Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bread is not scary: Ingredients

I love bread. Everyone in my house loves bread. Unless you are a communist or on some fad diet (sorry Mom A.), you love bread. Let's face it. The bread you buy in little plastic bags at the grocery store sucks and is expensive. It has about 20 ingredients. That's a shame because bread really needs a few things: flour, water, yeast, sugar, oil and salt. Six ingredients, not in grandiose proportions either. Six things that are all natural and good for your family.


Lots of people are scared of making bread. They think its hard, but really, it's not. That is, it's not hard if you have an understanding of how bread is made. Also, you need to understand baking in general, which is more science than you realize (shoulda paid attention in chemistry!!). I'm going to break baking bread down into three parts to make this simple: Ingredients, Dough, and Baking. The recipe I use will come at the end of the process, so maybe that's four parts? We'll all find out soon enough.   

To be honest, every time I read or hear of baking disasters, it all comes down to not knowing the proper use of kitchen tools and methods of baking. We are so used to getting things out of box, which is very forgiving, that we forget what we learned in school or from our elders about baking and cooking. When you remember (or discover) what home-made food tastes like, its incredibly hard to choke down that box and canned junk. That's especially true with bread.

Rule number one (of cooking and baking): Know your ingredients.

I will now school you on what you absolutely need to know about bread's ingredients:

Flour is essential. There are many choices of flour when you go to the grocery store. In an ideal world, I would prefer unbleached organic bread flour. Yes, I said BREAD flour. It's too bad I'm poor at the moment, so I get whatever bread flour is on sale. We should all know and acknowledge that higher the quality, higher the price, but better the end result in your kitchen. The economy blows and my husband was outta his regular, lucrative employment, so even we've been suffering with lower quality. Still, lower quality flour makes better bread at home than that $3.99 loaf at the grocery store, so if you are poor, too, you can still make bread.

You can use wheat flour, but I prefer white. Sometimes I get crazy and do half wheat and half white when I think my family needs to poop more. To me, wheat tastes funny so that I never use all wheat (okay, I did once, but couldn't eat it!). You  may love it and may use it. As long as you have some sort of bread flour, you'll be okay. And even in a pinch, any flour can work. I've used all purpose flour before with decent results, but it isn't as good as bread flour bread. Don't be a dumby and start subbing exotic or strange flour unless you know what you are doing. If you know what  you're doing, you probably don't need to read this information.

It's a good idea to keep your flour in an air tight container and not the silly paper bag it comes in. Moisture will ruin your flour (even moisture in the air!). It's also messy to work with the bag and cleaning up isn't easy (remember flour and water make glue). Plastic storage containers are great. Glass works, too, just make sure that you have a glass lid that seals well. Wooden lids will add a "flavor" to your flour over time, so avoid these... unless you like a smokey-woody flavor (and then I question your ability to exist).

When measuring flour, spoon it into a dry measuring cup and then use the back of a butter knife to level it off. I like to call this the 'spoon and level' method.

"Spooning" flour into measuring cup- you can use a spoon or a smaller measuring cup

Leveling flour with the back of a butter knife

Water is a wonderful thing when its the right temperature. It needs to be warm, but not hot. I run the tap on hot for a minute, or five depending on whether or not my hot actually turns hot. (My faucet is temperamental!) Then I fill my liquid measure. Make sure to use a liquid measure because a dry measure won't be as accurate. This is science, too, not just baking, so accuracy really counts.

I'm at eye level with the one cup line.
Pyrex measuring cups are awesome!
Once you fill your liquid measure- STOP!! Set it on your counter then squat down. Make that one cup line at your eye level. Remember in chemistry class how the teacher told you to do that when measuring out dangerous chemicals? Same rule applies to baking. You can see here that this isn't quite a cup (8 ounces in one cup, by the way). I added a bit more water after I took the photo.

Yeast is alive!! Yay!!  It think its very exciting stuff that you can read about here. I'm still learning about yeast, to you tell you the truth, but I'll share what I've learned with you. (and I learned from my own experience, failures and research).  I use the stuff in the jar that is for bread machines (also known rapid rise). I find it suitable whether or not I use the bread machine to make bread dough. Active Dry is probably better if you don't have a bread machine.

