– By Andreas Mergner, The Bread Butler –
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter,the greatest of feasts.”
— JAMES BEARD —
American Chef, Author, Teacher & TV Personality
With so many of us cooped up in our homes, bread baking has become increasingly popular – a go-to activity to dispel the winter doldrums. And no wonder.
What can beat the aroma of a loaf baking in the oven, or the memory of that last morsel luxuriating on our taste buds? More than that, baking bread is comforting and reassuring, an old friend who assures us that everything will be all right. After all, if chicken soup is for the soul, then homemade bread must be for the heart.
Flour, water, salt, and yeast. Four simple ingredients that make something so delicious Yet, these ingredients aren’t as simple as they sound. They have a hidden complexity, which is why baking bread is considered by many to be an art form. There are many factors involved to get a perfect loaf: kneading technique, timing, temperature, ingredient ratios, process, and equipment. Then, take into consideration adding additional ingredients, such as a different type of flour, spices, or enrichments (butter, oil, eggs, sugar) and it’s easy to get overwhelmed quickly.
How to Bake Bread
You can read a half-dozen technical books to understand the underlying theory, but even then, your bread might not come out that great. If you want to become skilled at bread baking, experiment with a simple, basic recipe and keep a log of what you’ve done each time. However, it’s important to get good at one recipe before changing it significantly, otherwise, you won’t know if the change in quality is due to the change in the type of bread or your technique/ process.
First, gather your equipment. I recommend an electronic scale that weighs in grams, which you can find online for under $15. Weighing ensures consistency as measuring by volume doesn’t account for variations in flour density. Using grams vs. ounces/pounds give better accuracy. Next, you will need a Dutch oven, which results in a commercial quality result that will make a big difference. You’ll also want a large mixing bowl and good oven mitts to safely handle a very hot Dutch oven safely.
Next up are the above-mentioned ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. You can very successfully use all-purpose flour (I do!) and the water and salt are straightforward. As for yeast, I have had some challenges with store-bought yeast where it just doesn’t make the bread rise. Therefore, you may want to invest in some Lesaffre SAF-Instant Red yeast, which has never failed me. You can purchase it online for $7.50 per pound, or feel free to go with whatever you wish….as long as it rises!
Now for the recipe…500g all-purpose flour, 325g water, 1g salt, 1g yeast. This is a starting point. You can adjust all of these AFTER you try this recipe at least once and make notes. Eventually, you’ll get an idea of how the dough should feel at different stages which makes it easy to succeed. Then, once you are comfortable with the standard recipe, you can experiment with other ingredients, use different flours, and play with different amounts of water later.
Technique is important, and bakers use many variations, but here’s how I would suggest starting: Put room temperature water in a small bowl, add the salt and yeast, then add flour and mix with your hand. It’s going to stick to your hand, but don’t panic. Keep squeezing the mixture through your fingers to make sure all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. After about 2 minutes, the dough will be in a sticky, “shaggy” state and won’t look like a smooth dough. Next, cover the dough with a lid or a towel and wait 15 minutes.
When the time is up, keep the dough in the bowl and reach below the dough and grab a piece of it to stretch over to the top of the dough ball. This is called “stretch and fold.” Do it at a medium speed, not slow. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees and repeat. Do this 4-10 times until the dough feels a bit tighter than when you began. This should take only about 10- 30 seconds to complete. You might want to google an online video to see exactly how it’s done. Wait another 15 minutes. Repeat the stretch and fold 3-4 times and you will see and feel how the dough changes. It should end up soft, smooth, and elastic.
After it reaches this point, you want to let the covered dough rise for anywhere between one to four hours so that it can “proof”. How long the dough should be proofed depends on your yeast, the temperature the dough is kept at, how wet the dough is, plus a few other factors. How will you know when it’s ready? Experience! It’s really a compromise. Much too little rise and the bread will be dense and inedible. Slightly under-proofed and the bread will expand in the oven impressively making a pretty loaf especially if you score (I’ll explain scoring below) it. Slightly over-proofed and the bread won’t expand much in the oven, but the bread will be light and fluffy. Very over-proofed and the bread will collapse in the oven making a flat, ugly loaf, but will be fine to eat. You want the dough to approximately double in size during proofing.
After the dough has risen 1.5 times, gently remove it from the bowl and lightly shape it into a ball with the same stretch and fold technique you learned before. Don’t be too rough with it, but also note that quicker movements tend to work better than very slow ones. You will then let it rise while the oven preheats.
Preheat your oven to 475 degrees F with the cast-iron Dutch oven (and lid) inside. You want it very hot when you put the dough inside it. Once the dough has risen a bit, carefully place the dough in the Dutch oven and put the lid on. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, and then take the lid off and bake 10-20 minutes more until it gets as brown as you like.
As you can see, there are many steps and variations to the process. The creative part comes in how you decide to implement it. Try a new technique or recipe to see how the bread changes!
Click here to try an Almost No-Knead Bread Recipe.
The Bread Butler currently bakes and delivers bread around the Capital Region on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. For contactless delivery, the bread bag will be hung on a front doorknob. Visit breadbutler.com for more information or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.