Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bread Making Basics

~cooking without a recipe…

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There’s nothing like fresh, warm bread.  It is soft, fragrant, and delicious in a way that store bought bread will never be.  If you’ve never attempted bread making, you are missing out on an art and joy that is a true pleasure to share.

Whether you are new to bread making or have made lots of bread following a recipe, this tutorial on basic bread making is something I think you will enjoy.  In either case, I hope you will keep learning and keep baking.

The variations on bread are endless, but the basic bread recipes share many similar ingredients.  In fact, once you know these basic ingredients it becomes easy to make your own recipes or create delicious bread without even measuring.  Today’s recipe is a very basic whole wheat and white flour recipe that anyone can enjoy.

What makes bread rise?  The yeast, of course.  Yeast can be found in a variety of ways.  The simplest and probably oldest ways is through a sour dough starter.  In this method, a mix of flour, water (often the water left from boiling potatoes), and a few other ingredients is left out on the counter to be exposed to the natural yeast that flourish in the area.  This is, quite honestly, a method I haven’t yet tried, but it’s on my list of things to learn!  I’ve heard that starters from different parts of the country taste different.  As I understand it, there are starters that date bake decades and even centuries.

Most of us who cook bread a little less often, find that keeping up with a starter is a bit tedious.  We use a store bought yeast.  I buy my yeast in bulk, as it is something I use a lot of.  If you are new to bread making, you can buy your yeast in nifty individual packets.  Most yeasts require nothing more than adding a bit of warm water and a dab of sugar to get the action started. 

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These frothy, fragrant bubbles are what you want to see.  I used about a tablespoon of yeast, a cup or so of warm water (Not too hot!  If the water is too hot to comfortably keep your hand in, then it is too hot and will kill the yeast), and a teaspoon of sugar.  Let this concoction sit for about 5 or 10 minutes until it looks like the picture above.

Now for the fun part!  This is where we can get creative!

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You need liquid.  Water or milk will work fine, but buttermilk is almost magical in breads.  If you are making a whole wheat recipe (and you have found the texture to be less than wonderful in the past), I would wholeheartedly recommend using buttermilk.  It has some kind of special way of breaking down the complexity of the whole wheat into something that is very pleasant to eat and much easier to digest.  I don’t know why this is, but I know it works.  I added about 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk.

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Oh, sweet!  It’s time for some sugar.  Really, any sweetener will work.  I like white sugar, brown sugar, or honey.  You can add what you like, but if you are used to eating bread from the store I would suggest starting out with about 2/3 cups of some kind of sugar.  You don’t have to keep using so much sugar, either!  I’ve found that my family is still quite happy with bread made from 1/3 cup of sugar and I’m reducing it a bit at a time.

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Molasses is my secret ingredient.  It’s not necessary for bread making, but it does add something wonderful to your bread.  I used about a tablespoon of this beautiful stuff!

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A bit of fat is a good addition to bread.  Melted butter, vegetable oil, or olive oil work well.  When you are deciding which to use, think about the taste each will give your bread.  Or, just go with whatever you have in your kitchen!  I used about 1/3 cup of olive oil. 


A bit of salt is needed, too.  About 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt is all you need for a pretty large quantity of bread.  This is a great time to add herbs, too.  Fresh basil is a beautiful thing in a loaf of fresh bread.  Rosemary is amazing.  Fresh dill is on my list of things to try, too!

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I like to add my whole wheat flour at this point.  Whole wheat flour does not store well.  If you buy more than you will quickly use, it is best to keep it in the freezer.  Most of us are not accustomed to eating bread made with a lot of whole wheat flour.  Even the “brown” bread you purchase in the grocery is made only in part with whole wheat flour.  In choosing recipes, this is a good thing to keep in mind.  A recipe that has 1/3 whole wheat and 2/3 white flour can be adjusted as you get used to using whole wheat.  I used about 2 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour, because that was all I had in the cabinet! 

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Some cooks will tell you that sifting is a waste of time.  I’m not sure where I stand on that debate.  I sift my white flour when making bread.  I think it helps keep the dough light, but I mostly sift because I purchase flour in 25 pound bags and it tends to get packed down pretty hard.  I sift a bowl full of flour and add it to my dough about 1/2 cup at a time.


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Once the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, it’s time to switch to the dough hook or flop the dough out onto a pile of flour on the counter for kneading.

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In either case, you want the dough to be stretchy (elastic) and very consistent.  Streaks of flour are not a good thing.  A soft dough will produce a very different bread than will a firmer dough. 

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Add a bit of oil to a large bowl and turn the dough over to coat it evenly with the oil.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, a damp towel or a loose fitting plate to protect the dough.  Set the dough aside to rise.  If you find yourself in a hurry, a warm place will make the dough rise quickly.  If you have time, set the dough in a cool place and allow it to rise for several hours or even all day long.  I like to save back some of my dough and keep it in the refrigerator to use for meals later in the week.  The longer the dough rises, the more the yeast develops and the whole wheat breaks down.  Slow bread tastes the best.

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I like to form my bread on a clean countertop surface.  The oil from the bowl the dough was in is usually enough to allow me to work the dough into the shape I like.  Large, flattened balls are my favorite way to cook bread.  After you form the bread, a light coat of flour will make the outside a bit more crusty.

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Butter makes everything yummy.  If you are adding butter, it is best to do so before it rises.  Let the dough rise for about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  The dough will be noticeably bigger, not quite twice as big as it was, but close.  Put the dough into the oven carefully.  Don’t be overly rough.  Bake the dough until well browned.  I like to start the bread in a fairly hot oven, around 400 degrees.  After about 5 minutes, turn the heat down to around 350 or even 325 degrees.  

If you have never made bread, start out with a good recipe.  Try several recipes and follow them well.  Once you have the feel for bread making, don’t be afraid to get adventurous.  It’s lots of fun to make up the recipe as you go.  Once you know the basic ingredients, it’s so easy to make up your own special bread recipe.  All it takes is yeast, liquid, salt, oil, and flour to make a good bread.  Anything extra just makes it that much better.

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Serrated knives are best for slicing bread.  Be sure to let the bread cool for 10 or 15 minutes before you try to slice it.  If you don’t like the way the bread is slicing, remember to let the knife do the work.  Try different knives if the one you have doesn’t work well for you.  I have found an old knife that I treasure for slicing bread because I have found no others that work so well. 

I store my bread in large, gallon sized plastic bags.  Homemade bread does not keep as long as the bread you find in the grocery.  You can store the bread for longer by freezing it.  Just be sure to set it out of the freezer in advance so it will have time to thaw. 

Basic Bread

1 cup water

1 T yeast

1 t sugar

Mix together in a large mixing bowl.

Add the following and mix:

1 1/2 c buttermilk

2/3 cup sugar

1 T molasses

1 1/2 t salt

1/3 cup oil

2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour

? sifted white flour…  enough to make a workable dough, not too soft and not too firm

Knead the dough until it is evenly mixed and elastic.

Let rise slowly.  Form into loaves, add a dusting of flour and some butter if you like.  Let the loaves rise.

Bake until very nicely browned at about 375 degrees.


Hope you’ll try making some bread or maybe even coming up with your very own recipe.  Have fun cooking!



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