Quick! What's golden brown on top and delicious all over? This:
Anyone out there who's trying to cut carbs out of their life should stop reading. Right now. I'm going to talk about something very near and dear to my heart: bread. It's so yummy, and good for you (in the right amounts, with the right ingredients) and it's ridiculously simple to make once you get the hang of it. So here's my bread tutorial.
Every loaf of bread is made out of a few simple things: liquid, fat, flour, leavening, salt/sugar. That's really all you need. For liquids you can use beer, water, buttermilk, whey (from cheese making), or milk. There are all kinds of flours that are a possibility (spelt, rye, wheat, white, bread flour, oat flour....) and they can be combined in endless varieties. Fat is generally either an oil or butter for loaf type breads. (Biscuits and denser breads tend to use either butter or lard.) Salt is self-explanatory, although for savory breads there are endless varieties of herbs and spices that can also be used. For sandwich breads, however, when I use salted butter I don't add any extra salt because it doesn't need it. (Salted butter was originally only used as a topping for bread. Now it's ubiquitous and I figure we get enough salt in everything else we eat. I haven't noticed a change in flavor since I stopped tossing in a bit of salt.) Sugar can also be variable, depending on what you have or what you want to do. Table sugar, honey, and molasses are the most common sugars. (I've never tried powdered sugar in bread, and honestly I'm not sure if it would do well. Too fine.) It's nice to tailor the use of the sugar to what type of bread you want to make. For instance, I never use sugar when I'm making beer bread. Honey works the best, adding just a bit of sweetness without overpowering the beery/yeasty taste.
When you get to the leavening agent, that's what divides the bread world. Quick breads are made with baking soda or baking powder (which has baking soda in it) as the leavening. Things like banana and zucchini breads are quick breads. They're fast to make up because all of the rising is done during the cooking process, in the oven. The other type of breads, the not-so-quick breads, are yeast breads. And that's what I want to write about now. I've had a life-long love affair with yeast breads.
Probably the most important thing with yeast bread making is to remember that yeast is a living organism. So don't kill it. The liquid needs to be warm but not hot. You should be able to comfortably dip your (clean) finger into it. I heat my liquids in the microwave before pouring them in the bowl, testing with my finger, and then adding the yeast. Salt also kills yeast, so never add it during the proofing stage.
Also, yeast needs to have something to feed on to help it wake up or proof, as it's called. (Maybe because you're proving that the yeast is actually viable? I don't know.) What does it eat? Sugars. This is why almost all of my bread recipes have at least a little bit of sugar in them. However, yeast will also feed on the sugars in milk and beer. If you make bread with plain water, as in a sourdough or French bread, you need to add a little bit of sugar to the water/yeast combination or it won't work properly. (At least in my experience. Feel free to contradict me.)
So, with all of this in mind, I present to you my bread recipe. Trust me, it's so easy I have it memorized. And aside from the liquid, I don't measure anything. The rule of thumb is generally 1- 1 1/2 cups of liquid for every loaf of bread. My loaf pans are wide so I do 1 1/2 cups. This recipe makes 2 nice large loaves.
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 1/2 cups warm milk
1 1/2-2 regular spoons full of yeast (maybe about a tablespoon?)
Approximately 1/4 cup sugar or honey
Mix all of those ingredients and let it sit about 5 minutes, until the yeast starts to look foamy. This is a good sign. If your yeast doesn't foam or plump up, either the yeast is bad or the liquid is too hot and you've killed it.
This is what proofing yeast should look like. See the bubbles?
If it's fine mix in:
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
1 teaspoon of salt (optional)
Enough flour so that it forms a cohesive ball and doesn't stick to the sides of the bowl, about 6-7 cups. (I never measure. I go by what it looks like and how it feels.) The dough should still be tacky/sticky, though.
For Shane I do white bread. For myself, I do half white/half wheat, or some other crazy grain combination. You don't have to stick to one type of flour, or even two. The bread pictured at the top has two tablespoons of ground flax seeds, whole wheat flour, oat flour (made from regular oats ground in the food processor) and white flour. It's delicious. (Munch munch munch....)
