Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Let's Bake Bread!

I've had a request from a friend for help learning to bake bread.  First step, a recipe.  Actually, first step is taking a deep breath.  New bread bakers are often a worried lot.  You can spend days trolling The Fresh Loaf and intimidating yourself out of ever even starting, but it wouldn't be helpful.

Here's what you need to know: if you want a very specific result, both art and science come into play and you will need equipment like a kitchen scale.  If you just want something that is bread, that you can put butter on, or maybe make a sandwich with, there is a large margin for error.  Your bread will probably turn out just fine.  You will be able to eat it.

As a note, if you plan to make your own bread quite often, it's probably worth buying a stand mixer (like the ubiquitous KitchAid).  A hand mixer, like whatever you can buy at WalMart, will not do the trick.  The dough will destroy it, and you will feel annoyed.  If making bread is just a sometimes thing for you, or if you're not sure how committed you are, don't feel the need for a couple hundred dollar piece of equipment.  You can use old fashioned elbow grease to kneed.  And some people even discover that the manual kneeding is their favorite part.

Another note, you don't need oil or sugar, but the sugar and oil both help with the texture of the bread, and the oil keeps it from getting stale for an extra few days.

A few more notes (oh man, so many notes).  1) I measure by scooping my measuring cup into the flour and then leveling it off.  I probably get 20% more flour in each "cup" by using that technique than someone spooning the flour in and then leveling it off.   2)  If your dough is too wet, it won't rise properly.  If your dough is too dry, it won't rise properly.  Either way, you'll be able to eat it, but it won't be quite so light and fluffy.  Honestly, the amount of flour I use any given week varies by as much as 1/3 cup.   If your dough is too wet, you can keep kneading it and it will eventually come together, or you can add more flour.  Eventually you'll get a feel for how wet of a dough you can get away with, but until then, aim for "smooth ball" instead of "sticky mass."

Everybody Loves My Buns

1 tsp yeast
1 cup warm water
1 1/2 cups white flour
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 to 1/3 cup oil
1 tsp salt

While you make breakfast for yourself (and the kids, if applicable), throw the first 4 ingredients together and stir them to combine.  Let this goopy mess sit on the counter for 20 minutes or more while you eat and clean up breakfast.  This is called autolyzing.  It saves you from having to mix until the gluten forms nice long strands.  If you don't have 20 minutes, mix it at high speed for 5 minutes or so until when you pull the beater out of the bowl, looooong strands of dough stretch drippily down.

Add the last three ingredients and mix well.  Once everything comes together, if you don't have a stand mixer, you'll need to kneed.  Otherwise, let the mixer do the heavy work for you, while you stand around with a cup of coffee in your hand and a toddler on your hip (or whatever else suits your fancy).

Once the dough has come together in a nice, smooth ball (which will take more or less time depending on how wet the dough is), it needs to rise.  Leave it in the mixing bowl, or put it in any container not made of aluminum or iron.  Loosely cover it up with something to keep the moisture in.  A shower cap works well, or a kitchen towel or a lid would be fine too.  Let it sit someplace nice and warm for 2 hours or until it's doubled in size.  I usually just leave it until after naps.

Shape the dough into buns or a loaf.  Cover it again and let it rise for another hour or more.  I just let it sit until I need to bake it for dinner.  In an oven preheated to 350 degrees, buns take about 15 to 20 minutes and a loaf of bread takes 40 to 50 minutes. 

Eat hot, or let cool and store in a plastic bag like the one leftover from the last loaf of bread you bought.

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