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Beginning Bread

These are notes I gave out a few years back when I had a bunch of friends over to teach them how to make bread. In follow-up conversations, the focaccia in particular was a big hit at home.

Why bake your own bread?
I have been baking bread for 15 years. I bake my own bread because I want to get more whole grains into my family’s diet. Most stores and bakeries treat “whole-wheat” as a flavor, not a lifestyle. So we are stuck with just plain honey wheat bagels instead of blueberry, poppy, etc, one type of whole-wheat hamburger roll, instead of kaiser, sesame, etc. And forget about raisin bread and pizza. When you bake your own bread you can make a wide variety of whole-wheat items. And then, too, you can’t beat that smell.

You can’t really rush bread. It doesn’t take that much of your time, but it sure takes its own time. I usually plan on starting bread for a 5:30 dinner at 3:00, a little earlier for focaccia. But it probably only takes me 15-20 minutes of work.

I usually use a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, which is heavy-duty and has a dough hook, but they are about $190. I get equal results kneading by hand, but of course that is more work. I had two bread machines but I finally decided they didn’t make as good bread as a mixer or by hand. They do a good job of kneading and rising, though. I understand that food processors make very good dough, but I’ve never tried one.

Quick-read thermometer. I have a Taylor one that is aluminum with an analog face (about $7 – found them all over online). I went to buy a q-r thermometer at Wegman’s but it was very expensive and didn’t look very good – try a kitchen or discount store or online.

Pans – do you like your pans? Or do they stick and burn things? I don’t like flimsy supermarket bakeware. My favorite baking sheets are heavy duty, nice and thick, and the best of all is tin-plated steel, which I seasoned (oiled it and baked while empty, wash with just a bristle brush and hot water, never soap) and let it get nice and black – nothing ever sticks to it. I’m no cookware expert, but if you don’t like your pans, try a heavier one and consider seasoning it. Cook’s World on Monroe Ave has good bakeware.

All bread has 5 basic ingredients: water, yeast, sugar, salt, flour. Without these ingredients, bread will not rise properly. Even if you are watching your sugar or salt, you must not reduce these past the proportions shown below. They are small amounts per serving, anyway. T = Tablespoon, t = teaspoon

A very basic recipe, my own Whole Wheat Dough:

  • 1½ c warm water
  • 1½ T yeast (1½ packets)
  • 1½ t sugar
  • 1½ t salt
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 c whole wheat flour
  • ~1½ c white flour (for pizza, 1/2 c can be semolina)

A note about each ingredient:

Water: This should be baby bath-water temperature. I microwave it on high for 30 seconds, and then pour it into the bowl before the yeast. That way if it is a little too warm, the bowl cools it down. Start with warm water and you will not have to worry so much about keeping your dough warm. I mike it because I read once that it’s not good to drink water from your hot water tank due to corrosion, and besides I hate waiting for the water to run warm.

Yeast: This is the living organism in bread. Put politely, its respiration causes the air pockets which make bread rise. Yeast slows down with cool or freezing temperatures; it is active when warm; higher temperatures kill it. You can buy yeast by the 3-pack at the store for $1.50, or you can buy it by the tiny jar for about $5, but I buy it for $3.28/pound at Lori’s, from their bulk refrigerator. Yeast keeps for a few months in your fridge, but it keeps forever in your freezer, so why fool around? Because I am confident of my freezer yeast, I always skip the “proofing” step of bread-making, where you are supposed to pour a little water and sugar in a little cup with your yeast and see if it bubbles after 5 minutes (if it doesn’t, you throw it away and drive to the store for more yeast). Rather inconvenient, so just use your freezer. A single packet = 1 T. Some cookbooks tell us to gently thaw the yeast before “shocking” it in water – I think it is a conspiracy to waste our time. Just throw it in the water.

Sugar: The yeast eats the sugar to get itself going. I think after a while it starts eating the flour. Artificial sweetener will not work. If a recipe calls for more than this proportion of sugar, it is for sweetness and can be reduced.

Salt: This adds flavor but more importantly slows the yeast down, regulates it. Less than this amount will not rise properly. More than this will add flavor but will keep your bread from rising quite as well.

