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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Baking your own bread is an excellent self reliance skill!

Fresh from the oven homemade white bread…glorious!  Nice shot by Terwilliger911 on FlickrAn excellent and easy to acquire self reliance skill is baking your own bread. It’s really quite simple if you understand the basic concepts. While man cannot live by bread alone, bread is the staff of life. (Quick, can you come up with any more platitudes that mention bread?) So let’s walk through a basic bread making session… This procedure will make about two loaves of a good, basic white wheat flour yeast bread. Yes, there was originally a recipe; but I started weekly bread baking when I was about thirteen years old and have just been following the concept for many years. It absolutely works just as well. Besides, there is virtue in being able to turn out bread with what you have to hand. There is apparently a common misconception that baking bread “takes a long time”; well…sort of. Kind of like doing weekly laundry for a family “takes a long time”. It may take the better part of a day to get it done, but it’s not the only thing you’re doing during that time. I usually figure I have to be at home for six hours to get a batch of bread done. There’s probably an hour of actual “work” in there, total.

Best get a cup of tea; this turned into a monster post, LOL!

You will need:

A large bowl. Larger than an average mixing bowl.
A small pot
Measure devices, if you use them…I don’t, so much, for bread but suite yourself.
A couple pans; loaf pans, casserole dishes, pizza pans, cookie sheets. Whatever.

Flour…about five pounds, to be safe
Sugar…a half cup or less
Butter…a couple cubes, or half a pound, or 1/2 cup
Salt…a couple of teaspoons
Dried ground ginger…a teaspoon
Water…unchlorinated is best; use what you have

The first thing to look at is the flour. What makes the “crumb” or texture of the bread is the gluten from wheat. Gluten is a long chain protein molecule, and when you knead the bread you stretch and align the gluten molecules. Yes, as good cooks who have celiac disease will tell you, there are ways around using wheat gluten but traditionally some form of wheat is what basic yeast bread is. The higher the gluten, the better and more spongy the bread is because the elasticity of the dough (caused by the gluten) traps the little air bubbles from our yeast buddies.

There are different flours available. Generally speaking, your basic white flour will do just fine. I personally only buy unbleached white flour for several reasons, one of them being that in my experience it makes better bread; also, unbleached flour is more nutritious and digestible. There is also flour that proudly proclaims “Better for Bread!” on its label; it’s simply ground from a higher gluten wheat, and it is better for bread…but not so much better that I’d pay an extra 30% for it. Just check your cupboard for whatever flour you would use to make cookies, cakes, biscuits or pie shells. It’ll work fine.

You’ll need yeast. Well, it is a yeast bread we’re making here, right? Simplest approach for a beginner would be to pick up a package of yeast the next time you go to the store. Dry yeast is usually in the baking aisle, but there may still be stores that have cubes of yeast in the refrigeration section. I haven’t found those in years, though. It makes little difference which one you use. You’ll need one packet, or one cube, or a scant tablespoon from a jar of yeast for one batch of bread. Don’t be afraid to pick up a string of three packages of yeast, or a set of four cubes, or a small jar; if you keep it in your refrigerator it will stay asleep and be perfectly good for many months.

Those little yeast beasties need something to eat; that’d be sugar, most simply, or honey….or real maple syrup, or corn syrup, or any other toothsome sweet syrup or such. Sugar substitutes won’t work; this is food for the yeast beasties, not entertainment. If you use anything other than plain white sugar, even brown sugar, it will likely impart some delicate flavour to the bread. For your first time through, I’d recommend plain sugar or the lightest flavoured honey you have.

You’ll need fat. Butter, margarine, lard, shortening… Fat. Also salt. Not much of either, but some. Fat and salt carry flavour, and the fat also retards the yeast growth at a certain point in the process. You can also use oil, various, but for the first time out I recommend butter, or perhaps margarine if you have something against butter. They are tastier than shortening or lard, and oil will give you a slightly different bread; experiment with oils when you have the basic receipt down pat.

So—we start with the proof. Technically speaking, in this day and age you can probably skip this step but decades ago it was prudent to “prove” your yeast before you committed precious ingredients to the bowl. It doesn’t hurt anything to take the extra ten minutes for this step, and it’s fun. Into your large bowl, put about a half cup of very warm water. Remember you are dealing with live creatures here, so don’t make it too hot. You are, however, trying to wake the little cryogenic beasties up so too cool will slow down the process, perhaps even to the point of it never really starting. The water should be about the temp of a baby bottle, for those of you who have that reference point. Add about a teaspoon of sugar, and about a half a teaspoon of dried ground ginger. Ginger excites the yeast and gives you a better rise. It also provides an indefinable background flavour in the bread. Now—sprinkle your dried yeast over the warm, prepared water or smoosh your yeast cube up and mix it in. Take about ten minutes to think contemplative omniscient thoughts while you stare meditatively into the bowl. At a certain point, you’ll see a “bloom”…think of a coral reef in time lapse photography. Congratulations! Your yeast is alive and lusty, ready to work its magic in your bread. If you don’t see any action after about fifteen or twenty minutes, your water was too cold, the spot you set it was too cold, or you got a bum deal on yeast. Try again.

