Take control of what goes into this fundamental food and enjoy your own bread fresh from the oven.
There is nothing quite as good on a cold morning as a hot piece of bread with butter or jam. Actually, there’s nothing quite as good on a cold afternoon or a cold evening, either! Without a doubt in my mind, the best bread comes straight from the oven, usually still too hot for me to hold as I slice it.
Why do I bake my own bread, aside from the wonderful taste? I like to be able to control precisely what goes into this, the most fundamental of the foods I eat. A while back, my doctor told me (like many Americans) to watch the salt in my diet. No problem, I thought. I don’t have a salt shaker at home, and I cut down on the obvious culprits like potato chips. Boy, was I shocked to find that the bagels I was eating (sometimes a couple a day) had over 700 milligrams of sodium each. That’s almost a third of what you should maximally have any given day. (Chips, on the other hand, aren’t so bad. They taste saltier, because the salt is on the outside.)
Will you save money? Probably not if you’re currently buying the generic store brand. If you buy the good stuff, perhaps, but that’s not my primary motivation for baking.
So, let’s make a simple loaf of sandwich bread, which is something I do about two or three times a week during the winter. Along the way, I’ll pass on a couple of tips and help you avoid some pitfalls. (But I’m far from flawless. I hurriedly threw together a loaf last week, kneaded it, put it in the pan, and watched it not rise. When I replayed the steps in my mind, it dawned on me I had never added the yeast. Matzo, anyone?)
The equipment you’ll need for this is pretty basic: a mixing bowl, a loaf pan, a fork, and a place to knead the dough. The ingredients are likewise super simple: flour, water, sugar, and yeast (don’t forget the yeast!). You might find it useful to gather everything together before you start in on your first loaf. (You’ll need 4 cups or so of flour, plus more for the kneading, 2 cups of water, a tablespoon or so of sugar, and 2 teaspoons of yeast or a packet.) After you get the basics down, you can play with using different flours like spelt, millet, amaranth, and teff.
First, add a bit of sugar to the mixing bowl. I used sugar in the raw here, which affects how much I use, so I’m not going to give a specific amount. Sometimes, I use maple syrup, but you can use whatever you have handy.
Then, add two cups of hot water. This will probably be the only time I will give an exact amount, since I tend to cook by feel, rather than precisely by a recipe, but two cups works just right for my loaf pan. Your loaf pan may be bigger or smaller, in which case you’d need to adjust your amount up or down.
If you are using regular dried yeast, wait until the water has cooled to a temperature where you can stick your finger into the water comfortably, and add the yeast. I buy jarred yeast, which seems to be available only in the “bread machine” incarnation. The upshot is that I don’t wait for the water to cool, and I add my yeast later, unless I forget. The other advantage I find to using jarred yeast, as opposed to the packets, is that I can easily adjust the amount up or down, depending on the properties of the flour I’m using. For example, last week I baked a loaf of dark rye, which had quite a bit of dark rye and pumpernickel flour in it, so I added a bit more yeast to keep the loaf on the airy side.
At this point, you can add a pinch of salt if you want. (In theory, the salt will help preserve the loaf, but the unsalted bread in our house never lasts long enough for me to test this out.)
Add about a cup and a half of flour and mix it in. You should get something that looks like more or less like pancake batter. What kind of flour? Experiment with the various flours available in your local supermarket. I personally use Hecker’s, which is readily available in New Jersey. Eventually, you’ll find one that works well for you.
Now for the first helpful tip. If you don’t like kneading the dough so much, you can shorten that phase by whipping the “batter.” Take the mixing bowl in one hand, tuck it under your arm, and whip until your arm feels like it’s going to fall off. (You must suffer for your craft.) At this point, I add the yeast. For a sandwich bread, a light dusting on the surface of the batter does just fine. If I were to measure it, I suspect it’d come close to 2 tsp.
Now add more flour, until the dough becomes rather difficult to mix with your fork, probably another 2 and a half cups. You’re now ready to be kneady. Dust some flour on your work surface, and dump the contents of your mixing bowl. There shouldn’t be very much left behind in the bowl, so scrape and get all the flour and dough out. (When I first started making bread, in the form of pizza dough in college, I always had a huge mess to clean up, which was a good sign that I was doing it wrong.)
