So, You Want to Bake Bread

crusty bread with holes

There are a couple of things to know if you’ve decided to start making bread, and as someone who has been baking at home for a long time, here are a few of my idiosyncratic opinions and insights about it.

What do you need to make bread?

Here is a list of things you need to make pretty, tasty bread without pain and suffering:

  • Flour, water,  salt, yeast and maybe some other common grocery staples.
  • Measuring cups and spoons.
  • A bowl big enough to hold a bunch of dough. At least 4 quarts is good–you want room for 6 cups of dough and your hands, and then you also want room for rising. 
  • An oven. 
  • A kitchen timer or clock.
  • Some bread pans (if you want loaf bread). If you want rustic bread, a dutch oven is nice but not required. If you don’t have either, though, you can always bake free-form loaves on a cookie sheet or even in a foil pan.

Here are some things you might enjoy but don’t need. I rarely use any of them.

  • A bread machine, a food processor, or a mixer with a dough hook
  • A scale
  • An instant-read thermometer
  • Instant yeast
  • A razor blade tool called a lame for slicing the bread tops

There is no doubt that some people greatly enjoy the chemistry angle on baking, and that you can make your results more reliable by weighing everything to the gram and paying close attention to hydration and temperature and close timing. But you don’t need those things to make very good bread, and if you develop a knack for baking, you’ll eventually develop a sense of the look and feel of dough that’s a bit too wet or dry and what it needs.

Only you know whether you feel more comfortable being a kitchen scientist or a handy kitchen crone with bread magicks in your fingers, but even if you don’t end up being either your bread will be FINE. Provided you don’t kill your yeast (about which more later), your bread mistakes will almost certainly be more than edible, and indeed tastier than store bread.

Choosing a Recipe

Kneaded Versus No-Knead

Many people handwavily assume no-knead must be quick and low-effort, and kneaded bread is a slog. This isn’t really accurate. They require different timing and different kinds of work.

When considering kneaded bread, people tend to overestimate the labor of the kneading process. Kneading does take a little time–but the time is not HOURS. It’s around 7-10 minutes. Also, it’s fun to smack the dough around and pretend it’s your enemy’s head. You don’t have to be The Rock, either. 

Kneaded bread typically has a two-stage rising process that can be completed in a few hours,  during which you need to be around to stop the rising at the correct time. However, it’s not a life sentence. You can stick your dough in the fridge and get back to it later if you suddenly get invited to a fancy lunch when you were planning to stay home baking. Then bring the dough back to room temperature to shape it or bake it. 

When you make no-knead bread, you are free to leave your mixed dough in the fridge for literally days and days before shaping it, and you don’t ever have to knead it. However, you will still have to wait for a long slow initial rise (four hours to overnight), and you’ll still have to let the dough sit for 40 minutes to an hour after you shape it. 

And don’t underestimate the hassle of dealing with the heavy, wet, sticky doughs required for no-knead. You can fairly quickly develop a knack for handling these doughs, but they can make a big mess while you’re learning, or if you misjudge the hydration of the dough. That guy in the video tenderly stretching the dough and shaping it into a ball in about six seconds without leaving any sticky dough splotches anywhere on the floor or counters has been doing it for a long time.

What’s a Good Beginner’s Recipe?

For starters, you might as well pick a recipe based on whether you think you’ll like the bread. If you crave that crusty rustic bread with a crackling crust, make no-knead (for really crisp crust, you’ll want a dutch oven). If you want a soft sandwich bread or rolls or a nice sweet wheat bread with seeds in it or challah or dinner rolls, you probably want kneaded bread. I would suggest not starting with a recipe that’s heavy with sugar and eggs–these ingredients can delay your rise for a frustratingly long time, and they’ll make your dough heavier and sometimes harder to handle. But mix-ins like seeds or fruit or herbs or roasted garlic will not change your outcomes much, so if they’re exciting, there’s no reason not to try such a recipe as a beginner.

Next, look at the number of rises required by the recipe, as well as any preliminary stages (like making oatmeal, or mixing a sponge), before you commit. Some no-knead recipes want days of creating starters, levains, and other precursor science projects before you mix the main dough, and others want you to hang around doing stretch-and-fold tweaks to the dough several times an hour. This can result in amazing bread but you’re vastly increasing the number of variables between you and success, as well as your time and energy commitment. The very finest crusty breads are based on sourdough, which requires careful timing of phases and a fair amount of lead time [what’s the lead time for?].

This is my idea of a good starter recipe for no-knead bread: King Arthur No-Knead Crusty White Bread. It uses one bowl and has no preliminaries; it is quickly mixed with no further tampering, and it can handle sitting around in the fridge for days on end.

This is my idea of a good kneaded bread to start with: Easy Honey Oatmeal Bread. It has a very short “sponge” phase ( a sponge is a kind of risen batter that you mix and then let bubble before you mix the rest of the ingredients in and knead), but after kneading you just shape the dough and let it rise in the pans. So you can make it after dinner and still get to bed at a decent hour.

A Note on Yeast

Recent recipes tend to ask for instant yeast, which can be combined with dry ingredients rather than added to liquid to moisten. However, this shouldn’t limit your choice of bread recipes. Any instant yeast recipe should be easily translatable to regular yeast. Just add your yeast to the liquids the recipe calls for, stir for a couple of seconds, and let it sit while you gather your dry ingredients. Done. The wet ingredients should be mildly warm but not uncomfortably so. It’s OK to err on the side of coolness; your bread will catch up over time and rise, just a little slower.

Yeast packets contain about 2 and 1/4 teaspoons of yeast, and are a horrible ripoff at typically more than $1.50 a packet. Go to Costco and buy a lifetime supply (OK, not really, but about a pound) for $6–share it with your friends, and store it in a jar in your freezer for a year or more.

Go Forth and Bake

Whatever imperfect breads you bake in your own home oven have a high chance of being delicious. Very few home-baked yeast breads are even unpleasant, so you and your friends and family will likely enjoy eating your mistakes, and, eventually, your triumphs. Excelsior.

 

 

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