|Basic Bread By
S. John Ross ©1999
Bread is fundamental food, and the ability to bake a good loaf of
bread is one of the cornerstone skills of any good cook. And why not? There's
nothing - and I mean nothing - that gives a home a more comfortable smell
than fresh bread baking in the oven, and no food that is so universally
loved when it's done right. But, to the newcomer, bread baking can be scary.
So, I wrote this page, encouraged by the steady positive feedback on my
sourdough article. That article is for experienced bakers. This article
will help you become one . . . Once you master basic bread, you can move
on to rolls, soft pretzels, bagels, fancy braided
challah - anything you like.
The modern world has many conveniences that we benefit from, but for a
long time, it looked like one of the casualties of the modern age would
be good bread! The pitiful stuff they sell in bags in supermarkets re-defined
the word for a long time, but lately, the trend has happily reversed: Good
bakeries can be found in many supermarkets, and more and more people are
baking even better bread at home.
My wife, Sandra and I use this basic recipe for
our day-to-day baking. We typically bake two batches per week. The process
is very very easy! I've included lots of step-by-step detail to help you
through the first couple of times, but basically it all breaks down to:
mix it up, let it rise, make a loaf, let it rise, bake! Before you
bake the bread for the first time, read the entire recipe (and the notes
that follow); that way you'll be comfortable with each step.
- 1-1/3 cups very warm water
- 1 rounded tbsp. sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tbsp. butter (vary as needed; see below)
- 4 rounded cups flour (nearly 5 level cups)
- 1 tsp. active dry yeast
Stage One, Mixing and Kneading: There
are two general methods for making these ingredients into good bread -
the "machine-mixed" method and the "mixed by hand"
method. There is no real art to mixing - it's brute-force work best left
to a machine. So, if you have a heavy-duty stand mixer (like a KitchenAid),
a bread machine, or a food processor, I recommend the first method. Even
if you have nothing more complex than a large bowl and a wooden spoon,
though, you can make bread (it's just a little more tiring that way!)
- Machine-Mixed Method: The best
machine for bread mixing is a bread machine. They make lousy bread, but
they're great for mixing because they mix, knead, and provide a warm place
for the bread to rise, all in one. Simply assemble the ingredients in the
machine's bucket, in the order listed, and use your machine's Dough cycle.
When it's done, skip ahead to Stage Three, below. Mixing dough in a food
processor or with a standing mixer is a lot like mixing it by hand - so
read the instructions for that, but let the machine do all the work!
- Mixed by Hand Method: In a mixing
bowl, dissolve the sugar salt in the water, and sprinkle yeast on top.
Stir to dissolve, and allow to stand for 10 minutes before stirring again
(set the butter out to soften during this time). Add the butter, then about
2/3 of the flour to the mixing bowl, a half-cup at a time, and mix until
the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Use the tail-end of a
wooden spoon, or a sturdy case knife (the dull table-knives that a lot
of folks call butter knives). Turn the dough onto a floured bread board
or countertop and flour your hands (if you're using a machine for mixing,
just leave it in the machine). With your fingers, gradually work in remaining
flour while kneading the dough into a smooth mass (about fifteen minutes
- or about half that with a machine). If at any point your hands start
to get sticky, put flour on them!
Stage Two, The First Rising: If
you're using a bread machine, this step is handled automatically by the
Dough cycle, so you can skip ahead to Stage Three. Otherwise: Place dough
in a bowl greased with 1/2 tsp. butter (turning once to butter the top).
The best way to grease a bowl is to put the butter in a paper towel, and
use the paper towel to rub the butter on all sides of the bowl. This gives
a nice even coverage and doesn't get your hand greasy at all! Cover the
bowl with a towel, and place it in a warm place. A sunny spot in your kitchen
will do on a summer day, but I prefer a slightly warmed oven. Warm your
oven by turning it to the very lowest setting. It should be noticeably
warm, but cool enough so you can press your hand against the inside of
the oven door without burning yourself. Turn the oven completely off before
putting the bread in to rise. Keep the oven closed during the rising-time
to keep in the warmth.
Allow about 45 minutes rising time (this can vary a bit with the climate,
the yeast used, and other factors - allow for a 20 minute "fudge factor"
in either direction); the dough should grow to twice its normal size. When
a finger inserted into the top of the dough leaves a tunnel that doesn't
begin to "heal," the dough has finished rising.
