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.

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