Flour: The gluey gluten in flour, when kneaded, makes a stretchy dough which expands when the yeast “respires,” instead of just breaking bubbles like a pancake batter. Professional bakeries make wonderful 100% whole-wheat loaves but I can’t do that – it would turn out a dense little brown patty, because it has a much lower proportion of gluten. Most home bakers use a minimum of ½ white flour; the rest can be whole wheat, rye, etc. I use unbleached white flour because I think it’s healthier. For both types of flour, I use plain old Wegman’s brand. King Arthur makes a nice “White Wheat” flour which has the health properties of wheat and the look and feel of white – give it a try! You can keep extra flour indefinitely in the freezer wrapped in a plastic bag over the paper sack. Store it for use in a plastic/glass/ceramic jar with a tightly-sealing lid. I don’t trust tins to keep bugs out.

Other ingredients: such as oil, milk, etc, are added to change the texture or flavor, but will not affect rising so much.

Critical steps of bread-making
In my experience, the following steps are critical to a successful bread. I will draw attention to them as we continue. I will heap my disdain on unnecessary steps which cookbooks frequently mention.

  1. Warm dough
  2. Knead sufficiently
  3. Let rise sufficiently
  4. Bake sufficiently

Technique: Versatile Whole Wheat, by hand

Now I will tell you how to make it. Of course any bread recipe can be made by machine or by hand, but for simplicity I will explain one way with each recipe.

  • Add the ingredients to the bowl in the order listed above. If you have an electric hand mixer, you can save yourself some work by withholding the whole wheat flour and using your mixer on the batter for about 5 minutes; this gives you a nice head start stretching out the gluten. In any case, after you add everything, you start kneading by hand. Once it is holding together, you may find it easier to knead it on the counter. Add more flour if necessary (either type), until you have a dough which sticks to your hands a little but not annoyingly. You will have to knead it about 10 minutes, so set a timer. This is one of those important steps – the longer you knead it the better. When done it should be nice and smooth. This is a stage where it helps to have seen and felt a good dough.
  • Cookbooks usually make a big deal about oiling a clean bowl and coating the dough by flipping it. I just dump the dough back in the original bowl and cover it with a clean towel.
  • It is important to let the dough rise a full 1½ hours. You really can’t rush it without affecting the bread. Keep it warm if possible, though this particular dough is very forgiving.
  • A note about over-rising. If you leave your dough much more than 1½ hours, it will have an alcohol smell when you punch it down, due to the yeast having sat there in its outgassing longer than it would have liked, and it will seem wet. When you knead it, the smell will go away, but it may not rise quite as well as before. Some cookbooks tell you to throw it out, but that is a bit drastic. Just knead it again, make sure you keep it warm, and get on with it. If you realize you need to leave your dough for a while or overnight, you can protect the dough from drying out, say with wax paper right on top of the dough, and put it bowl and all in the fridge. It will rise in there (a lot!), but very slowly. I don’t believe this is ideal; you could try making bread dough ahead of time like this for convenience, but results may not be as good. Bread dough freezes wonderfully – you just freeze it before rising in an airtight container, and then let it thaw and rise in a warm spot.
  • Punch the bread down; this probably isn’t necessary, but it’s fun. Knead it just a few times. If you overdo it it will be too tight to form easily – in that case just let it rest, covered with a towel, for a few minutes.
  • Now this is where you have to finally decide what you’re going to make, because you’re going to form the bread and then let it rise a second time. Here are your choices:

Rolls: Pulling apart with your hands, separate the dough into even chunks, about golf-ball size.   You can knead them briefly into balls (just repairing the tear by folding it inside), or you can show off by making other shapes, or mix and match; here are three: bowknots: roll into a thin hot-dog shape and tie into a simple knot, like the first part of a shoelace tie. Clover leaf: cut/pull each ball into thirds, roll each of them into balls, and put the three into a greased muffin cup. Perhaps make one lucky 4-leaf clover. Maybe the lucky recipient gets to wash the dishes! Spirals: roll into a thin hotdog shape, then make a spiral, tucking the outer end under. The balls, spirals or bowknots go onto a greased cookie sheet.  Fun for kids: let them at it, though try to minimize little burnable parts sticking off.  I used to let my toddler play with a piece while I formed the rest, then bake whatever he/she made.  Let rise 15 minutes and bake 425 for 12-15 minutes.  My family got sick of these rolls, so I make rolls from other recipes now (see my Breads page).  Use any bread recipe you want, but you still use this paragraph’s instructions.

