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How Hard Is Baking Bread?

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  • Betty Botox Feb 3, 2005 12:02 PM
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Just ordered Jeffrey Alford's FLATBREADS & FLAVORS, with the intention of learning to bake at home. How difficult is it? On a scale from 1 to 5, 5 being the most difficult. Am I over my head here?

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  1. This isn't really something to which one can assign a rating. Bread baking seems intimidating at first, but after some practice it will seem ridiculously easy. The most important thing is to follow the instructions carefully the first few times. As you gain more experience you'll develop a sense of where you can experiment and make your own modifications to vary the results.

    I'm not familiar with the book you mentioned, but I recommend for your first try that you find a book with a good "beginner" bread recipe. I used the one in the original Moosewood cookbook, back when I was a teenager. "Beard on Bread" is another good place to start, or with one of the Bernard Clayton books. Your local library would be a good place to look at some different ones. There's also usually a good basic recipe on the bag of King Arthur all-purpose flour.

    There's been lots and lots of discussion of bread baking on Chowhound. Try some searching or do ctrl-f on each page of the board and enter some keywords. When you have specific questions there's lots of expertise here to help you out.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Buttercup

      It's a good book -- part coffee table picture book, part decent recipes -- but wouldn't be my first choice for someone who's never baked bread before. And for that matter, the bread recipes are indeed limited to flatbreads as the title suggests.

      1. re: MikeG

        Thanks everyone for your kind help. Yes, I assumed his book was a coffee table book since his others are as well. But this is a different book from the one he did with his wife that IS a coffee table book. I had wanted to do flatbreads as opposed to loaf bread. Foolishly or not foolishly, I assumed flatbreads would be easier to learn on. Only time will tell, I guess. Many thanks for all the advice and names of books. Thank heaven for amazon.com.

        1. re: Betty Botox

          Many flat breads are very similar to bread with no levening agent or unrisen levened bread, so flatbreads should be no more difficult than any other simple bread on average.

          1. re: Betty Botox

            Hmmm. I'm not sure I would say they're "easier," more like different. But they're not all unleavened so it will give you some exposure to yeast doughs and as in their other books, the pictures are great if all else fails. LOL

            IMHO, the only really "difficult" part of baking most regular sorts of bread is getting some experience with how they react in the oven, when they're done, etc. The dough part is pretty easy as long as you don't try to take shortcuts at first and you're willing to put some elbow grease into kneading or have a machine to do that for you. ;)

            1. re: Betty Botox

              I bake challa every week. I started because I was getting carpla-tunneley. I have been doing it regularly for the past two years or so. I think of it as hand therapy...with a side benefit of having great challa on friday nights...my kids now hate store bought challa...my challa has improved a whole lot since I starte..it is deeply satisfying...trust your hands...be surde to knead until you feel the texture of the dough change...there seems to be a chemical change that goes on in the flour molecules...similar to what happens when a cornstarch based white sauce becomes smooth and silky..

              have a blast...

              1. re: sarah

                Dear Sara & Family:

                Shabot Shalom. Did I say that right? God bless you for being such a good person. I'm not Jewish but I really respect people who find enormous comfort in their religion and ethnic culture. Thank you for sharing this with me. Hugs from Betty

                1. re: Betty Botox

                  yup!! message received... but you could do the same with any sort of a bread...my parents made challa and also a killer whole wheat bread that we used to eat all week...

                  I still have not made whole wheat bread...but living here in newyork...we have access to really great bread...I think that if I lived where bread tastes like cotton i would bake more bread..just do it..like everyone else here says...it's forgiving stuff..

                2. re: sarah

                  I live in a neighborhood heavily populated by people of Italian heritage. One day I was looking for some bread in that section of the supermarket and noticed that the shelves loaded with challah. I asked the person in charge of the bread section why there was so much challah on the shelves since the neighborhood had only a small number of people of Hebraic persuasion residing there. I laughed at the response, "Lots of people like challah for making French toast."

            2. re: Buttercup

              Another very good book on bread baking is Rose Levy Breanbaum's Bread Bible. It has very thorough and covers the subject in depth. Just get in there and do it. It just takes practice.

            3. Flatbreads and Flavors is a good book, but there are fewer than a hundred bread recipes. There are many more recipes included for food to eat with the flatbreads, which I think work more sucessfully than the bread recipes. The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum is great for beginners. She talks you through each step. KG

              1. Often the answer to that question is, "how interested are you in doing it?" Like much cooking, it isn't difficult, but you may have to take a couple of runs at it before you start to get the hang of it.

