Bread Every Day, Part 2: Techniques

For many years I thought, with all kinds of cooking, that the ingredients determined the product. I’d measure carefully everything on the list, disregard the brief instructions and expect it to come out. Certainly quality is important– you can’t make good food out of bad ingredients, but the quantities involved in a recipe are often not so exacting as I had once thought (sometimes they are necessarily un-exacting) and particularly, what you do with those ingredients is not to be underestimated. A handful of items– flour, butter, eggs, sugar, yeast and baking soda– can yield pretty much every kind of baked good we know, depending on subtle variations to proportions and technique.

Bread is a rich ground for exploring these subtle differences. I’ve often fantasized about designing myself a “Bread Intensive” where I would start with the most bare bones of ingredients and techniques and every day build slowly outward, one loaf at a time, keenly observing the changes over the course of one or two hundred loaves. Doesn’t that just sound spellbinding? I think maybe I should go get a job at Cook’s Illustrated. Oh wait, I already have a job. And just like every other part of my job, instead of doing something with really intense focus all at once, to much laud and publicity, I get to do it ever so slowly, over the course of my lifetime, with no one paying any attention whatsoever. Hooray for housewifery!

If you are coming in on this post without having read Part 1, take warning: This is not a beginner recipe. If you are new to dough, check out my super simple, No Nonsense Every Day Whole Wheat Bread recipe. Reading what follows will confuse and intimidate you. Making bread is easy. Really. All this detail is just obsessive.

But for you semi-seasoned obsessors, back to our un-recipe. Here’s the quantities I described in yesterday’s post on ingredients:

  • 1 cup of warm water
  • 1/4 teaspoon – 1 Tablespoon of yeast
  • 2-3+ cups of flour
  • 1/4-1 teaspoon of salt
  • 0-2 Tablespoons of honey, brown sugar or molasses (not blackstrap, it’s too strong flavored)
  • 0-2 Tablespoons of butter or oil

[I should mention that I make my loaf based on two cups of water, double the above “recipe.” I like a slightly wetter dough in a large sized loaf pan, and also like to have a smidge of extra dough to fry up as Elephant Ears (just roll out thin, rise briefly, fry in a bit of butter then sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and you too can win major mom points). I based the above un-recipe on 1 cup of water because I think it’s a good starting place, and makes it easier to see the basic proportions involved. But after trying it once or twice, you will probably want to adjust the above 1 cup recipe depending on how much rise you get and what size your bread pans are. If you use a large proportion of white flour (which will make for a higher rise) and smaller sized bread pans, a dough based on 1 cup will probably be perfect. On the other hand a 100% whole wheat dough in a big pan will probably take a double recipe.]

One thing I forgot to mention in that last post was leftovers. Bread is a great medium for using up all kinds of leftovers. Rubbery oatmeal, soggy granola, rice, polenta, any kind of cooked grain or grain based thing really; little bits of mashed potatoes or even pureed cooked carrots, squash, beets, spinach; ends of sippy cups of milk (even if they smell a little ‘cowy’ it all works out in the wash), the yolk your daughter doesn’t like to eat out of her hard-boiled egg, yogurt that’s just started to mold (scrape the mold off first), chopped up half eaten apples… I could go on. The fridge is your oyster.

As I said yesterday, you can just mix all the ingredients together in any order and it will work. But standard procedure is to proof the yeast in the water first. Traditionally you would be actually proofing your yeast, to make sure it was active. The idea is to let is sit for five minutes, at which point it should have a “creamy” layer on top. Some recipes say “foamy” and for the longest time I morned my un-foaming yeast. To me “foam” is big, like suds on the dishwater. What in fact happens when you combine plain water and yeast is much more subtle, I’ve even had times where it didn’t seem to do much of anything but because I was confident in the freshness of the yeast I proceeded anyway, and lo and behold, it worked fine.

After proofing the yeast, you add the flour. You can do this several different ways. If you are going to be kneading by hand, I recommend adding about half the flour (including any white flour or gluten flour) until you get a thick batter consistency, then beat the shit out of it with a stout wooden spoon, for as long as your arm holds up. This really works the gluten. Add the salt, fat and sweetener, then start stirring in more flour 1/4 cup at a time until you can’t stir anymore. Pour it out onto a well floured countertop and do your best to knead the dough while adding a minimum of extra flour. A good bread dough should feel soft, like a fully expressed boob. (If it feels engorged you added too much flour. .)

