On bread-baking

We eat fairly simply in this house: nothing commercially prepared; lots of scratch-made goodies from whole, easily-recognized foods. Since we now live in the boonies I have been doing a lot more breadbaking than I did as a city girl. (I got so sick of storebought nasty chemical-smelling plastic-wrapped bread that I had to find something we could reliably eat every day.) I got a request for the recipe for my bread the other day. I cannot claim it to be “my bread,” except for the fact that I am the one kneading the dough. It certainly is not my recipe. It is well tested, and I have modified it often, but this basic recipe is one with which you can practice and make perfect. It’s a fabulous toast bread, but it’s also great fresh (and it lasts about 2-3 days).

The recipe below makes two loaves. (I consider 2 loaves to be a waste of energy and kitchen mess, so I usually make 6 at a time, or 12. Email me and I will give you the calculus for 6- or 8-loaf batches.) Start to finish the process is about 4 hours. Don’t fret, though, as breadmaking can easily fit into the rhythm of a typical weekend day around your home. You don’t need to be enslaved to the kitchen, watching the dough rise. I usually make mine over my lunch hour when I work from home.

Gather your materials:
First, go find the largest bowl in your house. Buy an empty spray bottle and fill it with distilled or clean spring water. A bowl scraper, a pasta fork and a bench scraper are also good things to have, but not absolutely necessary.

Two things are anathema to these loaves: 1. Oil. 2. Crappy flour.

Search out the best, freshest flour you can find, or grind your own (you know who you are). Hard red winter wheat berries yield the best gluten, in my humble opinion, letting the bread rise to its puffy best. This recipe calls for whole-wheat and white flour, but by white flour I don’t mean that tasteless bleached bagged crap you can buy at the store. I actually don’t use white flour in my loaves. I use sifted whole-wheat, which is whole wheat flour that has had some of its bran taken out in a process wholly mysterious to me.

Now make the sponge:
3 c warm (105-115*) pure nonchlorinated water
1 T bulk dry yeast, or cake yeast equivalent
2 T sweetener (honey, molasses, cane sugar: whatever. What you choose will affect the color of the loaves. It is used as a jump-start for the hungry yeast.)
2 c white unbleached flour
Mix all ingredients together. It will be wet and sloppy. Cover with a damp tea towel; let sit in a warm-ish comfy spot for 45 minutes. It will be bubbly and sloppy but wonderfully stinky at the end of this time.

Make the dough:
1 T salt
1 c rolled oats (regular or quick)
3 c whole-wheat flour
white unbleached flour as required: up to 2 more cups
Add salt and oats to the sponge. Add flour in small batches. I find using a pasta fork works really well in this blending phase: pull it toward you in its large bowl. When the fork no longer works for you, spread some flour on a nice clean counter and then scrape the contents out of the bowl and onto the counter. Add the flour slowly, kneading as you go. Kneading is something of a lost art. If you are unsure how to incorporate the rest of the flour, then please go to some resource to tell you how; like sex, it’s not something that you can really describe and still get the best results, you know? All I can say here is you are trying to turn something sloppy into something satin-y and firm. It can take a while. Once I get the majority of the flour into the dough, it’s usually fairly stiff and angry, so I usually invert the bowl over the top of the dough and let it rest for 5 minutes or so.

During this resting period, I take my floury hands and find two bread pans. I have SMALL bread pans, the same size made from the 1880s to the 1980s; only about 1985 did the damned things get supersized…mine are 4x8x4 or so. I spray them down with some organic non-CFC oil, getting flour all over everything I touch. Turn the bowl over, knead the dough a couple more times and NOTICE how nice and happy the dough feels, then reknead the dough into a ball and place it back inside the bowl. DO NOT OIL THE BOWL; spray the dough and the bowl’s sides with fresh clean water, place the damp tea towel back on top, and put it back in its comfy spot. Let it rise another hour or so until doubled.

