This probably isn’t true of many quilters, but so many people haven’t ever made a loaf of bread. I hadn’t, at least not since I was terribly young, until I was 35 years old and started taking more of an interest in making my own healthier food. The recipe that really kicked me over was the second one here, the no-knead bread. I had no idea it could be so easy.
While some shaped loaves and specialty breads can be more complicated, the most basic breads, the fundamentals, are so stinking easy – it’s just a matter of jumping in and trying it.
The thing about bread is, it’s not instant gratification. It takes a little time – most of which is spent letting the yeastie beasties do their thing whilst you go and do yours.
In my quest to direct my life (and any who will come along) down a more self-sufficient, less-commercial path, I’ve been trying to cook and bake as much as possible. It’s a path traveled by many before me, of course, but the percentage of folks trying to live a simpler life seems vastly outshadowed by people driving three blocks to Taco Bell for lunch every day.
So, here’s a challenge – if you haven’t ever tried making a loaf of bread… do it!
Put the Wonder(TM) Bread down and back away slowly! You’ve got this – you can do it.
Here are two recipes, two different methods. Each is incredibly simple, each is a great foundation. They’re gateway recipes to give a novice the confidence to bake bread. They’re also really tasty.
If you want bread today, use the first one. If you can wait 24 hours (and it’s worth it,) go with the second. Try both! See also the list of add-ins at the bottom.
“White Pan Bread,” from How to Bake by Nick Malgieri
This book is a good basic, tasty cookbook, which provides insight on techniques, equipment and other important stuffs. It’s a great starter book. Nick’s basic white pan bread recipe isn’t bread to kill or die for, it’s not a recipe you’re likely to hand down to your children… but it’s good. As Alton Brown said, “anything you make is better than everything you can buy.” Cuz there’s stuff in the commercial products, chemicals that let it last for a month on the shelf without rotting. Ethoxylated mono and diglycerides. Calcium propionate, just like Mom used to add!
This bread takes about 15 minutes of actual work-time, spread out in three spans. Modifying this recipe is a snap – just throw stuff into the dough. If you’ve got a mixer with dough hooks, your life is even easier! It’s great for sandwiches, french toast, dipping into soups – it’s very sturdy and holds together well.
2.5 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast [3 if you like yeastier breads]
2 cups warm tap water [about 110 degrees]
5 – 5.5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour [or go half whole wheat]
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar [I go with 2T honey]
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, or vegetable oil [I use olive oil, because we love it and it’s good for us]
Two 8.5″ x 4.5″ x 3″ loaf pans, oiled
1.) Whisk the yeast into the warm water and set aside while preparing the other ingredients.
2.) To mix the dough by hand, place 5 cups of flour, the salt, and the sugar in a mixing bowl and stir in the yeast mixture and melted butter. Continue to stir until the mixture forms a rough dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. If the dough is excessively soft and sticky, add the remaining flour, a tablespoon at a time.
[Erin’s note – If you don’t know how to knead bread, despair not – oil up your hands lightly, smoosh the dough out onto a counter or work surface that has a light flour coating. Flatten it out a bit, then fold it up toward yourself into a bundle, then smoosh the bundle down with the heels of your hands, pushing away from you. Turn the dough 45 degrees, fold up toward you, smoosh down away. Later, rinse, repeat. Like anything new, it’s a little awkward at first, but you’ll soon find yourself doing it instinctively. How do you know if the dough is “excessively sticky?” If it’s still clinging tenaciously to your fingers after a few good kneads, that’s too sticky. Throw in a bit of the extra flour and knead some more, until it keeps mostly to itself. Kneading is developing the gluten, which “strengthens” the bread and acts as a binding agent. The dough would develop its own gluten, but it takes a lot longer on its own, as in the second recipe – we’re speeding things up a bit by kneading.]
[To mix the dough in a heavy-duty stand mixer, place everything in a bowl and mix on low speed with a dough hook for about 5 minutes, following the same “excessively sticky” guidelines. You could also theoretically do it in a food processor, but honestly.]
3.) Place the dough in an oiled bowl and turn to oil all surfaces. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap [or a kitchen towel] and allow the dough to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. [Erin’s note – the dough should be kept in a warm place to allow the yeast to work it’s magic. My office/sewing room is perfect for this, or you could start a preheat in the over and then turn it off almost immediately, so the inside is just warm enough to notice.]
[At this point, I would typically say something like, “now, go make a sandwich,” but that’s a little too meta, right? Go do something that’ll take awhile. Leave the bread be.]
4.) After an hour’s time, turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Deflate the dough [punch it down or smoosh it out] and divide it into two equal pieces. To form a loaf, make sure the surface is free of excessive flour, then stretch the dough into a rough rectangle. Fold in the short ends to approximately match your pan size. Fold one long side over the middle, and then fold it over again and compress slightly to form a tight cylinder. Place the loaf into the pan, seam side down. Cover the pan with plastic wrap [or a towel] and repeat for the second loaf. Allow to rise [in a warm place] until the dough has nearly doubled, about an hour or so.
5.) When the loaves are almost doubled set a rack at the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
6.) When the loaves are completely risen, remove plastic wrap and place into the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and firm and the internal temperature is about 210 degrees. [Seriously? If you don’t want to poke holes into your bread, or if you don’t have a thermometer, just trust your eyes and your nose. Your nose knows when bread is done. It’ll be golden brown all over, slightly moreso on the top.] Unmould the loaves to a rack to cool on their sides.
This will give you two perfect little loaves like these:
[umm… due to technical difficulties, photos will be added, uh, later.]
[Here they are – and wow, they’re awful. One of the Droid’s few shortcomings is its camera. Sorry about that.]
The bottom loaf being that perfect was a complete accident. I like my loaves to have more character, like the top loaf. However, for the bottom one, I followed the folding instructions exactly to see what it would look like. The top one just got folded up to fit the pan somewhat randomly – I like it better. I’m more of a rustic person.
Speaking of rustic…
This bread has become somewhat of a phenomenon, and has people who never contemplated baking at all making their own amazing breads. The bold link back there will take you to the Times’ website article. The secret to this bread is just this – don’t mess with it while it’s rising. Don’t knead it, don’t worry about it – just let it sit and do its thing. This is bread in its truest, most primitive form. Hearty and sustaining. This one can be to kill or die for, depending on where you want to go with it.
Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed. [or cracked wheat, or crushed, rolled oats, or any other dusty, grain-type product]
1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes. [Erin’s note – by allowing it to rise and sit by itself for so long, we’ve let the gluten develop, and in the end, this bread will hold together every bit as well as kneaded dough.]
3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice [remember that pot is hot!] if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.
That’s it. I mean honestly – it’s a beautiful, crusty, fricking phenomenal loaf of bread. Moist, with nice crumb. Mmm.
Once you get your baseline loaf made, or if you want to experiment your first time out, try some of the following – mix and match. Although don’t put, like, dates with garlic. <shudder> You really can just throw any of these things (and more) into bread dough. You don’t want to overload the senses, but try one or two and see what you like.
- cheddar cheese
- sauteed onions
- asiago cheese
- parmesan cheese
- orange zest
- lemon zest
- flax seeds
- sunflower seeds
- fresh-ground black pepper
- cayenne pepper
- the sky’s the limit, baby!
If you try this, I’d love to hear about it, or if you have a favorite bread recipe to share, that would be great, too.