Now for the sponge. Give the proof some more sweet…a quarter of cup, a third of a cup, a glug of honey or syrup. Some. Your yeast beasties have been multiplying, and you want them to multiply more; feed them. Add a couple cups of nicely warm water, and stir in about four cups of flour. You want something that looks like wet concrete, heavier and more gooey than cake batter, much looser than cookie dough. Now set the bowl aside in a warm place to work. You may want to put a damp towel over it, particularly if you have pets. Cat hair in the bread is nasty. Give it anywhere from a half hour to an hour and take a peak. It should look alive, like bloopy white lava. If you bump the bowl, bubbles should burst in a tired sort of manner.

Making the sponge into dough is the last step involving ingredients. Melt about a cube of butter or margarine in a small pan (1/4 to 1/2 cup). Take the pan off the fire and add about a cup and a half of water barely as warm as tepid to the pan; this will cool the hot butter. Throw in the couple teaspoons of salt. Stir it all up. If you can set the pan on the palm of your hand without burning yourself, it’s cool enough. Pour it over the sponge. Get your flour sack or container of flour on the counter next to your bowl. Now comes the messy part! Stir it all up good with your hand and start adding flour. Four to six cups to start, for sure. You’ll probably need more…how much more depends on several things, not the least of which is the condition of your flour. Older flour is dryer, so you’ll need more water. In a high humidity area, you may need less. You’re after a cohesive dough, but not something so loaded with flour that it feels like a dead brick. You kind of have to be willing for it to be a little sticky at this point, as the liquid will soak into the flour during the first rising to a degree. You don’t, however, want to feel like you’re being eaten by The Blob. If that’s the case, use a butter knife to scrape your kneading hand off, sprinkle about a cup of flour around the edge of the dough, flour your hands and try again.

Kneading the dough is a simple, dance-like motion. You can get quite a rhythm going once you figure it out. Gather the dough together; slid your hand, palm up, under one side of the dough. Lift your hand straight up a bit, and fold the dough over onto itself; push the heel of your hand deep into the middle of the mass of dough and push away from you, stretching the dough. Give the dough a quarter turn, and repeat. Remember, it’s the kneading that excites the gluten and gives your bread that wonderful texture. This is also a great place to gently take out frustrations. Don’t be gentle and lady-like here; work the dough! You can knead the dough for about five minutes or till you’re out of breath or your arms hurt, if you’re not used to this sort of work out. Roll the dough over so its smooth side is up, and cover it to rise again.

Let it rise till it’s twice the size it was. Now, punch it down (yup, a fast fist right into its gut…karate yell optional) and knead it up again, just as before. Cover it again, let it rise again, punch it down and knead it up again. Divide it into two or three loaves, put it into or on whatever greased pans suit your notion of bread. Let rise in the pans till double once again.

Slide the bread into a hot oven (375 degrees) for ten minutes, turn it down to 325 degrees for forty minutes. You can tell it’s done by tipping it out of the pan and thumping its underside; it should sound hollow. If you’re not sure, put it back in for ten minutes. If you’re familiar with your oven and think it doesn’t lie about its temperature, that really should do it.

Once out of the oven, butter the tops. This adds flavour, makes the crusts soft and tender, and helps the bread to keep better. This should take several minutes if done thoroughly; by the time you’re finished, the bread will have cooled enough to tip out of the pans to finish cooling, which should take about an hour; it must be completely cool before you bag it or it will sweat and leave spots on the crust. Yeah, like you’re going to have been smelling that marvelous homemade bread for the past hour or so and just walk away and let it cool all the way to be bagged up, right? HA!

Never slice hot bread; only tear it. Taking a knife to bread barely cool enough to handle mashes it and makes it gummy. You can use a couple of forks to pull it apart, too. If you are in a household of several people and you pull bread out of the oven when most of them are home, just figure the first loaf is a write-off. Put out softened butter, cream cheese, jams, jellies, honey….and stand back.

Go ahead, try it. Baking your own bread is easy, and a sold step towards self reliance. Watch for the next Tuesday post where I will go into ways to change up the above procedure to make all sorts of different breads using all sorts of different things. I’ll be checking comments here to answer any problems you might have with the above directions, and looking for suggestions on kinds of bread you want to read about next week. Feel free to use my Contact Me page, too!


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