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Basic bread baking guide

After issues with bread machines and the "Artisan Bread in 5" method, I'm ready to start where I should have started: learning to make bread the old fashioned way. We don't want fancy schmancy "artisan" bread--just decent white/wheat/rye/pumpernickel sandwich bread made in loaf pans.

Can anyone recommend a SIMPLE book or guide for this? I've checked out some bread books at the library that are so scientific and detailed about the art of bread baking that I've been intimidated and gave up. I want to know as much as my grandmother did: how to make a decent loaf and that's it.

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  1. My best bread book is The Bread Bakers Apprentice, but it might be too involved for you.

    An alternative approach might be to see if there's a cooking school near you .

    9 Replies
    1. re: C. Hamster

      +1 The bread bakers apprentice is my favorite bread book by far. But it is very detailed.

      If you wanted a place to start with it, I would recommend getting a copy from the library and make one of the following:

      French Bread/Baguette
      Italian Bread

      They are all pretty straight forward recipes, don't require any "strange" ingredients, and all use some sort of starter (which has a major influence on the taste).

      Two other bread books I use are "Amy's Breads" (I'd recommend once you decide you like making bread) and "Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book on Breads" (a huge book will all sorts of breads/quickbreads/etc but not as instructional as The Bread Baker's Apprentice)

      1. re: thimes

        I have Bernard Clayton`s book which is extensive and instructive. It is a very good book.

        1. re: Ruthie789

          I like Bernard! Did you know that he has tested MANY of his recipes while travelling the country in a motor home?

          1. re: sandylc

            No I didn`t. He certainly has a vast coverage of breads in his book.

      2. re: C. Hamster

        I agree with The Bread Bakers Apprentice. It talks about the science behind making bread. Very useful for learning the whys and wherefores.

        1. re: C. Hamster

          I second the motion about Peter Reinhart's wonderful book.

          As another choice try to find a copy of Carol Field's book The Italian Baker. My copy was published in 1985, but there may be a more recent edition.

          BTW, I found trying to deal with the No Knead Dough that appeared in the NYTimes years ago without getting burned in the process a bummer.

          Knead the dough by hand and get rid of your stresses.

          1. re: ChiliDude

            I see this has been recommended several times. OP asked for "SIMPLE", and found ABin5 and bread makers difficult. BBA is the kind of book I'd want if I were opening a bakery. It's not at all the kind of book I'd want if I were overwhelmed with having details heaped on me and trying to get a basic sandwich loaf to come out. IIRC, most of the recipes take at least 3 days and use a wild yeast starter. It was recommended to me when I first started baking and just wanted to have bread on the table in an hour or two, and I found it next to useless at that point. I think appreciating the flavors of slow fermentation and so on is something you build up to, once you've gotten excited about the miracle that is breadmaking, and gained some confidence in the basics- like being able to tell by feeling the dough whether it's of a moisture level that will allow it to rise, and stretching the dough between your fingers to see whether you've got good enough gluten development. I think it's a shame to waste time on complicated processes before you've got that down.

            At the risk of sounding both cranky and arrogant, OP, I think what will serve you best is reporting back with what issues you're having. It would also be supremely helpful to know how you're kneading- by hand, with an average mixer, or with a strong mixer like a Hobart, KitchenAid, or commercial one. Newbie mistakes tend to fall into a few really simple categories. I think a good 90% of early failures are caused by not kneading enough. Stiff dough is virtually impossible to knead adequately by hand- you can turn your knuckles black and blue, knead for double the recommended time, and the sucker still won't rise. Stiff bread dough is like cement. To that end, if you're measuring by dipping your measuring cup into the bag of flour instead of spooning the flour in and leveling it with a butter knife, and you're at the bottom of the bag where it's compacted, you can quite easily end up with 50% more flour than what's intended. If you're using an average mixer, you're probably better off adding 50-75% of the flour, kneading until you've got good gluten development, and then adding in the remaining. It may not be ideal, but I've never gotten flour pockets, and it saves you from burning out your mixer or ending up with bread that doesn't rise. For reasons I can't fathom, people tend to suggest really unlikely things to newbies having bread problems. They hear hoofbeats and think zebras. I'm not entirely sure whether this is because most people are passing along hypothetical bread knowledge, not ever actually having baked any without following a recipe, or if it's some sort of hazing process to ensure that you really, really, want to learn how to bake, but breadmaking is (or should be) dead simple. It is made difficult only by the fact that the few principles you need to master are shrouded in smoke and mirrors. I strongly support starting with a few basic recipes until you can see the forces at work. It will save you from a lifetime of being a slave to recipes you don't really understand.

