for beaming, bewitching breads

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Eight Tips for Less Intimidating Bread

1. You don’t “need” a food processor or KitchenAid to make bread dough. You might find it a little easier for a machine to do the mixing for you, but at least personally, it makes my life easier to save dishes. I mix all the ingredients in a bowl with a wooden spoon, getting it as combined as possible, and dump it out onto a floured counter for kneading. Kneading does a great job of making sure everything is nicely mixed. In a further act of dish-saving, I then rinse, dry and oil (Pam or other cooking sprays work great here) and use it for the first rise.

2. When kneading your dough, there are a zillion different approaches, but as long as you are folding, pushing out on and turning your dough, you’ll be just fine, and even if you have no idea what you are doing. Kneading assures that the inside, outside and all parts of the dough come together smoothly. You’re done when you have a nice “sproingy” round, something that seems cohesive, pliable and elastic. Even if you hate getting your hands or the counter very gunky, resist the urge to over-flour a loaf; all that extra flour will just toughen up the end-product. If there is a bit stuck to the counter when you are kneading, use a bench scraper to pick it up and shove it right back into the loaf.

3. Can’t tell if your dough is “doubled” yet? Put away the ruler. Dip two fingers lightly in flour, brushing off any extra, and press them right down into the dough’s Buddha belly. If the hole stays indented and does not spring back, you’re good. Turn the dough exactly as it is onto a floured surface. It will make a satisfying thwunk.

4. I can’t think of a single good reason to “punch” down, and knuckle up, your dough. Such brutality! Once it’s on the floured counter, gently deflate it by sprinkling the top with flour, and pressing your hands flat onto it, like you were tamping down a too-fluffy pillow (could there be such a thing?). As you press it all over with your flattened palms, try to push it into a rectangular or square shape. Doesn’t have to be perfect, just a suggestion of the form. No need to overwork the dough here, you’re doing just fine. Pat yourself on the back, even, leaving others to ponder who gave you that floury hand print.

5. If you are forming a round loaf, fold this square/rectangle into fourths, tuck the corners underneath, and gently rotate it with lightly floured hands, stretching the top over the round and tucking, tucking, tucking under the base. With some practice, a nice stretchy, tense top should form. Move this loaf to whatever cornmeal-sprinkled surface you will use for your final rising. If you are forming a loaf to fit in a traditional loaf pan, figure out which side of your parallelogram more closely approximates the width of the pan, and with that as your sides, fold one third of your dough up from the bottom, into the center, and one third of the dough down from the top, over the center. Turn the loaf over so it is seam side down, tuck the sides under slightly if necessary to make it fit, and drop the loaf in your prepared pan.

6. You don’t “need” a pizza peel to slide your free-form breads onto a stone in the oven. Place your formed loaves (or even pizza) on a cornmeal-sprinkled piece of parchment paper on the back of a baking sheet. When it’s time, open up the oven, pull out the rack with the stone on it, and slide the loaf, parchment paper and all, right onto the stone. Not only does the bread bake just fine on the parchment paper, you’ve kept your stone pretty clean. Don’t have a pizza stone? Bake it right on that upside-down baking sheet, as is.

7. I recently made a pumpernickel bread that told me to take the bread out after an approximate range of time, or when it was “nicely browned.” Hrmph. Although I try to keep things simple, minimizing the number of gadgets and tools I recommend, this is one place that an instant-read thermometer can save you much anxiety. When you’re pretty sure the loaf is done, with a pot holder and a towel, flip the loaf upside down (or onto the towel in your hand, and out of its pan) and take the bread baby’s temperature from the bottom. 220 degrees is oven considered the magic number, but I find it rare that anything but a plain, flour/water/yeast/salt loaf to get up that high, and sometimes not even those. Aim for 210 to 220, and if you have onions, seeds, egg, butter or oils in your bread, aim for 200 to 210. If it reads 180 degrees but looks good, put it back anyway; it’s almost guaranteed to be gummy in the middle. If you come back five minutes later and it’s but 190 and ten minutes after that, still at 190 and so on, take it out. Sometimes breads get “stuck” at a temperature that is lower than it “should” be and as terrifically confusing this step sounds when I promised you I would try to make bread-making easier, just bear with me on this part. I promise, it works.

8. Two things I really can’t live without: Flour in a little shaker container: I borrowed this idea from Michael Chiarello on the Food Network. I keep this in the fridge, and grab it whenever I am making cookies, a tart dough or bread. It coats so evenly, I really don’t know what I did before. Bread enhancer/gluten additive: I use Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten Flour, but I know that other brands exist. Though each variety is different, most have an amount you can add to each cup of flour (in this case, one tablespoon) to make your bread more wonderful. Soft, springy, flavorful. Though I have six flours in the pantry, I almost never keep bread flour, using a combination of this and white flour instead. This is especially helpful when working with lower-gluten flours such as whole grains and whole wheat.

Finally, I want to thank the Joy of Cooking’s Dill Bread for being such an excellent model today, and for filling our apartment with the best aroma. Alex was totally wrong when he called your combination of fresh herbs, onion, honey and cottage cheese “ew,” as you are truly delicious.

Dill Bread
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Makes one 9×5-inch loaf

1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm (105 to 115°F) water
3 cups bread flour (I replaced 1/2 cup of this flour with whole wheat)
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, or 1 tablespoon dried dill or dill seeds
2 tablespoons sugar or honey
1 tablespoon wheat germ, toasted
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup large-curd cottage cheese
1 large egg

Optional, for top of bread:
1 egg, lightly beaten, or 1 tablespoon melted butter
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt or a few dill seeds

Combine yeast and water in a small bowl and let stand until the yeast is dissolved, about five minutes.

Combine flour, onions, dill, sugar or honey, wheat germ and salt in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Add the yeast along with the cottage cheese and egg. Mix by hand or on low speed until the dough comes together, addition additional flour or warm water if needed. Knead for about 10 minutes by hand or with the dough hook on low to medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to an oiled bowl and turn it over once to coat with oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (75 to 80 degrees) until doubled in volume, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Grease a 9×5-inch (8-cup) loaf pan. Punch Gently press the dough down, form into a loaf and place seam side down in the pan. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. If desired, brush the top of loaf with the egg or melted butter, and then sprinkle with the additional salt or dill seeds. (I highly recommend the butter/salt combination.)

Bake until the crust is deep golden brown and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped, about 35 to 40 minutes. (My bread read just about 200°F on a thermometer when I took it out.) Remove the loaf from the pan to a rack and let cool completely.

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