A Beginner's Guide to Homemade Bread
I’d venture to say there are very few people who can resist fresh, homemade bread; when I pull a loaf out of the oven, a crowd inevitably forms around it, and we wait for it to cool so we can slather it with butter while it’s still warm. A fresh loaf of bread seems a bit miraculous when you make it yourself, as you watch a few simple ingredients rise into a golden dome under the oven light. It always led me to assume that making bread was difficult or complicated. What I found out is that it can be very simple — if, unlike me, you choose the right approach.
How Not to Start
When I decided to start making bread, I was charmed into it by a beautifully illustrated book and followed book written by a famous artisan baker. I followed the instructions for making sourdough starter — essentially a smelly, homemade yeast, created by allowing grapes to ferment with flour and water for several weeks. Then I proceeded to dive into artisan bread recipes that involved several painstaking steps — and many days — to complete. (See also: How to Bake Sourdough Bread)
I produced countless loaves of bread that were so flat and dense you could hardly cut into them. One loaf of raisin brioche rose to monstrous proportions in the oven, pushing raisins out of its billowing sides; another burned black on the outside and oozed wet dough in the center.
After flipping around in that first book, I realized that there’s a method to learning how to bake more complicated recipes successfully. The first page of the book dealt with making a simple white bread.
Step 1: Start Simple
Making bread is chemistry, which means there’s a certain ratio of ingredients that will produce that soft, chewy, texture. Most baking books start with white bread. This is because a simple loaf of white bread is the easiest kind to make successfully. When whole-grain flours are added in large proportion, things get a little more complicated, and you’re more likely to end up with a brick than anything that resembles real bread.
Start with white bread or wheat breads with a low proportion (less than 30%) of whole-grain flour until you get the hang of things. Once you master this, you’ll have the basic skills that are required to make more difficult recipes work.
Step 2: Know Your Ingredients
If you haven’t made bread before, you might assume that flour is flour. Not so. Bread flour isn’t a gimmick; it’s flour that contains a higher proportion of protein, or wheat gluten. This is what gives bread dough its elasticity. If your recipe doesn’t state the kind of flour you should use, consider trying each once. Some people like the airy texture all-purpose flour can create. If you are sensitive to gluten, getting the right texture will be more difficult, but a good gluten-free cookbook should help.
Yeast is another key ingredient in bread baking. Make sure you get the type the recipe calls for — either active dry yeast or instant yeast. You should also keep your yeast in a sealed container in the fridge or freezer to keep it fresh for longer. It’s alive, so treat it gently by letting it warm to up to room temperature before adding it to a recipe.
Step 3: Understand the Basics
Making a simple loaf of bread involves the same basic steps: mixing, kneading, rising, shaping, and second rising. This sounds like a lot, but most of it is actually hands-off; just set your timer and let the flour and yeast mingle in privacy.
This generally involves combining all the dry ingredients and all the wet ones, then combining the two and mixing until a kneadable dough forms. Just follow the directions in your recipe, and pay attention to any instructions about temperature — lukewarm liquids are often requested and will affect how the yeast responds.
This is the fun part, and it generally needs to be done for 6 to 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic, but still pliable. You can also do the mixing and kneading in your bread machine using the dough cycle. Just be sure to put the yeast on the bottom, followed by the dry ingredients and then the liquid. This prevents the yeast from being activated too early.
Once you’ve kneaded the dough, you can make it into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap, and put it in a warm place to rise. I like to put it in the oven and turn the light on; the warmth from the light bulb provides just the right amount of heat. This takes 30 minutes to an hour, or until the ball has swelled to twice its size.
This is when you deflate the dough and shape it for baking, either by putting it into a bread loaf pan or shaping it freeform on a pizza stone or cookie sheet. Then, cover the loaf with a towel for its second rising.
After being deflated, the bread should double in size again. This should take a little less time than the first rising — about 30 to 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to the temperature specified in the recipe during this time.
Once these steps are completed, put the bread in the oven, set the timer, and wait for what seems like forever.
Step 4: Learn When It’s Ready
I’ve cooked bread to a deep, acrid brown. I’ve also pulled it triumphantly from the oven when it looked just right — only to discover it was still raw in the middle. So how do you know if your loaf of bread is ready? Use the time and temperature specified in the recipe as a guide. When the bread is a deep, golden brown and smells like toast, it’s probably ready. To be sure, take it out of the oven, flip it over, and tap the middle of it with your finger or a spoon. If it sounds hollow, it’s cooked through.
Try, Try Again
Bread is alive, so learning how to consistently make great bread takes practice and patience. Over time, you’ll learn to know when the dough is the right consistency and when and how to make adjustments to fix it. You’ll probably also learn that loaves that rose a little too much, rose not quite enough, or are a little overcooked still taste pretty fantastic, especially compared to the dry, uniform slices from the supermarket. Learning to make bread is a process that takes time to perfect. Fortunately, the process is far from painstaking as even an imperfect loaf of fresh bread demands to be eaten.