            1. re: jvanderh

              I don't use an electric mixer. I use a large glass bowl and a wooden spoon.

              Also, I measure the flour with a kitchen scale (balance if you want to get technical). A measuring cup does not enter the process. Measuring spoons are used for lesser quantities of dough ingredients.

              You sure took up a lot of space to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

              1. re: ChiliDude

                That's all very nice for you, but we're here to help the OP make bread.

        2. The crowd at thefreshloaf generally recommend Peter Reinhart's books - Artisan Breads Every Day and Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques.

          The relevant science is discussed, but it isn't intimidating, and the recipes always commence with the basic loaves that you would like to bake.

          IMO whichever book you choose should be one of those that purports to inform its cooking with the latest science. Breadmaking is one of those areas of cooking that involves relatively complicated bio-chemistry, but has also always been practised in the home. It therefore tends to the folkloric (" ... My grandmother insists that a pinch of salt should be added, but never under a full moon ..."). If you are having difficulty baking good loaves, it is best not to compound the problem at its foundation, with recipes or methods that are incorrect or counter-productive.

          1. Simple book with recipes - I would recommend Sunset magazine's "Sunset Bread" cookbook. It's an inexpensive paperback cookbook (under $10) with decent recipes.

            1 Reply
            1. re: dave_c

              I'll look for that. I like the Sunset recipe books that I have. Thanks!

            2. I like Beth Hensperger's books for the basics for the home cook.

              1 Reply
              1. re: sandylc

                I purchased her Bread Machine book with the new bread machine I ordered. I'm having second thoughts about the machine--which is why I'm contemplating going the old fashioned way--but I like the book and was wondering if she had something similar for bread made by hand. (Haven't done a search yet.)

              2. I learned from the Tassajara Bread Book, many years ago. A quick look at Amazon shows it still in print, with (I think) more recipes. The basic method that starts the book is well-described, not overly "scientific," and rather fun.

                2 Replies
                1. re: HandLikeAFist

                  I have requested this book, plus the Bread Baker's Apprentice and Beth's Bread Book from our local library. I'm going to go ahead and buy the Sunset book because it's only 4 bucks from Amazon (and that includes the shipping).

                  Thanks for your help, y'all!

                  1. I have some advice.

                    The vast majority of bread that doesn't rise is caused by not kneading enough. Anyone who uses the phrase over-kneading with a bread newbie or anyone kneading by hand is a sadist. The majority of no knead bread that doesn't rise is caused by dough that's too wet. If you're not yet familiar with what dough should feel like, buy a baking scale. This is the way the authors actually do it when developing recipes, because it's the only way to be accurate.Their recipes were then converted to cups using a standard conversion. A baking scale is about $25 or less, and will drastically improve your cooking. I have their recipe somewhere by weight; they gave the conversion in a blog post comment, and I'll find it if you let me know that you want it. Also, dough that is 2-4 days old will give you fantastic ovenspring, which covers a multitude of sins. If you're really just interested in dead simple flour-water-salt-yeast white bread that you can make with no planning, let me know and I'll paste a recipe. If you can screw that one up, I'll eat my hat :-)

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: jvanderh

                      Wow, I take off checking Chowhound for a couple days and the replies have mated and multiplied! Not sure who exactly to reply to, but I'll reply to you, jvanderh, as to your questions above about just what exactly my problems are--at least the bread baking ones. ;-)

                      Artisan Bread in 5 was great when I first started a few years ago and white bread was all I cared about. But now I've become a whole grains fan, thanks to you Chowhounders (can't believe I now prefer whole wheat pasta to regular and brown rice to white). Well the AB5 white breads come out fine in loaf pans, but I have yet to successfully get whole wheat to come out as anything but a brick. I've tried King Arthur's no-knead whole wheat and it comes out better, but sort of cakey: okay toasted with a fried egg on top, but breaks easily for a sandwich.

