There are some things that just warm your soul from the inside out. One of these is the smell of bread, fresh from the oven. Once experienced, it is not easily forgotten. At social gatherings, fresh-baked bread is one of the first things to disappear. It’s amazing how an otherwise unimpressive-looking grass can be transformed into such a lovely culinary creation. But, it’s not magic, and in this article, I will take you through the steps to create outstanding baked breads, rolls, and buns that are infinitely superior to the sad commercial offerings by large food companies.
Baking bread at home is not as hard as you might think. Many people are intimidated because they think it takes a lot of time. Well, it does…sort of. But most of that time is simply waiting for things to happen, like dough rising, or fermenting. You don’t have to watch it. Just set a timer and go about your business. The actual labor time for making bread is less than 1 hour, including baking. And, you don’t have to do it all yourself. Involve the kids, because not only is it educational, but kneading bread is also a lot of fun when the experience is shared.
Baking bread is an art, rather than a science, so there is a learning curve. You will probably mess up a few loaves along the way. We’ve all done it, so don’t get discouraged. If a loaf or two decides to be uncooperative, just feed it to the ducks and birds, and start over. Flour is cheap, so don’t let it get you down. The pay-off is more than worth it. Few things can give as great a sense of empowerment as being able to make your own bread. Get good at this, and you might even want to expand into things like making pickles, sauerkraut, canning, etc… (all these will be in future articles…).
The first two sections are be a little dry reading, but it may help to know about how bread came to be, and what actually happens during each step of the process. Then you will know why you are doing each particular step. I’ll try to be brief, so just bear with me for a bit, then we’ll get into the fun stuff.
Panis Vitae – The Bread of Life
Sorry for the Latin, but I wanted to highlight the point that bread was so important to our forebears that they assigned a special significance to it. In the ancient world, wheat was life. We don’t know exactly when someone figured out that it would be easier to transplant edible veggies close to home, rather than look for them, and fight Sabre-Tooth Tigers on the way. After all, plants seldom put up much of a fight. How anyone figured that those little ugly grasses would be edible is beyond me, but they did figure it out. By around 9500 BC wheat was being grown in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. By 6000 BC, it had spread to Greece, and by 3000BC, pretty much the rest of the world except North and South America. Here, corn was King.
At first, wheat was simply ground and boiled in water to eat, like gruel. Later, it was molded into flatbreads similar to Roti and Tortillas. Yeasts were used to make wine as far back as 6000 years. Around 5000 years ago, in Egypt, someone was making flatbreads a little too close to the wine-making operations, and the yeast contaminated the dough. Much to their surprise, it rose, and got fluffy. They were quick to latch on to this delicious accident, and the first commercial bakeries were quickly started. Yeast bread spread like wildfire across the Middle East and Europe.
In the ancient world, wheat was so important that it was used as currency in many cultures. Today, wheat is probably the most important crop in the world. More than 215 hectares (an area approximately the size of Greenland) of wheat are cultivated annually, making it the most widespread staple crop in the world. 50 billion dollars (US) worth of wheat is traded annually
The Anatomy Of Wheat
The seeds from a wheat stalk are called Wheat Berries. These are usually sold for sprouting, but they can be soaked in cold water overnight and make a great snack. They can also be toasted for snacks. When it is destined for bread, it is called a Kernel. A kernel has three parts:
- Bran – the outer casing that protects the seed. It contains fiber, trace minerals, and B-vitamins.
- Germ – the most nutritious part of the whole kernel. It is located towards the bottom of the kernel, inside the bran, and contains vitamin E, B-vitamins, trace minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids such as Omega 6, Omega 3, etc…
- Endosperm – The starchy remming portion of the kernel, located in the top-half of the seed. It is the least nutritious part, and only contains carbohydrates, protein, in the form of gluten, and some B-vitamins.
Even though most of the nutrition is in the bran and germ, the endosperm is vital, because it contains all the gluten, which is what we need to make bread. Gluten is a vegetable protein that has long strands close enough together to trap CO2, which is created as a by-product of feeding yeast, and makes your dough inflate like a balloon.
Unfortunately, this is one area where technology has actually let us down. Once a kernel is cracked, the oils and vitamin begin to oxidize immediately, so after about 8 hours, the nutritional value is reduced by half. Freezing can slow the process down, but still, after a few. days, you will have essentially ‘dead’ flour. But, an intact kernel can last a very long time. In fact, when wheat was discovered in the Great Pyramid, they made bread from it. The wheat was still good after even thousands of years. As long as it is kept in airtight containers, dry, and away from extreme temperatures, wheat keeps for a ridiculously long time.
