Making bread is one of the most miraculous things: from wheat grown in the fields to a warm loaf of fresh-baked bread, it is wondrous and delicious. With a few basic skills, you can bake all kinds of delicious breads at home. Nothing compares to the aroma of a homemade loaf of bread baking in the oven. Once you take a bite of that slice of heaven, you may not ever want to purchase store-bought again.
Measuring. When it comes to baking, being exact with your measurements makes all the difference in the result. The preferred way to measure ingredients is by weight so that you get consistent results. You can also measure by volume, but results may vary depending on how you compact your ingredients or how much you fluff them. When measuring liquids, make sure the cup is on a flat surface and at eye level to be exact. When measuring flour, dip your cup into flour and sweep off the top with a flat knife. Do not shake or tap the cup, or it will compact the ingredients.
Pre-fermenting. An optional extra stage, pre-fermenting helps develop flavor. It is an essential stage when creating a sourdough bread. It can be used in any bread recipe to add flavor if you have more time for fermentation and leavening. The process works by mixing some flour with water and yeast and letting it ferment before incorporating it into the dough. It gets the fermentation process started and requires the use of less yeast in the recipe.
Kneading. This is an important step in the bread-making process where you mush, pull, and stretch the dough. This process strengthens the gluten, which gives the bread structure and allows the dough to stretch and rise when bubbles form during fermentation. You can knead dough in a bread machine or stand mixer, by hand, or in a food processor. If the dough is sticky, the bread machine and stand mixer is best so you don’t add too much flour to work with it. Salt should be mixed into flour before adding yeast or after yeast has been incorporated into the dough, since salt kills yeast. The water added should not be too cold, which will slow down the fermentation process, or too hot, which can kill the yeast. The best method is to mix the flour and water first to form a dough, let it rise covered for 20 minutes, then add other ingredients. Stir ingredients using a wooden spoon, then empty onto a work surface dusted with flour and form a ball. Use the heel of your hands to knead and pull dough towards you and push away against the work surface. Reserve some flour to use during kneading so you don’t use too much added flour.
Proofing. This is the first rise, or main fermentation. This stage requires little effort and helps develop the bread’s structure and flavor. Yeast is activated by the liquid and feeds on the flour, creating carbon-dioxide bubbles. Alcohol and acids are also produced, which creates more flavor in the dough. Dough is kept in a large bowl covered in plastic wrap during this process to keep it moist and soft. The dough should double in size (less if it is mostly whole wheat). Some breads, like rye bread, are proofed more than once, to develop more complex flavors. A bread like focaccia is only proofed once. When dough is proofed a second time it can be done overnight in the fridge, which will slow down the process. Divide dough for multiple loaves and let it rest, covered, for another 20 minutes. Shape dough according to the bread you are making. Ciabatta or focaccia should be shaped gently so as not to deflate the air bubbles. The dough is dimpled with your fingertips to create large irregular holes, then poured onto a greased baking sheet. Rolls or sandwich loaves are handled and shaped with firmer hands and pinched at the bottom to make a tight skin. The dough needs to rise for a final time after being shaped. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm environment. Let it rise until almost doubled and pressing gently against the dough will create a dimple that slowly disappears.
Baking. Brush dough with beaten egg mixed with water to produce a shiny, golden crust. Egg white mixed with water will make a crisp crust. You can use glazes to top dough with seeds or herbs. You can also dust dough with flour to create a crisp crust. Slash top of dough to make a decorative design and to decide where bread should split when baking. Preheat oven before baking. Rotate bread halfway through baking to ensure even baking. Doughs with lots of butter and eggs, like brioche or challah, bake at lower temperatures, which creates a thicker crust. Rustic breads have thinner crusts and bake at 400°–450°. To test for readiness, use a skewer inserted in the middle or use a thermometer inserted in the bottom of the bread. Some bakers tap the bottom to listen for hollowness. v
1 envelope active dry yeast
(about 2½ tsp.)
½ cup whole milk or almond milk, warm
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter or butter substitute, cut into 6 pieces
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
½ tsp. salt
2 large eggs
egg wash made from 1 egg and
1 tsp. water
In a small bowl, whisk yeast into milk, then stir in 1 cup flour. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. Place butter, sugar, and salt in bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse at 1-second intervals, scraping sides in between, until dough is soft and smooth. Add eggs one at a time and process after each one until fully incorporated. Add remaining 1¼ cups flour and yeast mixture, scraping sides of bowl with spatula. Pulse at 1-second intervals to form soft, smooth dough. Process continuously for 15 seconds.
Turn dough out onto generously floured work surface (should be sticky) and knead until smooth and elastic. Grease two 6-cup popover pans or large muffin tins or line with cupcake liners and spray with nonstick spray. Press dough into a 9” × 5” rectangle. Cut dough into 12 equal pieces and pull each piece into a ball, pinching at the bottom. Place in prepared tins. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise about 1 inch above the rim.
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in center. Brush tops with egg wash. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool on wire rack 5 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool till room temperature.
Want to learn how to cook delicious gourmet meals right in your own kitchen? Take one-on-one cooking lessons or give a gift to an aspiring cook that you know. For more information, contact Take Home Chef personal chef services by calling 516-508-3663, writing to elke@TakeHomeChef.net, or visiting www.TakeHomeChef.net.