On the Loaf

Let’s kick things off with the basics.

Bread.

You might be surprised.  Yes, maybe it’s not exactly a “basic” cooking venture in terms of pure simplicity – that honor is eternally reserved for pasta (Can you boil water?  Congratulations, you can cook pasta).  But it is simple nonetheless, once you know what you’re doing.  And bread is, unarguably, nothing less than an essential building block of the culinary world.  Just take a look at the food pyramid sometime and see what makes up the base of that bad boy.  That’s right.

I’d be willing to bet a majority of your favorite foods are some form of bread-product (with apologies to residents of Night Vale).  From breakfast cereals and waffles to pretzels and pizza to those hot baskets of dinner rolls that restaurants shove down your throat by brute force, bread is everywhere.  Do you like a nice cold drink on the weekend?  Of course you do.  Well, surprise! – your favorite beer is practically nothing more than liquid bread, albeit with a much higher alcohol content than your standard bakery fare.  I could go on and on like Bubba and his beloved shrimp, so I’ll stop now before you start yelling at me to shut up.

I think you get the point.

Tyler Durden, fictional anti-hero & founder of the Paper Street Soap Co., once said that soap was the yardstick of civilization.  In that same way, I like to think of bread as the yardstick of modern cuisine.

With such a vital role (roll? – pun intended) in our diet, why do so few of us take the time to truly understand and appreciate the simple science behind this millennia-old blend of flour and water and yeast?  Why not take some time to try it out?  Why are we so intimated by the prospect?

Why not – dare I say it – give yeast a chance?

If you’re still with me after that god-awful attempt at a pun, I thank and congratulate you.

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First attempt at home bread baking, ca. Autumn 2014
Believe me when I say that there really is nothing to home bread baking.  Sadly, I see far too many people with gigantic, clunky bread machines sitting on their counter tops collecting dust, eating up storage space while skulking in the back corners of kitchen cupboards.  If you have such a monstrosity in your home currently, I want you to do me a favor.  Go grab it.  I mean it – go ahead, I’ll be here.

Brought it back with you?  Good.  Now, just carry it over to the nearest window and give it a chuck.  Yes, I mean it.  You need to trust me.  By the time I’m done with you, you’ll wonder why you ever thought you needed to keep the ugly sucker around.

I’m not crazy, I swear.

Once you’ve said your good-byes (I’ll give you a moment alone together), head back to the kitchen and grab the following:

  • Flour – 6 cups (I personally prefer half all-purpose/half whole-wheat, but all-purpose is perfectly fine on its own)
  • Warm water – 2 1/2 cups
  • Yeast – 1 packet (2 1/4 tsp.)
  • Salt – 1 heavy pinch
  • Honey – 1 heaping glob
  • Free time – 3 hours (the hardest part of bread baking is the patience required)

It won’t be quite as simple as just dumping everything together in a bowl, but it’s damn close. And if you’ve got a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, so much the better.

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One of my favorite kitchen appliances.  I don’t know what I would do without this thing.

But a standard, large bowl and a wooden spoon will do in a pinch.

Start by combining the flour and salt in your mixer bowl.  Then it’s time to move on to the yeast.

I will warn you, this is the one part of the process where it comes anything close to being tricky.  When playing with yeast and water, temperature control is the name of the game. Water that’s not warm enough won’t activate the yeast, which means that your dough won’t rise.  On the flip side of the coin, you get your water too hot and it will kill the yeast and your dough still won’t rise.  I typically err on the side of caution, using a tea kettle on the stove to get the water to below a boil, letting it cool down from there until it’s just right (think Goldilocks, if you remove porridged from the equation).  Once you’ve hit that sweet spot, add your yeast, stir with a spoonful of honey and wait a few minutes.

You’ll start to see foaming bubbles popping up on the surface of the bowl now.  That means you can dump the water mix on top of the flour.  If you do have the aforementioned stand mixer, pop on the dough hook and give ‘er a whirl on low speed until the gooey mess comes together into a smooth, sticky dough.  If you’re going to bowl-and-spoon route, once you’ve hand-mixed the ingredients you’ll need to dump your giant dough ball out onto a flat, floured surface and knead for just a few minutes.  Stand mix users, you’re in luck – the dough hook takes care of kneading and mixing all in one (at least it has in my experience).

Toss the big smooth lump into a floured bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a tea towel, and set it aside to rise for the next two hours.  Don’t shake the bowl.  Don’t move it.  Don’t move the towel to peek inside.  For God’s sake, don’t even breathe on it or look at it funny! (OK, that last one might be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get what I’m saying – don’t go messing with the rising process once things are in motion).  After these two hours are up – and ONLY when they are up – then bring the bowl back to the kitchen and uncover, dumping everything out on the floured counter top.

Here’s where you have a couple of options.  You can separate the dough into a few large round loaves and place on a floured cookie sheet.  You can half the mix and use some bread loaf pans.

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I don’t know about you, but I could really go for a sandwich right about now.

You can roll it out into long, thin loaves if you’re feeling exotic and want to try your hand at some French baguettes.  Really, it’s up to you.  What’s important is, get the dough out and shaped however you want, then cover again and let everything rise for another 45 minutes (yes, this is important.  You’ll notice a significant difference between how your dough looks now, and how it will look with another near hour of time to set and take on it’s new shape).

While you wait, crank the over up to 450 F (230 C)

Toss your dough – in whatever shape and style you’ve decided on – into the hotbox and let it bake for 30 minutes.  And…voila!  You did it.  You’ve just made bread.

I told you it was easy, didn’t I?

The best part is that you’re not limited to bread loaves.  Once you get the hang of recipe and basic process, the only thing holding you back is your own imagination.  Different styles and shapes of loaves are only the beginning.  Homemade bagels, pretzels, soft fluffy pizza crust from scratch, delicious bread bowls, it’s all possible!

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If that doesn’t scream “Winter Comfort Food”, I don’t know what does.
OK, enough drooling all over your keyboard.  Don’t just take my word for it – go ahead and give it a whirl for yourself!

And remember to keep a careful eye out – your old bread machine might try sneaking back into the house.

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