So, people used to keep wheat kernels intact, and every day, they would take what they thought they would use that day to the local mill, and have it ground into flour. This was used throughout the day, and any that was left was used for gravy, or scattered in the garden. Around 1870, the roller mill was invented and made it possible to separate out the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. This was bleached to remove the carotene, which normally gives flour a yellowish tint, and made it “whiter than white”. This was bagged and sold as White Flour. Since the oils (and almost everything else) was removed, it did not go rancid, and could be kept in bags on the store shelves for long periods of time. The bran and germ was sold as animal feed, and was very lucrative. It was an expensive process, and at first, only the rich could afford white flour, so it became a symbol of affluence, and very sought-after. Vitamins had not been discovered, yet, so they really did not know what effects this would have on physiology.
Needless to say, in the early 20th century, there were wide-spread outbreaks of Pellagra and Beriberi, which are caused by vitamin deficiencies. This was traced to white flour. Most countries passed regulations requiring mills to add the bare minimum of nutrients back into the flour, to prevent these diseases. Then the mills patted themselves on the back by advertising their flour as “Fortified”, even though they were the ones who ruined it in the first place.
Think you’re getting ahead by using “Whole Wheat” flour? Guess again. Commercial “Whole Wheat” flour is just refined flour that they have added a tiny bit of germ back in, and some food coloring or molasses to make it brown. Whole Grain flour is the next best thing to fresh grinding. You can tell if your four is whole grain, because it will go rancid in a few weeks, or months, even in the refrigerator.
There are four main types of wheat used in bread-making:
- Winter White– has a yellowish tinge when ground, and a very aromatic, and slightly sweet taste when baked. My favorite strain is called Prairie Gold, from Montana, and it is what I use for all my light breads and buns.
- Spring White – has a higher gluten and moisture content than Winter White. Excellent for Hearth and Artisan breads. Very aromatic and slightly sweet.
- Winter Red – light brown color, with a sweet, nutty taste. It has less gluten than either of the White Wheats, and used by itself, it will make a slightly denser, heavier loaf, but not prohibitively so. Some strains can be a little bitter, but this can be offset by adding 10-15% Winter or Spring White to your recipe. This is the wheat to use for great Pumpernickel Bread.
- Spring Red – a bit lighter than Winter Red, but still has less gluten than the Whites. Has a light, wonderful nutty taste and smell, and creates a lighter, but less robust loaf than Winter Red. Makes outstanding Russian Brown, and Czech Peasant Bread.
Wheat also come in ‘soft’ varieties. The difference is the gluten content. Soft wheats have less gluten, and are more suitable for pastries, biscuits, and quick breads that do not use yeast.
Other grains are often added to make different types of bread, but they should be limited to 10% of the total ingredients, or it will adversely affect the rise. One of the more common added grains is rye. It has a unique spicy flavor, but very little gluten. Add it at around 7%-10%, and don’t forget the caraway seeds…..
Now, let’s make some bread…
8 Steps to Making Great Bread
There is more to making a loaf of bread than just creating a dough ballon. We want to have a certain texture, and flavor. For the rest of the article, I am going to assume you have ground your own flour (more on that in future articles), or purchased a good-quality Bread Flour. There are two main varieties of commercial flour, General Purpose, and Self-Rising. General Purpose flour is just hard wheat and soft wheat mixed. Do not use General Purpose flour for bread. GP flour doesn’t really work well for bread, or biscuits. It works best for gravy, and coating fried foods. Self Rising flour is soft wheat flour with baking powder, baking soda, and salt added. It is best for quick breads like biscuits. Commercial flour comes in two more types: Bread Flour, and Pastry/Cake Flour. Bread flour is all hard wheat. Pastry/Cake flour is very fine, and all soft wheat. So, you want Bread Wheat for your bread.
Each step of bread-making is done to create a certain effect. If you skip a step, it may still make bread, but it may not be what you were expecting. Indeed, it is possible to make delicious breads without any kneading at all. They will have a nutty, slight chewy texture that is custom-made for Cream Cheeses.
