Monday, April 27, 2009

Bread from Home

Not so long ago, when gasoline prices were hovering around four dollars per gallon, we decided to drive the car less, and Harry stopped coming home for lunch. That meant he would be brown-bagging it (okay, so he uses a blue and white cooler, but you get the point), and that meant lots of sandwiches. And for those sandwiches, I would be trying to bake the bread as much as possible. Now, bread baking is a regular thing in our home, and I make at least one loaf a week. We almost never buy sandwich bread in a bag.

There are untold resources for baking the perfect loaf, and I have picked and chosen techniques and ideas from many of them over the years. While I don’t mind fiddling around the kitchen, my patience is not infinite. (I can almost hear those of you who know me laughing at the understatement.) My loaf needs to be the result of a relatively straight-forward process (I’m not very good at kneading by hand, and like to use the dough hook on my heavy-duty stand mixer) with easy-to-acquire ingredients (I’m not ordering dough conditioners or artisan starters, and that’s all there is to it).

Here are a few things I think go a long way toward helping to make a good loaf of bread.

Use good quality flour. Recently, with the price of wheat going as high as an elephant’s eye, some manufacturers have chosen to use lower-protein flours to keep their costs (and, therefore, your costs) down. Believe me or don’t, but I could tell the difference, especially when making bread. King Arthur Flour has vowed to keep their product quality consistent, and I have been having excellent results with their flour. You can order directly from the Baker's Catalogue, and I have been able to get at least some of their flours locally(at a pretty reasonable price) here, here, and here. Be prepared to pay more for these products.

Make a mini-starter. Usually when we think of a starter (or biga, ferment, etc.) for bread, we think of artisan sourdoughs and European breads that take weeks to result in an edible loaf. The starter does, however, have its place in the everyday sandwich loaf. I began using what I think of as a mini-starter after seeing this technique in good bread baking books, my favorite being Whole Grain Breads by Machine or Hand by Beatrice Ojakangas. I think the flavor of the bread is improved by taking the time for this step, and I believe the yeast growth is more reliable.

It basically involves mixing up the yeast, liquid, and some of the flour and letting it ferment for at least 15 minutes, although I tend to go 30 minutes. Salt controls the growth of yeast, and I like my yeast to really take off in the starter, so I leave the salt out until I’m ready to add the remaining flour. I have forgotten to put the salt in, which didn’t seem to affect the yeast, but had a huge effect on the flavor of the bread. (Ugh!)

The best way to get a good loaf is through experience. Know your strengths and know your equipment. For instance, I know I’ll make better bread if I knead it with a heavy-duty mixer than by hand. I know it works for me to knead in the flour at low speed (#1) and then knead at speed #2 for about 10 minutes. I know that the loaf is baked properly in my oven at 375 F for 32 minutes. (I haven’t checked the accuracy of my oven temperature. It is a good idea to do this, by the way. Oven thermometers are easy to come by and inexpensive.) The best way to bake good bread is to bake a lot of bread. Try different recipes. Take notes. I wasn't always good at baking bread. Some of my loaves would have been best used as doorstops. I got better.

Well, perhaps that’s more than you ever cared to read about baking bread. I could go on, of course, but instead here’s the recipe and method I use for our everyday wheat sandwich bread.

Note (January 19, 2010): I've been kneading my breads by hand and, in many cases, making better loaves as a I'm burning more calories in the process! I used to be terrible at this, but I think experience has once again proven to be a good teacher.

Wheat Sandwich Bread

1 tablespoon honey (you could use sugar)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (or 1 envelope of yeast)
1/3 cup warm water (about 100 F; it should feel warm to the touch, but not hot)
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour, divided
1 tsp salt

1. Place the honey and yeast in the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer (or another large bowl if you wish to mix by hand). Pour the water over them and swirl the mixture around to combine. Let stand for 5 minutes or until the yeast is bubbly.

2. Put the milk and butter in a microwave-safe container or measuring cup. Microwave on high for 1 minute.

3. Add the whole wheat flour and 1 cup of bread flour to the yeast mixture. Add the milk and butter mixture. Beat until well combined, using the paddle attachment of the mixer (or a hand mixer or a large spoon). Let this starter stand for at least 15 minutes or up to 30 minutes.

4. Add about ½ cup of the remaining bread flour. Using the dough hook for the mixer, knead in the flour (or knead by hand if you are of stronger stuff than I am). Continue kneading, for about 10 minutes, adding as much of the remaining flour as the dough will “take.” (Here is where experience will be your best friend). The final product should be a little tacky to the touch, but smooth and stretchy.

5. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a greased (I seem to be addicted to cooking spray) bowl. Grease the top of the dough ball and cover it loosely with plastic wrap. (This will keep the dough from drying out.) Cover it all with a clean towel and leave it alone to rise for about 1 hour. It should roughly double in size, and if your kitchen is warmer than mine usually is, it might take less time.

6. Carefully deflate the dough and rearrange it. This redistributes the yeast and the gases, so the party can continue. Don’t squash it completely flat. You want to leave a little balloon-ness to the dough. Let stand a few minutes while you grease an 8” bread pan. (Once again, I use cooking spray.)

7. Gently flatten out the dough into a rectangle, then roll it into a loaf from the long side of the rectangle. Place the loaf in the prepared pan, cover it with a towel and let it rise. It should roughly double in size again. If you gently press a finger into the dough and it springs back easily, let it rise longer. If it leaves a depression, it should be properly risen.

8. Preheat the oven to 375 F. When the bread has fully risen, bake it at 375 F for 30-35 minutes (32 minutes in my oven). To know for sure when bread is done, stick an instant-read thermometer probe into the middle. It should read about 200 F. You could also tap the bread, and if it sounds hollow, it’s done. (Considerably less scientific!)

9. Remove the bread from the pan and cool it completely on a wire rack. Slice and devour as desired.

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