Bread baking can be tricky sometimes but once you get the hang of it, it’s one of the most satisfying baking projects out there. Here are 7 tips for new bread bakers that I wish I’d known when I first started making bread.
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My mom taught me how to make bread when I was a little girl. It was a really fun activity for a kid, kneading dough, watching it rise, slathering it with butter warm out of the oven (actually, also fun for a grown up).
So when I was first on my own, I thought nothing of cracking open my fresh copy of Joy of Cooking and going to town on one of their bread recipes. Imagine my dismay when the loaf turned out to be pure garbage. But I knew how to bake bread! I’d done it a million times!
Turns out, I didn’t really understand the nuances involved. The little things my mom took care of that I didn’t fully understand. Over the next few years (and lots of phone calls to my mom) here are seven things that I learned about baking bread:
The Second Rise Is Always Necessary
I love to tinker with recipes. When I made that first loaf, I decided that waiting for that second rise was just too much of a pain. Turns out, that second rise is extremely important. It creates air pockets in the dough and shapes your bread into the loaf. Without it, your loaf is very very heavy.
The Amount Of Flour/Water In A Recipe Is Fluid
It depends who you ask as to which ingredient is supposed to be fluid. My mom always says the amount of flour you put in depends on how dry your dough is. Peter Reinhart says that the amount of water you put in the recipe is fluid depending on how dry your dough is. I’ve done it both ways. It works pretty well both ways. My general advice is, if you’re using a professional recipe, change the amount of water. If you’re using your grandma’s recipe, change the amount of flour.
The most important thing is to let your dough speak to you. I know, that sounds crazy, but trust me, it works. If the dough is sticky, add a LITTLE bit more flour. If the dough is dry to the touch, a little more water. Your dough should be tacky like that blue sticky tack your teacher used to hang stuff on the wall when you were a kid. If you are going to err on one side or another, make the dough more wet at first because you always add more flour in on the second knead. We tend not to like to get bread dough on our hands and so we make it too dry and then have a heavy loaf.
Overproofing The Dough Tastes Bad
If you let your bread dough rise (proof) too long the yeast run out of food to eat. Your dough becomes flaccid and smells like skunky beer. When you are making a sourdough culture this is not a bad thing. When you are making direct method (single day, 2 rise) bread, the flavor profile can get intense. You only want to let it rise to about double the size of your starting dough. Depending on the temperature of your house, this usually takes about 1-1 1/2 hours. If your house is unusually warm, this might go faster. Pay attention.
Bread Is Pretty Forgiving
I know I have told you all the things that can go wrong, but really, you can fix the flour/water problem pretty easily. If you let your dough rise too long, punch it down and let it go again, you will just have a little more flavor than you expected.
People Really Love Homemade Bread
I know that I love homemade bread, but I grew up with it. I assumed it was one of those weird things that only my family enjoyed like Dite Rite or excessively sweet desserts. Turns out though, almost everyone I have run into loves homemade bread. And more than that, they love it when you bake bread just for them, shows you’re willing to put out a little effort to say I love you. Luckily, many bread recipes make two loaves. One for you to keep and one to give to someone you care about.
Instant Yeast Is A Lot Easier To Use Than Active Dry Yeast
I grew up using active dry yeast. To make active dry yeast work, you have to add it to a little bit of warm water for 15 minutes at the start of your recipe to “activate” the yeast.
Instant yeast or bread machine yeast needs no warm up. You just add it directly to the dough. This is nice because you don’t have to worry about what that extra bit of water will do to your dough. Instant yeast also has more “live” yeast in it so you can use a little bit less. If your recipe calls for active dry yeast and you only have instant yeast, just remember to add in that extra bit of water because it is usually accounted for in recipes calling for active dry yeast.
Bread Machines Aren’t Necessary
Some people love their bread machines. I am not one of those people. To me, it is a big heavy machine that takes up cabinet space and really limits the kinds of bread I can make. One of the best things about baking bread is its simplicity. All you really need is a bowl, a spoon, some bread pans and time. And most of your bread baking time is really passive time you could be doing something else like laundry or watching the Gilmore Girls on Netflix.