I am not an expert chef, but I like to frequently bake ordinary every-day fresh bread at home. So much that I have worn out three bread machines (not counting the mid life repairs to the machines - new paddles, new seals, etc.). So I may not be an expert, but I have had a lot of practice.
Eventually I realized that the "official" cookbook techniques for making bread were far more complex than the techniques the bread machines used - you can get good results more easily than through a cookbook. And there were a few techniques that the commercial bakers used (countless bread factory tours on the food channel) that could be adapted to home baking. I now use a Kitchen Aid mixer, not a bread machine, and can get an attractive loaf of hot fresh bread in a few hours, with minimal effort.
This is the basic recipe for a "regular" loaf - to us, that is a loaf that uses about 2 cups of flour, and fills a 9 x 5 x 2¾ inch loaf pan (slightly smaller than "standard" loaf pan). We like this smaller size since it means we can have fresh bread more often. For full size bread pans, I wouldn't hesitate to expand this recipe to 3 cups of flour (or 1½ cups of liquid, and slight increases in the other ingredients, since the liquid really controls the size of the loaf). Before you expand farther, be sure your mixer can handle both the size and the load (effort) of mixing a larger batch - kneading bread is a heavy load on your mixer. I suggest practicing with this basic white bread recipe until you always get a perfect loaf, before you start to experiment with variations.
Most similar bread recipes suggest each "cup" of flour should be a cup and a tablespoon or two. One of the bread machines came with a measuring cup that had a ridge slightly above the one cup mark, so you could use that cup, filled to the top for the "generous" cup of flour. But don't worry about precise measurement... you will add flour later until you have a good texture. The size of your loaf is primarily determined by the amount of liquid.
Bread flour has a higher gluten content than other flour - it makes the structure of the air cells in the bread stronger, so the texture of the bread is nicer. "All purpose" flour has part of the natural gluten removed, and even more gluten is removed from cake flour, so the cake is very soft (think of a sandwich made of cake rather than bread - the sandwich would mush or crumble). The difference in bread baked with all purpose flour and bread flour is small enough that I can't look at a slice of bread and tell you which flour was used, so I wouldn't worry about which you use. If you want to have the amount of gluten recommended for bread flour, but use all purpose flour, you can buy the gluten (that the mills removed from the flour) and add it back in to the all-purpose flour, at the rate of about a tablespoon of gluten powder per cup of flour.
Yeast: Cookbooks get concerned about "proofing" that the yeast is alive. If you buy the $1 one-loaf packets of yeast and store them for a year, you may need to check them... yeast is a living plant, and if it is old, you need to confirm that it is still alive. If you buy the $4 four ounce jars of yeast and keep it in the refrigerator, it will be fine for many years, and you probably don't need to test each time you use it. If you buy the $3 pound of yeast wrapped in a foil brick (that will fill the little yeast jar several times) (or the $5 two-pound pack) you are into real bread making, and will wonder why anyone buys the $1 single loaf packets of yeast. The amount of yeast is not critical. If you put more in, your bread will rise faster, but it may leave a distinctive taste/aroma of the yeast (which some people like, as proof that it is homemade bread). If you put in too little, the yeast can grow to the amount needed, but you need to add a little more sugar to feed the yeast as it grows, and allow a lot more time for the bread to rise.
Sugar serves two purposes in the bread... it feeds the yeast so the yeast grows and creates the bubbles that make the bread rise. It browns the crust. In normal quantities, it does not make the bread sweet or make you fat. You cannot substitute a no-calorie sweetener such as "Sweet and Low" or "Splenda," since the yeast needs to eat the sugar to grow. You can substitute honey or other "real" sweeteners. If you let the bread rise too long (yes, I sometime forget that I have bread rising), you can "punch it down" and reshape it, and let it rise again. It will taste fine, but it probably will not brown well - you will have a very pale loaf - since the yeast has eaten most of the sugar, leaving little to brown the crust. (You might add more sugar or honey when you punch it down.) Don't try baking it longer to make the loaf darker ... if the sugar has been used up by rising too much, the extra baking time will only dry the bread out.
Salt is a necessary part of the chemical reaction as the bread rises. Salt is also a preservative - keeps bacteria from growing, as in salted meats and fish. Which means it also keeps yeast from growing (or at least slows it down). Therefore if you have a recipe that needs extra salt (like some of the whole wheat breads) you need to help the yeast out... perhaps with extra yeast, or with extra food (sugar) to help the yeast grow. See below for my trick on when I add the salt.
