Bread is a good thing to have around for all-purpose use, freezes well, and is easy to make. Here are some tips for perfecting your own and learning the ins and outs of bread!
Step 1: Basic Ingredients
Here's my basic bread recipe for 4 loaves in an evening:
10 Cups All-Purpose Flour
2 T Yeast
2 T Sugar
2 tsp Salt
4 Cups warm water
1/4 C oil
Here's how that goes together:
Yeast mixture - yeast, sugar, water.
Flour mixture - Most of the flour, salt.
Once the yeast is moving, pour that into the flour mixture, add oil, stir, knead, rise, cut into loaves, rise, and bake 40mins at 400F. Easy! A little plain, and maybe not to your taste, though, so the following steps are how to customize.
Step 2: Flour
I use all-purpose flour, because then I can use it for all my purposes, of which there are many. It's white flour, no bran. The key to bread is the gluten. Gluten is a flour protein that gives it substance and chewy texture. It also binds it so that it's less crumbly. A lot of the choices in dealing with your flour are aimed at optimizing gluten levels. There is also:
Whole Wheat Flour: This is the whole grain of the wheat, ground. More fiber, less protein, less gluten. Because there's less gluten, there are several ways to compensate. One is to add gluten. Easy peasy. Another, which I haven't yet tried, is to mix up a very wet dough with wheat flour and let it soak overnight in the fridge. Water activates the gluten, so soaking helps to make the best use of what wheat flour has available.
Bread Flour: Has higher protein content, more gluten. It will give you a more chewy bread. I don't use it, because I think my non-bread-flour bread is just fine thank you very much.
When you are putting your dry ingredients in the bowl, you have flour and salt in the basic recipe. This is also a great time to make additions. I usually hold back about 2 Cups of flour for later, and add in about the same amount of the following:
And anything similar that strikes your fancy! Get creative!
Step 3: Yeast
Yeast is the driver of leavened breads. Leavened means essentially that there are air bubbles intentionally added into the dough. It is done in quickbreads and cakes with baking soda or powder, but in most breads, it's yeast. I recommend getting a little jar of dry yeast and keeping it cold in the fridge. It can last a long time.
The first step in breadmaking is proving the yeast. Proving it works and is aliiiiive! You wake up your cold dormant yeast by mixing it into some warm (not hot) water. It helps to toss in a little sugar to feed it. Let it sit for a couple minutes, and it should start bubbling up and creating a little foam. This means it's working.
The little yeastie beasties are eating the sugars in the water and releasing a little bit of alcohol and CO2. That's what it does with sugar, and that's it's whole job in the bread! The alcohol will evaporate to a gas, and the CO2 is already a gas, and they create bubbles in the bread, giving it more volume and all those stretchy little pockets of goodness. This will also make it softer and lighter, and let it absorb delicious things like butter, jam, and spaghetti sauce better.
The yeast does it's think in the rising stage, so you need to give it a warm, wet, cozy environment for yeast. That means like a warm (not hot) temperature, and cover it so that it doesn't dry out. Before the rise, don't mix in too much flour, but leave it a little wet and sticky.
You can do a long rise in the fridge. This will give it time to develop gluten, to get some good yeasty flavor, and may make it more convenient for you, depending on your recipe. Seek thee out the NYT slow bread recipe for a good idea.
Unleavened breads are made without yeast. Think of tortillas, matzo, chapati, etc. They are delicious in their own right, but often serve a different purpose and cook a little differently. I make tortillas every once in a while. For corn, buy some Masa Harina and follow the directions. For wheat, mix 1 C flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 T oil, and 5 T water. Mix, knead, and divide into four. Roll 'em thin, and cook them on a hot pan on the stove. Not leavened, but delicious.
Step 4: Oil
The oil is not actually necessary in bread. Consider it a dough conditioner. It will make bread softer and may help it to stay that way longer without getting stale. Any old veggie oil works, or you could use some butter or bacon oil or something like that. Olive oil is my go-to oil, and the base of focaccia bread, which is an easy and quick bread with a great many uses. Here's my focaccia recipe:
5 Cups All-purpose flour
2 tsp Yeast
2 T Olive Oil
1 tsp Salt
2 Cups Warm Water
Prove the yeast, mix the dry with the wet, knead it up, coat it with some olive oil, and let it rise in a big bowl. After it's done, press it out into a 9"x13" pan, and pour oil on top to give it a good coat and fill in the dimples. Add some sea salt, some rosemary, whatever you like. Bake 20-25 minutes at 425 F.
Step 5: The Knead
The knead is a deed that every bread needs. After you mix all the ingredients together, get in there with your (clean) hands and give it what for. You need to fold and push, fold and push, fold and push. The goal is dispersion of all the clumps, developing the gluten, and shaping it somewhat. There will usually be some lumps, especially after you scrap the stuff that sticks to you and the bowl and the counter back in. Don't worry about those, they'll come out in the rise.
After the rise, you often do a little more kneading. First, you punch the air out of it, and if you can give it its final form quick, do it. If you knead it too much at this stage it'll get tough and you won't be able to shape it until you let it rest a little. I usually just sort of flatten and press it at this stage, to break larger bubbles down or into smaller bubbles.
Step 6: Baking Bread
If you're making flatbread, chances are that you will use a very hot oven and a short baking time, because the heat doesn't need to penetrate far in order to cook it through. If you are making a sandwich loaf or baguette or something, you will want to use a lower temp, longer time so that you don't burn the crust to cook the middle. If you're making a flatbread, pizza, etc, it's best to place the dough directly onto a hot surface, whether it's a pan, baking sheet, or pizza stone. The NYT slow bread mentioned previously is baked in a large pre-heated pot with a lid, which keeps in some steam to give it a great crust, and the heat keeps it from sticking. A bread loaf is ready when you can thump it and get a hollow sound. But follow the directions and look for golden brown, and you'll have some good bread. Enjoy!