Loaf: Knead it to get a nice smooth surface, stretching the seam all to one side which can be hidden on the bottom. Put it in a greased loaf pan. I have to say I don’t really like loaves made from this recipe, but I’ve included this to be complete. You would let it rise ½ hour and bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes. Should make 1 loaf.

Free-form or fancy: You can make a round ball for a homey Montana-Mills style loaf, or a longer Italian style, or even a skinny baguette shape. At Christmas I made a fancy braid which impressed everyone: divide dough into 3 parts, roll into skinny snakes, braid on a greased cookie sheet. Or make one long snake and coil it like a snail shell, tucking the end under. Or divide the dough in half, make 2 snakes, loosely twist them, and form into a ring, joining the ends together as inconspicuously as possible. Form either all or parts of the dough into a ring shaped like a heart/shamrock/pretzel.  Fun for kids: pull the dough into rolls (see above) but let the kids put them together like a flower, sun or geometric shape – pull apart to eat.  I would bake these at 350, but the cooking time will depend on the shape and size; personal size or thin shapes, start watching at 12 minutes; larger/thicker start with 20 minutes but allow 35 or so.

Pizza: I use corn meal on the counter, but whole wheat flour will work fine. Use a rolling pin to roll it into the shape of your pan. This dough will make 11 x 17″. I have a pan with edges and I spread a few T of olive oil on it. I transfer the dough onto the cookie sheet, then flip it so it is coated with oil. Top as usual. It will be risen by the time you have topped it, so bake at 450 for 15 minutes. A little less time if you don’t add toppings.  For pizza, I have been replacing 1/2 c of white flour with semolina flour and really like the results.

Note: when rolling hot-dog/snake shapes, it helps to have no flour on the counter.

  • A note on the second rising: you don’t want the dough to dry out, as it will develop a skin on top which will restrict it from rising as well. Strategies for preventing this are oiling it or covering it with a cloth. I wouldn’t worry about covering rolls, and the pizza is covered by sauce (oil in this case is for frying and flavor), but for thicker breads it is important. However, if you have a covering touching the rising loaf, it may deflate somewhat when you pull it off; it won’t pop like a souffle, but it may settle a little, which is dispiriting, but it should recover in the oven (yeast gives one last sigh its first few minutes in the oven, before the crust is formed – called “oven spring”). Definitely don’t cover with plastic wrap or wax paper, which would almost definitely stick to the rising dough. If your loaf does dry out, do not despair – this is one of those times that the fix will look so wonderful you will feel like a superhero: I keep a single-edged razorblade on hand in a small jar – a fresh exacto knife or disposable boxcutter might work too. It has to be sharp as can be, sharper than a knife, which will not work. You slash the loaf, either one long one or make some kind of pattern, and the loaf is then free to expand more. Very impressive.
  • Baking: Times and temperatures given above are with a preheated oven, and may vary with your oven and pans, so watch for burning with your first few loaves.
  • How to tell if it is done: This is a very important skill; a common mistake is to underbake. With things like pizza and pita breads, you can tell by looking whether it is done (when first trying a recipe on your pans, make sure they don’t tend to burn on the bottom before they’re done on top). For rolls, I mostly tell by looks as well; I might also smell them (see below) or break one open. For thicker breads, like focaccia or a loaf, the best thing you can do is to get an instant-read thermometer. Then it is simply a matter of getting the internal temperature to 200 degrees. Other tests for doneness: Cookbooks like to tell you it has a hollow sound when you rap on the bottom of the loaf, but I never got the hang of that. What I would do was take the bread off the pan and smell the bottom – if it smelled like hot dough, I put it back; if it smelled like fresh bread, I took it out. Use tinfoil to protect tops from burning or getting darker than you want when insides are not done.
  • Cooling: It is important to promptly get hot bread off any solid surface like a pan or countertop. The moisture escaping from your bread at this time will be trapped there and that side will be soggy. Use a cake rack or even your rangetop coils. If you must leave before the bread is cool, you can protect it from overdrying by draping a towel over it or putting it in a paper bag, but still, off the countertop. When the bread is cool, you can store it in a plastic bag.
  • There are no preservatives in your bread, so it may not keep as well as bakery bread. Bread freezes well and can be defrosted on the countertop or in the microwave, but for a dinner bread I also like to finish it off with conventional heat, usually wrapped tightly in foil at 350 degrees. Pita bread is best toasted (even straight from the freezer or oven).