Shortening is required for the bread chemistry to work. I normally use margarine - I pre-cut a stick into 1½ tablespoon sections (5 sections per stick), so I just drop a piece into the mix. I have tried butter in a bread machine, but the bread didn't rise as well - apparently the butter added enough salt to slow the yeast growth (and the bread machine didn't compensate for the slower rising). Some people like using vegetable oil. Okay, but I don't like cleaning the extra measuring spoons.
Water: I heat the water in the microwave for 10 seconds in the summer, 20 seconds in the winter (when the tap water is colder) - until it is barely warm to the touch (less than 110 degrees), but warm enough to help the yeast grow rapidly - over 110 degrees can kill the yeast. Forget the thermometer - stick your finger in, and if it is quite warm or hot, cool it. If it is barely warm (just above body temperature) it is fine.
I start by mixing most of the ingredients - the yeast, sugar, shortening, water, and a small portion of the flour - in the Kitchen Aid mixer. At this point the mixture will be like pancake batter. After thoroughly mixing, I let it sit for 5-10 minutes (depending on how warm it is - the temperature of the liquid and the room). Bubbles will form in the wet dough mixture, which the pros call the sponge, as seen on the right. This gives the yeast a head start in it's growth, and "proofs" the yeast - proves that it is alive and well, and are ready to proceed.
The bread is pretty ugly if you forget the salt, and when I tried to remember to add the salt after the sponge is formed, I forgot too often. Therefore, after I mix the sponge, before it starts to grow, I make a small island of flour (say 1/4 cup) at the edge of the bowl and put the salt on top of the flour, so all the ingredients are there, but the salt doesn't get mixed in until later.
When the sponge has grown a bit (if you forget it for hours, add a little sugar to make up for the sugar eaten by the yeast, or your final loaf will be pale), add the rest of the flour. I don't even measure the flour - just toss in a cup or less at a time. If the dough crumbles rather than forming a ball, as below, add water a teaspoonful at a time. If it is sticky add more flour. I use the mixing paddle until it forms a glob that strains the mixer, then I switch to the dough hook. On the common "tip head" Kitchen Aid mixer, the time you need to change from the paddle to the dough hook is pretty apparent, but when we moved to the larger professional Kitchen Aid, that mixer never strains, so you have to decide when to switch to the dough hook (now more like a corkscrew). If dough sticks to your finger when you touch the ball, or if the ball doesn't form, add more flour. Then let the dough hook knead the ball of dough for 5-15 minutes... on the smaller Kitchen Aid, I let it run until the motor started to get warm. Kneading longer is good - you want a dough ball that stretches more than it tears. If it sticks to the hook, add more flour (if it keeps sticking, I sometimes manually knead in some flour, them put it back in the mixer).
When you have a smooth ball, or can form a smooth ball with your hands, it is time to let the dough rise. Rather than start more dishes, I just leave the ball in the bottom of the mixing bowl. If you have an oven with a "proof" setting, helping dough rise is what that setting is for. Our oven doesn't have a proof setting, so I put it on a warm window sill in the summer. In the winter I turn on the oven for 30-45 seconds, which brings it up to just over 100 degrees, and put the mixing bowl in the oven. Some people put the bowl in the oven with just the oven light on (not warm enough in my oven). You don't want the bread to dry out, so I cover the bowl with a plate (but could use plastic wrap or cover with a damp towel).
After the ball has risen to double or triple the original size, you can "knock it down" and let it rise again (for the smoothest texture bread) or you can just jump to the next step. The easiest way to "knock it down" is to dust the ball lightly with flour (so it doesn't stick) and run the dough hook for 10-20 seconds or more, then return it to the rising process.
When the bread has risen, form the loaf. If it sticks to the mixer bowl, I dust a little flour over the ball and around the side of the bowl, and a small amount on the counter. Sometimes I push a rubber scraper down the side of the bowl, repeating all the way around. The flour is pushed between the ball of dough and the pan, so most of the ball is not sticky. Then I dump the ball on the counter, so the last sticky part that was in the bottom of the mixing bowl is up. Forming the loaf consists of making a roll (push the edges into the sticky center now at the top), smooth on the outside, long enough to touch both ends of the baking pan. The sticky top (formerly at the bottom of the pan during rising) pushes in nicely as you form the roll, and is moist enough to stick together. The outside of the ball is stretched as you do this, making a smooth tight outside, which will form a pretty crust. Roll the tube on the counter until it is pretty and smooth and longer than the pan, then place it in the pan by squeezing the ends towards each other until it fits. Don't worry about the sides touching the pan, but it is important that the ends touch the pan. The way it is rolled, the rising will primarily expand the loaf to the sides and up. Set the bread pan in the rising environment for 45 to 90 minutes. If you want a soft top crust, you can put a damp towel over the bread. It will mark the surface, so I usually take it off 10 minutes before it has risen enough - to allow the surface to expand and eliminate the marks, and to give time for the moisture from the towel to dry off the surface of the loaf. If you use plastic wrap during this final rise, the bread will form bubbles against the wrap - it will taste fine, but have pock-marks on the top. Take the plastic wrap off before the bread rises to touch it. Or just leave it uncovered for the final rising in the bread pan, as I do ... just don't forget it for so long that the surface dries out.
