Bread making can be intimidating. The fact is that it's a simple craft. No fancy machinery or secret recipe. There is some basic science behind yeast but it's difficult to mess up. Bread making is far more forgiving than most people realize.
My background. For 10 years I've made bread without a recipe. I started baking bread in New Orleans because there were very few options post-Katrina. While my first breads failed it was so much fun to learn through making... first breads were really just scones and hardtack! That's one of the great things about bread.... if you mess up you've just made something different :)
No Recipe Approach. Here I walk through how I make bread without using a recipe. My goal is to point out the hurdles so that they are less intimidating. After a little practice it should feel like less work to make bread than to buy it!
This instructable... yes, it gets a little long. Please see pics and bold bullet points as a way to quickly get through the baking process. The more detailed notes can help clarify on a second read... the final steps are a detailed review of yeast, gluten, proofing and temperature.
Step 1: Ingredients + Materials
Ingredients are simple. The basics are the same across continents...water, flour, yeast. Below I show you my approach
- Fat - 1 tbsp plus... adding some vegetable oil is an easy way to make breadmaking more forgiving. I simply pour into the mixing bowl. If it's your first bread and you need a measurement use 2tbsps (1oz, 15mils)
- Liquid - 3 cups plus... again, the exact amount doesn't matter. I try to match water to milk at a 50/50 ratio. The milk serves as a preservative to double the shelf life from 3 to 6 days. You could just as easily use all water. Use at least 3 cups to make enough for a couple loaves.
- Flour - say 6 cups plus... honestly I couldn't tell you. When it comes to adding the dry you are trying to create a dough that has the right consistency. All you'll need to do is add more flour till the dough is right. (explained under mixing + kneading)
- Salt - a couple shakes... For your first bread just add the amount you would add to cookies or a cake. Something like a 1/2 teaspoon is fine. They say salt slows the yeast... you'll never notice.
- Yeast - 2 teaspoons... More on yeast below and in the next section.
Fear of Yeast. Yeast is the most intimidating part of bread making... It's Alive :) Don't worry a bit... there are many adjustments along the way that allow you to correct course to making a delicious loaf!
Cost. I am a frugal buyer and for years I only spotted the individual sized yeast packets at the grocery. These are a terrible waste. Crazy. All you need is a bulk pack of yeast... a pound (16oz) pack is less than $10. The individual packs are over a $1/dough -makes no sense.
----My first pound of yeast refrigerated in a jar. It traveled through 3 moves (new orleans > san francisco > chicago). I was careful to keep a smaller jar for regular use to limit the amount of times opening the main container. Assume a cost of $.02/loaf.
Equipment - yes, you'll need some basic supplies.. When I started I used a mixing bowl, big spoon, and a sheet pan. In this instructable I use a stand mixer and baking pans. I'll walk through equipment in the final steps.
Step 2: Starting the Yeast
Starting the yeast is simple and forgiving... even if you mess up and the yeast doesn't activate all you do is add another scoop of yeast (at a cost of $.02).
- Water near 80 degrees - this is absolutely an approximate calc... I know I show 80 in the image... not necessary to use a digital thermometer. All I do is sip the water. It should be warm but in no way too hot... I mix hot and cold water to get a comfortably warm water. How much... just enough to mix the sugar and yeast
- 1-2 teaspoons of sugar
- 1-2 teaspoons of yeast - stir in the yeast. I typically just shake in enough yeast to cover the surface of the water in a small glass. If you have too much it will rise more quickly. Too little it will rise more slowly. The easiest way to learn is to vary the amount of yeast and proofing time (more in final steps)
- Yeast starts to work - They say the yeast should double in size in 5 min... bakers love to give exact numbers... the point is to see bubbles forming. If your solution is active you'll know... if not (no worries at all) add another teaspoon of sugar and yeast. --In this example I added more because it looked a little slow
In Step 8 + 10 I track yeast through the whole process
Step 3: Mixing Wet + Dry
The same process applies for use by hand and in a stand mixer.
