never use cold yeast!!! Measure the yeast for your recipe into a small bowl the night before and leave it out so it can warm to room temperature. Cold yeast won’t rise. This item alone could have saved me some tears if I’d known it first! (Thank you SIL Donna Constant)
2. Use regular or quick active dry yeast, not rapid rise. Rapid rise yeast is for bread machines.
3. Yeast needs to feed on sugar and protein, so at least part of the flour you use for your bread should be bread flour because it has a higher protein content than all purpose flour.
4. Use unbleached flours. They’re better for you and are available at most grocery stores. Albertsons has a full line of unbleached flours that are half the price of King Arthur or other name brands. I buy High Altitude brand all purpose flour because it comes in a 10 pound bag, has a higher protein content than other brands, and only costs a few pennies more per pound.
5. For those of us living at over 5000′ elevation, higher, drier air means you can cut your rising times nearly in half (less air pressure=faster rise times) but you might have to add a bit of extra water (less humidity=drier flour) to help your bread rise well, and perhaps even add an extra rise to develop the gluten in really fluffy artisanal recipes.
6. The water you mix into your yeast or flour should be just slightly warmer than body temperature – around 100° – 110°F. Don’t use hot water, it will kill your yeast and you’ll have flatbread instead of a rising loaf. Use pure spring or filtered water if you can. Good tasting water makes good tasting bread.
7. For crusty loaves, place a shallow metal pan on the bottom rack while the oven preheats, and quickly add a cup of water just before the loaf goes in (on the middle rack). The resulting steam will make a beautiful, crispy crust, especially nice for artisan breads. You can alternately spritz the oven sides and loaf top with water using a clean pump sprayer to achieve the same effect, but I find the pan method easier and less fussy.
8. For Sourdough bread you have to use a starter, then make a ‘sponge’ – which is really just a fermented starter. You can purchase sourdough starter as a mix, get it from someone else, or make it yourself. It’s important to ‘temper’ (leave in a covered bowl in a warm place) your sponge (2C starter mixed with 1 C flour and 1C water) for at least 8 hours before you mix it into dough, so you must plan ahead to make sourdough bread, but it is SO worth it! Remember, the longer you temper (ferment) your starter, the stronger the sourdough taste will be. Also, once you have starter you have to either use half each week or discard it, and feed the remaining half. The upside of that is, the longer you keep it going, the better it tastes. More on sourdough bread in the next post.
Ok, now on to the recipes! The first one is my favorite for a delicious sandwich loaf and came right off the Gold Medal Flour bag:
GOLD MEDAL CLASSIC WHITE BREAD
Prep time: 35 mins Start to Finish: 3 hrs 25 mins
Makes 2 loaves
6-7 C all purpose flour or bread flour or mixture of both*
*(I use 3C all purpose, 3C bread, & 1C whole wheat)
3 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp shortening
2 pkgs active dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
2 1/4 C very warm water (120° – 130°F)
2 Tbsp melted butter (optional)
1. In a large bowl, stir 3 1/2 C of flour, the sugar, salt, shortening and yeast until well mixed. Add warm water. Mix until well blended. Add remaining flour 1 C at a time until dough is easy to handle.
2. Place dough on lightly floured surface. Knead about 10 mins or until dough is smooth and springy. Oil a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or damp towel and let rise in a warm place 40 – 60 mins, or until doubled.
3. Grease bottoms and sides of (2) 8×4 inch or 9×5 inch pans with oil or cooking spray.
4. Gently punch down dough to deflate. Divide dough in half. Flatten each half by hand or rolling pin into 18×9 inch rectangle on lightly floured surface. Roll dough up tightly starting at 9 inch side. Pinch edges and ends to seal, folding ends under loaf. Place seam side down in pan. Brush tops with melted butter or oil if desired. Cover loosely with oiled plastic wrap or damp towel and place in warm spot to rise 35 – 40 mins or until doubled.
5. Move oven rack to low position so tops of pans are at oven center. Preheat to 425°F.
6. Bake 25 – 30 mins or until loaves are deep golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Remove from pans to wire rack. Brush with butter; cool.
NEXT POST: Sourdough San Francisco Style