How wet you make your dough is a matter of taste, like everything else. A wetter dough will make a gluier texture. That makes it sound bad, but think of a good loaf of sourdough– in between the bubbles, the crumb is very moist and sticks to itself strongly. On a long rise white bread with light, irregular bubbles, that gluiness is perfect. But on a heavier, mostly wheat dough, I think it tastes… well, gluey. Like a glob of it turns to silly putty in my mouth. On the other hand too stiff a dough won’t rise well and will bake into a heavy, dry loaf. (It’s annoying to have to fix a too stiff dough, but you can fix it. Put it back in the bowl, chop it up as much as you can with a knife or stout mixing spoon. Pour a 1/4 cup of water over, chop again, then let it sit for ten minutes. Kneading that spooge back into the dough is messy business, but you can do it. Add more flour if necessary, but be careful this time! It’s better to fix a too stiff dough then end up with brick bread.)

The problem with a mostly whole wheat dough is that it’s very sticky and hard to knead by hand without adding too much flour. That’s one of the reasons a Kitchen Aid makes lighter whole wheat bread, because you can make a much softer dough.

The books always say to knead for ten minutes, but I don’t know who these people are that can knead bread for ten minutes. I consider myself reasonably strong for a woman of my age, and I’m whooped after 3 minutes. I can hold out for five, but it’s a gruel. That’s why I recommend beating the batter. If you can beat for 2 minutes and knead for 3, you’re doing great. Kneading is good for the structure of your bread, but ten minutes is certainly not necessary. I’ve made perfectly decent bread at times with hardly any kneading at all. Of course, the famous No-Knead method uses a very long rising time to work up the gluten. And that’s awesome if you are making white bread or if you like the sourer flavor on your wheat bread, which as I said, I do not. Everyone should experiment with that recipe though, it is fantastically easy.

There’s nothing quite like kneading bread by hand, once you get the hang of it. I find it incredibly primally satisfying. I kneaded by hand for the first 15 years of my bread career. I loved it. But if you have little ones underfoot (and if you can scrape together the dough for it) a Kitchen Aid is a worthy investment. I morned a bit when I got mine (a gift from the MIL) for the symbolism of my shift to a more modern, electrified life, but honestly I’m not sure I would have kept at my bread making once I had kids without that lovely machine.

If you have such a machine, it will do all the gluten working you could want, considerably more than you can get with hand-kneading, and therefore your dough will rise higher. This is quite significant because it means you can use a greater proportion of whole wheat flour and still get a light loaf. If you are trying to convert anyone from store-bought bread, this will be invaluable. I actually finally got to the point where my whole wheat bread was too light. I realized I don’t like it as light as it can get. I want my bread to be light enough that I can make a sandwich without it tasting like a bread sandwich, but substantial enough that I can eat it simply toasted with butter and feel like I’m getting some real food value (this is the eternal balancing point for every day homemade bread). It took me 15 years of baking and the acquisition of a Kitchen Aid to get to whole wheat bread that was too light, so you probably won’t have to worry about it. But do keep in mind that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Everyone has a different Sweet Spot. Consider whether you eat mostly sandwiches or toast and where you want to compromise.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We are at ‘add the flour.’

If you have a Kitchen Aid you can just dump everything else in on top of the proofed yeast and turn it on low speed. Start with about 2 and 1/4 cups of flour. If you skipped over the hand kneading section, go back and read about the wetness of the dough. I’m still trying to find the perfect balance. It seems like if the dough goes smoothly into a ball around the hook like it’s supposed to, it’s a bit more flour than I want to add. A shaggy dough that mostly stays together but sticks some to the bowl seems to be about right.

Knead on low for ten minutes. Set the timer because you can over-knead in a machine and the gluten will ‘break.’ It’s never happened to me, but I’ve read it’s possible. You don’t have to get your hands messy with a machine, but you do have to hover around while it’s working because, first you have to get the right amount of flour in there, then you have to make sure it’s kneading properly. It’s supposed to stick around the hook but also stick just enough to the sides of the bowl that the dough gets pulled and sort of folded as the hook rotates. Sometimes it gets stuck just on the hook, going round and round but not getting worked. This is really annoying to fix. You have to stand there and add more water a few drops at a time until it starts the folding action again. If you add more than a few drops of water at a time, the dough will just slide around and then you have to add a tablespoon of flour to get it to stick to the bowl again. If it’s just sticking to the bowl and not to the hook at all, you probably need a bit more flour. Add a tablespoon at a time, giving it a minute to incorporate after each addition.