First are the Wet Ingredients
- Add Fat... 1-2 tablespoons of oil. You can always get fancy with any of the ingredients. I keep it simple and keep cost around $.04 for the oil.
- Add Water... ~2 cups. See in the photos the relative amount of liquid I add. It's really just a total of 2-4 cups. I started with the leftover boiling water from the kettle. You could just as easily use tap water but know the yeast is most active at a warm temp (more on temp at Step 10)
- Add Milk... 50/50 to water. You could easily use only water. I like adding the milk to effectively create a traditional Italian bread. It also doubles the shelf life of the bread. Cirtic Acid also works to boost shelf life. More on citric acid in my recent instructable, Citric Acid Gets a Shaker.
Next are the Dry Ingredients
- Salt... start with a dash. You will likely add more for your next bread. Salt brings out the flavor and does little to inhibit the yeast. I typically use a little less than a teaspoon.
- Flour... a few cups. I start with a few cups to get the mixture going.
- Grains...1-2 cups. This step is totally unnecessary for your first loaf. That said, I always change up my breads. For this dough I added 1 cup of cornmeal, 1/4 cup chia and 1/4 cup flax. For years I used bulk oats and bulk cornmeal to cut the cost/loaf and add flavor. (see gluton step for more on grains)
- Yeast. Add your mixture that was set aside at the start.
- Flour... firm up dough. this is the last step before starting to work the dough on the table. You want the dough to be dry enough that it holds together. If it's juicy it just creates a mess when your surface gets wet. You'll gradually add more flour to the dough while folding/kneading.
Now on Mixing... you don't want to stretch dough. You want to stir/fold in a way that encourages the gluten to build up strength.
Step 4: Kneading
Fold in flour until you have dough:
- Flour your work-surface. If the dough feels wet add a lot (1+ cups) of flour.
- Center the dough. Pour the dough from your mixing bowl onto the surface
- Fold in flour. Start to fold and press the dough so that it gradually comes to feel like dough (see below)
- Knead Dough. 'Experts' say to knead for 10min. I've maybe made it 10 min once in 10 years. I typically knead for as long as I'm enjoying the process. 2min... maybe 3. Would my dough be better if I kneaded for 10... maybe. (see more on gluten in Step 9)
Feel like dough... yes, this is vague. If you've made it this far than you're following my writing style. The trick is to slowly kneed in more flour so that as you press the dough it doesn't feel overly wet (damp, moist...etc). The dough should be pliable. If it feels too dry it probably is.
- Too Wet - keep kneading over a well floured surface. Each press into the surface picks up more flour.
- Too Dry - use oil. It's easier than trying to add water. pour some oil over the dough and knead away.
Note on Kneading... all you need to do is fold and press the dough. There is no magic technique or required style. Any way you do it is a great way to tone arms :)
Step 5: Proofing
Here's my approach:
- Place in a bucket... I proof in a bucket so that I don't have to deal with a wet cloth or plastic wrap to maintain humidity. A cutting board over a mixing bowl also works well.
- Allow the dough to proof for 2+ hours... If it's slow because the yeast isn't active or because it's cold in your house you'll want to wait longer. You don't have to but the bread will be lighter/airier if you do.
- Knock down the dough... This is the baking term for work the dough to allow air to escape. I do this in the bucket or I pick it up an fold it a few times in the air. (If it's still too wet or too dry I add either flour or oil)
- Make loaves... OR 2) Proof longer at room temp, 3) Proof over several days in the refrigerator
- Cut loaves... I figure about 1/3 the size of your final bread.
- Proof in place, 20-30min... Easiest to roll in oil and corn meal for your first batch to avoid any sticking. From there place on a sheet pan. I put some oil on the baking pan and rolled the dough in flour. You'll need to cover while proofing. I simply cover with a cutting board. If you use a sheet pan you can cover with a bowl or plastic wrap.
- Bake at 425F (220C)... When I started I baked uncovered at 400. I did this for about 5 years. Much better to bake at 425 and start covered. A dutch oven really is the best!