Punch the dough down by NOT punching it: just press your fist into it and it will hiss and recede away from you. Place back on the floured counter. Divide dough into two pieces; each should be about 1.75 lbs of dough (get a scale, especially if doing more than 2 loaves; it’s hard to guess by looking at it). Form loaves. There are many methods to this; I press mine into an oblong shape and then fold into thirds, spraying the loaf where it can stick to itself, then roll slightly again, folding it back onto itself, pinching the ends down, and setting gently into the prepared pans.

This next step is fairly important: proofing the dough in the pans. Find a comfy draft-free spot for your loaves to do their final rise. The oven works, except the oven needs to be preheated halfway through this last rise. So what I do is I spray the dough, then place them back onto the floured counter. I add the oats to the top at this point, and I simply want to keep the dough damp enough that it doesn’t dry out, impeding its rise.

Preheat the oven to 395*. (Make sure the bread isn’t in the oven!) Once the loaves are 1″ above the top of the pans, they are ready to go into the oven. Adjust the racks so the loaf pans are in the middle of the height of the oven (in my oven, this means putting the rack at the second lowest slot). Quickly slide the bread into the oven and then SPRAY THE ENTIRE OVEN DOWN with the spraybottle of water. We want a steambath in there. Close the oven quickly and DO NOT OPEN IT until the bread is finished.

Cook for 15 minutes at 395* then reduce to 350*. Bake for up to another half hour or so. You can tell it is done when it looks beautifully golden brown and, if you remove it from the oven, it sounds hollow when you tap it underneath. If it sticks to the pan, it is not finished baking. My loaves in MY oven take 35 minutes after that initial 15.

De-pan the loaves onto a wire rack and let them cool before cutting, though it is so tempting to cut into one before then. Don’t. It needs to finish its cooking process…which technically is a day after it’s cooked. Who can wait that long? I usually wait an hour or two before sacrificing my first loaf…

This is a good sandwich and especially TOAST bread. It freezes very well (which is why I bother making 6 loaves at a time). You can amend it easily by adding cooked multigrain cereal during the salt-and-oats-and-flour blending period. Experiment with sweeteners, and with flour mixtures. Some kinds of flour are hard to work with (rye, spelt) but can make really rewarding, tasty loaves. Go on the internet and look up “wet kneading” for incorporating these different kinds of flour.

The best book I know for whole-grain breadmaking is this one. There are loads of other ones out there, too; some of my favorite authors are Beth Hensperger, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Peter Reinhart and Daniel Leader. They’ve all got their tics, certainly; breadbaking is certainly a passionate enterprise. But I will say breadbaking is a skill that is fun to master, and even better to share. Bon appetit!

11 responses to “On bread-baking

  1. Hi El,
    I came across your blog some time ago and have been lurking for a while…thought when I’d had time to read some of your archives I’d pop in and say ‘Hi’. But this fabulous post has driven me right out in the open 😉 We are ex – South Africans, newly settled in Scotland (deep in the country) and like you, can’t find ‘real’ bread anywhere. My problem has been finding a decent, wholemeal recipe and clear instructions (I haven’t made bread for nearly 20 years). I am so thrilled, I am going to the shops tomorrow(over the hills and far away- to a health food store)and this weekend I’m baking bread!Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. the Contrary Goddess

    I’ll have to try this. Looks fabulous! For a long time I made a really sour sourdough that had nothing but flour, water and salt in it — even sold it at the farmer’s market. Now I’m making a more conventional loaf and letting the bread machine knead. If the wood stove is going, one loaf at a time is fine as frog hair. In the summer, not.

    Anyway, I like kneading on an oiled board so too much flour doesn’t get in there. Although when doing the sourdough, I would just keep kneading without oil or flour (I’d have like 40 pounds of dough in a blanket box kneading it) until it finally decided to get unsticky.

    I was making biscuits last night and ran out of flour and needed some just to do the roll out and had to send daughter out in the rain to grind in a hurry! LOL!

    And unbleached is still yukky. ;D~~~ (I really hate those little things but sometimes stoop to using them anyway)

  3. Mmmm…. smells wonderful. Oh, whoops, I’m not supposed to be able to smell through the computer (but I swear I can!). LOOKS wonderful, that’s for sure. I’m having bread baking fantasies…

  4. Thank you for sharing this one! I can’t wait to try it…have been having trouble finding a good whole wheat one. Doesnt homemade just spoil you? Storebought just never has the same appeal…

    The bread looks delicious!