You can experiment with different kinds without too much failure, just make sure you understand the yeast you are using. Active Dry, Rapid Rise and Bread Machine yeast should all be activated (in my opinion, which for me is right 99.9% of the time). Activating yeast is simply combining a sugar, the yeast and warm water, letting it sit until it gets smelly and frothy.

Honey (sugar) & Yeast in bread machine pan

After adding water and being allowed to sit for 10 minutes the yeast has a frothy head.
That activation is going to make your bread light and fluffy instead of dense and chewy. Even if you have a bread machine, activate the yeast. It's completely worth it and allows your machine to be more than a clunky counter-top decoration. In my bread machine, I do the reverse of the recommended procedure: first I activate the yeast, then add the other wet ingredients and finally the dry.

Store yeast in the freezer or fridge once you open it. (I don't do this with the packets) In the freezer it will keep for about a year. In the fridge it will last about 6 months. I keep mine in the fridge. It's best to let the yeast come to room temperature when you use it, but I hardly ever remember to pull out the the yeast I need in the morning. Using it cold won't hurt.

Sugar is sweet, but it also is necessary for activating the yeast. When it comes to sugar, you don't have to be exact. I hardly ever measure my sugar in a bread recipe (which calls for 2 tablespoons), but I'm good at eying it out. You just don't want to turn that 2T into half a cup. You can give or take one tablespoon, I find.

White sugar isn't the only kind you can use, either. I prefer honey for two reasons: it tastes good and it is not metabolized as quickly by your body. You can also use brown sugar, specialty sugars or whatever your heart desires.

Here's the catch: You have to use REAL sugar of some kind. Products like Sweet n' Low, Equal, Splenda or even natural substitutes like Stevia (which I do use) do not have the same effect on the yeast as real sugar. That means your yeast won't activate and you will have an icky bread. I sometimes use Stevia and some honey or sugar... just make sure to use about a tablespoon of something real with your substitute to make those yeasties happy!

Oil is slippery, but yummy. Remember to measure this stuff like you would water. Really, you can use any kind of oil. I have often wondered if bacon grease would work because bacon makes it better. Since I'm poor, butter is sometimes a luxury even though it tastes best. I have used half butter- half olive oil, all olive oil (not extra virgin, that is for dipping and dressings- use regular olive oil for cooking!) margarine from a tub and canola oil and half and half version of all of those without a problem.

If you are using butter, make sure to melt it and measure it correctly. Those little papers that come on a stick aren't always placed on the stick accurately, so be careful. Better to start small and work your up than try to reconstitute butter because its $5 a pound and you are down to your last fiver.

Salt I find is more important than ya think in bread. You can substitute Potassium Chloride for salt (or use another sub on the market), but its not quite the same. Salt just rounds out the flavor. Other than that, I'm sure its useful scientifically, but I'm no expert; I would venture to guess expertly that it rounds out the leavening process, too.

A note about combining ingredients:

Are you getting excited yet? We are almost to the recipe :). A smarty pants could almost figure it out from here. 

Remember how I said to activate the yeast? Good. When you are making this basic recipe, that is the first thing you are going to do. If you are using a bread machine, make sure to close the lid of the machine while the yeast mixture is activating. If you are doing it by hand, cover your bowl with a tea towel or cutting board... anything that will keep in the heat created from the chemical reaction happening in your bowl.
Melt your butter or measure your oil while you are waiting on the yeast. Have it ready to go. It's a PITA when you forget to do this step.

When the oil is ready, add your dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Then give those fluffies a whisking! Yes, always whisk your dry ingredients. Always, always, always. This helps the flour (and other stuff) incorporate itself better into the wet stuff. Your end result will be 10 times better.

It's important to have some understanding of the ingredients and the science of it all. You don't need to be Martha Stewart or Albert Einstein, just interested and semi-intelligent. I used to think I couldn't bake, but here I am- and I'm a klutzy, absent-minded, silly girl with a loaf of fresh baked bread waiting for her to cut into.

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