Sometime over the last couple years — arguably, just as this carbohydrate castoff moment has crossed the American table, or more likely in subversive rebellion of it — I’ve become obsessed with baking bread. There’s something so elemental, primitive about setting bacteria loose in milled grains to feast! ferment! to their unicellular heart’s content, guiding it along with humidity and simple sugars and just when things can’t get any better for the little guys — Wohoo! It’s warm in here! — well, we off them so they’ll taste better for us. Hey, I said primitive, right?
So, it is with unbridled excitement that I began at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning the first of three five-hour bread baking classes at the ICE, the perfect 30th birthday present from Alex after months of shameless hints from me. Exactly as I had hoped, I learned a whole lot of new things, some of which I will happily sum up for you in a hopefully less-than-five-hour format.
11 New-To-Me Things I Learned In My First Bread-Baking Class
- The pretty much only difference between All Purpose Bleached and Unbleached flours are the processes used to prepare them; the bleached version is faster and therefore less expensive for manufacturers. (Many say that it causes slightly lower protein contents.) However, they can be used interchangeably as they cause unnoticeably different outcomes. That said, most bakers prefer the unbleached.
- I suppose we may have already known this, but weighing is always superior to measuring with scoops. The teacher showed us three cups of flour measured three different ways. Method 1 was the classic scoop and level — this makes an approximately 5 oz. cup. Method 2 was to gently spoon flour into a cup — this makes an approximately 4 to 4.5 oz. cup. Method 3, which I am all too guilty of, is to scoop and then shake or tap off the excess to level off the top. Bad, bad, bad, this can give you an up to 6 or more oz. cup. You are safest in most recipes with Method 1, but if you know, as we did, that the person who wrote the recipe you are using prefers another (2, in this case) use that.
- Better yet, always leave the last 1/2-cup of flour aside when making bread. As our teacher reminded us, it’s easy to add the extra flour if the dough is too sticky; adding more water if it’s too dry is much more difficult.
- Get comfortable with bread dough on the sticky side as it makes for the softest, least-dense breads. No, not so sticky that you are smearing instead of kneading it across the bench, but stickier than say the type of person (cough) who over-flours things to keep her hands from getting too messy would be comfortable with. Too much flour makes for it harder for the yeast to do its thang.
- This is the one that blew me away: cool temperatures. You know that whole “warm, draft-free place thing” always suggested for first risings? Well, ix-nay the warm. Essentially, long, cool risings develop the best flavors in breads, so the longer you let it grow, the better it will taste. If you bread is growing too quickly, or, if you really have some time to kill, the refrigerator is a great place for it, covered with plastic. It will not kill the yeast. Even better, you could make a dough at night and cook it the next day. Taking the time-sensitive factor out of bread-baking is a total gift to me.
- Rounding the dough, the step between the initial rising and before the final one before its baked, is necessary to allow the dough to recover from the punching down. After you punch down the initial rising, the bread is all verklempt and frazzled. Giving it ten minutes to get itself moving again helps you when you need to create its final shape – be it in a pan or flattened.
- Short of more elaborate tools which will measure your bread, dipping two fingers into flour and then the center of the mound of risen bread is a great way to see if it’s perfectly doubled and ready to be punched down. If the indentation stays, it’s ready, if it bounces back, it’s not. This is used again (well, not in the center but in a less obvious place) when you want to see if your bread is ready for the oven.
- Preheat your oven 25 degrees higher than the recipe suggests, as every time you open the oven, you lose at least this many degrees. Once the bread is in, you can lower the temperature back to the correct one.
- Like with meat, the very best, most reliable way to see if your bread is done is to take its temperature. With the pan breads, we popped them out and checked it from the bottom to avoid many unsightly punctures on top. The bread should be between 190 and 210 degrees F, 210 for basic breads, and lower for enriched breads with eggs and butter. I took out my oatmeal loaf at 204 because it really seemed done and guess what? It could have used 3-5 more minutes. Any instant-read thermometer will do.
- I think we already know how stale this makes them, but don’t refrigerate your bread. Up to a day, they are good at room temperature, but beyond that, the freezer is ideal. (Personally, I think wrapping them twice – first in foil, plastic, or parchment paper and then slipping them into a freezer bag keeps them fresh tasting for a while.)
