Thursday, October 20, 2011

How to Bake Bread

Everyone can bake bread. Aside from the time for rising, baking bread doesn’t take much longer than going to the bakery or supermarket.

Read a bread recipe. They are all basically the same. In fact, you can even make the same dough taste entirely different by varying the baking and shaping methods.

All breads contain the same basic ingredients. The major ingredient is flour. Depending on the type, flour contains more or less gluten. The gluten is the rubbery substance in the flour which forms the network of tunnels to trap the gases and allow the bread to rise.

Wheat flour contains the most gluten. Of the wheat flours, hard wheat, or bread flour, is the highest in gluten. Cake flour has the lowest gluten content, and all purpose flour is somewhere in between.

I bake all my yeast breads with the bread flour that I used to buy in hundred pound sacks from the bakery supplier. Then it became available in 5 pound bags but not everywhere. I remember having to convince my local Korean grocer in Manhattan to stock it for me. After many visits and a lot of pleading, he finally smiled at me and showed me the bread flour. Now 20 plus years later you can find it along with the other flours, both ordinary and exotic, in the supermarket.

Whole wheat flour does not rise as high and light as white flour, so I prefer to use a mixture of whole wheat and white. Rye flour has very little gluten, so it must be mixed with wheat flour for a light bread.

Along with the flour, the bread will contain yeast, a liquid (milk, eggs, or water), and salt, oil, or butter, and a sweetener. Not all breads contain all these ingredients, but all must have liquid, flour, and yeast.

The yeast is the living plant that feeds on the flour and sugar and emits the gas to enable the bread to rise. I prefer compressed yeast, but dry, active yeast is fine.

The sweetener will be sugar, honey, or molasses. Honey tends to keep
the bread moist longer than the others, so I use it wherever possible.

The simple steps to baking bread are always the same:
1.  Mix yeast, sweetener, and a little warm water. Be careful. Temperatures over 200 degrees will kill the yeast, so make sure the water isn't too hot.
2.  Add all other ingredients except the flour, and mix well.
3.  Begin adding flour, one cup at a time, while you stir with a wooden spoon or an electric mixer (my Kitchen Aid from the seventies still can do it). If you want to do all the kneading in an electric mixer, you must have a heavy duty machine with a dough hook.
4.  If you choose not to use the electric mixer, dump the entire mixture, when you can no longer stir or mix it, onto a floured surface. Begin to knead and add more flour, a little at a time, until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky. This may take up to 20 minutes. Don't worry--you can't over-knead. Just do not handle the dough so roughly and stretch it so much that you tear the gluten.
5.  When you have a nice, smooth ball of dough, spread some oil on it, and put it in a fairly large plastic bag. (I use the 4 gallon size.) Squeeze the air out of the bag and close it near the top. Put the entire bag in a bowl or basket and let it rise.
6.  Now you must plan the timing. If you’ll return to your bread within a few hours, leave it at room temperature. If you will be much longer, put it in the refrigerator (even overnight). The cooler the temperature, the longer it takes for bread to rise. If you want to speed it up, put it in an unlighted oven with a pan of hot water on the bottom.
7.  When the dough has more than doubled its original size and it doesn’t spring back when you put your finger in it, it has finished rising. Open the bag, punch the dough down, and form the loaves.
8.  To form bread for baking in a loaf pan, roll out the dough with a rolling pin until it is about one inch thick. Cut it into the number of pieces you want, and form one at a time. Roll the dough like a jellyroll, press the ends down, turn them under, and put the roll, seam side down, in a greased pan. (I use a spray.) Make sure the ends touch the pan.
9.  Cover the loaves and let them rise until they reach the top of the pan. Covering is not necessary if you let them rise in an unlighted oven with a pan of hot water on the bottom.
10. Slash the loaves carefully, about 1/4 inch deep, with a razor.
11. Bake in a preheated oven. You will know your bread has finished     baking if it looks brown, smells marvelous, and sounds hollow when you rap it on the bottom with your knuckles.
12.  Cool your breads on a rack, slice, butter, and enjoy.
13.   If you’re not using a loaf pan, follow the instructions in the recipe for forming the loaves. Or, for French or Italian bread: cut the dough into a long rectangle, fold it in half lengthwise, roll and pinch the seams, slash it with a razor, and bake it on a baking pan, seam side down.
14. Challah, the omnipresent shiny braided loaf, is another story. A baker friend taught me how to braid a six strand loaf. It’s simple. Roll out the dough in a large rectangle, slice the rectangle into six strips, but don’t separate them all the way to the top. Divide the strips into two sections (three on a side) and start braiding. Pay attention, this isn’t a task for the multi-tasker. Starting on one side, the top strip goes to the center, then the second strip from the other side goes to the top. Keep repeating top to the center, second to the top, until you have reached the end. Tuck the ends in, brush with egg mixed with vegetable oil, and bake. Even if the braid doesn’t look perfect, the bread will taste perfect.


