Fear of Breadmaking
Many of the responses to my last post about budget recipes in light of our impending move, suggested baking my own bread. I love the idea of this but must confess that it is the one culinary challenge that I've been too intimidated to try. I consider myself an intuitive cook and fear that the precision required would yield disaserous results.
Please give me suggestions for easy beginner recipes, foolproof tricks, etc. that will help me get over it. Thanks!
Actually, I would say that breadbaking REQUIRES intuition. Just measuring out the flour and water won't cut it - you have to be receptive to the dough and get a sense of what's too wet and what's too dry. But bread is a extremely forgiving and even the rare failure can usually be salvaged into croutons or bread crumbs.
Here's something to consider. All you really need for bread are flour, water, and salt. The most traditional breads developed wild yeast in their sourdoughs, no added yeast at all. So how precie can it be, really. It's a growing thing. For ease as a beginner, you'll be using added yeast. To make a simple sandwich loaf, you might want to add a bit of sweetener and a bit of fat. Start with a simple recipe that includes nothing else. As you get comfortable (after, say, two plain batches), you can fiddle around. You can always change your fat - butter, bacon fat, olive oil, you name it. You'll change the character of the loaf a bit, but nothing major. Same with the sweetener - a bit of sugar, honey, molasses, all the same structurally. You can add herbs, or seeds, or a swirl of cinnamon sugar. You can add nuts (add in at the very end of kneading). Again, no structural changes. Then, when you feel you've got this basic loaf mastered, play around with using milk or buttermilk or yogurt for part or all of your liquid. As you get more comfortable, you'll find yourself throwing in leftover oatmeal and other cooked grains. Bread is great for improvising.
You'll also want to branch out and try a very wet loaf (which will give a lovely rough country loaf), a dairy-heavy loaf (eggs and milk will make a fine-textured, high-rising loaf with a nice color), and so forth. When you are interested in trying very different textures, it will be worthwhile to start from a new recipe. Eventually, you will be able to combine recipes.
Whole wheat is a little more difficult. If you want whole wheat bread, I suggest you stick with learning whole wheat for a while, rather than going back and forth between white and whole wheat. Whole wheat dough is usually much wetter than white, and three rises are necessary if you want a light loaf. You'll get the feel of one or the other better if you stick with one recipe for a while.
The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book is one of the best for teaching improvisation, but it only covers whole grain breads, no white flour at all. Coincidentally, my boyfriend has decided he wants to learn to bake bread, and he just made his first batch from that book, the straightforward "Loaf for Learning" (a simple whole-wheat sandwich loaf). The loaves came out beautifully.
No need to be afraid of making bread. I make all my own bread, and believe me, I'm not a "precision guy" by any means. As someone explained to me about making beer once, when you put the ingredients together, "what other choice does it have?"
My route to breadmaking started with The Joy of Cooking. I made the white bread recipe over and over, and gradually shifted it to something I like a little better. Now, making bread is just something I do while I'm doing other things like feeding the critters or cleaning up.
I do have a kitchenaid mixer, but you don't really need one, especially if you have or want really strong arms. My approach is very simple: 6 cups (more or less) of flour (1-1.5 of that whole wheat). I usually use bread flour, since I'm making it every week, but I've had perfectly acceptable results with plain general purpose flour. Flour is the only thing I measure, and I'm not careful at all.
To this I add a big scoop of vegetable shortening, a bunch of salt, some sage (and rosemary if I have it), proofed yeast and milk. You do want to stir the ingredients a bit before adding the milk or other liquid. After that, either dive right in with your hands or turn on the mixer. When you've got it mixed so that it all sticks together and comes off your hands easily, kneed it together into a big ball and then rise it. Maybe I don't use enough yeast, but rising bread for me takes ages - more so in the winter though when it's cold. I often will let my bread rise once over night, punch it down and put it into bread pans in the morning, then let it rise again in the pan while I'm at work. Then, I bake for 32 minutes at 325 degrees.
The only time I've had unacceptable results came when I didn't kneed it enough.
I now put bulger wheat that I have soaked in water in all my bread. I looked at some of the King Arthur recipes from the post below, and think I might venture an egg in my next batch.....
I'm still at the stage where I follow recipes, but slowly branching out.
Have you tried fats other than shortening? Like butter or olive oil?
Do you proof the yeast in warm milk, or put the milk in separately? And do you proof it with a pinch of sugar?
I can't tell if using sugar makes a big difference in the end or not...
I have tried olive oil and vegetable oil as well. I don't think it makes that much difference, but I think I like it with shortening better. Haven't tried butter but I'm sure it would be fine.
I proof the yeast in warm water and add milk later. I'll add a pinch of sugar sometimes - not sure whether it makes any difference either.
I might get criticized for this, but try some quickbreads. Yes, it will be a different product, but it's quick and easy for when you just don't have time to wait for things to rise (i.e. pretty much every week night!). I enjoy baking bread that requires proofing, kneading, rising, but I leave that for weekends. I find it hard to get into work, cleaning the garage, etc. when I know that in 45 minutes I will need to check on the dough in fifteen minute increments to see if it's risen enough, etc.