Notes on Proofing... proofing has a significant impact on the quality of your bread. That said, there is no reason to obsess about 20min, 40min, 2hr... all the specific times called out in recipes. The important thing is to have bread work (rise) around your schedule.
Step 6: Baking
Below are a few recommendations:
- Baking Temp - 425 deg (220C). You can always vary but start with 425. Don't worry if your oven runs hot or cool.
- Never preheat - you want the bread to gradually get hotter which will more slowly kill the yeast and provide for a better rise
- Cover for the first 20min - using a dutch oven does the best to maintain temp and humidity. That said, I only use the dutch oven for bread a few times a year. It's just easier to use a lightweight aluminum baking pan or sheet pan.
- Add a pan of water - professional ovens have built in steamers. by adding water it evaporates as you cook to create a crunchier crust (like a baguette)
How long to cook?
- 40-60min but it depends. Size of loaf varies. I assume a standard size bread pan size.
- Judge by weight. It's helpful to pickup the bread and see if it's heavy. My early breads were always heavy because I worried about burning them. If you're worried... spray your bread with cooking oil. It protects the bread and you'll be impressed by how long it can go before burning. To avoid burning it's also helpful to start covered.
Step 7: First Bread Complete!
Hopefully this has helped you feel more confident making a first loaf!
Details. Don't get overly caught up in any of the details. Start mixing ingredients and you're on your way to delicious homemade bread!
Improvement + Cost. What I love about bread making is how simple it is to watch yourself improve. For a minimal investment of Yeast + a 50lb bag of flour... say $25. You can make dough twice a month for a year! And you offset a product you typically would pay at $3/loaf between $125-$150 / year.
Next Steps. In the following sections I walk through the principles of bread making in a way that aims to simply them so you can start to take risks. Key to getting started is getting your hands on yeast. Don't have yeast? A 1lb package of yeast allows you to share with a friend and start experimenting with bread.
Failing at Bread. Yes, some breads won't come out perfect but know that you'll enjoy seeing improvement. Don't picture trying to make a loaf of wonder bread ---literally the hardest thing to do outside of a factory. Look for ways to test changes to your routine and improve your feel for a good dough.
Thanks again! Jeff
Note: Some of these are affiliate links, I will get a small commission if you buy through them (amazon:), at no additional cost to you. Thank you if you do buy through the links! If not, hopefully you will find the product details useful.
Here are a few other instructables where I try to show the simplified process. Consider following to get more in the 1-2-3 Series... --simple process and not as lengthy as this one.
Step 8: More on Yeast
Yeast is Alive!! Yes it's a microorganism here's what it does...
- sleeps when colder than 55 deg
- dies when hotter than say 88 deg ---I'm corrected. It's actually hotter 130-140 deg, thanks BillyBob
- eats simple sugars (sugar, flour, corn syrup)
- releases carbon dioxide
The Rise. The carbon dioxide is gas and it causes the bread to rise. We'll talk more about the gas in the 'More on Proofing' Step.
Refrigeration. Also important to note that dough can be left in the fridge for up to a week. Best practice is to 'knock down' or fold the dough twice a day. This keeps the CO2 from building up and giving the bread a gassy flavor.
Step 9: More on Gluten
Gluten is the bond between two types of protein common in traditional bread flour. Wheat, Rye, Barley and all variations have gluten. It's important to bread making because it makes dough elastic. As the yeast releases carbon dioxide the stretchiness of the dough holds it together (see photo).
- High Gluten Bread Flour. I only started to use high gluten flour 6 or 7 years ago. The first few years I used regular flour. I now always stock a 50lb bag of bread flour. These Amazon prices are way too high... here. Flour is heavy and must not be worth pricing competitively online. I spent $13-17 over the last few years at Costco and Gordon Food Service.
- Kneading to build Gluten. A common practice is to build up gluten by kneading for 10min. The other way to check is to stretch the dough to show a window. This step is too meticulous for me. Knead the dough well but a well worked dough will rise.
