Thursday 17 March 2011

Bread for Beginners

I bake all of the bread I serve.  This means daily baking, every morning, at 5:00 a.m.  You’d think all that baking would turn into a chore but it hasn’t yet.  I love the process of making bread and I love the smell of it baking.  I’m certainly fond of the finished product too.

There’s a kind of popular mythology around baking bread at home:  One imagines that it’s a skill learned from a mother or grandmother, in a warm, old-timey kitchen.  Many believe bread baking to be a complicated process, and the production of a good loaf of bread to be an almost mystical skill.  Not so.  I learned bread baking from cookbooks and through a process of trial and error.  Once I mastered it, I realized that it was not nearly as complicated a process as I had been led to believe.

Here is the basic white bread recipe that my trial and error produced.  It works very well for me and most of my other bread recipes have evolved out of the proportions used here.

Melt 1/2 cup of butter—1/4 lb.—and allow it to cool to lukewarm. (You could use vegetable oil instead.  It would yield just as tender a loaf but butter tastes better.)

Combine 2-1/4 cups of lukewarm water and 2 Tbsp. sugar.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved and then sprinkle 4-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast into the water.  Wait about 10 minutes for the yeast to dissolve and rise to the surface of the water.  Add the melted butter, 6-1/2 cups of white flour (bread flour is best, if you can get it), and 2 tsp. salt.  Be sure to add the salt last, on top of the flour, so that the flour will cushion it from the yeast.  Stir the ingredients together until all the flour is absorbed.  The dough should form a ball that pulls all of the sticky bits away from the sides of the bowl.  You may have to do the last of the mixing with your hands.

Most recipes say to flour the board on which you will be kneading your dough but I find that this sometimes causes the dough to absorb too much flour and become heavy.  Turn your dough out onto a clean counter.  It should be stiff enough that it won’t stick to the countertop as you knead it.  Knead the dough, turning it as you work, until it becomes elastic and seems to push back at you.  You’ll see a real change in texture.  It should look satiny and spring back when you poke it lightly with your finger.

Clean out the bowl you mixed the dough in and then oil the inside of the bowl with a light film of vegetable oil.  Place the kneaded dough into the bowl, turning it to coat the outside of the dough completely with the oil.  Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and allow the dough to rise until it’s doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours. 

When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down, knead it a few times and then form it into two loaves.  Place the loaves in oiled bread pans and allow it to rise again.  The
second rising will take less time. 

Commercial bakeries often omit the first rising, putting their bread dough directly into the pans.  I choose to allow my bread to rise twice because it yields a finer crumb and it allows the flavour of the yeast to develop.

When the unbaked loaves look about the size and shape of a baked bread loaf, heat your oven to 375 degrees. Bake the loaves for 25 minutes and then rotate them in the oven to ensure even cooking.  Bake for about another 20 minutes and then check the loaves for done-ness.  They should be nicely browned and, when you tap gently on the bottom of the loaves, they should make a hollow sound. 

If you like your bread crusty, you can stop at this point, allow the bread to cool and then slice and serve it.  If you prefer a more tender crust, brush the loaves with melted butter while they’re still hot.

Not so hard at all, is it?  Go ahead! Try it!  Let me know what you think once you’ve baked your first loaves.

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