Stage Three, The Loaf: Punch the risen
dough down completely (pretend it's somebody you're mad at) and give it
a quick kneading on the bread-board or countertop. If it's too sticky at
this point, add a dusting of flour. Shape dough into a fat cigar-shape
about 12-13 inches long. Re-warm the oven if need be for the second rising.
The loaf should be placed on a flat cooking surface - a series of baking
tiles, or a pizza stone, or a cookie sheet. Dust the surface with a light
dusting of cornmeal, then gently place the loaf on it. If you like, slash
the top of the dough once down the middle of the top, or in several short,
diagonal slashes across it. This will help keep the loaf from splitting
along the side, and it's attractive, too (it's a tradition from the Middle
Ages, when the distinctive slashes helped French peasants tell their loaves
apart, since bread was baked en masse in communal ovens owned by
the lord of the land . . .)
Stage Four, The Second Rise: This one's
real easy. Cover the loaf lightly with paper towels and stash it in the
warm place again. Let is rise for another 45 minutes, until the loaf is
doubled in size and ready to bake.
Stage Five, Baking The Bread: Place
the loaf in the oven (if it isn't already there, rising) and turn the oven
to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not preheat the oven! Bake the bread for
30-45 minutes, until it turns a deep golden brown. Baking time varies because
all ovens are different. Check your bread first at 30 minutes, and again
every five minutes until it looks done. The finished loaf should sound
hollow when tapped on the bottom with the flat of a wooden spoon.
Remove the bread from the oven and brush the top and sides lightly with
olive oil or melted butter. Cool on a rack for one hour; the bread is then
ready to serve or store (if you don't have a rack, any improvised surface
that allows a little air to circulate under the bread will do - if you're
completely stuck, cool it on a pile of kitchen towels!)
Notes and Variants
This basic recipe can be altered in dozens
of simple ways to change the texture, flavor, appearance and aroma of the
bread. I've also included a few notes here on why our recipe is
like it is.
Water or Milk: For a richer, slightly
softer bread, use whole milk instead of water. For a few added nutrients
but no real difference in flavor or texture, use reduced-fat or skim milk.
Herbs and Spices: Just a pinch of basil,
or black pepper, or cayenne, or any of a hundred other herbs and spices
added to the mix along with the sugar and salt will give a distinct flavor
and character to your bread. The only rule is don't overdo it .
. . Even the tiniest amount can have a dramatic effect on the flavor and
aroma of your bread. Also, keep in mind the ultimate purpose that the bread
will serve: If you're serving it sliced hot with a hearty meal, a little
black pepper or oregano will make it taste great (especially if the bread
is served with a little soft butter). But if you're going to be making
peanut-butter-and-jelly for the kids' lunches tomorrow, that black pepper
is a bad idea. When in doubt, leave it out.
Butter and Other Fats: The amount of
fat given - two tablespoons - will produce bread of pleasant texture and
flavor. But, so will nearly double that amount, and half that amount, and
no butter at all! Experiment to find your taste. I often enjoy my bread
entirely fat free (like French bread), but many dislike a hearty, solid
crust and prefer their bread softer. Fat is the single most important factor
in the softness of bread (see "Crusts," below). Note that other
fats, from lard or baconfat to vegetable shortening and even oils; can
substitute for the butter. Every fat, and every amount of that fat, will
give you a different flavor and texture. Experiment!
Flour: Either all-purpose flour or
unbleached white flour can be used in this recipe, but you'll find you
get better texture and flavor from the unbleached (sold as "better
for bread" and so on at the supermarket, for a few pennies more than
all-purpose). By replacing up to half of the flour with whole-wheat flour,
the recipe can be used to make a nice wheat bread.
Note that flour given is approximate; flour varies in absorbency and slight
adjustments may be necessary. The dough should be smooth and elastic while
kneading; sprinkle on just enough additional flour as necessary to prevent
the dough from sticking (if it's sticky at all, it's too moist and needs
a sprinkle of flour).
Yeast: Note that this recipe uses a
lot less yeast than most recipes . . . Many recipes using as little as
3 cups of flour call for "one package" of active dry yeast -
and that's about double the yeast we use (a package is 2-1/4 tsp.). This
is mostly a matter of convenience, since yeast is traditionally sold in
"packages" that were designed decades ago, scaled for an era
when home-baking meant larger batches (usually two or three loaves at a
time, at minimum). If you're doubling the basic recipe given here for a
two-loaf batch, then using "a package" will be just fine . .
