Baking Better Bread
The smell of baking bread; to me there are few things better than the smell of fresh bread right of the oven. I love baking bread. I have a bread machine for making it during the week, but, when I have the time, I love getting my hands in warm dough, and kneading for all I am worth. The sights of those golden-brown loaves fresh out of the oven fill me with a great sense of accomplishment. It may not be curing cancer, but it is going to fill my family’s bellies and then we all feel good :-).
When it comes to my secrets for baking bread, I have to admit that bread recipes are one of the few types of recipes that I don’t often alter. If I find one that works, I stick with it. I may make a few adjustments, switch out a flour, or add additional nuts, raisins, etc., but I stay pretty close to the original recipe. But there are a few things you can do to make better bread at home whether you are doing it by hand or by machine.
Yeast breads can be found in every culture in one form or another. And most bread recipes can be made with a small number of ingredients: typically, yeast, wheat or grain flour, liquid, and salt make up your basic yeast bread. Other ingredients are then added to add structure and flavor. As with any recipe, when baking bread it is important to use the best and freshest ingredients available to you. But your choices in the ingredients can make a difference in the finished product.
Firstly, when it comes to your flour, for the best results weigh your flour. Don’t just rely on a measuring cup. Depending on the humidity, temperature, and age of the flour, the amount of flour required could be off by a cup or two. Flour, when packaged, has about a 14% moisture content. When stored, the moisture levels will vary. In general, the longer flour is stored the less moisture it contains, which is why on a dry day using old flour your pastry will require more water than on a wet day using new flour. Because of this difference, it is also best to start with a smaller amount of flour than the recipe calls for adding more until a smooth dough is formed.
Wheat flour is most commonly used in breads because of the higher content of gluten forming protein. The higher the gluten content, the more volume the bread will have. Also, as a general rule of thumb, the more protein the more liquid needed to form the dough.
The most commonly used flours for bread baking include:
- All-Purpose Flour—has a 10-12% protein content. A blend of hard and soft wheat flours, is suitable for yeast breads, quick breads and most cakes.
- Bread Flour—has a 12-14% protein content and is made from hard wheat flour. The higher gluten content results in bread with good volume. Because of the higher protein content, dough made with bread flour will require longer kneading times to fully develop the gluten.
- Whole Wheat Flour—has a 15-16% protein content. Whole wheat flour contains the entire wheat kernel, adding a “nutty” flavor to breads. Many recipes add some all-purpose flour to lighten the dough and yield a larger volume.
- Rye Flour—limited in gluten, is usually combined with all-purpose, whole wheat or bread flours to improve volume and texture.
Yeast is the most common leavener for bread and makes the dough rise. From the packets you buy in the store to yeast cakes, basically, it will all do the job. Most bakers I know have a preference, but use what you are comfortable with. I bake bread at least once a week, sometimes more. I still buy the 1/4-ounce packets of yeast at the market.
Why? I am always a bit paranoid that my yeast will go bad. I feel much better about throwing away a couple of packets than a whole jar—which I have done before, oh the guilt!
Regardless of what kind of yeast you use, it needs to proof. Proofing makes sure the yeast is still active before adding it to other ingredients. Put a little warm water (a couple of tablespoons a bit warmer than body temperature but not boiling), a bit of sugar (1 tablespoon), and the yeast in a small bowl, and stir. Let it sit for 5 to 6 minutes.
How will you know it is working? You will see some bubbles or small amount of foam form on the surface. Once it does that throw it into the other ingredients and start mixing. If it doesn’t activate, the water may have been to hot or the yeast was old. If you suspect the yeast, it is best to get a new batch.
A final word about yeast, salt is a natural yeast inhibitor. I was taught to always add my salt in last, and separately from the yeast. I mix my ingredients after adding all the liquid and yeast, then add my salt just before I am ready to turn the dough out and knead.
The liquid added to bread dough help create the texture. Adding water will create a fairly dense crumb. Adding milk will give bread a rich and tender crumb with a softer crust.
Liquid is also used as a wash before baking:
- Water Wash—helps the steaming process and makes a crunchier crust.
- Whole Egg Wash—gives the loaves a shiny bronzed surface.
- Egg White Wash—gives a shiny surface without effecting color
- Egg Yolk Wash—makes a very golden crust
- Milk Wash—gives a bronzed crust without the shine of egg wash, but it will be softer
- Butter—creates a softer, richer flavored crust.
A Special Word for High Altitude
Basic bread recipes are usually still reliable at higher altitude, but there are a couple of things to note. At high altitude, bread rises in about 1/3 the time of lower altitudes. Faster rising means the bread doesn’t have time to fully develop its flavor. If you are living at high altitude consider these tips for better bread:
- Punch down the dough twice—the additional rising time will help the bread develop better flavor.
