Baking Bread

Some time back, Lori Ann asked about my favorite bread recipe. The answer is that it’s constantly evolving. It’s rooted in a farmhouse tradition–I watched my Gramma and my Mom bake bread from the time I was a little kid. Having gone through a hippie phase, and a foodie phase, and now in a homegrown healthy phase, my bread is a little of everything. I baked today, so you’re invited to see how I do it. And apologies to readers who are gluten- and/or grain-free.

First thing I do is heat two cups of liquid to just below body temperature–about 90 degrees. The liquid can be water, a combination of water and milk, or water that has been used to boil potatoes. Then I put between a cup and a cup and a half of grains in a bowl, mixed with two tablespoons of active dry yeast. Today I used organic old-fashioned rolled oats and organic cracked rye. Pour the warm water over all and stir to combine. Let rest in a warm place until the mixture is bubbly.

Into the bubbly sponge, add a teaspoon of sea salt, a tablespoon of honey and two tablespoons of molasses (or straight honey, molasses, or sugar), and a tablespoon of olive oil. Also 5 tablespoons of high gluten flour. Mix it up. Stir in enough whole wheat flour to make a soft dough.

Spread some bread flour onto your board, and turn the dough out onto it. To get the dough scraps off the spoon and out of the bowl, sprinkle a little flour and scrape with your fingers. Mix into the gob of dough, and start kneading.

This is my favorite part. I plant my feet on the kitchen floor and push forward from my shoulders. After each push, I hitch the dough around about a quarter turn and push again. Keep adding flour until the dough no longer sticks to the board. It should be soft and pliable. I knead for ten minutes, which helps the gluten molecules form into long strands, giving the bread some texture. The more whole grain flour you use, the more important kneading time is. If you want to add seeds like sunflower or flax, this is the time to do it.

Plop the dough back into the bowl coated in a light layer of olive oil. Mom used Crisco for this part, and Gramma used lard. Times have changed! Cover with a clean dishtowel, and let rise in a warm place. Go do something else for awhile.

When the dough has doubled and threatens to climb out of the bowl, you are ready for the next step.

Dump the dough back out on the board, and flatten into a rough rectangle. I’ve divided mine to make one loaf in a bread pan and the other into a free form shape. I like to roll the loaves up and pinch the seam together. Seam goes on the bottom. Oil the pan, or place the loaf on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Let rise again.

I preheat the oven to 390 degrees (no real reason for this temperature, except it seems to work just right in my oven) and when the loaves have doubled in bulk, I pop them in.

When you smell the fragrance, check on your bread. The free form loaf is done sooner than the loaf in the pan. Bread is done when you thump it with a finger and it sounds hollow. Or it looks golden brown and ready to come out, especially the bottom of the loaf. If this part is pale, it needs a little more baking time.

That’s all there is to it. I’m afraid I am not a scientific baker of the home ec sort. More like mad science with handfuls of this and that. The only thing I really measure is the liquid and the yeast. This recipe is infinitely variable, and I freely play with the combination of grains and flours and sweeteners.

Some tips for success:
1. Use fresh yeast. I’m a big fan of Bob’s Red Mill. The stuff is like rocket fuel for your bread.

2. Use some bread flour. King Arthur is the brand I prefer. It gives a nice bready texture. Bread flour has more protein in it.

3. Gramma swears that yeast is sensitive to the weather. She says bread rises better on a high pressure day. I have observed this, but not consistently. Letting the dough rise in a not-too-cold and not-too-hot place seems to be an important factor. In the winter, I keep my tea kettle simmering on the stove, and this seems like the just right location for bread rising. Or maybe I’ve got good juju from using Gramma’s bowl and pans.

4. Laurel’s Kitchen has the most succinct and understandable chapter on bread making that I’ve ever read.

You can order flours and grains from both King Arthur and Bob’s Red Mill if you can’t find what you want locally. I got on King Arthur’s mailing list, and get a lovely print catalog now and then full of recipes and fun baking supplies. It’s a visual treat, and they also have gluten-free products. Bob’s also has gluten-free and recipes.

Happy Baking!

3 thoughts on “Baking Bread

  1. Thanks for the reminder of the past, Deb. I don’t do bread anymore – the volume I used to make every week would last me a month or more now and it’s just easier to buy what I need. I do occasionally make sweet roll dough for cinnamon rolls and such. Not too long ago, your brother asked me if I still had my bread making bowl and I had to tell him “no”. I got rid of that in one of my moves a long time ago, which disappointed him. Your method is similar to what I remember doing and it really isn’t all that hard. I think the test is knowing how long to knead the dough before the first rise and I would be hard pressed to explain how I know when I’ve kneaded enough! Anyway, homemade bread is wonderful fresh out of the oven – especially if you have fresh butter to go on the warm bread. YUM!!

  2. You are obviously expert at bread making… this post took me back… wayyyyy back. I can see it, feel it, smell it, taste it hot from the oven… yummmm!

  3. Thank you so much for this … I love that you just go with the flow in your recipes. It is pretty much how I cook and bake as well. And I love the reference to Laurel’s Kitchen and need to bring out my copy … I haven’t used it in awhile and I appreciate the reminder!

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