Now comes the part where you get to work out all your aggression. Imagine you’re beating that image that wasn’t in the proper format. (Hey, I typeset Pragmatic Bookshelf books.) When I was still very small, my grandmother tried to teach me to cook and bake. I got the fried potatoes down right, but her advice on bread was a bit cryptic: “knead the dough until it feels right.” And that would be how? Well, I’m here to tell you: knead the dough until it feels right. Yes, grasshopper, you must try and try and try until you know how it should feel. Just like riding a bike, there will come a day when it suddenly hits you, and you cannot not know how it feels.
That said, when the dough is ready, it won’t stick to your hands, and the surface will essentially be clean. In the picture below, I did not otherwise clean up, though it does help to have marble countertops. (One other tip at this point: some bakers recommend a 10-minute break about halfway through the kneading, to allow the flour to absorb the moisture. I’m usually too impatient.)
Now, put the dough in your breadpan. I have a non-stick pan, which meant that the first time I used it, the bread so thoroughly fused to the pan that I couldn’t tell where bread ended and pan began. Now, I lightly grease the pan before I put the dough in. Cover it with a clean cloth (or a paper towel, if your kitchen towel is threatening to walk away) and wait for about half an hour. After half an hour, turn on your oven to 370°F, and allow the bread to continue rising. (If it’s still completely flat, you forgot the yeast; not that that’s traumatic or anything....)
Once the oven is fully pre-heated, and roughly an hour has gone by, the dough will have risen to resemble a loaf of bread. If yours looks like a Ford Edsel, you’ve done something seriously wrong. Place the pan on the center rack and let it bake for an hour. (Start checking on it at about 40 minutes. If your oven runs hot, you may need to reduce the heat.)
Now comes the hardest part of all. Take the bread from the oven and put it on a wire rack to cool. No, you can’t have any yet. I know I said that the best bread comes straight from the oven, but that was rhetoric, and these are instructions. You should probably take a walk around the block to avoid temptation.
Back from your walk? Okay, now you can slice your piping-hot bread and enjoy what you have wrought.
Once you’ve got the basic recipe down, it’s time to experiment with variations. One of the favorites in our house is to use maple syrup as the sugar and to add a bit of oats to the sugar water. Let it set for a few minutes before you start adding the flour. Millet also makes a great addition to the flour. I simply add it when I add the yeast.
Another grain I’m fond of is teff, which is an Ethiopian grain high in iron, calcium, fiber, and protein. It imparts a warm, nutty flavor when mixed in small amounts into the dough. (It’s amazingly good in pizza dough for zucchini and/or eggplant pizza!) You can find most of these grains in the natural foods section of your local supermarket.
If you want a challenge, try making bagels. The process is the same through kneading the dough, although some people like to add a bit of oil to the dough. For bagels, you need to work in as much extra flour as you possibly can. If your hands ache, you’ve probably done it right! Divide the dough into a dozen or so balls. Flatten each ball into a disk and poke a hole in the center. Set them aside to rise for about 20 minutes, during which time, bring a large pot of water to a boil. (If you’ve got some malt syrup handy, add a bit to the pot.) Drop the bagels into the pot and boil for about a minute, then flip them with a slotted spoon, and boil for another minute. Drain the bagels and put them on a greased cookie sheet and bake them for 20—30 minutes at 400°F.
And if that was too easy for you, try pita next. This time around, it’s essential to add oil to the dough as you’re mixing. Then, after the dough is kneaded, divide it into small balls and roll them out into .25—inch-thick pancakes. While these are resting, put the rack of your oven at the very bottom, and put a pizza stone in. Heat the oven to 500°F. Bake each pita for 4 minutes or so, then flip and bake for another 2 minutes.
Whatever you do, have fun, experiment—and play with your food!
Steve is the typesetter for the Pragmatic Bookshelf. When not coaxing kerning pairs or reining in overfull hboxes, he likes to spend time in the kitchen baking and brewing. He also makes his own typefaces, but you can’t eat those.