Monday, June 15, 2009

For the Love of Bread

Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts! ~James Beard

What a feat indeed! There is nothing more delicious or more nuanced than the science behind baking bread. The first loaf of bread I ever baked was a true learning experience. By that I mean to say it was more or less a disaster. The perfectly round loaf I had envisioned was something more akin to an amorphous blob. Not one to give up, I wrote down a list of my mistakes and researched ways to make it better. The second attempt was much improved, but not flawless. I encountered a few trouble spots with the density of the bread and so it was back to the drawing board again. After some light tweaking, it was finally ready. I've included these tips as well as a few of my own baking blunders. With any luck, these tips will keep you on track and ensure a delicious loaf of homemade bread every time.
Baking bread is all about temperature. The temperature of the yeast, the temperature of the water, yes even the temperature of your mixing bowl. Before I proof the yeast, I always warm my glass mixing bowl by filling it with warm water. Yeast is incredibly sensitive to temperature, so the best place to store it is in your pantry. Of course, you can also store it in the refrigerator, just allow the yeast time to reach room temperature before proofing. I take the yeast out the night before and it's ready to go the next day.
The first time I baked bread, I had failed to let it reach room temperature. This nearly killed the yeast and prevented it from rising properly. Clearly, I was not off to a good start. In truth, I should have scrapped the yeast, but I was not about to be bested by some lowly yeast.
After the dough had risen for nearly 2 hours, it was time to start kneading. Kneading develops the protein gluten and distributes the yeast throughout the bread, giving your loaf that perfect texture and taste. When you are first learning to knead dough, the process can seem a little daunting. I assure you that once you learn a few tricks and find your rhythm, it will be a walk in the park. To avoid over-kneading the dough, set a timer according to the time specified in the recipe and stick to it. Use your senses. Look for the dough to be smooth and elastic. When adding the flour, add it one tablespoon at a time to prevent the dough from sticking. I generally have a little flour leftover from kneading, so don't worry if you end up with a little extra. My final tip is to learn the steps and find your rhythm. Gather the dough into a ball, push it away with the heel of your hand, fold the farthest end towards you and give it a 1/4 turn. Push it, fold it, turn it. Push it, fold it, turn it. See how rhythmic it is? Also, be sure to knead the dough at an even pace with firm, but gentle pressure. Once you've finished kneading the dough, cover it and let it rise in a warm place. I let my dough rise in the oven and place a skillet of boiling water under my glass mixing bowl. The boiling water creates a climate-controlled environment for the dough, resulting in a perfect first rise.
After the dough has risen, you will need to punch it down. But first, a word of caution. This is not a boxing match, so show the dough a little respect. Simply make a fist and gently press down into the dough. This will remove any air pockets or excess carbon dioxide.
Now it's time for my favorite part--rolling out the dough. Oddly enough, I find it quite calming. Plus, I love any opportunity to use my french rolling pin. It's just so lovely. Take care not to roll the dough out too thin and only use back-and-forth motions with the rolling pin. It's tempting to roll out the dough in every which direction, but stay strong. If you stick to simple back-and-forth motions and rotate the dough, you'll find it much easier to shape it into a rectangle. Once the dough has been rolled out, roll the dough up and place it seam-side down in a pre-greased loaf pan for the final rise.
Before we enter the final stint of this bread-baking marathon, let's stop and catch our breath. Grab some water or an energy bar if you need it. You can continue whenever you're ready.
Now, we're ready to bake! I know it seems too good to be true, but we've arrived at the final stretch. At this time, it is essential to make sure your oven has pre-heated thoroughly. If you have an in-oven thermometer, you'll find it easy to determine when your oven is ready. I do not have this handy gadget, so I typically allow the oven to heat up for 15 minutes before I begin baking. Every oven is different, just make sure it's plenty hot. Once the oven has pre-heated, gently brush the top of the bread with an egg wash. To create an egg wash, combine one egg yolk with a tablespoon of water. This will create a shiny, golden brown crust. Apply the egg wash in long, even strokes and try to avoid getting egg on the sides of the pan. This will prevent the dough from fully rising. If you notice that the bread is browning too quickly, simply tent it with aluminum foil. When the bread is done, place it on a cooling rack, invite some friends over and gobble it up. Just make sure you get the biggest slice.

Honey Wheat Bread (Adapted from Cooking Light's Sunflower-Wheat Loaf)


1 package dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)

1 cup warm water (100° to 110°)

2 cups whole wheat flour

2 tbsp vital wheat gluten

1/3 cup of honey

1/3 cup of vegetable oil

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

1/4 cup wheat germ

2 tbsp cornmeal

1 1/4 cups bread flour, divided

2 cups of boiling water

1/2 cup of rolled oats

Cooking spray

Fill a glass mixing bowl with warm water and pat dry. Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water in a large bowl; let stand 5 minutes.

Lightly spoon whole wheat flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add whole wheat flour, vital wheat gluten, honey, oil and salt to yeast mixture, stirring well to combine. Cover and let stand at room temperature 1 hour to create a sponge. You can also prepare the sponge in advance and let it sit covered at room temperature overnight.

In a medium saucepan, boil two cups of water, cover and set aside. Add wheat germ and cornmeal to sponge. Lightly spoon bread flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add 1 cup flour to sponge; stir until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Set a kitchen timer for about 8 minutes and knead until smooth and elastic; add enough of remaining flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to prevent dough from sticking to hands (dough will feel tacky).

Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray, turning to coat top. Cover and let rise in the oven for 1-2 hours or until doubled in size. Fill a large skillet with the boiling water and place it on the bottom rack of the oven. Place the dough on the middle rack and let rise. (Gently press 2 fingers into dough. If indentation remains, dough has risen enough.)

Punch dough down. Cover and let rest 5 minutes. Roll into a 14 x 7-inch rectangle on a floured surface. Roll up tightly, starting with the short edge, pressing firmly to eliminate air pockets; pinch seam and ends to seal. Place roll, seam side down, in an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Coat dough with cooking spray. Cover and let rise 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

Remove the dough from the oven and preheat the oven to 375°. At this time, you can leave the dough covered on the counter until the oven is ready.

Uncover dough; brush with egg wash and sprinkle the top with rolled oats. Bake at 375° for 45 minutes or until loaf is browned on bottom and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from pan; cool on a wire rack.

For additional tips on baking bread and kneading dough, see the links below.


  1. This is so awesome! I've wanted to try to make some homemade bread for a while, and this recipe sounds delicious. I must admit its a little daunting to hear about all the intricacies involved. Hopefully, the thought of bread and butter will be enough to get me off my butt and try it. :)

  2. I will totally make it with you sometime! We will have to start early, but it can be all day baking extravaganza! We'll order in, it'll be swell.