February 14, 2011
Posted in Back To Basics
Let me start this off by saying I am totally not a bread expert. Well, maybe when it comes to eating bread. But when it comes to making it I've just got the little bits I've learned over the past 4 years making bread for my family and researching how to get what I want in a loaf. I'm sure there are plenty of other tips and tricks, so shout them out in the comments if you've got 'em!
This post is going to focus on yeast bread, since biscuits and quick breads are a different breed that I'll get to later. I'm not going to include a certain recipe, just the basic tips I've learned on how to get a good loaf.
Proof First - The first thing I learned about making bread was to proof my yeast first. I used to follow the recipes and add the yeast in with the dry ingredients and I had a few disasters of no-rise dough. Now I ALWAYS proof first, no matter what the recipe says. Proofing it first allows you to make sure your yeast is alive and well, and that your water is not too hot or cold. And if you wind up having bad yeast, at least you've just wasted the water a bit of yeast rather than a whole batch of dough.
To proof your yeast mix it with the warm liquid called for in the recipe. Add a bit of sugar (about a teaspoon or so) or a bit of flour to give the yeast something to eat. Let it sit for a few minutes to become bubbly and happy. If it doesn't bubble, something is wrong and you should toss it out. Your yeast might be dead, or the water temperature wasn't right.
Hold the Salt - Salt kills yeast. (Another reason I didn't understand mixing the yeast with all the dry ingredients.) Keeping the salt away from the yeast as long as possible while it's feeding will give you a better chance at a good rise. I usually just mix my dry ingredients and then add my yeast mixture. But if you're still having problems I have read that you can hold the salt until after the first rise. Then knead it into the dough when you are shaping your loaf.
No Chlorine - Chlorine can also kill yeast, so if you are using tap water and consistently have bread fails, that might be why. My luck with our tap water has been just fine - we must not have a ton of chlorine in our water. But if you're running into problems try filtering the water first.
Oven proofing - Trying to find a "warm, draft free" place to put the dough to rise can be difficult anytime other than summer. During the winter I will put the dough on the hearth, next to the fire. Or you can try the oven trick. Turn the oven on for a few minutes (3-5 or so), then turn it off again. Place the dough in your oven to rise. The insulated box will keep it nicely warm for a good long time. You can probably get both the first and second rise with just one warm up, depending on the insulation your oven provides.
Crunchy Crust - Allison asked how to get a crunchy crust on bread. I've only done this once, as I usually prefer a softer crust on my bread. But for french bread it's perfect. You need a method of creating steam in your oven/on your bread. There are a few ways of doing this. I've put a baking dish into the oven, on the rack below my bread rack, and allow it to heat up with the oven. Then when you put the bread in, toss a handful of ice cubes into the dish before you close the oven. They'll melt and provide a good amount of steam. Or, you can spritz the bread with water every 15 minutes while cooking. You can also just put a bit of hot water into the aforementioned baking dish before you heat the oven, rather than tossing in ice. Try to avoid brushing the loaves with water, as this can make them too soggy and you won't get much of a crust at all.
The steam allows the outside of the bread to stay moist for a longer period of time. This will not only allow for a larger loaf because it can expand farther than if the crust had already set, but you get a thinner, crispier crust. The actual crisp itself comes from the caramelization of the sugars and proteins in the dough, so try letting it go a bit longer and darkening up a bit more, in addition to the steam, if you're trying for a super crisp crust.
Too Wet Dough - I've made a few recipes where I put in the full amount of flour called for and the dough is still very wet (and it's not supposed to be). I've also made the mistake of dumping in another half cup to "fix" it and wound up with overly dry, too dense dough.
For most recipes, you want to get to the stage where the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and forms a ball (whether in a stand mixer, or by hand in a bowl). If you're at the same point - that you think the dough is too wet - you can try two things. Add the extra flour now, just a tablespoon at a time and making sure to stir it in completely before adding another tablespoon. It doesn't take much to get that ball stage. Or if you're going to turn it out and give it a good kneading, the flour you spread on the table should be more than enough to soak up the extra moisture. When in doubt, err on the side of slightly wet so you don't end up with the dense, overly dry loaves that I have.
Homemade bread is really the best thing since... well. You know. I bought a loaf of store bought the other day because I hadn't had a chance to make bread for the week. I then made my usual batch later, and Ben told me he loved my bread, especially after "having to eat" store bought.
I hope this helps y'all on the road to wonderful homemade bread!