Don't be scared. That seems to be the right place to begin. It never ceases to amaze me the number of cooks I know, advanced and amateur, who blanch at the thought of baking bread. They shake their heads, they wave their hands, they back away slowly, murmuring, "No, no, not good with bread." My reply is that absolutely anyone can make top-quality homemade bread. Really―anyone. All it takes is a little patience and instruction.
When you learned how to ride a bike, you started with training wheels. Think of learning to bake bread in the same way. The first recipe in this story―Rustic White Bread―is a crunchy white free-form bread. It will act as your training wheels by taking you through the entire bread making process, step by step. When you have become familiar with the basics, the training wheels can come off, and you can move on to the next recipe.
Each subsequent recipe builds on the skills taught in those preceding. You'll learn how to shape knot rolls and make fanciful curved breadsticks. Flavor combinations will advance as well. Pretty soon, you'll be wheeling from a white loaf to tangy tomato bread, or cheese-stuffed focaccia infused with roasted garlic, or a tantalizing grand finale bread with stout beer, bittersweet chocolate, and tart cherries.
As you progress through the recipes, you'll come to appreciate how baking with yeast is different from any other form of cooking. Bread is literally alive. The process is miraculous; dry yeast, made of living, single-cell organisms in a state of suspended animation, is brought back to life with moisture and warmth. Then you feed the yeast flour, help the resulting dough grow by kneading it and keeping it warm, mold it into the shape you desire, and bake it. It is more than cooking―it is an act of creation. It's also fun with a delicious outcome.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and ride. And don't be scared.
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.
During the rising stage, the yeast continues to grow and emit carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide becomes trapped by the gluten strands and pushes up on them like hot air in a balloon; this is what causes the bread to rise. Much of a bread's flavors are developed during its rising stages. Most recipes have 2 rising stages, while some have 3 or more.
For the first rising, the dough is placed in a bowl coated with cooking spray and turned so that all sides of the dough are coated. Then the bowl is covered (plastic wrap or a clean towel works well). These are precautions against the dough drying out as it rises. If the surface of the dough dries, the dough won't stretch and therefore can't rise.
The best environment for rising is a humid, draft-free area that's about 85 degrees. An easy way to create this environment is to place the dough in a cool, closed oven alongside a 1- to 2-cup glass measure filled with boiling water.
The dough needs to rise until doubled in size. Depending on the dough and the environment, this can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours. To check for effective rising, gently press 2 fingers about an inch into the dough. If the dough springs back immediately, it has not risen enough; if the indentations remain (as in the photo at left), the dough is ready. If the dough begins to collapse, though, it has risen too much. In that case, punch the dough down, shape it into a ball, and repeat the first rising stage.
Be patient―you can encourage bread to rise by controlling its environment, but don't rush it. Dough that hasn't risen enough results in dense, overly chewy bread.
Punch down the dough between rising stages by pressing into the center with a closed fist. This action releases excess carbon dioxide and redistributes the yeast for its next stage of growth.
After a 5-minute rest that makes the dough easier to handle, it's formed into the desired shape (loaf, rolls, etc.) in preparation for the final rise.
For the final rising stage, the shaped dough is placed on a baking sheet or in a pan. The dough should be lightly coated with cooking spray and covered, just as it was for its first rising. The rising procedure and method of checking for doneness remain the same as in the first rise.
Some recipes call for slashing or cutting into the dough. Originally done to identify the type of bread, slashing is still done for cosmetic reasons, and to allow the bread to expand as it bakes without tearing or cracking. Be sure to use a very sharp knife or sharp scissors to slash the dough.
An egg wash (a mixture of egg white and water) is sometimes brushed on the dough before it's baked to create a glossy, crusty surface.
Remember to preheat your oven. In the early minutes of baking, the yeast goes through a final growth spurt called oven-spring (in a well-lit oven, you can actually see the surface of the dough move) before it begins to die. The trapped carbon dioxide that was holding up the gluten strands evaporates just as the heat causes the gluten to harden in place. This series of events determines the bread's final shape and size―and all depends on an accurate oven temperature.
Completely baked bread will have a beautiful golden-brown color and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. If you are baking bread in a loaf pan, cover both hands with oven mitts and remove the loaf from the pan to tap the bottom. You should always begin checking your bread 10 minutes before the end of the recommended baking time, in case your oven tends to run hot.
Cool freshly baked bread on a wire rack (which prevents steam from softening the crust) for at least 10 minutes before slicing. Cool completely before wrapping. Wrap bread in a clean kitchen towel or several layers of cheesecloth―both of which allow bread to breathe. Store at room temperature (a bread box really is the ideal place). Keeping bread in the refrigerator will cause it to dry out. You can wrap most breads in heavy-duty foil and freeze them for up to 1 to 2 months.