  • White doughs, especially those with eggs and butter, are easiest to handle. Whole wheat will always be a little sticky.
  • The smaller the bread, the higher the oven temperature.
  • For rye and pumpernickel, rub the hot breads with butter, cover and cool.
  • All breads freeze beautifully. Homemade bread, with no preservatives, keeps better in the freezer.
  •  Egg beaten with a little oil makes a shiny crust.
  •  Dough for free form breads must be a little stiffer so they don’t spread out. Just knead in some extra flour.
  •   Bread is alive. It never comes out the same way twice. That’s why it’s so much fun. I can never predict exactly what my bread will look like. (Almost as unpredictable as your children.)
  • Challah makes unbelievable French toast. Cut it in wedges, soak it in egg with some milk and vanilla, and fry.
  • You will know when you have kneaded long enough by the small blisters that form under the surface of the dough.
  • Rising the dough in a plastic bag frees you from the clock. It can’t over-rise and it won’t dry out.
  •  If you rise your bread in the refrigerator, bring it to room temperature before you bake it.

I wrote all of the above as a lesson plan for my cooking school—in 1972. Since then, I’ve gone through periods, baking and not baking bread, changing almost as frequently as dieting or not dieting. My children are grown and on their own, but they still talk about their search for a sandwich on Wonder Bread. ( Do they still sell Wonder Bread?) I wonder how they would react today.

The face of nutrition has changed since the seventies. What sounded crazy back then has entered the mainstream. Whole grain breads are almost as popular as the white ones and we do pay attention to what we eat, or we should.

I have to admit to having store-bought breads in my freezer. In fact, I haven’t baked bread lately, but now I can’t wait to experience that unique aroma. I think I’ll start with my favorite seven whole grain cereal bread, the one I made up so many years ago.

But….over the years, technology has made bread baking so much easier. Today I do several things a bit differently.


     I use my trusty Cuisinart machine for practically everything.  It will handle any bread recipe that calls for up to four or six cups of flour. And it’s so simple: start with the yeast that has been proofed (mixed with some warm water and a little sugar and left until it starts to foam  
  • Add a small amount of the dry ingredients so the Cuisinart machine won’t leak.  
  • Then add the rest of the ingredients and start adding the flour about a cup at a time. 
  • The dough is ready when it forms a ball, no longer sticks to the sides of the container, and spins around on top of the metal blade. 
  • Carefully (the blade is sharp) remove the dough and proceed with your recipe. No kneading necessary.


The manufacturers will tell you that you can just dump the ingredients in, set it, and forget it. But…the shape of the bread is strange, either cylindrical or like a cube, nothing like the bread I used to bake.

So, I often use the machine to mix, knead, and rise the bread, stopping its progress before it starts to bake. The resulting dough is almost perfect; it doesn’t even suffer from the lack of hand to hand combat and surely doesn’t contribute as much to your messy kitchen.


Aside from these simple changes, bread is bread. People have been baking bread for thousands of years. If you haven’t tried it, why wait any longer. It’s fun, economical, healthy, and smells so good.

No comments:

Post a Comment