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Demystifying Baking Bread

Posted Sep 01 2008 12:00am

Most people quail at the thought of making their own bread from scratch–it’s complicated, they say, it takes a long time, and the outcome is so uncertain. It does take time, but 85% of that time doesn’t involve any work at all on the baker’s part. And while the process may seem complicated at first, after you’ve made a couple batches, it gets a lot easier…which also takes care of point #3.

Baking your own bread is not only emotionally rewarding, it’ll make your house smell better than it ever has before! My favorite scent in the world is probably eau de pan. Besides, if you make your own, you can incorporate actual whole grains like oats and wheat berries. (Wheat berries are the entire wheat grain–what it looks like before it has been pulverized into flour.) You can also use seeds and herbs for flavor.

Here, then, are a few tips for bakers new to the knead…oops, fold:

Yeast breads are just that: made with yeast. The yeast must be allowed to rest and grow several times before baking. “Quick” breads don’t contain yeast–they depend on baking powder/soda to make them rise. (They’re also often made from fruits/vegetables: pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, etc.) That means quick breads live up to their speedy name while yeast breads have become somewhat of a lost art. Though yeast breads can be dense–think pumperknickel and sourdough–they’re typically much airier than their quick counterparts.

How well the yeast grows is crucial to your loaf’s success–you don’t want it to bubble and froth out of control, and you don’t want to kill it, either. All yeast recipes begin with letting the yeast “proof” by adding a liquid to activate it (water, milk, or a non-dairy milk substitute like rice milk) and giving it a little bit of sugar to feed on. The liquid MUST BE around 115 degrees Fahrenheit when you pour it over the yeast. (Note: yeast is available in packet-strips, but if you plan on doing a fair amount of baking, you’re better off buying a small bag or jar of active dry yeast. One tablespoon equals a pre-measured packet.) If you don’t provide enough heat to “wake” the yeast up, your bread won’t rise. If you scorch the yeast with too-hot liquid, you’ll kill it, which means your bread won’t rise. Recipes generally tell you to give the yeast about five minutes to “proof” before adding any further ingredients. You know your yeast is happy and healthy if your mixture gives off little bubbles and looks foamy. If there isn’t any activity, the yeast is probably unactivated or dead–toss that batch and start over.

I would suggest using a candy thermometer to measure the exact temperature of the liquid the first few times you make your own bread. Be warned, though–don’t let the bottom of the thermometer rest on the container! That will transmit the temperature of the much-hotter container to the thermometer and will give you a false reading. Once you have a few loaves under your belt, you’ll be able to use your finger or the inside of your wrist as a guide. (Practice testing it this way while you’re still using the thermometer so that you know what it should feel like.

The next tricky part is the kneading. If you have a smooth countertop, just make sure it’s clean and then knead the dough directly on that. Some people prefer to use a board, but I think kneading the dough for ten minutes straight is enough of a challenge without having to worry about the board shooting out from underneath your hands. Be sure you have plenty of flour on hand–the dough will be sticky. (Bread made with molasses is especially so, although it does make for a very soft, supple loaf when all is said and done.) Some recipes have you set aside a certain amount of flour for the express purpose of kneading it in. Another good thing to have ready is the container that the bread is going to rise in–it’s a lot easier to plop the dough into a pre-greased container than fumble around with doughy, floury fingers.

Kneading the dough is simple (though I’m usually casting desperate glances at the timer during the last minute or two): push down on the dough with the heels of your palms, grab the back end with your fingers, and pull it over onto the top (towards you). Push that down. Keep repeating this cyclical motion, adding flour whenever the dough starts to get tacky. Most recipes have you knead until the dough is satiny. Believe me, this is a great workout for your arms! Make sure that you’re wearing a short-sleeved shirt or that your sleeves are rolled up–you don’t want to get lint fuzz into your dough, and you don’t want to be tugging at your shirt with doughy hands.

Pastry scrapers come in very handy when you’re kneading dough and when you’re trying to clean the countertop afterwards. They’re a flat metal square with a thin edge at one end and a rolled handle at the other: it’s a snap to scrape up sticky dough with one of these in your hand. They also have a mini-ruler etched into the thin-edge side in case you need to measure the dough (as in for a pie crust).

Dough usually has to rise twice before baking. It should be left in a warm, draft-free place to get the best results. (If it’s too cold, you’ll have a brick instead of bread.) I’ve had the best luck with putting the dough in a sunny spot–with all the windows closed to forestall breezes–but if you’re a midnight baker and don’t have that option or if it’s a cold winter day, then use the oven. Turn it to 200 degrees ONLY FOR A MINUTE, check on the temperature (it should feel pleasantly warm but not hot), and let the dough rise there. Be sure to TURN THE OVEN OFF before putting the dough in!!! And when you go to pre-heat the oven for the final baking, TAKE THE DOUGH OUT FIRST!!! The oven-warming method, while sound, could obviously be disastrous if you don’t pay attention.

And that’s what baking bread is all about, really–paying attention. Read the recipe through twice before beginning, keep these tips in mind, and enjoy the experience! Believe me, it only takes one successful loaf to make you swear off commercial bread forever. Experiment with different recipes and flavors to find your favorite bread. When you do, let me know what it is. I still haven’t found mine yet–I’m having too much fun looking!


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