I have only been baking bread for a few months, but I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned already. I hope this helps you on your own bread making journey.
- Be fearless. The best thing I can recommend is to just give it a try! Do not be intimidated by ingredients or processes. Bread is made of a varying ratio of a few simple ingredients. Remember, homemade bread will always taste better. Try it, learn from it, and enjoy freshly baked bread in the process! You can totally do this.
- Practice, practice, practice. Just keep making bread, and learn from each try. Really I could stop here. Do it and then do it again.
- Hand knead the dough. This really helps you gain understanding of how the dough relates to the final product. I often find it difficult to use a mixer, as I feel I am missing out on a lot of information. Is the dough too sticky? Add more flour. Too dry? Add a touch of water. You can’t tell if it’s in a mixer.
- Know your ingredients. Basic bread is flour, water, salt, and yeast. Butter, milk, and eggs are popular add-ins, as well as various other items (raisins, cinnamon, vanilla, etc). Know your flour. Unbleached all-purpose flour is best, as bleached versions lose protein (protein = flavor). Unbleached flour contains beta-carotene, which lends itself to the visual appeal of your bread (creamy vs pale white) and contributes to better aroma and flavor. Flours are different, and use what is recommended if you can: cake flour has 6-7 percent gluten (a protein), pastry flour is 7.5-9.5 percent gluten, all-purpose flour is 9.5-11.5 percent gluten, bread flour has 11.5-13.5 percent gluten, and high-gluten flour (often used for bagels) has 13.5-16 percent gluten. Know your yeast. Always use non-expired yeast – if you don’t use it that often, store it in the freezer. Yeast works best between 70°F and 80°F. Instant yeast can be incorporated right away, but it takes longer to bloom (rise, ferment, etc) – this is actually good, as it can improve overall flavor. Active dry yeast takes 5-10 minutes to “activate” (become foamy), but takes less rise time. **hint: for proofing/fermenting/rising, I always put my bread dough in the bathroom (door closed) with a small heater running – it rises every time**
- Consider ingredients by weights vs dry measure. Ingredients measured by weight are much more accurate, and do not vary between bakers. However, I do everything via dry measure and it works just fine. The key to dry measuring is learning how the dough should feel, and adjusting flour/water as necessary. This comes from experience (see number 2 above!) and paying close attention to the dough.
- Be comfortable with your mixing method. Bread machine, mixer, or by hand. Whatever works for you! If you are just learning, I recommend doing it by hand to start with, so that you can learn more. This is what I prefer, but sometimes I use my stand mixer. Do what’s best for your situation.
- Patience is a virtue. Do not rush bread. It takes the time it takes. Lengthy rising times are really good, because it means more flavor. Be wary of yeast breads done quickly – they often use more yeast or have short rising times – both of which compromise the flavor of the bread. Be patient, and let the dough complete its rising. You’ll be thankful when you’re eating that delicious slice.
- Pay attention to the baking time. All ovens are different, so keep a close eye on the baking times. I usually set my timer for 10-15 minutes less than the recommended time, and check frequently from that point on. An instant read thermometer can be helpful. And again practice, practice, practice!
- Store it properly. You did all that work, be sure to store it right! Fresh bread is often best the day it is made. Some freeze well. Crusty breads are best stored in double wrapped plastic wrap (kept frozen or in a cool place). Softer bread is best stored in plastic and again, either frozen or kept in a cool place. It is best to let bread thaw for 2 hours before you need it (no microwave or oven to speed it up!). Never store bread in the refrigerator, and never wrap warm bread – always allow the bread to completely cool first.
- Read about it. Learn what you can, it really helps. There are many references for bread making. I love The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, which has great information, including the science behind bread baking.
- Don’t just read about it – do it! What are you waiting for? I know you knead some bread, too. Just go for it!