Alright, now you have dough!

I always thought you were supposed to let the dough rise until the classic finger-poked-in-makes-hole-that-doesn’t-spring-back stage both for the first and second rise. Over time I realized I don’t like that stage for either rise. For the first rise, I like it to overrise. As in so full of air that when you look at it crooked it falls down in a heap. I used to think if it over-rose the gluten would break, but after accidentally over-rising many times and enjoying the results, I discovered that wasn’t true (or if is true than it’s not as big a deal as I had thought) I don’t know if it’s actually the over-rising (which is to say, rising so long that the dough falls) or just the longer rising time, but it allows the flavors to really develop and makes just a bit of that tangy bite that a longer rise artisan type bread has. This is yet another sweet spot for my taste that I am starting to tack down. I tried mixing my dough the night before, but it was too sour for my liking. Giving the first rise about 3 hours (at our 81 degree room temperature) seems to be The Spot. But again, this is just a matter of refining flavors based on personal taste.

I have to add a little side note here. I have a good friend who makes bread often and sometimes it simply does not rise. Same ingredients, same yeast, same house and baker as the day before when it rose beautifully, but for some completely mysterious reason, it just does not rise. I have asked her every possible question, and I can’t figure out what is happening. My only explanation is that their house is possessed. Does anyone have any other, more probably ideas for what could be happening?

Next comes shaping the loaf. You pour the dough out onto a lightly floured counter, pat out into a rectangle about as wide as your bread pan, then roll tightly into a log. There is a lot going on with shaping that I have yet to discover, let alone understand. Sometimes I just loosely form a log and really, it works out surprisingly fine. Shaping is more forgiving when you’re baking in a loaf pan. But to get an even textured bread, good for sandwiches, your best bet is a tight roll-up.

I occasionally get a wide, flat air pocket in the finished loaf, right under the surface of the top crust. I’ve never figured out what causes this. Is it my shaping? Does it happen in the oven? Too hot too fast causing a separation, like pita bread? What the heck? As with everything else in this DIY life, it seems the more I know, the more I don’t know.

But, back to your loaf. I used to just thinly oil my bread pans, and that works fine, but then I discovered that a generous smear of butter makes a delightfully crunchy crust. Well worth the penny.

Now, on to the second rise. Why does bread need to rise twice anyway? I think it has to do with the yeast having time to develop, and the gluten as well, not to mention those good mysterious bread flavors. I once tried a recipe off of a King Arthur whole wheat flour bag where you mix a very wet dough and then pour it right into the loaf pan. It didn’t come out good at all. Sort of mushy and gluey at the same time with a flat taste. But, it was a wet dough with a quick rise. I don’t think that’s a good combo for whole wheat doughs, myself. Maybe if you added just the right amount of yeast, so that it took the just the right amount of time to rise…?

Anyway I really don’t find it that inconvenient to do the double rise. As I said earlier, the first rise is very flexible. Whenever I get around to it, I punch the dough down and form the loaves. Opposite to that first rise, I finally discovered that I like the dough only about 2/3s risen when I put it into the (pre-heated) oven. This has been a recent revelation that came on the heels of finally getting so much rise out of my whole wheat dough that it was too pillowy for my taste. As I said earlier, I like some substance to my bread. I don’t want it to be heavy, but I don’t like it floating off my plate either. In general you are advised to put a loaf into the oven when it is just shy of fully risen (don’t wait for fully risen or the loaf could fall in the oven), but if this produces a bread that is too light for you, experiment with putting it into the oven earlier in the rising process.

On to baking! Finally! Are you still with me? Wake up!

We live in New Orleans. It gets hot in April and doesn’t cool off until November. And I do mean hot. For the worst three months of it, we have daytime highs of 90-100 degrees, and nighttime ‘lows’ of 75-85 Don’t forget the humidity! Whee!