- Don’t skip the salt—salt is a natural yeast retardant, so leave the salt in the recipe to help slow the rising process.
- Add more liquid—high altitude usually translates to drier climate. Drier climate leads to drier bread, especially with whole wheat and “dark” flours. It doesn’t take much, 2-4 tablespoons additional liquid may be enough.
- Decrease the flour—only add as much enough flour to make it easy to handle, it could be up to 1/4 less flour.
- Use active dry yeast—avoid rapid rise or bread machine yeast. And reduce the amount of sugar added to feed the yeast. Less sugar will help the yeast activate slower. If your bread caves in on itself try reducing the yeast by 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon.
Tips for Better Bread by Hand
- Store flour in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. For long-term storage, in refrigerator or freezer.
- Allow bread to rise in a warm, draft-free place. In dry environments, it is a good idea to dampen a towel to cover the dough.
- Don’t skip on the kneading. Under-kneaded dough will be heavy and dull.
- Allow the dough enough time to rise. Bread given enough time to rise will be light and fluffy.
- Make sure to cook the loaves thoroughly. Under cooking will create a doughy, gluey mess. Hard, crusty bread is baked until the center of the loaf registers 200 to 210 F. Soft bread, such as dinner rolls and sandwich bread, is baked until the center of the loaf registers 185 to 190 F.
- Inverting finished bread immediately onto cooking racks help prevent a soggy loaf.
- Allow bread to cool completely before slicing.
Tips for Better Bread by Machine
- Read the manual. Seriously. Knowing how your bread machine works is vital to getting a good end product. Every bread maker is a little different. Don’t assume that your new machine is like the old one, even when it is the same manufacturer.
- Use good quality flour that has at least 12 grams of protein per cup to help ensure the bread has good structure and volume. Many of the same recipes used to make bread by hand can be used in a bread machine. Just be sure to use a flour with a high protein content.
- Don’t be afraid to open your machine to look at and poke the dough as it kneads. Check the dough during the first 5 – 10 minutes of the first kneading cycle. Add small amounts of flour or liquid to the dough as needed. Do the same for each kneading cycle. Having enough liquid and flour are critical to a good bread. You will know it has enough when the dough forms a smooth, pliable, dough ball.
- Adding a couple of teaspoons of flour along with the raisins or nuts helps the add-ins integrate more easily into the dough
Honey Wheat Sandwich Bread
1 package rapid rise yeast
1 teaspoon white sugar
1/2 cup warm water
12 fluid ounce evaporated milk
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup melted shortening
1/4 cup honey
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons butter
Dissolve yeast and sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Allow to activate for 5 minutes. In a large mixing bowl, combine milk, 1/4 cup water, shortening, honey, salt and wheat flour. Stir to combine. Mix in yeast mixture and stir to combine. Let rest 15 minutes. Add bread flour, and mix until dough forms a ball. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead dough for 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a buttered bowl, and turn to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free space. Let dough rise for 45 minutes, or until almost doubled.
Punch down, and knead dough on lightly floured surface 3 to 4 minutes. Form into loaves, and place in buttered 9×5 inch bread pans. Butter the tops of the dough and let rise in a warm area until doubled, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until tops are dark golden brown. Cool completely before slicing.
Cinnamon Raisin Bread
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup warm water
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1-1/2 cups raisins
8 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons milk
3/4 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Grease 3 9×5 inch bread pans. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, warm the milk to slightly warmer than body temperature, about 110 F. If milk bubbles, allow to cool slightly.
In a small bowl mix warm water, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and yeast together. Let sit 5 to 6 minutes until yeast is frothy. In large mixing bowl, combine in eggs, sugar, butter or margarine, salt, and raisins. Stir in cooled milk. Gradually, add enough flour to make a stiff dough. Pour out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 3 to 4 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place in a large, buttered mixing bowl, and turn to grease the surface of the dough. Cover with a warm, damp cloth and place in a warm, draft-free area to rise.. Allow to rise until doubled in size.
Punch down dough and roll into a large rectangle 1/2 inch thick. Using a pastry brush, brush surface of dough with 2 tablespoons milk. In a small bowl, combine 3/4 cup sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle mixture on top of the moistened dough. Roll up dough into log. Cut into thirds, and tuck under ends forming a loaf. Place loaves into loaf pans. Brush tops of loaves with melted butter and place in a warm, draft-free area to rise for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until loaves are lightly browned. Remove loaves from pans, and brush with melted butter or margarine. Cool completely before slicing.