Below is a recipe that I've just discovered, and really like. It yields a good, white cakey bread with an interesting taste.
Search the site; aside from yeast breads, they have a nice selection of quickbreads (most of which I haven't tried yet);
salami and rosemary
sundried tomato and olive
nigella seed and onion
cheddar and dill
Good luck, and let us know how it goes.
Don't let the precision scare you, as in, you don't need to sift the flour and level it with the back of a knife. But you do have to get the measurements in the ballpark. Timing is also pretty flexible for the rises. Just don't make any substitutions the first time you try to make bread.
My basic tip:
Proof the yeast. You may find recipes that start with sponges (where you mix the yeast with water and some flour), but I always put the yeast in the amount of water called for in the recipe, which should be warm (test like a baby's bottle, if it's too hot for the inside of your wrist, it'll kill the yeast), and add a bit of sugar. In 5 minutes it should be a big foamy mess. If it's not, buy new yeast, start over.
That's the single biggest thing I see that's not usually well-explained in your average recipe.
The whole process is easy, but it certainly helps to see it done once by someone who knows how. Also, yeast in those little packets are NOT good for your budget--works out to like $25/lb. if you decide you like making bread, attempt to get a big bag of yeast (not the same as the nutritional yeast at the co-op) from a bakery supply store. I kept a bag in the freezer for almost 5 years, and it was still foaming just fine by the time I finished it.
Don't be scared. It's way less hassle than you might think-- it sounds like hours of work, but it's very little hands-on time, and there's no reward like making your house smell like baking bread. Except for that first warm slice. :)
Sometimes you can only fine bulk yeast in the refrigerated section. I found mine in a little 1/2 pound bag at Whole Foods. I just put it in a glass jar, and it's been fine in the fridge for months. I save a ton this way. Remember, active dry yeast for bread looks like tiny light brown seeds; nutritional yeast looks like flakes (giant dandruff, pardon the gross description).
Gluten is also good for beginning breadmakers. Before, I would use expensive high gluten bread flour and my bread would still not rise enough. Hocky pucks! Now I add a teaspoon or two to the recipe regardless of whether it calls for gluten, and the dough is much loftier and has a nice bounce to it. I use Safeway brand bread flour now (and even all purpose when I run out) and it's just fine.
You may have everything you need already. Do you have a Cuisinart? Or a Kitchenaid Stand Mixer? Or strong arms?
Those are the three alternative tools that Carol Field uses in her Italian Baker book. She provides detailed instructions for each of the three methods.
We like crust on our breads, so a bread machine wasn't in the picture. I have a couple of other bread books, but the Fields book is the one I use over and over.
I have The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger and it's fantastic. I use my bread machine some of the time and do it by hand some of the time and some of the time do half and half. The recipes are great and many of them are from famous restaurants and chefs. She also spend a lot of time explaining different types of flour/wheat and yeast etc. and she leads you right into being able to make up your own recipes. It's split into sections: country breads, egg breads, breads that use starters, etc and you get great additions of other recipes inbetween: jams, chutneys, etc.
I am intuitive in my cooking as well and have not found that to be a problem in bread baking once you understand the basics. Sure, there have been a few flops - but it costs me maybe $1 to ruin a loaf?
I have way more successes than failures.
I feel exactly the same way about baking intuitively and making mistakes.
I have Hensperger's The Bread Bible, which has a section for bread machines. I used to wish I'd gotten the book dedicated entirely to the bread machine, but the regular one is just as easy to follow (and cheaper, I believe). And now that I'm more comfortable working with dough, I can move on to some of the non-machine recipes.
I got this Bread Machine book VERY cheaply at an overstock place - you might look around. I think it's worth it for all the extras (the BEST chocolate bread pudding recipe I've ever had anywhere!)
I don't have the bible - wonder if I should get it on top of this one or if what I have covers that book?
I know your whole reason for posting was to save money, but I have to say that buying a bread machine has saved me money in the long run. In fact, after watching the bread machine knead the dough, etc, I finally have a grasp of how to make bread from scratch without a machine.
All that is to say, you may want to invest in a reasonably priced machine ($50 for a basic, $80 for a great machine, or $20 off Craigslist--people tend to buy these and then unload them when they get bored). Better yet, borrow a machine from a friend until you get comfortable making bread by hand.
I haven't purchased bread since I got my machine in December. Considering that I eat almost a loaf a week, I'm well on my way to recouping the cost of the machine. You will waste some flour in the beginning, but eventually it will save you money.
Baking bread is very intuition-friendly! There are many great basic recipes online, at sites like King Arthur. Yeast bread is very flexible. For example, you can make the process suit your schedule by mixing the dough the night before, refrigerating it and then baking the next day. Once you get the hang of a recipe there's a lot of experimenting to be done to vary the flavor and texture to your liking.
Just pick a recipe that sounds good and give it a try. You really won't be sorry.