The Art of Baking Bread
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 16 No. 4, July-August 1999, pp. 134-136
The art of baking bread is, in many respects, like the art of breastfeeding: the science behind each is fairly standard while the art of each is unique to you and your baby or you and your bread dough. Just as using basic techniques (positioning and latch-on) can help you breastfeed your children, using basic ingredients and techniques can lead you from a fantastic loaf of bread through pizza, sweet rolls, and on to your own creative endeavors.
The basic ingredients found in bread are flour, water, sugar, salt, and yeast.
The type of flour - whole wheat, processed white bread flour, or all-purpose flour - is important. The following recipes use a combination of whole wheat flour and white flour. Using only whole wheat flour would necessitate an adjustment of the other ingredients' measurements. Other types of flour such as rye, amaranth, and oat should not be used in these recipes because the proteins glutenin and gliadin are plentiful only in wheat flour. These proteins form the structure of breads made with yeast. As these proteins are mixed with water, they form a net (gluten) that captures tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide given off as the yeast eats the starch in the flour, thereby causing the bread to rise.
Both bread flour and all-purpose white flour will make good bread. Buying great flour will take you a long way toward great bread. Using a "hard" wheat bread flour is best because it has a higher protein content. All-purpose flour can be used with good results, but cake flour is "soft" wheat and should be avoided when baking bread. Organic flours taste the best and are the best for you but can be more expensive. Bread flour should be purchased and used within a couple of months. Any flour that has been sitting around for more than a few months may have turned rancid and should be discarded. Buying flour from a reputable store that has a quick turnover will ensure that the flour you buy is fresh.
Water activates the protein in the bread. You don't need any special kind of water unless the water in your area is highly chlorinated. That can sometimes kill yeast. If you have trouble getting yeast to work, try using bottled water instead of tap water.
Yeast makes bread rise and helps develop the flavor. Long, slow risings will give you rich, tasty bread. Short risings leave the bread tasting yeasty. This is because a long rise gives the yeast a chance to develop flavor by eating the starch in the flour and turning it into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.
Yeast comes in many forms. Active dry yeast is the most reliable form. It can be bought in packets or in jars. If you begin to bake bread regularly, it is more economical to purchase yeast in jars. Remember that yeast has a shelf life and should be used before the expiration date. If you are unsure if the yeast is "active" you can mix the yeast with water and sugar and "proof" it. If it is still good, it will begin to foam and bubble in a few minutes. If it is too old, it will not foam or bubble.
Salt adds flavor. The less processed the salt you buy the better for your bread. Plain sea salt adds the best flavor and reacts well with the other ingredients. It also has many trace minerals not found in plain table salt. Salt also regulates the growth of the yeast, so don't skimp on what a recipe asks for. If you do, the yeast will grow differently and you may end with a flop.
The following Basic Bread recipe uses 100% maple syrup. Honey or rice syrup can be substituted for maple syrup. Granulated sugar will not work well in this recipe. Sugar is necessary to jump-start the yeast. Without the sugar, the yeast would take much longer to begin to eat away at the starch in the flour and, consequently, the rising times would be much longer.
All of your ingredients should be at room temperature, because if they are too cold the yeast will not grow. However, the yeast may come straight from the refrigerator. When you mix these ingredients you are starting the process of unraveling the proteins in the flour and letting the water work on them. It's much more than just combining the ingredients, so mix for awhile or have your children help. It's the perfect messy, gooey task.
Kneading builds the net of protein for your bread. It will start out gloppy and end up elastic and firm. That elasticity tells you that the proteins are strong and evenly distributed through your dough. How can you tell if you've reached the "elastic and firm" stage? Natalie Dupree, a well-known television chef and cookbook author, describes properly kneaded bread dough as "smooth as a baby's bottom." There is no right way to knead bread. However, folding the dough and pushing it down and away from you with the heel of the hand will make sure that the proteins are stretched and distributed. Knead for at least 5-8 minutes. You cannot over knead bread by hand but you can certainly ruin it by not kneading enough.
This is when the yeast eats the starch from the sugar source and makes carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. It is important that you keep an eye on it. Too fast and the bread will not taste good. And too much rising or too little and you end up with a doorstop. These recipes use a long slow cool rise. About 70 degrees is good. But it will simply take longer if it's cooler and faster if it's warmer. To see if your dough is done rising, stick a finger in the surface. If the dent does not spring back or fill in, the dough is done. If the dough collapses, it's overdone.
Baking turns your science experiment into an aromatic and tasty loaf of bread. First the yeast gives another burst of growth because of the warmth in the oven. Then the bread hardens the protein structure so that your loaf stays tall and full of those tiny air bubbles that make it springy. Then it kills off the yeast and bakes out some of that yeasty flavor.
You can tell when your bread is done by time but it's not always going to be exactly what the recipe says. You can also use an instant-read thermometer to test the internal temperature of the bread-it should be 200 degrees Fahrenheit. But easier than that, take it out of the pan and thump the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it's done. If it sounds thick and like a thud, it needs more time.
Take the bread out of the pan and cool on a rack or anything that lets air circulate. This will keep the bottom crust from getting soggy. If you can, let the bread cool one half-hour before you cut it. This will keep it from failing apart. Then enjoy!
Bread baking is not foolproof, but mistakes are usually edible, and you will make a better loaf next time. There are many great books to help you along if you have problems. The best are Beard on Bread by James Beard and Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher. Trust your instincts, watch your dough, and be flexible. These are skills you have learned from being a mother and they will make you a great baker too.
- 2 C. warm water
- 1 T. maple syrup
- 1 t. yeast
- 5 C. unbleached white bread flour
- 1 C. whole wheat flour
- 1 T. salt
- Put the water in a large bowl and mix in the maple syrup. Add the yeast and mix it into the water. Let it sit for about five minutes. If the yeast is active, it will begin to froth.
- Begin to mix in the flour with a spoon by adding two cups. After the first two cups of flour are mixed in, add the salt. Add the rest of the flour one cup at a time until you get the right consistency. It may not take all the flour.
- Knead the dough for at least five to seven minutes.
- Put the kneaded dough into a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise for about 6-8 hours on the counter or overnight in the refrigerator.
- Punch down the dough and shape it into two small loaves or one large loaf. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Let it rise for about 1/2 hour.
- Bake the bread for 20-30 minutes at 450 degrees.