I started making bread when I was 14. I know. I was a weird kid. I also wore peasant dresses and a hooded brown woolen cloak to school. I read wild plant books with the fervor usually reserved for Teen magazine and sometimes I even washed my peasant dresses by hand in the bathtub.
The bread making was the first real action I took toward a lifestyle which I spent whole school days fantasizing about. And once I started eating that rich, nubby homemade wheat bread on a regular basis, I was hooked. I have made almost all my own bread since then. After turning 34 in May I realized that my homemade bread years add up to a full 20. Wow. Happy 20th Bread Anniversary to me, or– us– I guess. Me and my bread.
Some things are just a little better homemade, but freshly baked homemade bread is truly not comparable to the stuff at the store. It’s pennies on the dollar for cost, miles more nutritious, and tastes divine. You win points all around. I really recommend it as a starting place for virgin DIYers. The return on your investment is very high. And let me just tell you now if you don’t already know, pulling a loaf of freshly made bread out of the oven is hot. And I don’t mean potholders.
I wrote a Bread Evangelizing post some long time back, to convert anyone on the fence about trying it. In that post I gave the recipe that I started with some 20 years ago, which I still know by heart even though I never follow it anymore. It’s a great beginner recipe, very easy and always worked for me. I recommend following a recipe for at least your first few months, till you get the hang of it. For some reason bread making puts people off, and it’s best to minimize failure till you feel absolutely confident. I also don’t recommend reading up about the complexities of bread until you understand viscerally how simple it is. (That means now. If you are a new bread baker, just stop right here. Go read that Evangelizing post, follow the recipe for a few months, then come back and read this bunch of drivel.)
I followed that first recipe for years. Then I started reading some bread books and slowly realized just how much play there was. Now, I never follow a recipe for our every day bread. Once you understand the basics, you won’t need a recipe either. Every loaf will be different, and (almost) every loaf will be good.
Bread at it’s most basic is flour, water and yeast. The flour needs to be mostly from wheat, because wheat has gluten. Gluten is what holds it all together. Yeasts are living organisms, they eat the sugars from the flour and fart out millions of bubbles which become trapped by the strands of gluten and raise the loaf. The water activates the yeast and makes everything possible, along with viewers like you.
At it’s purest, you can simply mix warm water, wheat flour and a pinch of yeast into a thick sludge, dump it into a greased loaf pan, let it rise and bake it. That is bread.
But, we like to complicate things. We’re human. It’s a vice. We favor certain textures and flavors. We like our bread to hold together when we slice it. We like it to taste tangy and fresh, and to feel soft but chewy in our mouths when we narsh it. We don’t like it to be pasty or gluey or hard or dry.
To further complicate things, each of us has been taught to cultivate our own individual preferences. Myself, I like a hint of sweetness, but hate the cake-like quality of store-bought bread. I like it to be soft enough for a sandwich, but still have a toothsome substance, nubby texture and a moderately crusty crust. If it’s white bread, then I love it sourdough. But if it’s wheat (and that’s almost all I ever make) then I like just a shadow of beery-ness with the lovely dark wholesome flavor of the wheat itself front and center. I want to feel like my bread could be a meal if need be, adorned only with a sheen of butter. But I don’t like brick bread. I don’t like it to be heavy, sour or otherwise intimidating.
I’ve loved my homemade bread all along– like pizza and sex, it’s all good. But I feel like, 20 years in, I am just starting to get a handle on what creates my perfect loaf.
There’s plenty of great written works on artisan white breads. The gourmet world is afloat with them. My earmarked favorite is The Village Baker. And of course, you don’t have to look far to find a recipe for that revolution in bread making, the No-Knead Method (Erica at NW Edibles just posted her spin). But these artisan breads are usually mostly white flour. Even the “whole wheat” recipes are 1/2 to 2/3 white flour. Sadly, the world of truly whole wheat bread is remarkably barren.
I do recommend starting with a half and half ratio, to get the feel of bread making. In fact if your family is used to white bread, start there. If it’s homemade, it will be healthier. In addition to the lack of preservatives, I guess my dad instilled upon me his grandmother’s belief that homemade trumps “nutritious” as defined by science. I believe that little molecules of love transfer from your heart to your food as you cook for your family, and that this spirit ingredient sustains on a physical level.