Gluten-free notes:Easy to use an oat or potato flour. Expect a flatter loaf as more of the carbon dioxide escapes. These loaves look overly dense when compared to traditional loaves. Even with the yeast it's texture can be closer to cornbread.
Step 10: More on Temperature
Completely unnecessary to track temperatures with an infrared thermometer. That said, I love this tool and find it useful for sharing the process of bread making. Under 'More on Yeast' (step 8) are some notes on how yeast functions at different temps.
- Starting the Yeast - around 80 deg the yeast is digesting sugar and starting to multiply.
- Adding to Wet + Dry - I show a few readings where I wait for the temp to get closer to 80 deg. It can be a little hotter but should never feel hot. The concern is using cold water and cold milk. The temp would be close to 55 deg (11C) which would mean for a slow process as the dough raises to room temp.
- Proofing - See notes on yeast. So long as the dough isn't too hot it will be active. For the proofing step my dough sat at 76.. room temp in our summer kitchen w/o AC.
- Baking - The oven is set to 425 deg (220C). The slower the ramp up in temperature the better. It really makes a significant difference. Covering is a great way to do this. Even better is by baking in cast iron (shown here). Note that after 20 sec out of the oven the surface temp read around 226 deg F. I see this as roughly the bread temperature.
Step 11: More on Proofing
Proofing is the passive step where yeast are at work.
Here are a look at how and when to proof... from mixing to baking.
- First Proof - It is best to allow the dough to double. Typically this takes 2-3 hours depending on temperature and activity of the yeast. ---if you're bread doesn't rise at all it could be the temp, too much water, or yeast that was killed off by a temperature spike. Easiest to just roll out flat bread and cook on the stove or in the oven as crackers.
- *Optional Proofs - Any number of proofs can be added. These are used to capture additional carbon dioxide. Typically it is best to lightly fold the dough in on itself. By working it slightly the yeast can again find new sugars to digest and rise further.
- Final Proof - I allow my final proof to take place on a greased backing surface. By allowing 20-40min, depending on the activeness of your yeast, the dough has time to start rising before ramping up the activity as the temperature rises in the oven.
Refrigeration. The most useful way to get dough to rise on your timeline. Dough can be thrown in the fridge and to stretch a regular rise from 3 hours - 12 hours. Important to note that the final proof requires bread to start at room temp. Dough pulled from the dough will take time + kneading to raise it temp.
Step 12: So Many Breads to Make!
Thank so much for reading! Comments are appreciate and I'll be sure to field any questions.
A skill that lasts a lifetime! If you've made it this far I have no doubt that if you've made it this far you'll be a wonderful baker! The key is getting started. It's a simple risk to take and your exposure really is limited to a few hours time and $30.
One ingredient you need.. yeast! The easiest way for me was to get a bag of yeast and a bag of flour. Know that once you have these principles you are ready to make start adding and manipulating recipes. Try adding sugar, eggs, nuts, cheese, dairy... one of my furn early tests was a can of soup. You really can't fail.
Still Scared of Yeast? Try Crackers - www.instructables.com/id/123-Crackers/--for years I was more intimidated by crackers than bread. So simple :)
Ready for a greater challenge? QcCity has suggested grinding flour & growing your own sourdough starter.
- QC's flour grinder is beautiful! --shown here as unavailable.. a similar one is shown here
- QC's sourdough recipe - "Here is what I use.To make your own sourdough, very easy. In weight put in equal amount of flour and water and mix well. Keep at about 80 degrees F. Every 12 hours afterwards add the same amount of a mixture (equal weight flour and water)m keeping at 80 degrees F. Discarding some before adding when it gets too much. After about 4 or 5 days, the mixture will bubble and double in volume in 8 hours or less.The sourdough is then ready."
Venting.... for these breads I didn't add any vents across the top. I regularly use a surgical scalpel. I find it easier than the specialty bread razors. Price is way better and one scalpel lasts a lifetime if properly looked after. --careful, they are sharp
How can I make this easier for you? I know this post got long... please share comments so I can adjust as needed. Thank you!