If you are just starting, don't bother with this step. If you find you are getting a big air bubble at the top, after your loaf bakes, this is a way to fix it. The surface of the loaf may dry as (or after) it rises, and an air bubble may form just under the top crust as it bakes. A few tiny holes in the top crust, made with the point of the knife, will let the steam escape and reduce the chance of a bubble.
Baking doesn't need to be as hard as many books make it. If a bread machine can leave the pan in the "oven" while it preheats, why can't I? With our self cleaning oven (heats fast, well insulated) I find that the bread bakes in about 27 minutes at 350 degrees, starting from a room-temperature oven, with a black metal bread pan. You may need 35 to 40 minutes if your oven heats slowly or you have shiny aluminum or glass pans, rather than the ugly black steel pans that I love. Based on baking at a couple other homes, if you have a convection oven, do not reduce the temperature the traditional 25 degrees for a convection oven. After it has baked, take it out of the bread pan to start cooling (so the hot pan doesn't continue to bake the bread). When it is near room temperature put the loaf into a bread storage container or a plastic bag - the moisture coming out of the loaf as it continues cooling will soften the crust. If you like harder crusts, let it cool completely before storage. If you want really crisp crusts, that isn't me, so you have to do your own research (I hear some people put pans of water in the oven to enhance the crust)
I finally found a use for the electric carving knives that everybody got as a gift 20-30 years ago. They are great for slicing hot bread. We leave ours on the counter permanently. The blades act like a saw, so dedicate a cheap cutting board to use with the electric knife - the sawing action of the knife will gradually destroy the cutting board.
There are few preservatives in this simple home-made bread, so it stays fresher longer if it is refrigerated.
"Water" bread, as in the recipe above, is light and delicious, but does not store well - by the second day, you will know it is old bread unless it is refrigerated.
"Milk bread" simply substitutes whole or 2% milk for the water in the recipe above. (I haven't tried skim milk, but if water works, why not?) The texture is slightly better, and the bread stays "fresh" far longer. When I take the milk out of the refrigerator, the microwave can get my cupful to the good temperature in 30 seconds or so, or 35 seconds if I put the lump of margarine in the milk being heated.
If you have some milk that has gone bad - sour so that nobody would drink it - don't dump it. It makes great bread - perhaps even better than fresh milk - and there is no sour milk taste or odor. When we have the milk "accident" we freeze it in pre-measured blocks for bread. Friends have suggested that buttermilk would also be great for bread.
If you want to try oatmeal bread, just add whatever amount of dry rolled oats (uncooked oatmeal cereal) you want - start with ¼ cup - it will basically be substituting oat flour for wheat flour. If you want primarily oat bread, you probably should run the dry oatmeal in the blender to make it more like flour.
Potato adds a nice variation to the taste and texture of the bread. If you have instant mashed potatoes, add the dry potato flakes when you add flour. If you want to use leftover mashed or baked potato, just toss some in (the cooked potato will add moisture, so you may want to reduce the liquid).
This is our favorite variation on the milk or water bread recipes above. Jenny mixes healthy hot cereal - the whole grain or multigrain kind no kid would choose to eat, or sometimes she just cooks unmilled whole wheat grains/beans - they take a long time to cook. We then make 4 ounce piles which we freeze until we are ready to use them. If you replace 1/4 cup of water with a thawed pile of "glop," you get an interesting whole grain (or whatever) bread. So with our slightly smaller bread pans, we use ¾ cup milk or water, one 4 oz block of "glop" (thawed for 60 seconds in our microwave), increase the salt to a generous teaspoon (since the grain taste needs a little more salt), increase the sugar to a generous tablespoon (to help the heavier bread rise, and to counter the increased salt) and go.
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