Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bread Baking Basics

I'm not a master baker. You can probably look online and find much longer lists of rules for bread baking. I'm sure that if you follow all those rules you'll get better bread then I make. But if you just want to make a good loaf of bread, here are the rules I follow.

1. I use instant yeast (A.K.A. bread machine yeast, quick rise yeast). Regular yeast has a natural coating around it that has to dissolve before it can start working. Instant yeast doesn't have that coating. That is why you have to proof regular yeast, you want to make sure the coating is dissolved. I still proof my instant yeast because of an irrational paranoia that the yeast is dead and my bread won't rise. This won't really happen if your yeast hasn't hit the "use by" date yet. You can feel free to just add it to your bread without proofing it first. Instant yeast doesn't help make a better tasting bread, it's just easier.

2. Buy a thermometer. Your grandma could tell if the water was at the right temperature. You can't. You don't bake often enough. If the water is too hot, you'll kill the yeast and the bread won't rise. If the water isn't warm enough, the bread will take forever to rise. Thermometers take away the guess work. The water should be between 105 and 115 degrees. Slower rising bread will develop more flavor. I've seen recipes where they only heat the water to 90 degrees. I never mess with slower rising bread. I plan to someday. But, I never have the patience to wait even longer for my bread to rise.

3. Use bread flour. Or, you can use regular flour and add gluten. Gluten is what makes bread chewy and good. Wheat grown in southern climates is low in gluten and makes better biscuits. Wheat grown in northern climates has more gluten and makes better bread. If you use whole wheat flour, it will go bad more quickly then white flour. Whole wheat flour uses parts of the grain not in white flour . Those parts have oil in them, and therefore become rancid eventually. Keep whole wheat flour in the fridge or freezer to extend it's life. Make sure it is at room temperature before you try to bake. If it is cold it will bring down the temperature of your bread and either slow its rising, or kill the yeast completely.

4. Knead until your arms fall off. Unless you tend to take things to extremes, you probably won't over knead. If you have a kitchen aid mixer, you can let it do most of the kneading for you. I am barred by law from owning one, so I do all the kneading by hand. As you are probably aware, you cannot own a kitchen aid mixer unless you get married. When you get married, you legally obligated to purchase a kitchen aid mixer in a color that matches your kitchen, whether you actually want one or not. As it turns out, I actually like kneading bread, so it works out well for me. I find it relaxing. Well I find it relaxing for the first 20-30 minutes anyway. It takes me about 45 to 60 minutes to knead bread enough for it to be at the window pane state. I am not an efficient kneader. The window pane state is where you can stretch a small amount of dough enough to pull it thin enough to almost see through it. It isn't strictly necessary to knead it that much. But the closer to that state, the better. Kneading bread helps to bring gluten together with other gluten in the flour. They link together to for gluten chains. The more you knead the more gluten chains are formed and the longer the chains are. When you've kneaded a network of gluten, you'll have a bread with a nice chewy texture. Click here for an explanation about gluten.

5. Err on the sticky side. When adding flour as you're kneading, err on the side of less flour instead of more flour. Use extra caution if you are making a whole wheat loaf. 100 % Whole wheat dough starts out sticky, but will absorb more of the liquid in the dough and become less sticky after about 10 minutes.

6. Put your bread in a clear container to rise. Mark the height of the bread with a rubber band. That way you can see the bread as it rises. When it's doubled it's time to punch down the dough.

7. Knead the bread a few times after you punch it down. It helps to distribute the air pockets more evenly and helps with the bread's texture. Again, not strictly necessary, but it only takes a minute.

8. Form a nicely shaped loaf. Wonkey dough will bake into a wonkey loaf. It doesn't really hurt the bread, but it doesn't look good either.

9. Before you put your bread in the oven, make a few slits with a serrated knife in the top of the bread. This helps the bread to rise enough when it's in the oven. If you don't, the bread will stop rising when the top of the bread turns into crust and holds the bread down.

10. Brush on an egg wash. Beat a whole egg with a tablespoon of water. Brush this on the bread with a pastry brush before you put it in the oven. Egg wash doesn't really have a function as far as I know other then making the bread shiny and pretty. It really does make the bread look nice and it is worth the effort. Make sure you don't miss a spot, because you will see it if you do.

11. (optional) Let your bread rise on a pizza peel that has been covered with a layer of cornmeal. The cornmeal will help the bread slide of onto a pizza stone that you put in your oven before you preheated the oven. The hot pizza stone helps the bread rise and helps the bread form a nice crust.

12. Is the bread done? Whip out the instant read thermometer and stick in into the bottom center of the bread. You won't see the hole if you stick the thermometer in the bottom. If the thermometer reads 205-215 degrees, the bread is done. Take it out and cool on a cooling rack. If you can stand it, don't cut into the bread until it's cool, or at least rested for a half hour (I'm guessing). If you cut into the bread, the steam escapes and your bread loaf will be drier. Leave it alone. You can do it. I believe in you.

13. Home baked bread doesn't have preservatives in it and will start to go stale in a few days. If you don't plan on eating it by then, either keep it in the fridge (this will give you a few extra days) or slice it and keep it in the freezer.

If you haven't tried baking bread before, go ahead and give it a shot. As long as your water is the right temperature in the beginning, you can't mess it up too much. I promise.

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