I’ve done a lot of experimenting with beating the heat in the kitchen. Read up on last summer’s posts if you’re interested. I tried baking bread on the barbecue grill. It worked pretty well (absolutely stellar for flatbread) but the amount of propane used seemed just plain wrong. Those things are not built to be efficient. I tried using my flash countertop multi-cooker, Trixie. That worked decently, though the bread came out very moist, a bit too moist. And with no crust particularly to speak of. For Christmas I asked for a toaster oven. A good one, a big one, that would fit a loaf of bread. I was thinking ahead. So lately I have been baking a single loaf at a time, in my toaster oven which I have set out on the porch. It didn’t turn out to be the highest quality machine (what is anymore?) but it does fit a nice tall loaf of bread, as well as anything else I might want to bake. I’m quite happy about the situation.

I bake my bread at a good round 350 degrees Farenheit. I know those artisan loaves benefit from a super blast of heat, the No-Knead recipe bakes at 450. But although I like some crust, I’m not looking to teeth my babies on it. In fact, kids don’t tend to like much crust at all. I feel like 350 makes a nice compromise. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to bake through. I have often over-baked bread, which makes it a bit dry, and I have occasionally under-baked which makes a sad, doughy center that cannot be put back to rights in the oven (cut the cooked parts off and eat, or allow to go stale and make this breakfast cereal. Then buck up and try again). They always say to take the loaf out, turn it upside down and thump on the bottom with your knuckles, if it sounds hollow it’s done. I am here to say, it’s not quite so easy learning exactly what “hollow” bread sounds like, those few doughy under-baked loaves in my past sure sounded “hollow” to me. If you’re oven is true the loaves should be nicely browned when they’re done. If you have thermometer and the inclination, whole wheat bread is done at about 205 F. Otherwise, go with the thumping and hope for the best. Air on the over-done side if you feel unsure. A bit dry is better than raw dough.

Always remove bread from the loaf pans immediately and cool on a rack. Don’t slice right away, no matter how much you want to, it will smash the loaf down irreparably. And never put the bread into a plastic bag until you are 100% sure it has cooled completely.

‘Bout time to look for a publisher I guess. This double post instructive has gotten completely out of control. Once I get going, I just can’t stop myself.

If you are still reading, kudos to you my friend. And if this has been useful to you at all, please do comment. I am suddenly feeling like I just wasted a week of writing…

2 thoughts on “Bread Every Day, Part 2: Techniques

  1. Hi – like you, I’ve been making all our bread for 25 years now, and I still learned something. For one thing, I periodically get frustrated with my bread: too crumbly, molds too fast in the summer humidity, too much work! I dick around with my technique or go back to teh very basic whoel wheat loaf in Laurel’s kitchen, and then experience rejuvenation. Thank goodness. I will say that I always rise it twice before loafing it. Otherwise it really always does crumble.

  2. Wow. You did a good job explaining the process and getting all the nuances in. I think this will be very clear to beginning bread bakers who want to become confirmed bread makers.

    For the bread example that just didn’t rise, all I can think of was the liquid was too hot. I remember in the old days when we used to scald the milk then keep checking temp until just right. Now I pour 2 C skim milk ( I always use milk) in 4 C pyrex, micro for 2 min, remove, add 1/2 C honey and 2 T oil, stir and pour into Kitchenaid bowl . I proceed immediately to adding yeast. I have done this hundreds of times and must bring the liquid to just the right temp as about 2 min later I have a nice foaming yeast layer.

    When you mentioned checking the rise with the finger indentations my mind immediately remembered the picture in my mother’s 1950’s Better HOmes cookbook and the recipe for the bread. They had that exact picture. I am a bread thumper…if it doesn’t sound right it goes back in the oven for another 5 min. Ha Ha… for how to tell kneaded enough…I was told should feel like patting a baby’s bottom when knead is complete.

    My recipe proportions are similar to yours…2 C liquid: 2 T yeast: 1/2 C honey: 2 T oil. I use
    6 to 6 3/4 C flour depending on the feel as I mix. We like the extra honey in the bread. It also stays fresh longer. I also add Vital wheat gluten , 1T per 3 C white flour or 1 1/2 T per
    3 C whole wheat or rye flour. I usually make a half ww and half white.

    I can’t imagine living somewhere with heat for so much of the year and having to put a crimp in cooking and baking. I bake bread at night usually. But we have not really achieved summer here yet…any day. Then it cools off quickly once we hit September.

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