. But using that much for a single loaf is wasteful, and can give your
bread an unpleasantly yeasty aftertaste and smell. The best way to buy
yeast is in jars. They cost about $5, and contain enough yeast to make
more than thirty loaves of bread (despite the claim on the label that they
just contain enough for 16 . . .) Also, note that jars labeled "bread
machine yeast" contain ordinary fast-rising yeast (yeast with ascorbic
acid added to make rising faster) that will give you identical results
to any other - the labeling is just the companies cashing in on the current
popularity of bread machines.
Scale: This recipe scales easily in
any direction. For a smaller loaf (one that won't go to waste if you're
a light eater living alone, for instance) use 1 cup of warm water, 3 rounded
cups of flour, and either adjust the other ingredients microscopically
or just leave them as they are (it won't make much difference). Doubling
the recipe will make two big beautiful loaves, or a batch of rolls fit
for a family reunion (see "Shapes," below).
Note that the 3-cup version will fit in a standard loaf pan, if you prefer
square-base bread to freeform loaves. Grease the pan lightly, and otherwise
follow the recipe normally.
Preheat, Or Not Preheat, That Is The Question:
For most purposes, I'm an advocate of "cold oven"
baking, where the baking temperature is moderate, and the oven is not preheated.
This style of bread-baking was in vogue decades ago, but gave way to preheated,
hotter ovens in attempts to imitate bakery bread. I don't usually try to
imitate bakery bread, so cold-oven baking works best for me - it gives
the loaf an extra rise as it begins to bake, and makes for a more pleasant,
even texture. If you want a crisper bread, or a chewy one, increase the
temperature by 50 to 100 degrees, and experiment with pre-heated baking.
This is essential for French-style breads.
Crusts: If your preference is for soft
bread, brush the top and sides of the loaf with oil or melted butter immediately
upon removing it from the oven. If you prefer a crunchier, harder crust,
brush the crust with nothing at all . . . and a dusting of flour on top
at the beginning of Stage Four will give a nice "old world" look
to the bread, too. For a chewy, French-style crust, use a hotter, preheated
oven (see above), brush the loaf just before baking with ice water, and
mist water into the oven (aim away from any heating elements - go for the
oven walls) every 15 minutes or so throughout the baking.
Crusts can be glazed by brushing an egg-wash on them: Whisk a single egg
with a teaspoon of water to create the egg-wash; brush it on just before
baking (use milk instead of water for a slightly softer crust). A wash
made of lemon juice and sugar will give a pleasantly light and fruity air
to a bread. A wash made of honey or sugar and water will make a glossy
and sweet glaze. Topping any of the above with a dusting of caraway or
other seeds can add a nice touch, too - especially if you've shaped the
loaf into a fancy braid!
Shapes: This recipe can be used to
make all manner of breads and rolls. Dividing the loaf into 8 equal parts
in Stage Three will make excellent sandwich rolls (perfect for hamburgers,
or as the basic roll for guinea grinders). Flatten the rolls into a hamburger-patty
shape, and arrange them on the baking surface to rise (for hot dog rolls,
divide the bread into 12-16 pieces and shape them into hot-dog shaped loaves!)
By dividing the bread into 36 balls, dipping each one in melted butter,
and putting three each into muffin tins, you can make cloverleaf rolls.
Dividing the bread into three long ropes and braiding them makes lovely
braided bread, and so on . . . Be creative. Keep in mind that the more
you divide the dough, the shorter the baking time will be . . . from 20
minutes for kaiser-rolls or hamburger buns down to 15 or even 10 minutes
for small rolls (parkerhouse style or others).
And More . . .
This article will provide a new baker with
a lifetime of interesting breads and rolls, but naturally there are many
more possibilities: more grains and flours, specialty breads like bagels
and pita, and so on. The goal of this article is to provide you with a
foundation in breadbaking, so that more advanced recipes and cookbooks
will make sense to you, and hide fewer discouraging setbacks. After a few
loaves, you'll find that you begin to develop an instinctive "feel"
for the baking process, and a new recipe becomes a fun challenge, not an
intimidating chore. Check out Gourmand Bleu
for more recipes to try.