“She bakes her own bread!” This admiring description of a Real Homemaker used to be uttered in awestruck tones. Professional bread bakers have profited for a long time from the idea that bread baking is a special skill.
How hard is baking bread?
Actually, the main qualification for baking your own bread is owning an oven. Experience teaches bread bakers how long to knead bread to the consistency they want. Wheat has not always been easy to get, and people used to have to cultivate their own yeast…but if you have flour, water, leavening, and an oven, you can bake some form of bread at home. Oil, salt, sugar, and the appropriate kind of pan help bread bakers produce particular types of bread.
“Bread machines” make it easy. These electronically enhanced mini-ovens can be programmed to mix and knead bread in the pan, wait for it to rise, and bake it while you do other things. “Bread makers” usually come with brand-specific instructions and recipes. These machines usually produce the kind of bread that’s familiar to North Americans, a light-textured loaf that can be sliced, toasted, and made into sandwiches. Most of them can also be used to do part of the work of making other kinds of bread. Online bread machine reviews can help shoppers choose a machine.
Why bake bread at home?
With so many different breads and baked goods available in supermarkets, why do people bake their own bread? Many bread bakers enjoy the baking process. While some people avoid yeast bread because they don’t like sinking their hands into the sticky dough, others enjoy the sensation of kneading dough to just the right consistency.
Everyone seems to enjoy the aroma of baking or freshly baked bread. Realtors recommend baking bread when showing a house. Offering a loaf of bread is a traditional symbol of neighborly good will, welcome, or sympathy. Sweet bread, cakes, and pastries traditionally celebrate special occasions. Baking cookies is a traditional way to spend quality time with children.
And, of course, home-baked bread can contain more “natural” nutrition and be custom-made to suit individuals’ nutrition needs…high or low protein, high or low fiber, low fat, low carbs, vegan, sugar-free, dairy-free, low sodium, gluten-free…
Gluten: good and bad
This raises the question of gluten. Many traditional kinds of bread depend on the cohesive property of wheat gluten. Gluten is the protein that holds the wheat bread together, allowing it to be cut into neat uniform slices that fit into a toaster, wrapped around fillings, or quick-cooked in such a way that it forms pockets. Gluten is also impossible for some people to digest.
On the other hand, for the majority of people who do digest gluten, it’s a good source of vegan protein. For gluten-tolerant vegans, wheat bread made with yeast is a real “staff of life.” Some vegans use high-gluten flour for its nutritional value.
Gluten-free bread is not difficult to make, although it’s not always a satisfactory substitute for wheat bread. Yeast works with wheat gluten in different ways than it works with corn, rice, potato, or tapioca flour. Typically gluten-free bread don’t rise as high or slice as neatly as wheat bread. Some creative cooks enjoy the challenge of baking gluten-free bread even if they can also eat wheat bread.
Some electronic bread makers are designed to be used for gluten-free bread. One “Virtuoso Breadmaker” machine that receives good reviews on Amazon comes with ten recipes for gluten-free bread and is also said to work well with a gluten-free bread mix sold in supermarkets.
Some gluten-free recipes use nut and bean “flours,” which are high in protein. Some use whole or coarsely ground grains, seeds, and nuts. It can be crucial to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when adding these enhancements to bread dough in a machine. Crunchy ingredients must be added in the right proportion and on the right setting to allow the machine to process them.
Baking bread is a creative craft
Some “artisan” bakers prefer to bake bread in the old-fashioned ways. Without “rapid rise” yeast and bread machines, it takes three to twelve hours to produce a loaf of bread “from scratch.” (Sourdough and some other types of bread were traditionally left to rise overnight.) Even with a bread machine, it typically takes two hours to produce a loaf of bread. Those who enjoy kneading bread dough by hand, however, usually say that they can find other things to do at home while the bread is rising.
Libraries and bookstores have racks of books of bread recipes. Hundreds of bread recipes are also available on the Internet. It’s possible for beginners searching for bread recipes online to suffer from information overload…especially when a search for “basic bread recipes” brings up so many pricey “gourmet” recipes that begin with ingredients that aren’t even available at your supermarket.
A basic bread recipe is not expensive
If you’re using a “Breadmaker” machine, you will need to follow the manufacturer’s directions. (The bread maker reviews at Amazon and similar sites, wherever other users discuss the same model of machine you are using, can be a valuable guide for troubleshooting. Bookmark them, or even print them out, when choosing recipes, shopping, and cooking.)
The basic formula for American-style loaf bread made by hand is two to three cups of flour, a cup of water, one packet of dry yeast, one or two tablespoons of sweetening, and up to one teaspoon of salt, for a one-pound loaf.
The traditional method begins with “proofing” or “proving the yeast.” Warm the water to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (until it feels warm, not hot, against your wrist). Sprinkle in the yeast. Active dry yeast should begin to foam in five minutes or less. When it foams, “set the sponge” by stirring in sweetening, salt, and most of the flour until the mixture is smooth.
Next, knead the dough. It’s possible to put the dough into a plastic bag and knead it there, if you really want to keep your hands out of the dough. Otherwise, use part of the flour to coat the dough, your hands, and the counter, and knead it in. The more air you mash and squeeze into the dough, the more cohesive and less sticky it becomes. Resist the temptation to work in too much flour to reduce stickiness faster. Although most recipes give a range of measurements of flour, flour and yeast need to be in reasonable proportion to make a nice light bread.
When the dough reaches the right consistency, clean the mixing bowl, film it with oil, and set the dough back in the bowl to rise. In a warm room, yeast dough will normally double its volume in about an hour, sometimes a little longer. Covering the dough with a light, dry kitchen towel is usually recommended to keep off dust, but yeast breathes air.
When the dough reaches the right volume, punch it down, knead out most of the air bubbles, and shape it to fit into a well-oiled loaf pan. Cover it with the towel again and let it rise. The dough does not have to double in volume, this time, but should expand by at least half. (The scientific rule here is that longer rising equals more fermentation and more sour flavor.) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before the final stage, baking the loaf, some bakers like to coat the top of the dough with butter. Bake for 30-40 minutes. When bread is done, it will sound hollow when tapped. Turn it out of the pan and tap the bottom. If the outside is firm and the loaf sounds hollow, butter the crust if you like, and let the loaf cool.
Baking bread pays off
There are thousands of ways to make bread. Whether you buy a best bread machine, or grind your own whole grains before baking, baking bread at home is a creative hobby that helps people connect and bond with others. You can meet your own special dietary needs and those of other people as well. If you’re willing to work hard and start small, you might even expand baking into a business.
But let’s admit it…baking bread at home is fun. Head over to MakingTheBread to have a look at a few bread machine reviews and options if you are looking at buying a bread machine.