Bread has been an important bedrock of the human diet for around 14,000 years, appearing in nearly every corner of the globe. While many of us get our bread by picking up a loaf from the local grocery store, it’s surprisingly simple to make bread at home. You may scoff at the idea — it’s easier to get it from the store, but if you haven’t had a little butter on some freshly made bread — let’s just say, it’s incomparable. Whether you’re making a quick loaf to go with some fresh pasta or just to test and expand your skills in the kitchen, here’s what you need to know!
The Basic Ingredients
Most breads require three ingredients — flour, a rising agent, and a liquid, and surprisingly for some breads, you don’t even need a rising agent. That’s why it has been such an important part of diets throughout history. Of course, just flour, water, and yeast would make a dull bread, so we usually add some salt, sugar (sugar specifically helps the yeast), and other ingredients to give it more flavor.
Flour is maybe the most important ingredient because it creates the base and substance of the bread. Most bread recipes work with one of two types of flour — bread flour and all-purpose flour. All-purpose flour is a great component to have in your kitchen because it can be used in the place of most other flours, though the texture may be slightly off. For this reason, bread flour is the best flour to use when making bread. This comes down to bread flour’s higher protein content that helps produce gluten in the bread dough, an essential component to strong and airy dough. If you don’t have bread flour, though, all-purpose flour has a pretty comparable result.
Yeast is another key ingredient for breadmaking, though some breads don’t require yeast or are simply unleavened. What yeast does for a dough is help it to rise, creating that light and fluffy texture we love. If you’ve ever eaten bread that was incredibly dense, you’ll know the difference yeast can make. Yeast reacts with the liquid and sugars to create gas. A strong dough with enough gluten will capture the gas, causing the dough to rise.
Liquids are important in bread for two reasons. First, they’re essential in creating the dough. Without it, you’d just have flour. As the flour and water are worked together, gluten is formed. This gluten creates the cohesiveness of the dough to hold everything together and keep the gasses in created by the yeast. The more you work the dough, the more gluten is created. Because of this, you can actually overwork a dough, making it too chewy and tough. Second, liquid is important because yeast needs liquid to feed and release the gasses to help the bread rise. Together, these three very simple ingredients work together to make one of the oldest and most important staples in the human diet.
As we mentioned before, working the dough is an important step in breadmaking because it helps the gluten to form and mixes the ingredients evenly throughout the dough. But kneading isn’t simply pushing the dough around or mashing it on the countertop. Uneven kneading or not enough kneading can create an unbalanced dough where the ingredients aren’t mixed through or you simply haven’t created enough gluten. This can cause the dough to not rise correctly. So, how do you knead correctly and how do you know when you’ve done it enough?
There are several techniques for kneading dough, but the easiest is probably the one-handed method.
- Place the dough on a lightly floured surface to keep it from sticking.
- With floured hands (for the same reason) form the dough into a rough ball.
- Push the dough with the heel of your palm (roughly where the palm meets the wrist).
- Roll your hand back, and use your fingers to fold the dough in half.
- Turn the dough 90 degrees and continue.
Another way to go about kneading the dough is to use your turning hand to fold the dough, too. Simply push with the heel of your palm and bend the top of the stretched dough back, effectively turning and folding the dough at the same time.
You can tell you’re done kneading your dough when it’s smooth and springy. The best test is called the windowpane test. To do this, break off a small piece of dough and lightly stretch it until you can see light through it (like a windowpane). If you’re able to do this without the dough breaking, you’ve created enough gluten to keep the dough strong. If it breaks, keep kneading.
Once you have the dough created, you must allow the yeast to work its magic. With most doughs, proofing is two steps. The first proof, sometimes called bulk fermentation, is where you’re allowing the entire dough to proof before shaping it. Proofing, also called blooming, is technically fermentation (why yeast is used in making beer), which explains the name of the step. At this stage, you can just have your dough in a bowl covered by a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap resting at room temperature for around two hours (plus or minus 30 minutes depending on room temperature). After that, you’ll divide and fold your dough before placing it back in a lightly oiled bowl, bread pan, or proofing basket and allow it to set at room temperature for around an hour or until the dough has about doubled in size.
Temperature is an important factor in proofing. The warmer it is, the faster the dough will proof, and the colder, the slower. A good room temperature is around 75°F, but this may be too warm for some people. If your home is generally really warm, allow the dough to proof somewhere cooler, like a dark pantry. If you keep your home under 70°F, you can help your dough proof by placing your bowl of dough in the oven. For this trick, you microwave about three cups of water for about five minutes so that it’s just boiling. Then, place that boiling water in the oven and close the door. This effectively turns your oven into a proofing box and controls the temperature and the humidity.
Before we get into the full recipe, we just want to share a few final tips for baking the bread. You can test the bake of a bread three simple ways. First, it should appear golden brown. Second, when you take it out of the oven, flip it upside down and tap the bottom. It should sound hollow. Finally, you can check the internal temperature. For soft breads, it should read around 190°F. For crusty breads, it should be done once it reaches 200°F.
So how do you get a nice, crusty bread? There’s a really simple trick that makes a big difference. When you’re baking the bread, fill a cookie sheet or oven-safe glass dish with water. The steam will create a beautiful crust on your bread.
Simple Bread Recipe
- 2 cups of bread flour
- 3 cups of water
- 10 oz of cold water
- 1 ½ oz of warm water
- 3 tsp of sugar
- 4 tsp of salt
- 1 ½ tsp of active dry yeast
- In a small bowl, combine the warm water, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and the yeast.
- Set the yeast mixture aside and allow it to dissolve and become foamy.
- While the yeast blooms, combine the remaining dry ingredients (the rest of the sugar, the salt, and the bread flour).
- Create a well in the flour and pour in the yeast mixture, stirring to combine.
- Slowly add the cold water (you may not need all 10 ounces) until you create a shaggy dough.
- Allow the dough to rest for 5 minutes before kneading.
- Knead the dough until it passes the windowpane test.
- Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean towel, and set in a warm area (or your oven proofer box) for around 2 hours.
- Remove the dough again, dividing the dough if you’re making smaller loaves and shaping the single large loaf or smaller equally sized loaves.
- Place the shaped loaves on baking sheet covered by a floured towel and cover the dough with another towel.
- Allow to proof for another 45 minutes to an hour, until they have doubled in size (you may need to boil more water if you’re using the in-oven method).
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Fill a glass dish or cookie sheet halfway with water (roughly 3 cups for a glass dish) and place it in the oven.
- Once proofed, set your loaves on a lightly greased baking sheet.
- Make shallow cuts along the top of the dough to prevent ruptures during baking.
- Place the loaves in the oven and bake for around 30 to 35 minutes, checking after 20 minutes (you may need longer depending on your oven).
- Remove from the oven and check to make sure it’s done.
- Allow to rest a few minutes to cool before serving.