Baking bread was once a common skill. Before the introduction of mass-produced bread, housewives were expected to bake bread for their families. With a little practice, modern cooks can recapture this skill and make wholesome, delicious homemade bread.
Working with Yeast
Most cakes and muffins are leavened with baking powder or baking soda, which produce a chemical reaction that lightens the batter. Yeast is a living organism that raises bread dough as it reproduces. Because it is a living organism, yeast must be fed and kept warm. If the yeast is killed, the bread will fail.
The easiest type of yeast to work with is active dry yeast, which is sold in foil packets. A typical bread recipe will call for soaking one or two packets of active dry yeast in a warm liquid (such as water or milk), then adding a sweetener to feed it.
If the liquid is too hot or too cold, it can kill the yeast. If too much sweetener is added, it can inhibit yeast growth. To protect the yeast, try these tips:
- If the recipe recommends a specific temperature for the liquid, (110 degrees, for example) place a candy thermometer in the liquid and heat it slowly on a low setting.
- If the recipe specifies only “lukewarm,” test a drop of the liquid on the inside of your wrist. If it feels slightly warm but does not burn, it’s a good temperature for the yeast.
- When adding a sweetener, measure it carefully. If the sweetener is a sticky liquid like honey or molasses, coat the measuring spoon or cup with a little oil. This will ensure that all the sweetener ends up in the mix, not stuck to the spoon or cup.
In addition to liquid, yeast and sweetener, a typical bread recipe will also call for salt and possibly oil, butter or eggs. These ingredients are mixed into the activated yeast and flour is added one cup at a time until a dough is formed.
Kneading Bread Dough
Bread dough is ready for kneading when it forms a mass that can no longer be stirred with a spoon. Kneading develops the gluten in the dough, which creates a firm, tender crumb in the finished bread.
- Sprinkle a fine layer of flour on the kneading surface and place the dough on it.
- Newly mixed dough will feel ragged and sticky, but don’t panic; kneading corrects this.
- Some bakers like to pat some flour onto their palms before kneading.
- Slip one hand under the dough and fold it toward you. Then gently push the folded dough away from you using the heel of your hand.
- Continue folding and pushing, gradually turning the dough in a circle as you knead it.
- When you add flour, sprinkle it beneath the dough and let the action of kneading absorb it.
Well-kneaded dough should be stretchy but firm. Cookbook author Molly Katzen calls this texture “earlobe–like.” Another way to test the dough is to rest one hand on it for 30 seconds. If no dough clings to the hand as you lift it, the kneading is complete.
Letting the Dough Rise
With the yeast activated and the gluten developed, the dough will need a warm place to rise. It should be neither too hot nor too cold. Sixty to eighty degrees Fahrenheit is usually a good temperature. Some bakers turn their oven to ‘warm’ for a few minutes, then turn it off and set the dough on the stovetop. Sometimes the top of the refrigerator is both warm enough and out of the way. Wherever the dough is left to rise, it should be covered. Older recipes will suggest a tea towel, but a sheet of plastic wrap that has been sprayed with oil works well and makes cleanup easier.
The dough should double in bulk during the rising. When a finger gently poked into the dough leaves a dent that does not immediately fill in, the dough is fully risen. If the recipe calls for two risings, the dough will now be punched down. To punch it down, push a fist into the center of the dough. Turn the collapsed dough out onto a floured surface, knead briefly, and shape into rounds or loaves. This is a good time to preheat the oven; second risings are more rapid.
Fully baked bread will shrink away from the sides of the pan and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. It should be cooled on wire racks before slicing.