Breadmaking Basics

Bread is one of the world’s most basic and universal foods, with ancient roots and too many variations to count. Even though bread is such a staple, breadmaking can seem intimidating to beginners. There’s both an art and a science behind a successful loaf, but with practice, baking bread can become almost second nature. Soon you’ll let the way the dough looks, feels and smells lead the way.

Here are some of the basics to help get you started.

Equipment – You’ll need measuring cups and spoons, a large mixing bowl, a wooden spoon and bread (loaf) pans.

Ingredients – Exact ingredients will depend on the recipe you’re following. But most basic loaves require flour (all-purpose or bread flour), yeast, salt and water.

Time – Most bread recipes call for at least one round of proofing. This is when the dough rises, thanks to the yeast. Plan ahead so you have enough time to see your breadmaking through from start to delicious finish.

Yeast – Yeast is actually a living organism! It “comes to life” when dissolved in warm water, letting off carbon dioxide. Yeast is what causes bread to rise. Most recipes will call for active dry yeast. Some will call for instant yeast, which can be added directly to other dry ingredients. These two kinds of yeast are mostly interchangeable, but let your recipe be your guide.

Mixing the Dough – Some bakers use a wooden spoon. Others use their hands. Others use an electric mixer with a dough hook attachment. In any case, mix the ingredients until the dough starts to come away from the sides of the bowl. It will be sticky and “shaggy” at this point, but that’s fine.

Kneading – This is the fun part, but it’s also very important to your final product. As you knead the dough on a lightly floured board, the gluten develops and eventually the dough becomes elastic and smooth. About 10 minutes should do it; don’t be too aggressive!

Proofing – This is the waiting part of the process. Proofing, or rising, should take place in a lightly greased bowl, covered with a dish towel and put in a warm place (about 75-85°F). Let the dough rest for an hour or two until it’s doubled in size. Punch it down and, if the recipe requires it, give it a second round of kneading and rising. If not, the dough is ready to be put into pans.

Shaping – Your recipe will likely make two loaves, so on a board, divide the dough into two equal pieces. Let the dough rest about 10 minutes, and then gently shape the dough into rectangles as best you can. Place the dough in greased pans. Press it gently to make sure the dough touches the short ends of the pans, but don’t worry, it will fill out as it rises one last time, covered with a cloth, until it’s again almost doubled in size.

Baking – Be sure to preheat your oven to the temperature stated in your recipe. Keep in mind that glass or enamel pans require a slightly lower oven temperature. Set your timer as indicated in your recipe. Sit back and inhale the divine aroma as the bread turns golden brown.

Test for Doneness – If the dough has come away from the sides of the pan, that’s a good sign that it’s done. You can also carefully put the pan upside down until the loaf is released and give the bottom of the bread a tap. If the tap produces a hollow sound, the bread is done. Remove the loaves from the pans right away to cool on a wire rack. Be sure to cool completely before storing--that is, if you haven’t already devoured warm slices or chunks and slathered them in butter!

There’s nothing quite as comforting as the smell of freshly baked bread. And we could all use a little extra comfort these days. Even if your first try doesn’t quite meet the mark, don’t worry. Chances are your skills will improve with every attempt.

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