                HTH

                1. The only way to know is to jump in and try it. I've been making bread at home on and off for 20 years. Still not as adept as my grandmother was but I do enjoy it and have gotten pretty good at it. I like Amy Scherber bread book of Amy's bread in Manhattan. Flatbreads, though, are a good way to start. Need any help, we're all an email away. good luck.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Doreen

                    What a great reply. Thank you. I live in New York and work very close to Amy's Bread on 9th Avenue. But getting to her 16th Street store on the concourse wouldn't be difficult either. Do you think she would let me come in one day a week and learn how to bake bread and work for free? I would be willing to clean up and do odd jobs there people would rather not do. What do you think? Should I even ASK her something like this?

                  2. It is not hard at all, especially if you have a dough hook on your mixer (I still like to knead by hand, though, just for fun). It's often just a matter of doing it once with someone who knows how. My mom once helped out a friend who'd been trying to bake bread for 20 years and always failing. They baked bread together, and the friend was amazed at the step where you let the yeast proof (get foamy) in the warm water. She'd never known you were supposed to do that. That was it. She never had trouble again.

                    Some of the "beginner" books seem to make it needlessly complicated, with sponges and pastry scrapers and all kinds of picky stuff. It's actually quite forgiving, as long as you don't kill the yeast. I once had a friend who kept punching down bread dough for 3 days because she couldn't find time to bake it (college-- you know how it is), and once she did bake it, it was a little denser than it probably would have been, but still very good.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Jess

                      I have to agree on the baking (or even cooking) stigma that lingers to this day. Food (in this case bread) can be very forgiving. Pioneers made bread without dough hooks, the Romans made bread without silicon pastry brushes and I'm sure the bread was quite delicious. All you need are the ingredients, a bit of practice, basic knowledge of what to do and a bit of courage.

                      1. re: Curtis

                        Oh, and steer clear of bread involving Oat Flour... the times I've tried it was positively gross (Unless I'm just missing something) :)

                    2. s
                      Seattle Rose

                      Betty,

                      Bread baking is not terribly difficult. Don't be intimidated. And don't be afraid to do the kneading by hand -- actually, I prefer to do it that way even though I have a big ol Kitchen Aid. I recommend Nick Malgieri's book, "How to Bake". It has a wide variety of breads and techniques included. Relax and have fun! Even if your first loaves aren't perfect, chances are they will taste good!

                      1. I use my bread machine to mix and then do the rest by hand. It's the easiest way for me but if necessary, I could do it by hand and know how to, I think that's the most important part.

                        I had bread that literally came out the size and shape of a basketball but was the tastiest stuff in the world, I've had bread that didn't rise, bread that was too dense, bread that had a slight bitter aftertaste (Wheat flour goes bad? who knew?), and the WORST was a molasses, walnut, bleu cheese bread that was wretched. All in all, I've had many more successes than I've had failures and the fun is the failures make GREAT stories and teach you to laugh.

                        Enjoy it. Trust your instincts, have some fun.

                        1. I'm surprised to be the first in this thread to recommend the Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown. Considered by many to be the best book on bread baking. Especially good for beginners. I know many folks, including myself, who learned to bake bread from this book. I can't recommend it enough as a wonderful place to start exploring bread baking.

                          1. I learned from the good old Joy of Cooking. It's much, much easier than making pies or pastries. Very forgiving, lots of latitude and leeway, as long as you stick to the basics.

                            What can go wrong? Well, the yeast could be bad, but if you proof it, you'll catch that. Then you can save the recipe by adding good yeast.

                            You might not have a good place for it to rise, but that will become obvious when the dough just sits there doing nothing. You can save this, too, by simply moving to a better location.

                            You might add too much flour or too little flour, but even that is going to taste pretty darn good, even though it might look a little funky.

                            You could burn it -- no saves for burning.

                            Even if it's mediocre, it will still be many times better than storebought.

                            1. I'm not an expert in baking bread, but I have done it. I do not use a bread machine or an electric mixer. Every thing is done by hand.

                              I've used yeast that was kept in the fridge, but its expiration date was 4 years hence. Always proof yeast. I don't care what the manufacturer says. Never add rapid rise yeast to flour before proofing.

                              Water is critical. It determines the density of the bread. If you want it light and airy, more water is needed than for rustic dense bread.

                              Bread flour has a higher gluten percentage than does all-purpose flour. It also requires more water than the latter.

                              Get a copy of Carol Fields book, The Italian Baker, published in 1985 at $35. I got a hardbound copy off the internet for less than $8 not including shipping and handling. The author describes preparation by hand, by mixer, and by processor for most recipes. Her commentary is excellent.

