Bread is really quite simple: flour, water, and yeast. You can add in other things, and probably should, but I found that understanding how and why things work was far more helpful than all the great recipes that I could never quite recreate. I actually don't use a recipe so much now, I just know what to look for. Here are some things I have learned that I hope can help you in your bread baking!
Wheat protiens are unique and have something called gluten. These proteins form long chains which is what gives wheat bread its special texture. The goal with bread is to get the gluten strands stretched out so that you get that nice texture you want. There are a few ways to do this, it depends on whether you have lots of time, or want to put forth more physical effort.
I know that there are a lot of fad diets preaching the evils of gluten and how it should be avoided at all costs. For some people, I believe that is probably true, but not for most. Many people have a hard time with gluten because of the way the flour has been processed. Bleached or bromated flour may be the real reason gluten hasn't been going very well for you. It could also be that the wheat has been genetically modified and has side effects you didn't bargain for. All these processes make the flour easier to work with and create great advantages (more protien, longer shelf life and other things), but may have undesirable side effects.
Another trick I recently heard about is growing your own yeast. I guess the yeast we buy in the store doesn't have all the same properties as the natural stuff. Home grown yeast (think sourdough starter) can include all sorts of goodness that will help to digest the wheat.
Stretching the Gluten
|Flour and water mixed together, getting ready to let time work some magic!|
Time- I have learned that it is advantageous to make time my friend. Gluten will naturally straighten itself out over time, which is why the no knead bread is so popular. Personally, I don't really care for the sourdough taste of no knead bread, and sometimes I want my bread to take less than 24 hours from start to finish, even if it is only 5 minutes of work.
I choose to compromise and do something called autolyse. I mix together my flour and my water and let that sit covered for 15-30 minutes (depending on how much I need to chase a baby). Then I come back and mix in everything else. The dough is so much easier to work with (this also helps with noodle dough)!
Since I don't have a fancy mixer, I knead my bread by hand and have two rises. After I knead my bread, I let it rise for 10-20 minutes, punch it down and knead it for a few minutes. I repeat that 3 times and after the third time it put it in the pan and let it rise for the last time. This first rising (with punching in between) helps the gluten develop so I can get a nice texture without working too hard.
|I knead my bread on a flexible cutting board|
Work- If you don't want to spend hours waiting for the bread to rise, you can spend more time kneading to develop the gluten. If you have a fancy mixer like a Bosch, this will probably take less than 10 minutes, then you can put it in the bread pans and let it rise and cook it. In fact, the machines are so effective, that you can overdevelop gluten by having it in too long (I have never had this problem hand kneading, I get worn out long before a machine). With a machine, you don't need to have a second rise because the machine kneads is thouroughly enough.
Before I started to add autolyse (mixing water and flour and waiting 30 minutes before anything else), kneading was a lot more work. Now I knead for about 6 minutes before I have a consistency I like, and it starts out much easier to work with in the first place. Before I felt like the dough needed more kneading even after working it for 10 minutes.
|After autolyse, I add the yeast, sugar and salt|
Yeast is vital to a good loaf of bread. I hope to try growing kefir or homegrown yeast one day (if anyone has done this, please let me know! I really want to try!), but in the meantime I have SAF instant yeast, so that is what I will talk about.
Temperature- Yeast is very sensitive to temperature. Too cold and it will be slow (I store mine in the freezer), too hot and it will die. If you keep your loaf in a warm area while it rises (I hear it is nice nestled amidst recently dried clothes in the dryer) it will rise faster than if you just have it on the counter. If your wheat or water is too hot, your yeast will die, so I often try to err on the side of too cold. Baking your loaf kills the yeast.
Amount- The amount of yeast you decide to use will affect your rising time. If you use more yeast, your bread will rise faster, less yeast means a slower rise and a deeper flavor. No knead bread calls for 1/4 teaspoon of yeast and I have seen loafs that call for as much as 3 Tablespoons! I usually choose somewhere in between.
Salt-Salt counteracts yeast. Too much salt will make your loaf salty, but not enough and your yeast will go unchecked.
Proofing- Yeast eats sugar. Usually the natural sugar in the grain is sufficient, but you can add more sugar for a sweeter loaf and to feed the yeast more. Instant yeast doesn't need to be proofed, but it doesn't hurt it either. Proofing is mixing together some warm (not too hot!) water, sugar and yeast to help the yeast 'wake up' and start working. After it gets foamy, you add it to the bread.
