“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” –James Beard (1903-1985)?
Is there anything better than the smell of fresh-baked bread? The sight of butter melting on it or the chewy feel of it between your teeth?
I think not.
But it is, in many circles, a lost art.
Common theory is that baking bread is too hard. Nonsense. It’s a very basic skill to learn but there are some pitfalls that, once learned, making your chances of success that much better.
When it comes to dealing with yeast…
- Proofing yeast (mixing it with warm water and a little bit of sugar) is not essential these days with the easy access of commercial, but it does jump-start your dough and can’t hurt.
- Liquid too hot (140 degrees F) will kill yeast.
- Liquids added to yeast for proofing should be between 90 and 110 degrees F while rising is best done in an area in the 70 to 90-degree range.
- To slow down rising, it’s okay to pop the dough in your refrigerator.
- Flour is often listed in a range because the water content of the flour can change from bag to bag, day to day based on the flour and the relative humidity.
- Weights are more reliable that volume measures and a good digital kitchen scale is a low-cost investment that will pay off exponentially!
- The ratio of dry ingredients to wet is pretty important. If you’re going to mix anything into a basic bread recipe, wait until the first rise has completed if there’s any chance it’s going to throw off that balance.
- When doubling a bread recipe, only use 1.5 times the amount of yeast.
- Develops the gluten–protein framework–of the bread which gives the bread that chewy texture.
- The sturdier the finished product, the more kneading it requires.
- Under-kneaded dough won’t have enough support for the rising that will happen in the oven, resulting in flatter loaves with uneven texture.
- Can be done with the hook of your electric mixer but it’s a really good arm workout, too.
- Be careful of adding too much flour during kneading, you’ll weight the dough down too much–just enough to keep it from sticking to the counter-top and your hands for the first few minutes of kneading, after that it should no longer be sticky (unless it’s a sweet dough, that will stay sticky–don’t fight it!).
- Want a golden crust? Add at least 1 Tbsp sugar to the dry ingredients to get that great caramel color. Alternately, an egg wash will give you a nice, glossy surface.
- Always preheat your oven and don’t over-crowd. Individual items and pans should have a minimum of 1 inch of space around them so air can circulate.
- Rotate your pan(s) half-way through cooking but, otherwise, don’t open the oven if you can help it.
- To get that quintessential thick and chewy French-bread crust, place an empty pan on the bottom rack of the oven as it preheats, then add cool water to the pan when you place the dough on the rack above. Steam during the initial baking phase is what makes French bread, French bread.
It’s interesting that, back in the old (very old, feudal old) days, the finer the society, the finer the flour. Whole grains and mixed wheat was the bread of the commoner while the fine, white flours were the stuff of luxury. Granted, those “whole grains” were usually the leftovers of the milling process bulked up with sand or other things (seriously, you don’t want to know), making for hard, dark loaves–but the hardier grains they did include were basically healthier than the more expensive white flours of the nobility.
These days the tables have turned. A loaf of refined white flour, cushy and soft is still available for a buck or just over, making it more accessible to the lower-income brackets while whole grain breads are now prized for the health benefits and, generally, carry a price tag triple of it’s over-processed, bleached brethren.
Bread gets a bad rap these days–it’s carb central, after all. But, as more and more are learning, all carbs are not created equal, and whole grains provide a powerhouse of nutrients and energy that our bodies need. Bread doesn’t have to be the bad guy if we make smart choices and keep it in moderation.
Just a little food for though whether you’re making or buying your daily bread.
Have any bread-baking horror stories? Share in the comments and I might just have a solution for you. Also welcome are stories of triumph, love for your bread machine or questions about baking in general.