This post has been several months in the making – I wanted to make sure I had as many photos as possible (although I gave up when it came to taking “kneading” photos – just too hard to do right!) and I wanted to make sure I thought of everything I could when it came to basic breadmaking. I use this recipe all the time, and it’s really really easy to change up.
Now, I know that the ravioli recipe scared everyone… But I’ve only ever made ravioli three times in two years (I helped my grandmother when I was a kid – and she used to make them all the time by herself). Bread, however, I make at least once a month. Sometimes as much as a couple of times a week.
Plenty of people get breadmakers for their weddings or for Christmases, but baking bread doesn’t require any special appliances. Just a bowl! My grandmother used to make bread all the time too, and her basic recipe was from Better Homes and Gardens’ red checked cookbook, believe it or not. I still use the same one, with a couple of improvements:
- 1 tbsp active dry yeast (I buy it in bulk, because it’s a LOT cheaper, but you can also buy the small envelopes, in which case use 2 envelopes)
- 2 1/2 cups warm water (NOT hot – I can’t stress this enough – if you use hot water you’ll kill the yeast… err on the side of too cool. You want it to feel like warm bathwater, like you’d bathe a baby in)
- 2 tsp granulated sugar (I like using brown sugar or even honey when I make whole wheat bread)
- 5-7 cups flour
- 2 tsp salt
Here’s what you do: add the sugar and yeast to a bowl with warm water. Stir to combine (I usually add the sugar and yeast first, since they float on top of the water if you add them second).
Put in a warm place for 10 minutes (inside an oven that is not turned on, or on top of the stove, or in front of a warm window, or… my grandma’s favorite place was the floor in the kitchen right next to the radiator vent… but then, her kitchen floor was spotless and she didn’t have any pets to stick their faces in it!). I put my yeast and water on the stove – we have pilot lights that keep it nice and warm without being too hot. Don’t skip this step, even though it’s not in a lot of the recipes. It allows the yeast to get nice and warm and happy, and makes certain that you get as beautiful and fluffy a loaf of bread as possible. I’d even go so far as to say that I’d rather you do this step than let the bread rest and rise after adding the flour. It’s that important.
When the top of the bowl is foamy, you can start adding the flour. Add about 3 cups to start, with the salt, and mix in. You can use a spoon, your stand mixer’s dough attachment, or your hands (guess which one I prefer?). Gradually add flour, mixing it in, until the dough is ready.
What is ready, you ask? The short answer, the one all the recipes tell you, is until the dough is “smooth and elastic”. But it’s tough to know what that textural reference means unless you’ve made dough a couple dozen times. The best way for someone who has never made bread before to know whether they’ve added sufficient flour is to keep adding until the dough sticks together in a nice ball. When you touch it, it shouldn’t stick (too much!) to your fingers. But if it looks really floury and crumbly, you’ve added too much (fortunately, you can just add a little water, a teaspoon or so at a time, until you’ve fixed it).
The recipe says 5-7 cups of flour because temperature, pressure, and humidity, as well as the texture and age of the flour itself, can all have an effect on how much flour is necessary. Most commercial bakeries mix their bread in temperature- and humidity-controlled environments (typically warm and humid), so their recipes always work. At home, though, the amount of flour needed for a basic bread dough always varies. Like the temperature of the water, I’d err on the side of too little flour rather than too much.
When you’ve got your flour worked in, you can go ahead and knead the dough a couple of times. Kneading, at it’s most basic, involves pushing the dough down and away from you, folding it over, and pushing it again. We knead bread dough to get the gluten (a wheat protein) inside the flour to activate. Gluten is the building block that forms the “web” of little crevices in a good bread. Obviously bread can be made with a a gluten-free flour – and you should be able to skip this step if you use one. Just know that your bread won’t have the same texture if you use a flour that doesn’t contain gluten. (Sorry, no photos of this step – too hard to take them with my hands in the dough!)
Another quick word on flour: you can use expensive high-gluten bread flour if you want. But there’s really no need to, since this recipe works perfectly with all-purpose flour (wheat or white, although if you use all wheat flour your bread will be a little heavier – it’s a texture thing). You can also use a mixture of flours – I like 2/3 white and 1/3 wheat (I think it gives the best “wheaty” taste with the best soft texture), but have made bread with wheat flour only and it works just fine. I have also done a lot of experimenting and, for a nuttier texture, you can add all sorts of other flours (barley, soy, spelt, whatever you see in the health food store). I would still use a 2:1 or even a 3:1 ratio of “regular” flour to non-white-wheat flour, though, if you’re adding non-white-wheat flour just for taste and texture.
Once you knead your bread for a couple of minutes, cover the bowl with a clean dishcloth and put it back in the warm place. Set a timer for an hour and leave it alone. When you come back, the bread dough will be puffy and yeasty-smelling*. Uncover and knead again, cover and leave for 30-45 minutes.
Come back and shape the dough (into loaves or rolls or…?) on a sheet pan or in loaf or cake pans and let it rise again for 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 450. It’s very important to have a hot oven, as it allows the bread to rise quickly and gets a good crust!
After the last rise, carefully put the bread into the hot oven. If you jostle the pan(s), it will cause the bread to fall. This is okay, but we want to minimize it. Set your timer for 20 minutes if you’re making two loaves from this recipe. If you’re making smaller loaves, or rolls, you’ll want to check them after 10-12 minutes (they should take about 15 minutes to cook). Different shapes and sizes of bread take different cooking times, but in general a loaf will be done in 20-25 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when it’s golden in color and sounds hollow if you knock on the crust.
Remove the bread from the oven, cool and serve (I like mine hot from the oven but it does benefit from cooling at least 10 minutes).
See? Easy peasy!
