Monday, June 1, 2015

Baking Bread

When you learn to make bread you have to understand the comfort range bread has. It's as fussy as a baby, but it's not impossible to learn. Too cold and the yeast won't work. Too hot and the yeast dies. Don't let that scare you off. Yeast wants to grow just like weed seeds do. Give it a fighting chance and it will work for you.

If you are starting making bread maybe buy the instant yeast, the kind that doesn't need proofing and mixes right in. Later after a couple of wonderful successes you can learn to proof yeast, in other words sprinkling it into a cup of water the temperature of a heated baby bottle sweetened with a spoon of sugar and letting it foam up before mixing it into the flour and water.

A very basic bread goes like so:
Into a large mixing bowl with rounded sides pour
5 cups warm water
Add 1/2 cup sugar
Add 1 heaping teaspoon salt
Add 1/2 cup melted margarine
Mix in three cups flour and beat with a wooden spoon
Sprinkle over this 2 packages instant yeast (or 2 tablespoons out of a bigger container)
Add two more cups flour and beat it in.

The dough will be getting stiffer and stiffer. Now it is important to add the flour maybe a half cup at a time, stirring in well every time. You don't want too much flour. Soon the spoon will not work well. Now is the time to take off your rings (most days mine are stuck on so I can't) and work the dough by hand. Rub the sides of the bowl to make the little wisps of dough fall down into the main lump.

Have you ever kneaded bread before? Quite satisfying. Push down in the middle with both fists. Next grab the dough at the far side of the bowl and pull it to the center and push it in. Turn the bowl one quarter turn. Grab the dough at the far side and push it into the get the idea. Your hands will be sticky with dough so every time you go around the bowl full circle sprinkle over another handful of flour and work it in. Rub the dough off your hands and start again. Eventually the dough will be less messy and feel good under your hands. A little bit sticky is ok. Kneading the bread develops the gluten strands and makes the bread an acceptable texture. I can't tell you how many cups because every day is different. Even the humidity makes a difference. 
You will learn to tell when the dough feels "nice".
Now it needs to rise. Drip a little oil on your great lump of dough and swish it around until it is all coated.  Find a warm, draft free place. My oven has a setting called "proofing" and it keeps it just barely warm. The lowest normal temperature setting is too hot. If you don't have a proof setting put your pan of bread in the cold oven and slide a pan of boiling water in beside it. Or underneath it. The humidity and warmth will make your dough very happy. You might leave the oven light on too. The bulb gives off some heat. 
Leave it for one hour. When you check it you should see it has swelled happily up and looks puffy and light. take it out and stick your fist into the dough. It will hiss and sigh and collapse around your hand, a blissful feeling because you know that it's working. Punch it vigorously a few times and pop it back into the oven for a half hour or so. Then take it out and turn it out onto a lightly greased counter top and cut into six equal pieces. 
Shape into loaves in much the same motion that you used to knead the bread.  Then place on the counter right side up and push down firmly to squeeze out bubbles. Place in a greased loaf pan and set aside in a draft free place. Not too warm. But not cold. This will help the bread texture to have small even holes. When the loaf has doubled in size preheat the oven to...well maybe 375 degrees F. That's what mine bakes at. Gently pick up the pans and slide them into the oven. After about 20 minutes check the color of the bread. It might not be done yet. If it's not quite baked it will have a sharp yeasty smell to it. If it smells done or is quite dark take one loaf out of the oven and tip it out of its pan. Tap on the bottom with a fingernail. If it is done it will sound hollow. If it says "thunk" it still is raw inside.
When it is done, tip them out of the pans and let them cool on the counter or on wire racks. Grease with butter or olive oil. 

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