I have always found baking homemade bread to be truly simple. I just put flour, water, leaven, and salt together and stir. I often put the water in the bowl directly from the tap and just turn off the tap when I think I have enough. I never measure precisely, and people always love my bread. I honestly think you can’t fail at bread making as long as you pay attention to the dough and don’t try to bake it when it isn’t ready.
Making bread you’re happy with is a matter of both the bread and your expectations. A loaf of bread doesn’t have to look the same every time or match a picture in a book. There is no one pathway to delicious bread.
Here, I’ll share how to prepare easy homemade bread and provide links to recipes for three variations: a crusty white loaf, a deeply flavorful multigrain bread and a lovely sandwich bread. I encourage a largely free-form, no-knead system in which your role as bread baker is like that of improvising jazz musician or nurturing gardener. It is a holistic system that recognizes fermenting bread dough as alive and ever-changing. It is a system that sees each batch of dough as having the potential to produce an infinite range of successful conclusions, such that each recipe is a window into a world of possibilities rather than an end in itself.
Yeast is active in dough at any temperature above freezing up to the oven temperature that finally kills it (about 140 degrees Fahrenheit). Like plants, yeasts grow more quickly at warmer temperatures. Just as hothouse vegetables may look beautiful but have little flavor, when dough rises at hothouse temperatures (80 degrees and higher), you get good gas production but not good flavor. Yeast needs time to create good flavors. I suggest using an instant-read thermometer so you can check dough temperature conveniently.
Experiment with long, slow fermentations (12 to 20 hours). This means experimenting with a small amount of yeast in the dough — no more than one-half to 1 teaspoon per pound of flour — and dough rising temperatures from the low 70s down to those of your refrigerator. In a hot summer kitchen, mix the dough with cool water. In a cold winter kitchen, mix it with warm water. Be patient with your dough and it will always yield fabulous bread.
That said, sometimes you may need to make bread in a hurry. If you have to, use a packet of yeast (2¼ teaspoons), mix the dough with warm water and let it rise in a warm place — and be happy! It’s always better to enjoy a homemade loaf than plastic-packaged bread.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the single-celled fungus responsible for fermentation in beer, wine, and bread. Bread yeasts are simply strains of S. cerevisiae selected for maximum carbon dioxide production in doughy environments.
Yeast strains optimized for bread come in three forms: as blocks of refrigerated, active compressed yeast (19th-century technology), as granulated dried yeast to be rehydrated in warm water (1940s technology), and as finely milled dried yeast to be rehydrated with the flour (1970s technology). This last form of yeast is often called “instant yeast.” Beer and wine yeasts, which you can easily purchase online, produce exceedingly flavorful loaves.
In my talks with yeast companies, I’ve been consistently told that most of their customers are more interested in speed than taste. Instructions on yeast packets reflect this priority. Here’s my advice: If the yeast should be hydrated in water, then use warm water, as the packet directs. But if the yeast should be stirred directly into the flour, then, as a rule, don’t use water that is above 80 degrees. The worst that can happen if you use water cooler than the yeast manufacturer recommends is that less yeast will come back alive in your dough than the manufacturer anticipated. This means your bread will take longer to rise from a given unit of yeast, but because a longer rise is associated with better flavor, that is a good thing (unless you’re in a big hurry). If you’re in a hurry, use warm water.
For recipe improvisers, you may want to keep this in mind: Active compressed yeast contains lots of water, so you need to use more of it — about twice as much by weight as you’d use of dry yeast to achieve the same results. Also, some recent quick rise yeasts don’t seem to support repeated rises, so if your bread seems to die after an initial rise, try changing yeast brands.
Kneading seems inextricably linked to bread making, but a shift in thinking is underway on this topic. Many think breads require much less kneading than tradition suggests — or even none at all. The recipes I offer are all no-knead recipes.
As many bakers are now discovering, kneading is not necessary for the development of a wheat bread’s gluten structure (for more information, see No-Knead Healthy Bread Recipes). In fact, the gluten network develops during fermentation. I stopped kneading bread 30 years ago after I did some testing and realized it didn’t seem necessary for the kinds of breads I like to make. Lately, my reading of 19th-century American cookbooks has made me suspicious of kneading for other reasons. For instance, the length of time a housewife kneaded her bread dough was long associated with how much care she was thought to be showing her family.
My advice to home bakers is to give up your bread machines, experience the pleasure of making bread by hand and don’t stress the kneading. To achieve breads with a good final form (remembering that form and taste are different things), you can give the dough a few folds as you form the loaf. Folding is particularly effective in strengthening the gluten structure of softer dough. (For information, plus videos of the technique, see Bread-Folding Techniques.)
A couple of years ago I visited a friend of mine, a baker, at his main plant. He has a large baking business, Acme Bread Co., which is respected in the artisan baking world. I was struggling at the time with how to write down bread recipes, so I asked him whether he ever baked from written recipes. After a long pause, he said he must have when he was just starting out. In my friend’s bakery, recipes are adjusted on a daily basis, and that includes the oven temperatures at which they bake.
It was an epiphany for me. For the first time, I saw that for a commercial baker, the written recipe is the start of a lifelong association. The baker and the recipes evolve together.
I hope you think of the recipes here as beginnings, not ends. Change them. Make them yours. If you’re a meticulous person, then write down what you do. Try paying attention to dough temperature, recognizing that you are the gardener, the nurturer, of this living dough. There may not be flowers, but there are lots of complex fruits of the fermentation process — and many of the best fruits, the best flavors, are developed at low temperatures, even in the refrigerator. Experiment. You will be rewarded.
And now, three recipes to start your hands-on education and evolution as a bread baker.
William Rubel has been making bread since he was 11 years old. His first book on the subject, Bread, will be published by Reaktion Books in late 2011.
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