The Essentials For Baking Bread

So you’ve never baked bread before. It’s not as hard as you might imagine. In fact, understand a few basic techniques and you’ll soon be baking bread that you’ll be proud of. Just carefully follow the instructions found in these basic directions.

Preparation

The most basic bread is made with flour, salt, water, and yeast. French bread is made with only these ingredients. To these four ingredients, many recipes add a sweetener such as sugar and an oil such as butter.

1. Read the recipe. It helps to understand what you need to do before beginning.

2. Assemble the ingredients.

3. Prepare the pans. Since these are essential instructions, we will assume that you are using bread pans. Grease the inside of the pans, including the rims.

4. If the recipe calls for butter or shortening, melt the butter or shortening and set it aside to cool.

Mixing and Kneading the Dough

We will assume that you have a stand-type mixer. If you don’t, at the end of these instructions, you will find instructions for mixing by hand. We will also assume that you are using instant yeast; it’s easier.

1. Add one-third to one-half of the flour called for to your mixer bowl. Pour the yeast on top.

2. Add the water called for to the mixing bowl. The water should be lukewarm, about 105 degrees. The water should be slightly warmer than body temperature when you immerse your finger in it. Much of the secret of bread baking is in the water"you need the right amount of water at the right temperature.

3. Beat the water, yeast, and flour together with the dough hook attachment for about 30 seconds or until combined. This hydrates the yeast and gets it growing.

4. Add most of the rest of the flour called for in the recipe along with any remaining ingredients including the melted butter, reserving a half cup or so of the flour. Let the dough hook work at medium speed and the ingredients will aggregate together as a ball of dough. You will need to work the dough hook for about five minutes to develop the gluten and make the dough elastic. The resulting dough should be soft but not too sticky to handle, smooth, and elastic. Since you reserved part of the flour, chances are that it will too sticky. Add the rest of the flour, a little at a time, until you get the right consistency.

5. Grease a large bowl with butter or shortening. Place the dough ball in the bowl and turn it once or twice to get a bit of grease on both sides of the dough ball. Cover the ball with plastic wrap and set it aside to rise.

The Art of the Rise and the Forming of the Loaves

1. Be patient when letting the dough rise. Let it rise until it doubles"regardless of how long it takes. Rise times vary dramatically depending on kitchen conditions, the recipe, and more. It should be puffy.

2. Turn the dough onto a lightly greased or lightly floured work area. Deflate the dough by gently folding and pressing most of the air from the dough.

3. If making two loaves, divide the dough in two with a knife. Using your hands, form a cylinder by pulling the dough around the center and tucking the seams together on the bottom, thus gently stretching the surface of the dough. Pinch the seams together to keep them from opening as the loaf expands. Place seam side down in a prepared pan and repeat with the second loaf. Gently work the dough toward the corners of the pans to create uniform loaves.

4. Cover lightly with greased plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled, at least one hour. Again, rise times will vary with conditions, especially temperature--yeast is very sensitive to temperature. Let the bread rise until "poofy". Don’t worry about it over-rising. If it starts to blister, poke the blisters with the point of a knife and hurry the bread to the oven.

The Bake

1. While the bread is still rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. When the bread has risen, place the loaves on the center rack of the oven and leave as much room for the air to circulate around the loaves as possible. Bake for 35 minutes or until the bread is done and well-browned. If you have a probe-type thermometer, the internal temperature should reach 190 to 210 degrees. If the bread is browning too rapidly, loosely cover the loaves for the last five minutes with aluminum foil. Once baked, immediately remove the loaves from the pans and cool them on a wire rack. The bread should cool completely before slicing.

Directions for Hand Mixing

You can bake great bread without a mixer. In fact, some of the best bakers prefer the intimacy of working the dough by hand.

Place the dough mix and yeast in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add two-thirds of the water and melted butter to the bowl and mix with a spatula. When the dough becomes too heavy to continue mixing with a spatula, grease your hands with shortening along with a 15-inch square area on a clean counter. Scrape the partially mixed dough onto the counter. Knead the dough by pressing the heel of your hand into the dough, turning the dough, and then pressing again until the mix is absorbed into the dough. Add more of the water as necessary until the dough is as moist as you can handle. Continue kneading for eight to ten minutes adding more shortening to your hands and counter as needed. If the dough becomes too sticky to work, even with greased hands, add flour (not included) one tablespoon at time, kneading between additions. Do not add more than is necessary"a softer dough will rise more readily and have a better structure. When the dough is smooth and elastic, it is ready to rise. Follow the remaining directions.

Copyright 2007, The Prepared Pantry (http://www.prepraredpantry.com ). Published by permission

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About The Author, Dennis Weaver -
Dennis Weaver is a baker, a recipe designer, and a writer. He has written many baking guides and How to Bake, a comprehensive baking and reference e-book--available free at The Prepared Pantry which sells baking and cooking supplies and has a free online baking library.