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Apr 3, 2008 01:28 PM

Bread-baking virgin needs advice

I'm new to bread-baking and a little intimidated. So of course I turn to you wise Chowhounders for advice.

1. Is there a good beginners bread baking cookbook I should reference first? I have The Bread Bible right now (checked out from the library) but it looks complicated.

2. What types of bread should I start out with? I'm more interested in the flat breads like ciabatta, focaccia, etc. and the artisan loaves (like the no-knead Sullivan Street Bakery recipe) than quick breads.

3. Are there basics that I should be aware of - like equipment, utensils, general guidelines like "do not skimp on the rising time!" etc.?

Thanks everyone! :)


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  1. I'm a big fan of the Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. Not only are his explanations thorough, but the color photographs that demonstrate shaping, etc., are very helpful. That book has recipes for the types of bread you mention. He'll also help answer all the questions you addressed in #3.

    1. I'm a fan of Carol Field's _The Italian Baker_ for artisan breads from Italy. My opinion (and I'm no expert on bread) is that it's pretty forgiving, and as complicated as you want it to be. You could probably spend a lifetime learning about bread and how it works, and you could throw some ingredients in a bowl, let it rise, and bake, like the no-knead bread recipe. You're going to get pretty good bread either way.

      The utensils that I personally find useful are a pizza stone in my oven, and my KitchenAid mixer (the second makes me much less intimidated by very wet doughs). I guess also some kind of scraper, to get the dough off the counter, and possibly the flour wand (I'm not sure of the exact name, but it will pick up flour and allow you to easily dust surfaces with it). You can make pretty good bread without any of these, of course!

      1 Reply
      1. re: Nettie

        I agree wholeheartedly on the Field book. I found it fascinating. Starting the bread a day ahead gives it much more flavor.

      2. i would start with the sullivan street no-knead. i literally find it to be foolproof. before that recipe, i was not a big bread baker, but with that recipe i turn out bread that wows everyone.

        2 Replies
        1. re: missmasala

          If you want to do that, look for two articles on the New York Times web site, both by Mark Bittman. One is the first article he did on the Sullivan St. bread and it includes or links to the recipe. The second is an article he wrote about a month or so later and it contains more thoughts on the bread with some tweaks and options he got from others after the first article. Also look for the video he did that is on the site and links to the first article. It makes the baking process really clear for the Sullivan St. bread.

          You can get archived articles for free on the site, but you might have to register.

          1. re: missmasala

            +1 on the no knead bread... In the past year, I have made 40 plus loaves of bread for pennies (now double pennies with the rise in flour prices) and have wowed every recipient of each loaf.

            I am nearing 60 and always thought that bread making was too difficult, but the no knead bread is damn foolproof!

          2. The choice in beginner's bread baking cookbooks depends a lot on how you cook. If you follow recipes closely, there are quite a number of books out with good photos of procedures and interesting recipes--books that don't cost all that much. There is a fine encyclopedia of bread baking by Ingraham and Shaptner (the title escapes me at the moent) which often shows up in the bargain shelves of major book stores. It covers breads of almost every genre. If you like whole grain, The Tassajara Bread Book or the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book would be winners. Linda Collister has several fine recipe books out that cover a wide range of breads, complete with photos. For in depth understanding that can help you eventually to improvise, I recommend Rose Levy Beranbaum, Reinhart's more recent books, Hamelman, Daniel Leader, and Maggie Glezer's. If you are drawn to flatbreads, have a look at Alford and Duguid's "Flatbreads and Flavor." It's a really fun book.
            For equipment, the most important tool is your hands. Almost everything you need is probably in your kitchen except: a bench knife (dough scraper), perhaps a probe thermometer, and a baking stone (helpful but not essential). Also, get an accurate digital scale and weigh your ingredients (except those you use in quantities too small to get an accurate weight--salt and yeast).
            You can start with simple breads. The classic lean loaf that contains only flour, salt, water and leaven (yeast or natural leaven) follows simple formulas. All the ingredients are given as a percentage of the weight of the flour in baker's percentages. A French style loaf is made from a medium dought that typically has about 62% as much water as flour by weight. That works out to 5 ounces of water to every 8 ounces of flour. Most Italian breads are softer--about 67% hydration of 2 ounces of water to every 3 ounces of flour. But some very soft doughs (like ciabatta) can be far wetter. For ease of handling your upper limit will probably be 75% or 3 ounces of water for every 4 ounces of flour. Salt is about 2% of the weight of flour. It usually works out to 1/2 level teaspoonful for each 5 ounces of flour (1 cup by scoop and scrape). In yeasted breads, active dry yeast usually runs about 1% of the weight of the flour, which comes to pretty nearly the same volume as the salt. And, of course, you can use milk instead of water or include oil or butter (unsalted or reduce the salt). Sugar is tricky. Yeast growth is inhibited by sucrose. If you use much, you double the yeast. A better sweetener is malt syrup or a bit of honey.
            Use any all purpose or bread flour that you like (except for all purpose from the deep south). In recent tests, Gold Medal All Purpose actually outperformed the other major brands, including some gourmet brands, that were tested. So you don't need to get a fancy brand of flour (though there are a few fancy brands I am partial to).
            For your basic loaf: combine the flour and liquid. Let it sit for 20 minutes to an hour (so the enzymes can jump start conversion of starch to sugar), then mix in the salt and yeast (separately so the salt doesn't kill the yeast). Knead the dough by hand, in a stand mixer or a food processor. Don't worry about developing it so much that you pass the windowpane test. Instead, pay attention to how the texture changes. It will go from being a somewhat gooey mess to being soft and smooth--tacky but not terribly sticky. Use as little flour on your work surface as possible. Instead just keep the dough moving and scrape up bits that stick. Leave it to rise in a lightly oiled or Pamed bowl (to prevent sticking) and cover it to keep it from drying out. You get best flavor by letting it rise slowly at room temperature. Or you can put the dough to rise in a juice container or other graduated cylinder. It takes the guess work out of judging when it has doubled.
            When it doubles, dump it out on a floured surface, gently fold it to degas it (like a letter in thirds) and turn it 90 degrees and fold it again. If you have more than one loaf to bake, divide the dough and round the pieces. Let them rest for ten or fifteen minutes so the gluten will relax. Then shape the loaves. Any way you like--any of the books will show you how. Cover them to keep them from drying out and let them rise.
            Meanwhile, preheat the oven well. So much heat goes out of the door when you open it that you want all the metal parts to be quite hot to shorten the oven recovery time. So a 40 minute preheating is not unreasonable. And an oven tile helps to keep the temperature even. Lacking that, you can put a couple of sheet pans in the oven. When ready to bake, score (slash) them and get them quickly into a steamed oven like the books show. (Or better still, in a closed container as in the Lahey loaf--I use a flower pot.) Bake hot (450) for loaves without sugar in them. If they have sugar in them, turn the temp down a little while after you put the loaves into the oven and bake them at about 375. Or if the loaves are very large (2 lbs or more), you may also want to reduce the temperature. Bake until the crust is well colored and the internal temperature is between 200 and 210 for plain loaves. For loaves with milk and eggs or lipids, 190 to 200 is usually fine.
            Rising time is probably the most difficult thing to gauge. For the initial bulk fermentation, letting it double in volume is all you need to know. But letting the loaves rise is not so easily judged. The general test is to poke the loaf with your finger. If the indent fills in quickly, it is too seen. If it fills in slowly, the loaf is ready for the oven. If it sighs and collapses, you have let it go too far. In general, too soon is better than too late. I find it helpful to pay attention to the feel of the loaf and not simply to how fast the dent fills in. Under risen, the dough pushes back a bit. Over risen, it feels dead. When it is ready for the oven, it still feels lively but much more "laid back." I know as descriptions those terms are meaningless. But by paying attention with successive loaves, you'll soon recognize the feel of it. (Which may vary a bit depending on how firm or soft the dough is.)
            Whatever you do, you'll probably discover that your first loaves, though they may look funny, will be perfectly edible. Don't worry about perfection. Just pay attention to the feel of things. It's only flour and water. Gradually your loaves will teach you. For me it is easier than making pastry. Only a little more difficult than making a good omelet.
            After you are comfortable with a basic loaf, then I recommend you experiment with preferments like biga and poolish. Or with interesting grain combinations.
            As for flat breads, don't forget to get out your iron skillet. There are lots of them that cook beautifully on the stove top.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Father Kitchen

              Bravo. Great summary of breadmaking. Wish I could have read advice like that thirty years ago when I was working my way through the Tassajara Bread Book.

            2. You can spend a lifetime learning to bake, and obsessing about it, but if you want good, no, great, baguettes everyday,,, for the rest of your life with minimal effort, try Charles Van Over's Best Bread Ever. Suzanne Dunaway's No Need to Knead is good for a rapid fire Focaccia, too; Once you get these down you can knock yourself out for years with a book like Silverton's etc., etc., but won't do much better. The Baker's Dozen book is also good; covers much more than bread;