  5. wow. thanks so much for posting this! i can’t wait to try.

    i have a ton of bread recipe books but none have a ‘how to’ and i always just guessed what to do and therefore never had any decent results.

    your loaves look perfect!

  6. Thanks for the bread primer. I have a fear of bread. I’ve only made it a handful of times and it turns out different every time. And not good different, like building material different. So maybe I’ll follow your clearly written step by step directions.

  7. Crunchy Chicken

    Your bread looks great. If I were feeling better today I’d be working on a few loaves myself.

    And, what is that odd chemical smell on the plastic wrapped bread? I don’t think it’s plastic so much as preservatives or something.

    The problem when I make my own bread is that it’s all I’ll eat until it’s gone!

  8. Everyone: I really didn’t know if I should have posted this. I am not really much a my-way-or-the-highway kind of person (really! just don’t tell my kid) and I thought it sounded preachy. But I do think breadmaking is a fun thing to learn. There have been plenty of flops in my past. Most of it has been edible, though.

    Hi CJ: glad you stopped just lurking (though frankly I don’t think people NEED to comment)! Isn’t it funny how moving to someplace rural urges you to go DIY: I loved making bread before, but it was a move to the country that got me making sushi.

    And CG, you were the LAST person on earth that I’d’a thought would have a bread machine!!! I like the kneading-in-the-blanket box idea. I transplant my seedlings in one, it’s still messy. I’d love to hear your sourdough recipe: do you start with just water and flour for the starter? And I agree unbleached is still nasty.

    GTR: breadbaking is a fantasy that, if you acted on it, everybody would be happy.

    Robbyn, this bread IS really good. There are other breads I make that we eat IMMEDIATELY. This one is really good to just always have on-hand.

    Rooster, it does help to learn how by watching someone, so if you can find a bread class somewhere, you can certainly learn to know if the dough is well-kneaded, etc. But that Laurel’s Kitchen bread book I mentioned has the best instructions on how to do it and diagnose what goes wrong.

    Meredith, honestly, I couldn’t edit the photos to winnow it down, so I kept a lot in there. I hope it helps…

    Crunchy CHicken, I agree, it is hard to induce restraint with fresh bread (fresh baked anything) in the house, so I feel better if it’s all whole wheat, as there’s so much good stuff in there it’s not all the fattening carbs. My love of butter, though, just does me in. That’s why I am glad it is gardening season!

  9. the Contrary Goddess

    CG’s easy bread machine bread:
    (goes to show how much you know about a person from a blog!)

    a spoonful of brown sugar
    a dollop of oil
    2 tsp salt (grains should always be salted at the rate of 1/2 tsp/cup — isn’t that handy to know?)
    14 oz scalded milk (skimmed)
    four cups whole wheat flour (ok, I use flax in there too, all freshly ground)
    4 tsp gluten
    2 tsp yeast

    I put it in the bread machine, in that order, and let it go, on dough stage. I never ever let it bake in there. Ever. Doesn’t work, particularly not with whole grains.

    I can actually get two of them risen at the same time to bake together using the bread machine. It lets me bake many times during the week, and to always always have fresh bread. Otherwise I’d have to freeze more, and sometimes do with non-yeast bread when I don’t want to. We still do lots of pancakes, corn cakes, corn gems, and biscuits. Not to mention rice. Cut oats. Etc. Whole grains are where its at! LOL!

  10. the Contrary Goddess

    oh, and I had a starter with yeast and bacteria in it. A good sour one too. But I kept it going by just taking some of the dough out every week. I lost that starter when the fridge went out (also lost my best ever buttermilk culture then) and haven’t played with sourdough since. If I got another starter, I’d probably go ahead and build the orno. Wouldn’t that be something!

  11. Thank you thank you thank you! I’m a bread novice, and mine still turns out pretty claggy, so I’ll be giving yours a try next time 🙂 Just what I was looking for.

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