That said, I myself find half-wheat breads an unsatisfying compromise. I love good homemade white bread, but on an everyday basis I want to eat whole grains, and if I’m going to have whole wheat bread I want it to taste fully of it’s namesake. I made 100% whole wheat bread for years, and love the strong flavor, but in recent years I’ve started using something like 6/7ths whole wheat flour. It has taken me a lot of loaves of bread (and the acquisition of Kitchen Aid mixer) to get all the texture I want out of a mostly whole wheat dough. And to furthermore discover what it is that makes the flavor sometimes so much more delicious than other times. It’s a lifelong learning process. Bread is not magic, but like all living things, endlessly mysterious.
Once you have gotten comfortable with a basic recipe you can start unravelling the mystery and working toward your own ‘perfect loaf.’ To that end, and in celebration of my 20 year Bread Anniversary, I thought I’d offer some basic proportions and principles for the exploration of bread.
Let’s start with a dough based on 1 cup of water. This makes a small sized single loaf.
For years I thought the temperature of the water was critical, but that’s not true at all. Any temperature that feels even slightly warm, but not so hot that you can’t hold your hand under is fine. Yeasts are living organisms, just like us right? They like pretty much the same temperatures. If the water is dead cold, the yeast might actually not activate. If it’s burning hot, it could kill them. But anything in between is just a matter of the how quickly the yeast will do it’s work.
Slower or longer rising times all make a loaf of bread. They just give that loaf different flavors. The long rise times have become very popular, making a european style bread with complex flavor and a large holey crumb. I love those sour flavors on white bread, but I finally admitted to myself I’m not so fond of them on wheat bread. Shorter rising time makes a sweeter, yeasty flavor, which I personally prefer in my every day whole wheat bread.
So, the temperature of the water (and the flour and the room) will affect how long your dough takes to rise. I use water that would make a good bath for little people. Measure out 1 cup into a large mixing bowl.
Next the yeast. Here is my biggest tip for new bread makers. DO NOT USE OLD YEAST. Yeast is a living organism, I will say it as many times as I need to. It can be dried and will survive in dry form for a surprisingly long time, all things considered. But not indefinitely. If you have a jar in your cupboard from the last tenants, here’s what you should do with it. Throw it in the garbage. Do not sabotage your budding passion for baking by using old yeast. An opened jar should not be counted on to last more than a few months. You can buy a little more time by storing yeast in the freezer.
Now that we have that cleared up, how much yeast? Like every other part of this bread endeavor, it is simply not so critical as I was first led to believe. To your 1 cup of warm water you can add anywhere from 1/4 teaspoon (or even less) to 1 whole Tablespoon of yeast. Even more than the water temperature, the quantity of yeast will affect how long your loaf takes to rise, and also therefore the flavor.
The handy thing about getting to know bread on an intimate level is that you can adjust your recipe for the confines of your day’s schedule. Add more or less yeast depending on when you want to get on with the loaf shaping. Our schedule is usually to take an outing in the morning. I like to mix up the dough during the insanity of getting two kids ready to get out the door (I have a Kitchen Aid, remember? It’s relatively easy) and then I shape my loaves during the lull of nap time. When the hungries of early afternoon arrive, I am pulling fresh bread out of the oven and I look like Mom of the Year.
If that schedule sound good to you, add 1 teaspoon of yeast. I actually use 1/2 teaspoon, but I think a full teaspoon of yeast per cup of water is a good jumping off point.
In the first unorthodox No-Nonsense Recipe I posted, you mix the yeast with the flour then stir the water in. That works, I actually never had a problem with that method. But more standard is to “proof” the yeast in the warm water to jumpstart it, then add the flour and knead.
So, flour. Wheat comes in a dazzling variety. (Keep in mind that white flour is wheat flour, as in– from wheat berries. When I mean whole wheat, I will say it as so.) There are red, white, and semolina or durum varieties; furthermore they can be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ depending I think on the season they grew in. The ‘hard’ wheats have a higher gluten content and will make a more cohesive bread that rises considerably higher (‘bread flour’ is made from hard wheat). Then there is the grade to which the grain is ground. Almost all whole wheat sold in the US is pretty fine, but in Britain the standard whole wheat flour (called brown flour) is relatively coarse. I am still enchanted by the memory of homemade ‘brown bread’ there. I once found some ‘graham flour’ here that resembled it, but otherwise until I get my own grinder I will have to make do with the smoother texture of standard US whole wheat.
