Teach yourself how to bake bread – start at these basics and you’ll be baking knots, rolls, loaves, braids and more in no time!
There is no joy greater than baking bread – it’s therapeutic, calming and relaxing, if you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s a walk through the hall of horrors, where you are constantly in fear of what’s going to jump out at you. But take that fear out, and you are in for a world of culinary pleasure. There is hardly a civilization in history that didn’t have some form of bread in its culture – the story of Flour and Water is as old as time itself!
While I have nothing against store-bought bread, besides their use of about a billion artificial ingredients, know that nothing tastes as good as freshly baked homemade bread – particularly because you know everything that went into your loaf.
And don’t get discouraged if your first ever loaf of bread turned out dense and stony. I think it took me at least 3 attempts before I made a passable loaf of bread. And remember, it only gets better with each try. So let’s begin!
Let’s talk Flour
There are so many different kinds of flours out there that you can now use, including some wonderful gluten-free options, but I’m going to talk only about the two most commonly used flours in baking: regular all-purpose flour and bread flour.
Bread Flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour, enabling better gluten production, thereby resulting in a firmer, more ‘taller’ loaf. The gluten helps support the yeast and their glorious air pockets more robustly than all-purpose flour can.
That being said, the difference is easily ignored, unless you are a professional baker who’s a stickler for perfection. But for home bakers like you and me, use either of the flours you have at hand.
Only thing to note while substituting, is that bread flour absorbs more water than all-purpose flour, which means if you substitute all-purpose flour in a recipe that calls for bread flour, be prepared to use a bit more all-purpose flour for dusting while kneading.
Let’s talk Yeast
Bread needs yeast, otherwise, it’s just cake. Yeast are microorganisms that exist in the air around us. They feed on sugar and emit carbon dioxide, much like all other life. Yeast is what makes bread soft and fluffy, and creates those glorious air pockets you see when you slice a loaf.
There are essentially four kinds of yeast:
- Sourdough – Simply mix flour and water and let it sit at room temperature. Yeast will feed on the sugars in the flour and break it down through fermentation. This process takes several days to complete and needs constant monitoring and feeding the yeast as it grows.
- Fresh Yeast: This is active yeast, sold in cake form that’s crumbly and moist. It is live and active, hence it has a shorter life span and needs refrigeration.
- Dry Yeast or Active Dry Yeast: Although the name says ‘active’, these are dormant and needs to be activated. To do that, dissolve the active dry yeast in lukewarm water and sugar and place in a warm spot until it gets frothy and ‘stinky’.
- Instant Yeast: Invented more recently than the rest, this yeast is chemically activated through added additives that come alive when it comes in contact with a liquid. Hence, you can add it directly to the flour and skip the activation process.
Perfect proofing temperature
Yeast is happiest in a sugary, moist, humid environment. So always use lukewarm water (think baby’s milk temperature). The perfect proofing temperature is 38°C / 100°F but anything between a 35°C / 95°F and 46°C/115°F is fine.
If using active dry yeast, you’ll need to activate it first. Add the yeast and stir it into the lukewarm water + sugar well and wait till the granules are dissolved. Cover and let sit in a warm spot.
In about 5-15 minutes, the yeast will get activated and look frothy. It is now ready for use.
Let’s get kneading
If using instant yeast, you can skip the activation step and add it directly to the flour and start kneading. Otherwise, add the activated, frothy yeast to the flour along with the other ingredients called for in the recipe.
Use your fingers to bring it together into a rough, crumbly ball. Different recipes form dough in varying degree of stickiness. Follow the recipe and don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t look like this one below.
Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and begin kneading. Use the base of your palm to press and push the dough away from you. Then use both your hands to gather the dough back together. Repeat until you get a smooth, soft, springy dough that you can shape into a ball.
Flatten the dough with your palms and bring the four ends together to the center and pinch the ends closed. Turn it over and roll to seal the seam. You should have a smooth, ball like so.
Cover with a damp towel and let the dough sit in a warm spot for an hour or more. (I keep it inside my oven with the light turned on. You can also run your empty microwave for 5 minutes, turn off and place your dough inside the warm chamber). Essentially, you want the dough to double in size.
Take it out, punch out the excess air and knead for a couple of minutes in a lightly floured surface. You’ll notice that the dough is springier and softer to handle. Good!
Shape the dough as your recipe calls. Get creative! This is truly the fun part. Then place inside a greased container. Here, I used a loaf tin. Cover again with a damp cloth and let it rise again for about 30 minutes. You’ll want it to rise to fill it’s container, but don’t let it unsupervised too much. If it rises too much, as it bakes, there might not be enough gluten to hold all the air the yeast created, and your bread may collapse.
So time the second rise as called for in the recipe. Use a timer. Pay attention.
Once the loaf is risen, brush with egg wash/milk/coconut milk to promote a golden brown coloring of the crust. Bake the loaf in a preheated oven according to the recipe.
You’ll know the bread is done, if 1) the internal temperature reads 200°F / 93°C. Use a digital food thermometer or 2) when you knock on the tin, it sounds hollow.
I always use the thermometer, as each one’s perception of what’s hollow and what’s not, is still debatable.
Tips to remove the bread from the tin
If you are using a cake tin to shape rolls, or you just baked your bread in a pan, you’ll have no trouble taking the bread out of the pan.
But if you used a bread loaf tin, let it cool on a wire rack in the tin for about 15-20 minutes. Loosen the edges with a knife and try to tip it out. It should pop out without trouble. If not, let it cool some more. It will come out when it is ready to come out.
Once out, completely cool the bread on a wire rack before wrapping in foil or paper. Store bread at room temperature for upto 3-5 days. (never refrigerate bread, the air pockets and moisture become breeding grounds for bacteria).
One final tip:
Invest in a digital food weighing scale if you plan to do a lot of baking – baking is not just art, it is also a science. Precise measurements ensure fool-proof results. But if your recipe calls for cup measurements, follow the recipe, but first check if they are using a standard US / UK measuring cup. It won’t make a difference if all the measurements are in cups/tsp/tbsp, but if there is weight measurements involved (grams/oz/ml/fl.oz) for even a single ingredient, it will make a HUGE difference in the results.
I think that’s about it!
Now that you’ve learnt the basics, what are you waiting for??? Pick one of these and let’s start practicing! [ click image to go to recipe]