Have you ever wanted to try your hand at making homemade bread? I bake all the bread that our family uses, for several reasons. It's much less expensive to make your own bread, especially if you're buying flour and yeast in bulk. I buy twenty-five pound bags of bread flour and one-pound bags of active dry yeast. I keep the yeast in the refrigerator to make it last longer. The flour gets measured out and put into the freezer, six cups to each freezer bag. Six cups of flour is exactly what I need to make two standard loaves of bread. The other reason that I bake all our bread is that the quality is much, much higher than what you can buy in the store. It tastes better, has a better texture, and gets to be enjoyed when it is fresh from the oven. Part of this improved quality has to do with the fact that homemade bread doesn't have any preservatives or artificial ingredients. I use a little honey (instead of sugar) in my recipe because honey acts as a natural preservative. I also refrigerate some of my bread after slicing it. Refrigerated bread dries out a little bit but it makes great toast, french toast, and grilled cheese sandwiches. If you find that your bread is still succumbing to spoilage, you can always refrigerate half the dough and only bake one loaf of bread. The refrigerated dough will last several days in the refrigerator and it can be used for pizza crust, breadsticks, cinnamon rolls, or just to make another loaf of bread.
I've worked very hard over the past several years to get a system down so that I can make bread as effortlessly as possible. I'll share some of these tips with you. Probably my very best discovery was that I could do both the mixing and the kneading all in one Pyrex® 4-quart Mixing Bowl. These are widely available in the U.S. but I'm not sure about the availability in other countries. The advantage of this bowl is that it has a very wide diameter -- wide enough to give your hand(s) room to get in there and work the dough. The reason that this is important to me is that a flat surface, like a cutting board or a countertop, used for kneading is just one more surface area that needs washing after you're done with your baking. I don't know about you but the less clean-up I have, the better.
Measure out one tablespoon of active dry yeast into the bowl (one tablespoon is about what is in an individual foil packet of pre-measured yeast but this is the most expensive way to buy yeast). Squirt in about three tablespoons of honey (honey is really messy and hard to measure, so I just eyeball this instead of measuring it). Add two cups of warm water. The temperature of the water is pretty crucial. If the water is too cold, it will take much longer for the yeast to activate. If the temperature is too hot, the yeast could actually be killed and might never cause the bread to rise. I always tell people to pretend that they have to give a baby a bath. Don't draw your bath water too hot or too cold and you'll keep that baby yeast happy. Stir up all these ingredients and just let them sit for about ten minutes. You should start to see some bubbles form and this is your assurance that the yeast is beginning to work.
If you've had your bread flour in the freezer, you should have taken it out prior to starting your baking because the flour needs to be at room temperature. If I forget this step, I just pop the flour into the microwave for a short while to warm it up a bit. The quality of the flour that you use is directly related to the quality of your bread. I try to never just use all-purpose flour because the gluten level is too low for the bread texture that I like. Your flour label should read "bread flour" or "high gluten flour." Bread flour is significantly more expensive than all-purpose flour so that's why I buy my bread flour in bulk. When I buy bread flour in bulk, it is actually less expensive than buying all-purpose flour already packaged up and sold in smaller quantities.
Mix up about two cups of the bread flour into the yeast mixture that is already in the bowl. I don't actually measure this -- I have my freezer bag of flour with six cups of premeasured bread flour and I just dump in about a third of the bag. Use a big spoon to mix everything up very well. Break one egg into a small prep bowl and use a fork to lightly scramble up the egg. Add the egg, three tablespoons of vegetable oil, and one teaspoon of salt into the bowl and mix well with the spoon. Don't skip the salt for health reasons because the salt is part of the chemistry of the dough, not just part of the flavoring. Add in another two cups of bread flour and mix with spoon. The batter will be just beginning to get a little stiff so after this step you'll have to abandon the spoon and start using your hands. I used to turn out my dough onto a floured surface and knead the dough with both my hands past this point. You can still do this if you want but it's a lot less messy if you just do your kneading inside a bowl with a very wide diameter at the top. Add the rest of the flour and begin working it into the dough. This part takes some patience but, for me, it's the most soothing and relaxing part of the project. I love the way it feels! I make sure that I've removed my rings and I use one hand to hold the bowl and the other hand to keep working the dough. This takes about ten minutes and you stop once the dough is "smooth and elastic." The dough shouldn't be too dry or two sticky.
After the kneading process is over, I add another couple tablespoons of oil and move the dough around until the dough and the inside of the bowl are coated with oil. Cover the bowl top with a moist towel or paper towel. Let the dough rise until it's double in size (45 minutes to an hour). Punch down the dough to get out the air pockets. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Each of these two pieces is enough dough to make one standard size loaf of bread. You can also bake one loaf of bread and save the other part of the dough in the refrigerator (in a plastic bag is best). I coat the inside of the bread pans with Crisco® solid shortening (nothing else seems to work as well and I would never recommend using butter, margarine, or oil). Shape the dough very quickly into a general bread loaf size and then lay it gently into the bread pan(s). Don't cover the bread pan(s) with a towel or paper towel. Let rise until double (30-45 minutes). Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for exactly 30 minutes. Turn out of pan onto a wire rack and allow to cool before cutting. If you cut into it too soon it doesn't cut cleanly and it also allows so much steam to escape that your bread ends up too dry.
If you want to make wheat bread, substitute wheat flour for about a third of the total white flour and also reduce the amount of white flour that you do use overall. You have to really experiment a bit with this because the texture tends to get too dry when you start using wheat flour. I sometimes add a bit of rye flour and ground flax for a little extra flavor and nutrition. The wheat bread dough is dense and doesn't get as much "loft" as white bread dough does, so I usually add some extra gluten when I add the first round of flour.
This entire process is a lot less daunting than it seems. I wanted to explain the process in detail but it really isn't that hard. Much of what I've described here is just second nature to me by now and it will become second nature for you, too. The breadmaking process and the smell of homemade bread in my home is now very much an enjoyable part of my family life. I hope that it becomes part of yours, too!
For Another Simple But Good Homemade Bread Recipe: