It’s been weeks since many of us declared our resolutions for the new year, and most of those resolutions have likely been forgotten or even given up on.
One resolution that I have not personally given up on involves baking bread. I’m getting a slow start, but I am determined to overcome my trepidation over baking anything that calls for yeast in the recipe. I swore off yeast breads years ago after several failed attempts. While I was slightly more successful when the bread machine era hit, it was a short-lived phase.
Turning to the Internet for help and guidance, I found many helpful tips to help me reach my goal of baking yeast breads from the reluctantgourmet.com. Here are a few tips that will help me reach success:
Make sure the yeast is alive. This is called proofing the yeast. This really isn’t necessary if starting with brand new yeast, but if the yeast has been sitting in the cabinet a while, it is a good idea to do it.
If using a recipe that calls for putting all the ingredients, including the yeast, in a mixer together and turning it on, warm up a portion of the water called for in the recipe. Yeast will die in temperatures of more than 140 degrees anyway, which defeats the purpose of proofing the yeast in the first place.
Don’t worry over the temperature too much. If it feels warm and comfortable to you, it will be warm and comfortable to the yeast. Add a tiny pinch of sugar, bit of honey or splash of maple syrup, just enough to give the yeast a reason to wake up.
Stir everything together and wait 10 to 15 minutes. If the mixture is nice and foamy with a dense head on top, it is alive and working. If there are no bubbles or foam, the yeast is dead and can’t be used.
Limit the flour in the dough. Many yeast bread recipes call for a range of flour. For example, a recipe can call for 7 to 8 cups of flour. Many people like more precise instructions. As a guide, sandwich bread does best when the ratio of flour to water is 2 to 1.
For every 4.4 ounces of bread flour, you will need 2.2 ounces of water by weight. One half the weight of the flour is the amount of water you should use. Buy a scale for precise measurements. Even if the dough seems too sticky, if the ratio is correct, the bread will be fine. Resist adding extra flour.
Don’t use flour when kneading dough. Even when a recipe says to turn the dough out on a floured surface, resist! Adding extra flour, as stated above, can change the outcome of the bread. Simply spray lightly the counter and your hands with a light mist of olive oil, pan spray or melted butter. Now shape the dough without it sticking so you aren’t tempted to add flour.
There is a difference between a warm, fast rise and a long, cool rise. A faster rise allows you to enjoy your bread sooner, but a slower rise gives you more flavor. Most yeast bread recipes call for two rises. The first is in bowl and the second after shaping. If there’s time, refrigerate dough overnight after shaping.
The next morning, pull the dough out, let it come to room temperature, and finish its rise before baking. Refrigerating the dough at any time before baking is OK, so if you’re called away in the middle of baking day, it’s better to refrigerate, well covered, instead of leaving the dough out on the counter to overproof.
Make slashes on the dough before baking. It will make a pretty pattern on the bread and, more importantly, it will direct how the bread will rise in the oven. Slashing it prevents those air bubbles right under the crust that result in unsightly loaves of bread.
For a sandwich loaf, one long slash down the center of the loaf is all that’s needed. If baking a round loaf, a tic-tac-toe pattern is pretty and allows it to rise evenly. For baguettes, a series of angled, parallel slashes down the length of the dough creates a classic, baguette look.
While bread baking can be a bit daunting to some, myself included, there’s no better reward than fresh, warm bread, straight out of the oven. It is worth a bit of trial and error to conquer the skill and maybe even check off one more New Year’s resolution.
Janelle Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.