Whether you have been baking bread for years or just starting out, these tips will help you get a perfect loaf, every time, no matter what recipe you are using. These are skills I have learned that took my bread making to a whole new level of improvement, and provided me with a great end product that is a healthier for my family.
Before the industrial age, bread was a healthy staple in most homes. But in the last few generations we have lost the knowledge of how to make delicious and healthy food that is good for us in our own homes.
These skills aren't all that hard to learn, but they just were not passed down to me from previous generations. But if I learned to do them, I'm sure you can do it too!
What I have found is that most recipes and "experts" focus on all the wrong things which is why my bread never turned out very good and never turned out consistently. Looking back at some very old books, I could see a different pattern than what we see today when it comes to recipes. When looking at these recipes it would seem as though there were so many missing instructions and I was confused. For one thing, there seemed to be an assumption that people already knew generally how to bake bread. I found this to be true with my own grandmother, who often times made amazing dishes without a recipe... it was all in her head and no matter how hard I tried, I could never recreate her dishes.
Years ago, it was common for mothers and grandmothers to pass down these skills to the next generation. Our culture has changed so dramatically and one of the downsides is that these skills are rarely passed down anymore. The common techniques that were learned then, now seem hard to come by.
Bread making is a skill... not just a recipe. I have learned, finally, that you can't just use a recipe to make bread. It takes certain techniques to master making consistent home-made bread. Not just by following a recipe. I'll explain more about that in a minute.
First a bit of background information:
Back in 2009, When my daughter was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, I went in to full research mode. One of the things I learned about was how much our health is dependent on what we are feeding our bodies and the amount of nutrient-dense foods we are eating. Food without additives or chemical processing is hard to come by these days which makes it hard to avoiding foods that drag our health down.
By studying, I found that unhealthy grain products are a major health hazard in our world today. Specifically, commercially processed grain products are at the center of this issue. For centuries grain products were the center of healthy eating, but our modern processes are robbing us of the life sustaining power of grains.
With this knowledge I decided I needed to remove store-bought bread from my home. I dove into making my first bread and it smelled so amazing and I was so excited about the whole experience. But I quickly became disappointed when I found it was more like a brick than the slice-able bread I had envisioned.
After several more tries I gave up for a few years. But then I found someone who shared with me the traditional ways of making bread. What she taught me was how to "read the dough" not "read the recipe".
The reason for this is that everyone's kitchen is different. And even my kitchen is different at different seasons and perhaps even different times of the day. Things such as room temperature and humidity all make a difference in bread making. So if you are following a recipe exactly and using the very best grains, you still may end up with a bread that just isn't something you want to eat.
But if you learn the correct bread making techniques, you can apply those to ANY recipe with a large variety of ingredients.
With this in mind, I'm going to do a series of bread making posts to help you learn these techniques and then give you some recipes to start with.
Don't worry, you don't need to have a chemistry set or special measuring equipment to get a consistent bread every single time, no matter what the environment. Our grandmothers didn't have perfectly milled flour or a scale to specifically weigh all their ingredients, and we don't need these either!
Before I share more about the actual bread making techniques, let me cover a couple some common questions you might be asking:
How is there enough time in a busy mom's day to make bread?
You actually don't have to spend that much time. You can make all the bread products you need in only about 30 min. to 1 hour per week! This is the actual "work time" because most of the remaining time is just waiting, and you can do other things while you wait. And what is more, you can train your children as young as 8 or 9 years old to do the same thing. What a wonderful thing to pass this down to the next generation!
Should we really be eating much bread... isn't it unhealthy?
When you look at wheat based products at the store, yes they are quite UNhealthy. You really should avoid those if possible. Modern wheat is so stripped from nutrients, heavily processed and then risen with genetically modified yeast that it is no wonder so many have toxic-laden bodies that lack energy and are overweight.
When you make bread at home you can control many of these factors. I've heard of several people who found that they weren't actually having a gluten problem but rather were having a problem with the chemical-filled, heavily refined, processed wheat. For those that truly do still need to stay away from gluten, the skills I will share can be done with gluten free bread as well.
People like my daughter can greatly benefit from eating bread made at home with few digestion problems. What I used to think was a gluten problem I found instead was a problem with inflammation that comes from these highly processed foods that are stripped from most nutrition, only to have artificial, synthetic ingredients put back in. Our bodies simply can't properly digest these and the results can be mildly disturbing all the way to life altering.
BASIC BREAD MAKING TIPS
How much flour do I need? This is a common problem that happened to me over and over as I tried to follow a recipe.
Look at all recipes as a guide, not an exact measurement. You won't know how much flour to add into your dough. No one can tell you how much flour to add. It will change from day to day depending on the environment in your kitchen. So, if I see a recipe that says "4 cups of flour" then I use that as a guideline and I'll add only about 1 cup to start. From there I won't measure, I'll just add in the flour a little at a time while I "watch the bread."
I'll continue to add 1/2 a cup or so of flour to the bread as I am mixing. I'll be watching the bread slowly form into a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl.
I'll keep on adding flour until I see the bowl getting cleaner and the flour mixing in well to the bread. As I continue to mix, the dough may get a little more sticky and I'll need to add a bit more flour.
I'll see it starting to look like a dough and I'll slow down a lot on the amount of flour I add. Too much flour can make for a dense and very dry bread. Always lean towards a dough that is a little sticky but keep working with it until the bowl starts to become clean as the dough balls up.
By the end of this process, I will have no idea how many cups of flour I have put in. And it doesn't matter. Because tomorrow my kitchen temp and humility may be different so the amount of flour I add will change anyway.
How do I know when to stop adding flour?
It should be very easy to clean the bowl and it won't stick too much to your hands, but will still be tacky. There shouldn't be any big globs of dough sticking to the bowl. And you should be able to pick it up easily without a whole lot of sticking.
How do I know when to stop kneading the dough?
This is a number one issue with bread that doesn't turn out quite right.
Most recipes tell you approximate times to knead the dough such as 5 minutes or 10 minutes. Others may tell you to knead the dough until it is "smooth" or "elastic" but these terms are hard to define!
When dough is not smooth, bakers call this "shag" which means it looks a bit shaggy rather than smooth and elastic.
Instead, there is a very simple test you can use to know exactly when to stop kneading the dough! Here is the test:
As you are kneading the dough, take a small golf ball size of dough and make it into a ball.
When it has been kneaded enough you should be able to start to stretch it to nearly paper thin so that you can nearly see daylight through it, without tearing.
Slowly flatten it out and gently stretch it watching for any tears.
If the dough tears, continue kneading it by hand or with your mixer fitted with a bread hook, adding as little flour as possible as the dough becomes sticky.
Continue until you are able to flatten and stretch a small portion without tearing it.
It is true, the dough should feel elastic and smooth, but this technique will help you know for sure when it has been kneaded enough. Every time you make bread this timing will change so it is important to use this technique each time you make bread.
When when the dough has passed this test, it is ready for the next step which is normally putting it in an oiled bowl to rise until it has doubled. Most of this work can be done quickly with the help of some help from a mixer fitted with a dough hook. I love my Bosch mixer for this purpose! But even when doing this by hand, it can go fairly quickly once you get the hang of it.
Watch for the next post in bread making in which I will share a basic recipe for bread that even a beginner will love!