Once it reaches the still-tacky-but-not-sticking-to-the-bowl stage, I smoosh (I can't say pour, because it's not a liquid...maybe pull? scrape?) the dough out onto a lightly floured counter surface. I either flour my hands, or put a light layer of flour on top of the dough. Then comes the fun part: kneading. Kneading is really just a word meaning that you beat the dough into submission. It's a little bit like a metalsmith folding steel to make it stronger. It's best accomplished by pushing the dough away from you, folding it over, and repeating the process. Don't worry about hurting the dough or killing the yeast at this point; you won't. And it's really fun. Don't work the dough too long, though, or you'll get a really hard, dense dough. A minute or so of kneading (more if you mixed by hand rather than in a stand mixer) should do. I'm honestly not sure what this step does, other than to create gluten. But most bread recipes call for kneading, and it's not like it's hard.
After it's properly kneaded, oil down the dough (either by pouring oil on it, spraying it on, or oiling the bowl and rolling the dough over in that) and put it back in the bowl. This step really is critical, or the bread will dry out and be both difficult to work with and lumpy (crunchy?) when it's cooked. Trust me, it's bad. Cover with a dish towel (if it's dry out, a damp dish towel works well) and let it sit and rise for about an hour to an hour and a half. It needs to pretty much double in size. You'll know it's done when you push two fingers into the top and they don't pop back up. Or if the whole thing just deflates when you do that. I can tell mine by sight now. When it's spilling out the top, it's risen.
Most recipes say to "punch" the dough down. You don't actually need to beat it, just moosh it down.
After this, loaves are formed. There's such an infinite variety of loaf shapes you can do. To make a regular loaf, however, flatten it down into a rectangle, and roll it up. Pinch the seam together, the roll the edges in and pinch those down, too.
Or you could do rolls.
Put it in the loaf pan (seam side down) that you already have oiled or buttered. You did remember to oil the pans well, right? You don't want that bread sticking, it's a pain in the a$$ to get out.
My loaf pans are, I think, 9x5. So if you have smaller pans, your loaves are going to need to be taller to make up for the lack of space in the pan. (You'll also want to cut back a little on the liquid. If the bread needs more room to expand than it has, it will end up being very dense on the bottom.) I can't tell you exactly what the loaves will look like when they've risen again because that comes with time and experience. However, I can tell you that the second rise is generally no more than an hour. And at this stage you want to be careful not to let your bread over-rise. This can cause it to fall in the oven and you'll end up with flat, dense bread. I usually set a timer for 45 minutes and go start the oven (set to 350^) just before it goes off. Of course, rising times also depend on how humid it is and all of that. But generally speaking, risen bread will look like an uncooked loaf.
Be gentle when you put it in the oven, and make sure it's not too close to the heat. Cooking time depends, I find, on the season and the oven. Anywhere from 35-45 minutes is a safe bet. Just start watching it toward the end. When the top turns golden brown, take it out.
Have fun with bread making. There are so many ways to do it, so many ways to dress up a simple recipe. This is the same recipe I use for French bread. The only changes I make are that instead of milk, all of the liquid is water, I do add salt, cut back on the sugar, and I shape it like, well, French bread. Elongated and torpedo-shaped at either end, with slashes cut across the top.
If you prefer really crusty bread, let it rise in the oven with a pan of hot water underneath. If you want it even crustier, leave the water in the oven when you bake it.
Because this bread doesn't have chemical preservatives, it will go bad. Around here, that usually takes a little under a week to happen. But the great part is that it freezes well, too. I pack mine in an old, clean pillowcase and stash it in the chest freezer. Once it thaws out (either in a plastic bag or in the bread box) it's moist and soft like it just came out of the oven. I don't know how long it would stay good in the freezer this way (we've never needed to keep bread in there for more than 2 weeks) but it should be about 6 months before the quality degrades. I've even kept half-loaves this way and the cut side is still perfectly soft.
Don't be afraid to mess up, either. I've been baking bread since I was 12, and I've made pretty much every mistake ever. Killing the yeast, over salting, over rising, under rising, under cooking, over cooking (or just plain forgetting I had bread in the oven until I smelled burning), forgetting to oil the pans.... You'll mess up. That's part of the learning process. But home baked bread is sooooo worth it, trust me. It's tastier and it's cheaper than anything you'll find at the store.