As for ingredients, it couldn’t be much easier. Basic Bread contains flour, oil (or fat), water, yeast or starter, and something for the yeast to eat, like honey, molasses, sorghum, or sugar, and a little salt. In fact, you can leave the sugar or honey out, and just make all-wheat loaves, but the sugar gets the process going faster. It also flavors the bread. That’s all there is in basic bread. The flour is for body and taste. The yeast is to make it rise. The water is to make the flour into a dough that can be molded. The sugars are to feed the yeast and make it act quicker. And the salt is just to add depth and character to the flavors. Other things that can be added are an egg, which gives the bread a more rubbery texture, a little more loft, and less crumb. Buttermilk, which will give it a lovely velvety texture. Milk, which will add a little loft and sweeten it up a bit, spices, herbs, nuts…pretty much anything that does not change the moisture balance. It you are going to add fruits or vegetables, be sure to subtract from the water to allow for the juices. Avoid using beer or wine, because the alcohol will kill the yeast.
Here we go…
Step 1 – Yeast Activation: In a mixer, or mixing bowl, throw in about 1 cup of warm water, not too hot. It should feel like bathwater. Add a shot of honey, or other yeast food, a pinch or two of salt, and a palmful of good live yeast. Add 1 cup of four, and mix well to make a thin paste. This is also called the ‘sponge’ method. It is to activate the yeast, and to check that the yeast is alive and active. Let this set, covered for anywhere from 30 minutes, to 24 hours. The longer you let it set, the more it will ferment, and give you a wonderful sourdough-like flavor and aroma. Not quite the same as real sourdough, but great, nonetheless. When the paste gets bubbly and frothy, it is ready to use, usually within 30 minutes. If it doesn’t reach this stage, throw it out, start over and use different yeast.
Step 2 – Making the Dough: Add 3 or 4 more cups of flour to the paste and mix until you get a nice, not quite sticky ball of dough. Add water as needed if it is too dry. If it is too wet, add a little more flour, a tsp at a time until you get the right consistency. If it pulls away from the sides of the bowl, it’s close. It’s better to have the dough a little sticky, than too dense.
Step 3 – Kneading: This step is to develop the gluten. It needs to be rearranged into tight long strands to trap the CO2 that the yeast creates. We do this by folding the dough over itself many, many times. Start by turning the dough out onto a floured work surface. For hand kneading, you can smack the dough with your fist, punch it with your elbows, slam it on the counter several times, or what ever makes you feel good. This is a great time to take out all your frustrations in a positive way. I just take the outside edge, fold it in to the center, then push out with my palms. Rotate the dough 1/4 of a turn and repeat, and repeat, etc… Kneading by hand usually takes around 15-20 minutes, but it is great exercise for your forearms and hands. Or, you can use a good mixer with a dough hook, and it only takes 10 minutes. However you knead it, the dough is ready when it starts pushing back, and the surface is smooth with little blisters forming on it. To test it, poke it with your finger. If the dimple slowly comes back up, you have bread dough. If not, keep kneading until it does.
Step 4 – First Rise: Form the dough into a ball and give it a very thin coat of oil. Place it in a mixing bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let it rise until it is doubled in size, usually around an hour or two, depending on the temperature and humidity. This starts getting our texture like we want it, a little tight with a medium crumb and thin crispy crust.
Step 5 – Shaping: Once dough has risen. Return it to the floured work surface, and press it flat several times to release any air bubbles. Usually, you don’t want any big holes in the middle of your bread. There are exceptions, such as No-Knead and Ciabatta breads, but here, we are making sandwich bread. We don’t want our mayo to leak out…. After pressing, divide the dough into two equal halves and shape it however you like. For French, Italian, or Artisan Bread, you won’t be using loaf pans, so just shape it into long cylinders, or round loaves. You can also divide into several pieces and roll them into thin tubes, then braid them together to make two braided loaves….totally cool…. When making free standing loaves, be sure to take a clean knife, and make a few slashes across the top of each loaf. It helps it rise better, and keep it’s shape. If you are making straight sandwich bread, then oil, or spray two loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray, or use a good oil like olive, or coconut. Shape the dough into two balls, and press each one into the loaf pans, pressing down to make it fill the pan. Many people like to leave 1” space in the end because they say it makes it rise better. I have never noticed this, but do it any way you want. It’s your bread.
Step 6 – Second Rise: This is where we put the finishing touches on our bread. The second rise makes the loaves light, airy, and develops the texture. It’s best to cover the loaves loosely to protect them from drafts, at this point. I usually use plastic grocery bags to create a sort of hothouse effect. The rising creates a little heat and the bags trap it to make the dough rise better. Just place each loaf pan in a plastic bag, leaving plenty of room at the top for the dough to rise, twist the ends, and clamp it with a clothes pin. Allow the loaves to rise until doubled, usually 1-1/2 hours, up to several hours, depending on a lot of things like temperature, humidity, altitude, or just plain serendipity.