- Slashing bread is more than decorative, it’s done to control where it pops out when it bakes. We didn’t do this with our pan breads yesterday, but one of the chocolate-orange ones really blew out on one side and not the other, and could have been avoided had we slit it first.
In class one, we focused on pan breads: white, honey whole wheat, cinnamon/raisin swirl, chocolate/orange, oatmeal and a white batter bread. Of these, the one that impressed me the most was the last one — oddly, the only one not kneaded. It is a bit on the tender side, but could be used for sandwiches. It’s even better for toast or just plain snacking.
White Batter Bread
Recipe adapted from class materials at the ICE
Updated 3/12/11: It turns out, this bread recipe had some major problems, problems which I’m terribly embarrassed took me 4 1/2 years (and an utter ignorance towards the handful of concerned comments) to realize were there. 1. I forgot to mention that the dough was to be divided among two pans (yikes!) 2. There was too much salt. Better I fix it late than never, right? While I was at it, I went ahead and halved the recipe to make just one loaf, streamlined the directions and added metrics.
The revised recipe works like the dream this bread was originally meant to be. This is a very quick, very simple, tender white sandwich bread with incredible flavor. It requires no kneading and only one rise, and comes out of the oven in 30 minutes. I realize that white bread has fallen out of favor in the last couple decades, but maintain that if for occasional nostalgia alone (or brown bettys!) it’s a delicious thing to know how to whip up if only so you can eat it warm from the oven, slathered with salted butter.
Yield: One sandwich loaf
1 cup (237 ml) milk, warmed (105 to 110 degrees)
1 1/8 teaspoons (half of one envelope i.e. 1/8 ounce or 3 1/2 grams) active dry yeast
1 tablespoon (13 grams or 1/2 ounce) sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus additional for greasing pan
2 cups (250 grams or 8 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
Whisk yeast into warmed milk and set aside for 5 minutes. Whisk together yeast mixture, sugar, salt and butter. Beat in flour (with a wooden spoon or paddle of an electric mixer) half at a time to make a smooth batter — beat for 3 to 4 minutes with a machine or 5 minutes by hand.
Butter a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Pour batter into pan and cover with a piece of buttered plastic wrap and let rise for one hour. About 20 minutes before it is done rising, preheat your oven to 400°F and remove the plastic from your loaf.
Place bread in oven and reduce temperature to 375°F. Bake for 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle of the bread reads 210°.
Chocolate Orange Bread
From Techniques of Bread Baking 1 at the ICE
Though this sounds more like cake than bread, it is not too sweet and make a perfect breakfast or brunch bread.
1/2 cup warm water, about 110 degrees
2 1/2 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
2 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (remember to reserve some, adding it only if you need)
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa, about 1 ounce
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup milk
One 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 3/4-inch loaf pan, buttered
1. Place warm water in a small bowl and whisk in yeast
2. To mix dough by hand, combine flour, cocoa, sugar, salt, orange zest and cinnamon in a mixing bowl and stir well to mix. Rub in butter until no piece of butter remain visible. Add milk, egg and yeast mixture and stir to form a rough dough. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface (you may need the help of a scraper) and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
3. Place dough in a buttered bowl and turn to coast all sides. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
4. Turn risen dough from bowl out onto a floured work surface. Press down with palms of hands to deflate. To form loaf, stretch dough into a rough rectangle, then fold in short ends until dough is approximately the length of the pan. Then fold far long edge down to the middle. Fold over the remaining long edge and compress to form a tight cylinder. Place the loaf in the pan, seam side down. Cover the pan with plastic wrap (deb note: you’ll want to quickly spray or oil the top of it so it doesn’t stick to the plastic when it rises) and allow dough to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
5. When the loaf is rising, preheat oven to 375 degrees and set a rack at the middle level.
6. When the loaf is completely risen, place in oven and immediately lower temperature to 350 degrees. Bake about 30 to 40 minutes, until well risen and firm to the tough. The internal temperature of the bread will be about 210 degrees when it’s done. (deb note: might be as low as 190, as this has an egg and butter in it). Unmold the loaf to a rack to cool.