Tina’s Focaccia, by stand-mixer
This is my take on Macaroni Grill’s focaccia. It is a little less forgiving than the whole wheat dough above, but once you get it, the results are impressive. It is also not health food: all white flour and plenty of olive oil. Of course, being me, I tried to use some whole wheat flour but found that any amount at all destroyed the unique texture, and made it just any old bread.

  • 1¼ c warm water
  • 1½ t yeast (½ packet)
  • 1 t sugar
  • 1 t salt
  • 2 T Rosemary
  • 2½ c white flour
  • ½ c semolina

A note on the ingredients (except as listed from first recipe):

Rosemary: Yes, that’s Tablespoons. You will go broke buying Rosemary for this recipe from Wegman’s. Buy it in bulk from Lori’s ($12/lb).
Semolina: This is a wheat pasta flour. I put it in to add shortness to the bread (opposite of chewy). It’s what makes the focaccia special, so don’t substitute. Wegman’s has this in the Natural Foods section, or get it in bulk from (all together now) Lori’s, $1.15/lb organic. I hope Lori’s sends me that kickback check pretty soon.

  • Mix ingredients. Be sure to use warm water – very important in this recipe.
  • Knead: I’ll describe using a heavy-duty mixer this time. The main difference is that the dough will seem a little stickier in the bowl, because the hook tears it apart more than your hands do. So don’t keep adding flour expecting it to look smooth and silky. I have found that the stickier you can stand the dough, the better your end result will be. Leave it on the sticky side, and you can always add some flour at forming time if necessary. Let it knead for 5 minutes or so. I read a cookbook that said it’s possible to overknead with a mixer, leaving you with a poor texture dough, but it has never happened to me ever. If you are not entirely confidant of the dough, knead it a few times by hand to be sure it is how you want it. This will get rid of the dough hook “damage” and give you a better feel for the texture. But kneading by hand is not necessary. You can leave it on the machine about 5 minutes, on fairly high speed.
  • Let rise 1½ hours, as warm as possible.
  • Punch down. Knead a little and form to shape into an oval about 2″ thick. I get better results baking this in a ceramic baking dish (shallow casserole) than on metal. A glass lasagna dish would probably be good. Spread some olive oil in there (generous: about 3 T – this bread gets a nice lower crust from being basically fried). Plop the dough in upside down, then flip it over so it is coated.
  • Now this dough is more particular about being kept warm. Unless it is a very hot day, put it in the microwave and heat it on low for a minute, until it is “nice and warm.” You will want to watch this very carefully, of course, for overheating would kill the yeast. But I find this step is important in ensuring a good rise for this dough. If you are using a metal pan, just microwave it in a glass bowl before forming on the pan.
  • Let rise ½ hour. Can’t rush this.
  • Salt the dough. Sprinkle liberally with salt. So you don’t forget this step, leave a salt shaker on the oven. This makes the taste, and if you leave it off you will miss it (you can put some salt in the dipping oil to make up for it). I put this on top instead of inside so that it will not prevent the yeast from rising well. This step is specific to this recipe.
  • Bake 20-30 min at 400. I was always undercooking this until I started using an internal thermometer, and getting it to 200. You may need to use foil to keep the top from burning while it cooks inside. Before I used the thermometer or foil, I would slice it, sigh that it was still doughy inside, and put it back in the oven sliced and separated a bit. This worked OK but not as well as my new way.
  • Slice with a serrated knife. I usually make 1″ slices. A silicon hotpad helps keep your fingers from burning (a regular hotpad will get pretty greasy)
  • Serve hot with extra-virgin olive oil for dipping. Sprinkle dipping spices or pepper in the oil.

Melissa suggested this bread could be made more in a personal size to be sliced horizontally for sandwiches. Of course, if the size or shape is changed, cooking time will change. You might also want to cut back on the oil a little so it is not so greasy. However, the oil does keep the bottom from sticking and the top from drying out.

One last note. Sigrun asked how often I bake bread and I told her that had changed over the years as my tastes changed, but that it was several times a week. But she got me thinking, and for the stuff we just made, I figured I have made pizza twice a week for 12 years = ~1200 + once a week for 3 years = ~150, so over 1,300 times. I’ve probably made this particular pizza recipe about 400 times. I’ve made the foccacia about once a month for maybe 10 years, so that’s only been 120 times.

[Update: three years later, in 2009, the score would be almost 1500 pizzas and 200 loaves of focaccia]

Happy baking!


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