                              Get in there and play with your food. Never mind what your mother told you.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: ChiliDude

                                Excellent advice.

                                I'm not an expert either, but I make Italian bread about every other week, focaccia every couple of months, and pizza several times a year. I almost never bake any kind of cake, cookies, etc. Just bread. I think bread is much easier than those things. I also do everything by hand.

                                I have a few additional comments.

                                Try to work with the bread with your hands rather than the standing mixer/dough hook, bread machine, etc. You will soon understand the feel of when it is right. That will help you improve the quality, make adaptations if you wish, and have more consistency in your product. Flour will take more or less water depending on the storage conditions and ambient humidity. The only way you will know is if you learn the feel of the bread and associate it with your end product.

                                And kneading bread by hand ranks high on the list of pleasurable activities.

                                If you can, have someone who is an experienced bread baker show you and let you feel the bread at various times during the process. You'll learn faster that way. But it's not necessary if you don't know anyone. Just read as much as you can about bread baking in your book before attempting the recipes. Then go back and reread afterwards, and it will make more sense.

                                When you're first experimenting, get a large package of yeast and keep it in the fridge in an airtight container. As noted above, it will stay good for a long time, and you can always check it. I have found much more variation among types of yeast. And particularly, I have found variation in the single packets, probably because of age and more likely improper storage. This way, you will have yeast as a relative constant. If there are variations in how well your bread rises, you will know it is another ingredient or the technique.

                                You also should try at first to use a consistent flour source for the same reason. Don't buy the flour from the bin at the supermarket unless you are sure they always stock the same flour from the same source. I use King Arthur Flour, the all purpose white, the white whole wheat, and the artisan bread flour. But you don't have to. Just limit the flour source as a variable until you get the feel of what you are doing. Then you can experiment with different flours.

                                You can get a utensil from the King Arthur catalogue that looks something like one of those old fashioned things they used to whack carpets with but smaller. It's not very expensive and is useful to beat in the flour, as it helps develop the gluten and that will give your bread structure. It does some of the same things that the mixer dough hook does, I guess.

                                Finally, if you get really involved and enjoy it, you might consider getting a hearth kit for your oven. It is something like a thick pizza stone that covers the bottom (sits on an oven rack) and has two sides of the same material. It makes the crusts turn out great, particularly when combined with squirts of water from a spritzer during the first 10 minutes of baking. Alternatively, you can use a pizza stone for a similar but less dramatic effect.

                                And I agree, that is an excellent book. I use her recipes.

                                Gotta go, I have some pane tuscano rising and ready to bake. Have a great time baking.

                                Link: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/cgibin...

                                1. re: bacchante

                                  Thanks for your excellent suggestions and endorsement. I agree that getting ones hand into the dough is the fun of baking bread. The only utensil that I use to stir flour into water is an ordinary table fork when the dough has not yet become too thick. Every other step in the process is done with my hands.

                                  My current project is baking 'ciabatta' for panini.

                                  I don't bother with pastry or cakes. Too much chemistry!

                                  1. re: ChiliDude

                                    Do you find bread flour difficult to work with? I mean to work it hard enough to get the gluten going? I've been a bit afraid to try it. My stirring arm gets sore enough as it is (probably also why I can lift more weights with that arm).

                                    Does it give a better structure? Do you think I could mix bread flour, all purpose, and some white whole wheat?

                                    I add just a bit of diastaltic malt powder (about a tsp) and a pinch of ascorbic acid for about 5 cups of flour. I find it seems to help the rise. Carol Field mentions these in her discussion but doesn't put them in her recipes. At least the ones I've used. I think I picked the idea up from King Arthur flour somewhere. I like using the malt over sugar or honey that a lot of bread recipes out there have, as it doesn't add any sweetness to the bread.

                                    1. re: bacchante

                                      Bread flour is not more difficult to work with than is all-purpose flour, but I requires more water in order to have a lighter loaf as a result. Bread flour may produce a denser loaf. As soon as the dough becomes too difficult to stir with a utensil, I start using my left hand to mix the dough while turning the bowl with my right hand.

                                      I've mixed flours when making a starter (biga) that ferments overnight. I used bread flour, whole wheat, all-purpose and/or besan (garbanzo flour found in East Indian stores). I don't go overboard by mixing all 4 for a given starter.

                                      The besan is supposed to act in a similar manner as the Vitamin C and malt...feeds the yeast. When I use besan, it is in a small amount.

                                      My current project is to learn how to make a good ciabatta for panini. It's a messy process because the dough is supposed to be wetter than for other breads.

                                      1. re: ChiliDude

                                        thanks for the advice. Good luck on the ciabatta!