Well, I thought the baking season may be winding down with the increasing spring temperatures. Sandwiches have no season, however, so no matter what month of the year, I’m still making sandwich bread, and am therefore justified in writing about it here any time. Of course, it snowed last night, leaving the ground covered with that familiar white blanket once again. It doesn’t feel much like spring, now, and it doesn’t seem so out-of-season to turn on the oven.
As I was contemplating what else I would say about this recipe, my stand-by, nearly-weekly sandwich bread, I came to the conclusion that there’s not much that can be said about bread that hasn’t been said already. Bread is a cornerstone of civilization (along with, many would argue, beer). It’s been a human food since long before any human thought to write down (let alone blog!) anything about his food. It’s a metaphor for life itself or it’s something on which we cannot live alone or it’s going to kill us because it’s loaded with deadly carbohydrates. Choose your bread philosophy according to your personal needs. Mine is quite simple: Bread is good food and I love to make it.
The basic formula for this sandwich bread is nothing new or revolutionary. You’ve probably seen similar recipes in many places (besides the first time I posted it nearly five years – five years!! – ago). I’ve been making our basic sandwich bread this same way for years. There were times when I kneaded by hand, mostly for the extra exercise, and you could do that, too, but now I let my heavy-duty stand mixer do my kneading for me. You could use milk for the liquid, oil for the fat, honey for the little bit of sweetener. I use water, butter and sugar respectively in those roles. I used to use milk, but found little if any difference in the final product compared to water. I use a bulk active dry yeast because I go through enough of it to make that more economical over buying yeast in the little envelopes. One envelope could be used in place of the measured yeast below, since it holds about 2 ¼ teaspoons.
I really like to let my yeast grow for a while in what I call a mini-starter, no matter what yeast bread I’m making. It seems to improve the consistency and predictability of yeast performance from loaf to loaf and I think it improves the flavor of the bread, too. First I “bloom” the yeast in warm water with the sugar, then add half to two-thirds of the flour to that, mix it to form a loose batter, cover it with a towel, and let it stand for 15 to 30 minutes. This mini-starter puffs and rises as the yeast grows. I wait until after this to add the salt, which can inhibit yeast growth, and then I knead in the rest of the flour (it doesn’t much matter where the fat is added).
The rest is involves the appropriate amount of kneading, rising, shaping, rising again, and baking. The typical description of a properly kneaded dough is “smooth and elastic,” which frankly, may not have much meaning if you have no experience with bread. The dough should still be soft and easy to stretch, but it should also be easy to form into a ball with a tight, stretchy surface (this is sometimes known as the “gluten cloak”). If you have a good imagination, you would be able to picture that ball of dough being able to maintain that smooth surface as it blows up like a balloon as the yeast releases the gases that make the dough expand.
As far as shaping goes, I usually flatten the dough a little, roll it into a smooth log, and lay it in an 8-inch loaf pan. It then rises again, is baked, scenting the kitchen with its loveliness, and, when it has finally cooled enough to slice, it is eaten, the best step of them all. The best way to get really good at this process is simply to do it a lot, expecting a few things to go wrong now and then, but learning from what you see and smell and taste. This fairly simple bread formula is a good place to start if you’re looking for one and a great-tasting sandwich loaf, a go-to bread for breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks if you’re an experienced bread baker.
Well, that’s all I have to say about bread. Or at least this particular bread recipe. For now.
Wheat Sandwich Bread
1 cup warm (about 100 F) water (or milk)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour, divided
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon fine salt
1. In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer (or in another large bowl if mixing by hand), combine the water, sugar and yeast. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast is foamy.
2. Add the whole wheat flour and 1 cup bread flour and butter. Mix to form a wet batter. Cover and let stand for 15-30 minutes.
3. Add about ½ cup of the remaining bread flour. Using the dough hook for the mixer, knead in the flour on low speed (or knead by hand if desired). Continue kneading, increasing the speed one level, for about 10 minutes, adding as much of the remaining bread flour as the dough can take while still staying smooth, moist and pliable. The final product should be just a bit tacky to the touch and stretchy, but not sticky or gooey.
4. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a large, greased (I use nonstick cooking spray) bowl. Spray or grease the top of the dough ball. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the dough ball. Cover the whole thing with a towel and let stand until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
5. Carefully deflate the dough and rearrange it into a new ball. Let rest, covered, while you grease or spray an 8 x 5 – inch loaf pan. Gently flatten the dough into a rectangle, then roll it into a loaf from the long side of the rectangle. Place the dough in the greased pan. Cover with a towel and let rise until roughly doubled in size.
6. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 F. When the dough has fully risen, bake at 375 F for about 35 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. To fully ensure that your bread is done, use a probe thermometer to read the temperature in the center of the loaf. It should be about 200 F.
7. Remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack.
Makes 1 loaf. This bread, like many, freezes well.