There are lots of options when it comes to flour. Do you use all-purpose flour, bread flour, whole wheat, grind your own, or use a combination? One important thing to note is the amount of protein in the flour. Remember, you need gluten for a good loaf. Even the same type of flour can vary from brand to brand and even regions.
All-purpose flour has been stripped of a lot of the extra parts of the grain, which makes it easier to work with. When I was first trying to get the hang of making bread (and as a test to see if I was really up for it), I used all purpose flour. It is much less complicated than whole wheat or grinding your own. And it is great for all sorts of stuff.
Bread flour has more protien in than other flours. This makes it excellent for making bread. You can also find "high protein flour" which is the same thing. It may be helpful to add some bread flour to whatever other flour you are using if you want to up the protein content.
Wheat flour is great if you really want that wheaty taste to your bread, but I thought it tasted gross compared to freshly ground. When we got married, my husband had some wheat flour and we have since managed to use it up by hiding it in recipes where it is unlikely to be tasted. There are probably some brands that are ok, and it will have a longer shelf life than freshly ground, but grinding wheat isn't that hard, so I prefer that.
Freshly Ground Wheat
Once I decided I was committed to making bread regularly, we got a Vitamix (the dry blade container grinds the wheat) and a bucket of hard red wheat. There are lots of options for grinding your wheat, but the Vitamix has worked fine for our small family and has lots of other fancy things it can do.
I've learned a little bit about different types of wheat too. Hard wheat is what you want to use for breads. Soft wheat is better for other stuff that I don't really do much of. At first I thought white wheat wasn't as good as red wheat since I had heard white bread is bad. Turns out there isn't really much difference nutritionally, but white wheat has a milder taste and I guess it is also easier for some people to digest.
If you are grinding your own wheat, that means you have the whole wheat kernel instead of just a little of it. This is great nutritionally, but makes for a denser loaf. Also, even hard wheat will have a harder time developing gluten than commercial flours.
I have found that adding a bit of vital wheat gluten makes a world of difference in the texture of my loaf, so I add it in with my flour. I got a little bit at Winco to try it out, then order a bunch from Azure Standard. It is expensive, but I don't use very much. The wheat has a protein content in the early teens, the VWG is usually 70-80% protein, so I only add about 1/4 cup per batch (and closer to 6 cups of normal flour).
|This is everything I had in my last loaf of bread (water not pictured): 3 types of flour (red, white and VWG), yeast, salt, sugar and popped amaranth,|
There are all sorts of other things than can be put in a loaf , all with their own purpose. I like what a little bit of fat does to the texture, so sometimes I will add in some coconut oil or butter. Adding grains will add good nutrition, just be warned that it can also get in the way of the gluten and make the loaf really dense. I'm working on mastering the basic loaf and graudally add in a little something extra. This week I put in some popped amaranth just for fun. A cup of cooked oatmeal (or other cereal) makes the bread deliciously moist.
For a shiny crust, you can brush the top with egg or butter. I have also seen oats or flour sprinkled on top to make it look extra fancy.
One time we accidentally spilled the rapadura sugar into the dough (instead of the small amount we had planned) and the bread tasted like molasses. I've used honey in the past and it gives it a nice distinctive taste. There are lots of great options, and that is one of the exciting things about making your own bread. I can make my bread as exciting and interesting as I want, and I can change it up every week if I want.
update: I boiled a few potatoes and threw the potatoes and the water into the blender and added that to the flour along with a little more water. Not your typical potato bread, but it made a really nice loaf! I look forward to experimenting more with that.
It didn't take us long to discover that fresh homemade bread isn't full of preservatives like the stuff at the store. This means it won't last forever. Keeping it in a plastic bag keeps moisture in, which can encourage mold. Keeping it in the fridge will prevent mold but make it stale. A bread box helped a bit, but we still weren't eating the bread before it started to stale. (as a side note, we have made stale bread into croutons and bread crumbs and it seems to last forever in tupperware!)
Now we freeze our extra bread. We will keep out as much as we will eat in a few days, then slice the loaf and freeze it. The night before we want to use it, we pull out a few slices and leave it in the bread box. In the morning, it has thawed and is ready for a sandwich. The defrost setting on the microwave can work in a pinch too.
We store the wheat in 5 gallon buckets and have a gamma lid on the one we are currently using. I have a tupperware with some vital wheat gluten in it and the rest in sealed 5 gallon buckets. The yeast stays in the freezer (until I learn to grow my own).