But you can always switch it up… Try:
- Putting an oven-safe bowl full of water on the bottom rack (or the bottom) of the oven. I don’t understand the science of it, but it makes the crust more crispy!
- Rolling, stretching, or pulling the dough flat and making a pizza (yup, this is a pretty consistent weeknight meal for us)
- Cutting the dough into small portions (think smaller than your fist) and making shaped rolls or even hamburger buns
- Cutting the dough into small portions, rolling and stretching them flat, and cooking them on a griddle or your pizza stone (they won’t get pockets like pitas but this recipe makes excellent flatbread to munch on with hummus!)
- Adding an egg or two to the water after the yeast has proofed (this makes your finished bread more feathery and light, and adds some color and richness. I like to add a little milk and butter with my egg to make a really rich hamburger bun, similar to, but not as salty/sugary as, the one found on Smitten Kitchen)
- Using scalded and cooled milk with a touch of butter in place of some or all of the water
- Adding butter or oil to the dough
- Adding cinnamon or other spices, or seeds, or fresh or dried herbs, to the dough (I wouldn’t reccommend sprinkling the top with herbs, though, as they’ll only burn)
- Adding fruits or vegetables to the dough with the flour (just try to get them as dry as possible, since any additional moisture will create a sticky pocket)
- Adding roasted garlic, or garlic sauteed in butter, or dehydrated onions, to the dough with the flour
- Rolling or stretching the dough flat (1/2 inch or so) and spreading a filling such as cinnamon and sugar over it before rolling it and either baking it as one large roll or cutting the dough in sections and baking as cinnamon rolls
- Rolling or stretching and then cutting the dough into small flat pieces and frying them in hot oil until they puff up (in my family, this is known as pasta fritta – although when we visited the town where my grandfather grew up we were served gniocco fritto, and it was exactly the same – and we either eat it with cheese and sausage or lunchmeat, or with jam, nutella, or sugar)
- Adding several tablespoons of oil to the bread or cake pan and to the top of the bread before you bake it – you will, in essence, fry the bread on the outside while baking it on the inside, and it’s super-yummy. I often employ this technique when I make foccacia – I’ll use a slightly sticky dough and a pan that is wider than it is tall and I’ll use my fingers to make indentations in the top of the bread, and then pour oil on the top for a nice crust.
- Dividing the dough into several portions, flattening them out, and filling them with cheese, cinnamon and sugar, or jam, rolling them up and placing them close together in a shallow pan to bake like cinnamon rolls.
- Making pockets with the bread – just flatten it out and fill it with meats or cheeses, pizza or spaghetti sauce, chicken, vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, fruits, or just about anything else you’d consider eating with bread, and then fold it over (like a ravioli!). Use a little water and a fork to close the sides well and poke a small hole in the top to let the steam out. If you’re using anything on the inside that must be cooked before eating (ie: raw chicken), I’d cook it at least halfway before filling. Then bake on a cookie sheet (yum – calzones!).
The nice thing about having a basic bread recipe under your belt is that if you ever need something to serve with, say, that beautiful fresh salad, you’ve got it. Want a fresh pizza? You’ll never buy prepared crust again. Want cinnamon rolls for Christmas? No sweat! The technique is the same, no matter what you’ve mixed in, how you’ve cooked your bread, or what you’re using as a filling (although filled and mixed-in breads can take longer to bake). Your bread won’t last as long as store-bought loaves (no preservatives) and won’t be quite as light and airy (homemade bread usually has a closer crumb and is denser than store-bought) but your bread will taste exactly how you want it, and you’ll know exactly what’s gone into it.
And it takes a little time, but you can have a small quick loaf to the table in under 45 minutes (keep it sticky, add a little extra yeast if you can, let the yeast proof before you add the flour, but put the loaf directly into a hot oven for about 20 minutes after you mix it – you won’t get nearly the texture you would if you let it rise for hours and kneaded it to death, but it’s still awfully nice on a Sunday morning!). You can also freeze and refrigerate the dough (although you definitely want to let it come to room temperature before you use it, or it won’t cook all the way through, and sometimes it can take hours!).
I know you’re probably sick of hearing tips, but I have two more. First, if you want your bread to rise as high as it possibly can, slash it through – just before you put it in the oven – with a cerrated knife (in an “x” pattern, or in diagonal slashes, or in whatever other design you prefer. This lets the bread rise as much as it possibly can (not to mention making a pretty top crust!).
My second tip is to get a pizza stone. I know it’s an additional expense, but the crispness you get from a pizza stone is unmatched. I usually put my bread (or pizza) on a cookie sheet in the oven for about 5 minutes (so that it sets up) and then place it directly on the stone (I find that this gives me the best combination of fluffy texture and crispy crust – sometimes when I take a risen dough out of the bowl and put it directly on the stone, it falls quite a bit before rising again because it’s been jostled too much) to cook the rest of the way. Your pizza stone should just be wiped down after each use with a damp towel; it looks sort of disgusting after you bake umpteen pizzas on it, but it’s perfectly clean and extremely useful!
*What if my bread isn’t fluffy and yeasty smelling? Most of the time, if your bread doesn’t puff up, you’ve used water that is too hot. The best advice I can give if your bread hasn’t puffed up and doesn’t smell sort of like beer and fresh baked goods is to make a slurry of yeast and water. 1 envelope of yeast to about a 1/4 cup lukewarm water (not cold, but not any warmer than room temperature). Let it sit for a few minutes to activate the yeast. Then gently knead it into the bread, trying to ensure that you have a consistent texture throughout (I once did this and ended up with threads and pockets of yeast going through my dough… not tasty). Let it rise for another hour before using. And don’t stress out. It happens to even those of us who have made hundreds of loaves.