My flour of choice for everyday bread is hard red whole wheat. Fortunately, most ambiguously labeled ‘whole wheat’ flours are red wheat, though their gluten content is variable. White wheat has a milder flavor, whole wheat pastry flour is very finely ground soft white wheat, very appropriate for cakes and muffins but not so much for bread. Hard white wheat is a bit difficult to find, but some people prefer it for bread making. I haven’t done much with semolina (or durum) flour, but I believe it has the highest gluten content of all.
Are you feeling brain twisted? Don’t sweat it too much. You can try any of these flours. If it’s wheat it will make bread. But once you have gotten comfortable with the process discovering the devil in the details is part of the fun, right?
Feel free to experiment with other flours as well. Just keep your proportions to at least 3/4 flour derived from wheat, so that you have enough gluten. If you have ‘gluten flour,’ you can add a Tablespoon per loaf with your other flours to help things along. (Rye has some gluten, not as much as wheat, but easily enough to do a half and half loaf.)
But how much flour altogether? That is the question of the day. In fact it changes with the humidity of your kitchen and the particular bag of flour. If you’ve been making bread for awhile you may have noticed that the same quantity of flour sometimes makes a softer or harder dough. I used to think it was all in my mind, then I finally found out that the absorption of different flours is quite variable. You want to start with a lesser amount, and work up. For that 1 cup of water, add 2 cups of flour, then keep adding more 1/4 cup at a time. You might need as much as one more cup of flour, but I really recommend you keep your dough as soft as you can handle. The softer a dough, the more it will rise. A very hard dough will sometimes hardly rise at all. The importance cannot be underestimated. But there is a fine line between ‘soft’ and ‘sticky,’ especially with whole wheat doughs which tend to stick anyway. I think this is the main reason my Kitchen Aid doughs rise better, you just cannot knead a very soft whole wheat dough by hand.
(Fear not, you can still make a damn fine loaf of bread by hand, I did it for my first 16 years of bread making! But more on that in the next post…)
Now that we’ve covered the essential ingredients, on to the generally expecteds.
Salt is not strictly necessary to bread, but if you ever make a loaf without it, you will morn the loss. It just tastes… flat. I do like considerably less salt than is usual. For the 1 cup of water in our exploratory un-recipe, I add a mere 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Standard is double that or more. Salt supposedly keeps the yeast in check, which is considered good, but also limits the development of gluten, which is bad. I personally have not noticed the difference when I add more or less, or when I forget it altogether, other than the obvious difference in taste.
Some kind of sweetener is pretty standard in whole wheat loaves. In addition to the bit of sweetness, honey and molasses are both hydrophillic, which means they attract moisture, keeping your loaf softer longer. This is important with wheat bread, which goes dry faster than white. I usually add in a glug of honey or a Tablespoon of brown or whole sugar.
Fat is always good, right? My beginner recipe has almost 2 Tablespoons of butter per cup of water. This is very good. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to make myself put butter into my bread. Not sure why. I no longer feel any compunction spreading it onto a finished slice…. But somehow, putting butter into the dough seems excessive. Though if I’m feeling expansive I sometimes glug in some olive oil. Like sugar, fat will help keep your finished loaf fresh longer.
You can also add anything else that strikes your fancy, in small quantities; nuts, raisins, seeds, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, herbs, cheese, pureed spinach… The options are limited only by your imagination, as they say.
It seems wrong to go on for so long about about something I am trying to say is really simple. But that’s why beginners should start with the other recipe. All this rhapsodizing is for those of you who’ve mastered the basics and are hungry for more.
It seems like a lot of things in life are extraordinarily simple and bogglingly complex at the same time. Gardening can be broken into a lifetime of scientific details, attempting to master the myriad variables. Or you can simply drop some seeds in the ground and pour water over. Human nutrition can apparently require comprehensive volumes of research, or just eat your vegetables and get lots of excersize.
If you like the boggling, check out the continuation of the saga, Bread Every Day, Part Two: Techniques.
**For a great bread making resource, check out The Bread Experience‘s list of whole grain breads. They have some fantastic recipes to widen your repetoire. She also keeps a great blog, and hosts the monthly Bake Your Own Bread Round Up that I’ve got up there in my sidebar.