Before You Get Started
Equipment: A baker's most important tool is observation. After your first few loaves, you'll begin to "read the bread"―you'll be able to tell how your recipe is developing by the bread's texture and appearance. Aside from that, all you need to make fantastic bread are measuring cups and spoons, a large glass bowl, a wooden spoon, a flat surface on which to knead the bread, an oven, and a wire cooling rack. (Glass bowls and wooden spoons are preferable to metal, which can react with the dough and affect the bread's flavor.)
Ingredients: As with any type of cooking, quality ingredients help produce quality food. But that doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of money. Common-sense steps will help ensure a tasty loaf: Check the expiration date when you purchase yeast; be sure to buy exactly the type of flour called for in a recipe (bread flour, for example), and use bottled water if your local tap water has any unpleasant smells or flavors.
Measuring: Careful measuring of ingredients is essential to making good bread. Don't rely on guesswork. When measuring the flour, be sure to follow our instructions to lightly spoon it into the measuring cup (don't scoop!), and level off the excess using a knife. Be sure to use dry measuring cups for dry ingredients like flour and sugar, and liquid measuring cups for any liquid.
Dissolving the Yeast
In this first step, dry yeast and a little sugar are dissolved (or proofed) in a liquid that is usually warmed to 100 degrees to 110 degrees. First-timers take note: It's always a good idea to use a thermometer until you feel comfortable recognizing the target temperature. You can also test the warmth of the liquid on the inside of your wrist -- it should feel no warmer than a hot shower.
About five minutes after mixing the yeast and sugar with liquid, the moisture and warmth bring the yeast out of the dormant stage and cause it to begin reproducing. As yeast grows, it consumes the sugar and emits carbon dioxide and alcohol, which appear as bubbles on the surface of the dissolved yeast; those bubbles mean the yeast is alive and well, and it is safe to go on to the next stage. If no bubbles are present, then the liquid used to proof the yeast was either too hot and killed it, or it was too cold and inhibited the yeast growth. Another possibility is that the yeast in the package has expired due to time or exposure to differing temperatures. (Store unopened dry yeast in the refrigerator.)
Within this stage there are 2 methods:
1. For simple mixing, often called the straight dough method, the remaining ingredients are added to the dissolved yeast to form a dough.
2. In the sponge method, a small amount of flour (and sometimes sugar) is added to the yeast mixture to create a batter that is allowed to ferment for a period of time. Later, the remaining ingredients are added to the sponge to form a dough. The sponge method is often used to develop interesting flavors or create a lighter texture in otherwise heavy breads (such as whole grain).
Kneading is the process of repeatedly folding the dough onto itself. It is a vital part of making bread because it distributes the yeast evenly throughout the dough, forming long, stretchy strands of protein called gluten. The kneading stage can intimidate a beginner. Remember, don't be scared. All you have to do is follow these directions:
1. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. It is important to use only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. Adding too much flour will prevent the loaf from rising properly and create a dense crumb. If small bits of dough begin sticking to your hands, take a moment to wash and dry your hands. Clean, dry hands help prevent the dough from sticking and tearing as you knead.
2. Using the heels of your hands, push the dough away from you.
3. Lift the edge farthest away from you and fold it toward you.
4. Give the dough a quarter turn.
5. Repeat Steps 2 through 4 until the dough feels smooth and elastic; this usually takes 8 minutes. (Using a timer is a good way to ensure adequate kneading.)
Some recipes call for adding ingredients, such as dried fruit, at the end of the kneading stage. In that case, gently press the dough until it is about 1 inch thick, sprinkle the chosen ingredient over the surface, then fold the dough in half. Knead as you did before until the ingredients are evenly distributed (about 1 to 2 minutes).
Be patient with yourself as you learn to knead. Before long you will find yourself falling into a pleasantly rhythmic motion -- and what might have once seemed a chore becomes a soothing exercise.