Despite doing most of my work in pastry, I’m a bread guy at heart. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but I could eat an entire loaf of good quality bread in one sitting. Plain. Without butter, even. Really good bread is a rare thing, though. It’s far easier to find in your own kitchen than it will ever be to find in a store. There are of course good breads in good bakeries but that’s not what we’ve all gathered here for, is it.
I get a twisted sense of amusement when people act shocked at the thought of making bread at home. People seem to think that this is a somehow insurmountable task, when really it doesn’t have to be difficult. The rewards are well worth it.
One of the things that does make bread baking a challenge is that no recipe can be perfect. Depending on factors like humidity flour absorbs different amounts of liquid and therefore formulas need to be adjusted to get the proper consistency. That’s why many recipes will say you need “3 1/2 to 4 cups of flour,” or something similar. Knowing what’s right will take practice, but in general bread dough should never be sticky when fully mixed. Some doughs are soft and some are harder, but sticky is probably a sign to add more flour. I have a super simple Focaccia recipe that is virtually foolproof and a good way to illustrate bread making.
4 Cups Bread Flour
1 Tbs Instant Yeast
1/2 Tsp Honey
2 Tsp Salt
1/4 Cup Olive Oil
1 3/4 Warm Water
Starting with the flour put everything except the water in a mixing bowl. A stand mixer is a great thing to have, by the way. As you start to mix add the water, but hold back about 10% of it. This is my solution to the variable absorbancy of flour. You may need the full amount, but I usually have a little left over. Add more if after a while of mixing all the flour isn’t picked up by the forming dough. It’s important to only add about a teaspoon of water at a time when finishing doing so. A very little water can make all the difference. Once all the ingredients come together into one lumpy mass, cover the bowl and let it alone for 15 minutes. This is called autolyse.
Gluten, despite what a lot of people would have you believe, is awesome. It is the protein that gives bread its form and structure. Autolyse starts the glutenin and gliadin in wheat coming together to form gluten. Kneading does the rest. You can skip the autolyse step, and all that will really change is that you will have to knead longer. A dough hook and stand mixer will do this for you, but I like to do it by hand every now and then for the feel of it. Knead the dough with the heal of your palm until the dough is smooth and elastic and you can stretch a small piece of it to become translucent without it tearing. This is when the gluten is fully formed. Soon enough you’ll be able to feel when your dough is ready, but I always like to check anyway.
Once this is done, cover the dough in the bowl again and allow it to rise until doubled in size. Because yeast is a living organism, bread is in a certain sense alive. It’s like a pet. We nurture it, feed it and help it grow. Then we bake it and eat it… Okay, so maybe it’s not like a pet. I hope not, anyway.
After our dough has risen once it is time to fold it down. Flatten out the ball of dough (often called a Cob) into a vaguely rectangular shape and fold in thirds. Rotate 90 degrees and fold again. The idea is to mix the outside into the inside and allow some of the air to escape while working the gluten as little as possible. Reform into a ball, gently coat with some olive oil and allow to almost double in size again.
We’re almost done now. Divide the dough into two and roll into circles about an inch thick. Cover loosely in plastic and leave to rise again, this time for about half an hour. Brush once again with olive oil and sprinkle with your choice of toppings. Garlic and rosemary are great choices.
Although this whole process takes about three hours, only about half an hour of that time is pent actually working on the bread itself. Since most of it is waiting for the yeast to do its magic we have plenty of time to do other things with our day. Next time we visit the bread topic, I’ll share a method of making french bread that takes up to three whole days. Best loaf I’ve ever had.
Here is something to listen to while you bake: