Guest Post: Bread Making Tutorial

Today Elsa is back to talk bread making with us.  All of my best bread and pancake recipes come from Elsa or her sisters, so rather than tell you how I make my bread, I thought we’d skip straight back to the source!  (And as a bonus, we get to enjoy adorable pictures of A helping bake!)

Getting startedIt’s a bit of an aphorism that baking, due to the chemical reactions of leavening, requires more precision than other kinds of cooking. I would say that’s true–except for yeast breads.

I like to bake all of my own bread, but I want to do it fast and without thinking about it too much. So most of my bread-baking is by “feel.” It might sound daunting, and it’s possible that it works for me because of years of experience. But I think all you really need are some principles and a formula.

Here are the principles of breadmaking:

1. The liquid is the limiting factor. I’ve found that starting with 1½ cups of liquid and just  adding dry ingredients until it “feels right” will make approximately one loaf’s-worth of dough.

2. Heat kills yeast, but cold only slows it down. Yeast will do its work as long as the dough is between approximately 60 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as the yeast is alive, it WILL rise, even if it takes all night.

3. Instant yeast is easier. “Regular,” active dry yeast needs to be rehydrated in water of an appropriate temperature before use, but instant yeast is designed to be mixed into the dough at basically any stage. It’s also less temperature-sensitive.

4. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. As little as ¼ teaspoon of instant yeast will raise a loaf of bread, given enough time.

5. Kneading OR time develop gluten (which gives bread its structural integrity).

6. But don’t do both! A wet, sticky dough needs little yeast and a long rise. A drier, kneadable dough needs more yeast and a shorter rise.

 Here is the formula:

1½  cups of liquid

Water, milk, yogurt whey, etc. Eggs, oil, and other fats also count as “liquid” but can’t be the entire volume of liquid; use them in combination with something else.

¼-2 tsp. yeast

depending on whether you want a slow or fast rise

about 1 tsp. salt

enough flour to make a dough of the right consistency (3-4 cups, usually)

Do NOT use whole-wheat flour only; a loaf made entirely with whole wheat flour does require some special handling

Here’s an example of how I used this method last week. We were grilling sausages for dinner, so I wanted long, thin French-bread-type loaves to use as buns. I only had the afternoon, so I needed a shorter rise, which meant I needed to do at least a little kneading.

Flour, water, salt, yeastFirst, I put the liquid (water this time) in a bowl and stirred in one cup of all-purpose flour. Then I added 2 teaspoons of yeast and 1 teaspoon salt. Salt can kill yeast, so I add salt and yeast after part of the flour, which acts as a buffer.

Adding yeast and salt

Then I added more flour until I couldn’t stir it with a spoon any more. This time, since I wanted a French-style bread, I didn’t add any extra ingredients. Fats (including fat from eggs) and sugar limit the rise and change the texture; they reduce the gluten development, so the carbon dioxide bubbles will stay smaller. Fat and sugar will create the texture of a soft sandwich loaf, not a crusty artisan bread.

Making the doughAt this point, I dumped the dough onto the counter and kneaded in more flour until the dough stopped clinging to my hands and formed a smooth lump. Then it went back in the bowl, which I covered to let rise. No matter how much yeast you use, the dough should at least double in size. With a small amount of yeast, that can take overnight, but with two teaspoons, it only took about 90 minutes.

Waiting for the riseThen it’s time to form loaves. On the floured counter, I divided the dough into two lumps and squished all the large air bubbles out of it. I make long, skinny loaves by patting the dough into rectangles and then rolling them up, pinching the seams.

patting out a rectangle

patting out a rectangle

pinching the loaf shut

pinching the loaf shut

Slashed loafI slashed the top of each loaf to give it room to rise, and let it sit (covered again) on a greased cookie sheet. The dough needs to puff back up a little more before baking, about 20-30 minutes.

At this point, I have to stop to think about time and temperature. If I were making sandwich bread in a bread pan or a large round loaf on my pizza stone, I would need a lower temperature for a longer time (about an hour at 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit). But with such a thin loaf, and since I wanted a crisp crust, I pre-heated to 425. It only took about 20 minutes to bake. No matter what type of loaf I make, I try to keep a close eye on the oven, checking at least every 20 minutes; I look for the crust to get nicely golden and check by knocking on the bottom of the loaf if I can. A finished loaf should sound hollow. Sometimes I get out a kitchen thermometer and check the internal temperature, which should get into the 200-210 degrees Fahrenheit range.

Bread-baking is one way I can be creative and practical and frugal, all at once.  In the last month, I’ve made more French bread, a half-whole-wheat sandwich bread with brown sugar and an egg in it, an overnight loaf baked in a dutch oven, and a whole-wheat boule; all of them without a recipe.

Have you ever tried making your own homemade bread?  Let us know if Elsa’s formula works for you!

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2 Responses to Guest Post: Bread Making Tutorial

  1. EStack says:

    THANKS for writing proportions—so much more sense than following a set recipe (I get stuck not knowing if I need more flour/water/etc.). I have done two loaves. They’re just okay. How do I make them rise more? Or is homemade bread always a bit dense?
    Also, what happens if I add more yeast after the first rise? (google was not helpful in answering this).

    • Elsa says:

      I think homemade bread is usually a bit denser than store-bought, especially if you are using any whole-grain flour. Some things that might lighten it up:
      1. Adding a bit more yeast
      2. Letting the final, pre-bake rise go a little longer
      3. Make sure the oven (and stoneware baking pans, if you use them) are thoroughly pre-heated, so you get a good “oven spring”
      4. Throw a couple of ice cubes in the oven when you put the bread in (the steam keeps the crust from forming too fast, which can give the interior of the loaf more room to rise)

      And finally: anything you can do to reduce amount of flour you use. This is the hard one, especially if you are kneading by hand, since less flour = sticky. The dough will also feel less sticky as the gluten develops, but it can be hard to get to that point without making a big mess. Some more options:
      a. Mechanical kneading, if you have a stand mixer or large food processor
      b. Using the less yeast/longer rise method and/or letting the dough rest in the refrigerator overnight
      c. Giving the flour some time to absorb liquid before trying to knead (I like this one especially for whole-wheat bread. I’ll often put most of the whole-grain flour into the liquid and just let it sit for 30 minutes or so. The flour expands like a sponge, and I ultimately end up using less flour.)
      d. Allow for an extra rise–after you stir in as much flour as you can with a spoon, let it rest for 30 minutes before moving on to the kneading stage.
      e. When kneading, try oiling the counter and your hands instead of adding flour.

      I haven’t ever tried adding more yeast after the first rise, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a recipe that called for it either. I would think it would be hard to get the yeast distributed evenly through the dough.

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