Step 7 – Baking: When the bread has risen, preheat your oven to 325ºF to 350ºF. Place an ovenproof pan of water in the bottom. This will give you a wonderful crust. Or, you can periodically and lightly spray the bread with water as it bakes. Place the loaves on the center rack and bake for 20-30 minutes. It should be a beautiful medium golden brown and should sound hollow when thumped. If you’re not sure, put it back in the over for another 10 minutes or so. It won’t hurt it at all.
Step 8 – Let it Sit: When the bread is done, allow it to sit in the loaf pans for a few minutes, so it will shrink slightly and easily release from the pan. When ready, invert the loaf pans and the bread should just roll out on the counter. Place the loaves on a cooling rack to cool, and brush them with a light coat of butter or olive oil. Don’t try cutting them until you can touch them without any pain.
That’s it. There is nothing like the taste of fresh-baked bread, still warm from the oven. Just grab some butter and get after it. With the very first bite, you’ll wonder how you lived without this for so long. And it puts sandwiches into a whole new category. You’ll be surprised at how much the quality of the bread, bun, or roll, affects the over-all taste of sandwiches, burgers, hoagies, etc… Home-baked bread is so superior to the dismal offerings at the grocery stores that it’s almost not even the same thing. Store-bought bread is merely a shadow of the real thing.
That’s all there is to it. Of course, it is an art, and the more you do it, the better your bread will get. But with the exception of No-Knead breads, every other type of bread will use these steps. The only difference is what kinds of wheat and grains you use, spices, liquids, etc…
No-Knead bread Easy Step-by-Step Recipe
I know someone is going to want to know how to make basic No-Knead bread, so here is the recipe. Normally, it takes around 18 to 24 hours to make No-Knead bread, because it needs time to ferment, but I have developed a much faster technique that only takes a few hours. It’s so simple a child can do it (with supervision, of course…).
- In a mixing bowl, add 3 cups Bread Flour. Any kind will do, red or white.
- Throw in about 1/4 tsp of yeast. If you add much more than this it will climb out of the bowl and take over the kitchen….
- Add 1 tsp of salt
- Mix the dry ingredients together until well-mixed.
- Add 1-1/2 cups of hot water, but not boiling. Hot water from the tap is just about right.
- Mix well, but do not knead. The dough will be sticky, stringy and a little shaggy-looking. This is OK, and what you want.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, or place it in a plastic grocery bag, and seal the end loosely. Allow it to rise for about 3 hours.
- After 3-5 hours, the dough should be about doubled, and the surface has little bubbles all over it. The dough will look thin, loose, and jiggly, but this is perfect. Scrape the dough onto a floured working surface and sprinkle a little flour on top.
- Gently fold the dough under itself until you get a nice smooth ball. Do not knead it at all. A dough scaper makes this part really easy. It shouldn’t take you more than 10 seconds or so to shape the dough. You definitely do not want to over-work the dough, because it will make it tough. Place the dough in a parchment paper-lined bowl and cover it with a towel. Let the dough rest while the oven and pot pre-heat.
- Get an oven proof pan with a lid. I use an old caldo pot and just remove the wood handle on the lid. You can use a clay pot, Dutch Oven, or anything else that goes in the oven and has a lid. It’s best to use something round, just because No-Knead bread is almost always round…I don’t know why…. Anyway, set the pan with the lid on it in the oven and turn the oven on. Set the temperature for 450ºF.
- When the oven and pot are pre-heated, using oven mitts, obviously, remove the pot, take off the lid, and lifting it with the parchment paper, set the paper and dough into the pot. Replace the lid and return it to the oven. You want to do this as quickly as you safely can, because you don’t want the pot to cool down much.
- Bake the bread for 30 minutes at 450ºF.
- After 30 minutes or so, remove the pot, remove the lid, remove the parchment paper, and return the bread to the pot. Return the pot to the oven, uncovered, and bake for another 15-20 minutes to create a fantastic crust.
- Remove the bread from the oven and place on a cooling rack for 10 minutes or so. This bread is best eaten warm from the oven.
There are more advanced methods, but I’ll save those for future articles. Be sure to check back often for more great articles. As always…