                      My husband eats sandwiches every day and if I weren't here, he'd be buying soft white bread all the time. I want him to eat better bread and to make it myself. But it's got to be a relatively soft loaf or he's going to be sneaking the Pepperidge Farm into the house.

                      You are EXACTLY right in that I don't want to know all the science behind it and I don't want to get fancy. I want to learn to make a decent loaf of white bread and a decent loaf of whole wheat (loaf as in sandwich loaf). I figure I can start to experiment later, once I feel good about the basics. Getting wildly creative for me would be an onion rye or a pumpernickel.

                      I had a bread machine for about 7 years; when it died I turned to AB5. But after many failures with whole wheat, I somewhat reluctantly decided to go back to a bread machine. I bought a highly rated one just a few weeks ago and probably got a lemon because it never worked properly--but I did salvage the dough and made 2 pretty good loaves in the oven.

                      Where I'm torn about all this is that I'd like to be the hands-on, make-it-myself type, but I have a bit of arthritis in my wrists and wonder if I can successfully mix/knead whole wheat on my own. I do not own a powerful mixer.

                      So it's not that I ever had a failure with kneading, etc.: I simply never tried to make a loaf the traditional way from scratch. Both my parents used to make bread, but that was long, long ago when they'd pay me 50 cents to knead the bread for 10-15 minutes.

                      I hope this helps clarify things. I'll take a closer look at everyone else's replies tomorrow--but I thank you all for the advice!

                      1. re: Thanks4Food

                        That helps.

                        Making 100% whole wheat bread that isn't really dense is difficult. The great majority of recipes have you mix AP or bread flour with whole wheat flour. I don't like it much, but I'm sure someone can point you to a basic recipe. That said, there are some things you can do to help it along.

                        -Add extra gluten (usually says "vital wheat gluten" on the box, located near the flour.) I think most people add a tablespoon or two per cup.
                        -Mix all the liquid with all the extra gluten and half the flour, or however much it takes to get something the consistency of pancake batter, and mix with whatever mixer you do have for 10 minutes. Feel the mixer periodically, and give it a rest if it gets hot. Then mix the rest of the flour in with a spoon or your fingers, and knead by hand. The dough should not be so stiff that it's difficult to push your fist through it- if it is, you can add more liquid into it, but it's really difficult to incorporate, so it may be better to add flour slowly in the first place to avoid having to do that.
                        -Let the dough sit on the counter all day, or refrigerate it for 2-4 days before you bake it. You don't want it open to the air, because it will dry out, but you do want to open the bag, lid, or plastic wrap slightly, to vent any gas that's produced.This rest allows the yeast to multiply, and, for some reason, become more heat tolerant so that the bread continues to rise in the oven.
                        -When you're ready to bake the bread, form it into an oval. It makes a significant difference in how well the bread rises if you stretch the top of the dough and pinch it into a seam at the bottom, as in the third photo here http://www.google.com/imgres?um=1&amp.... Hold off on making any cuts in the top for now, since they can deflate the dough. Plop it into the loaf pan, let it rise until it's nearly doubled or it doesn't seem to be rising anymore. If you're in a cold area, I like to turn the oven to the lowest setting, let it warm up a little while I boil a pot of water, and then turn off the oven and put the loaf pan and the water in there together. It creates a nice moist, warm environment.

                        1. re: jvanderh

                          One more thing: after you've added in all the flour, let it sit 20 min before kneading by hand.

                          1. re: jvanderh

                            When I was choosing the bread machine that I just returned, I was also contemplating the Bosch Compact Mixer. More expensive, but it can also do other things. Do you think that still might be a good idea for whole wheat dough? I do lose strength fairly quickly when it comes to my wrists.

                            1. re: Thanks4Food

                              I don't have any personal experience with it. Most, but not all, off the Amazon reviews say it handles bread dough, if that helps. Arthritis in your hands seems like a very good reason to get yourself a mixer :-). I don't have arthritis, and even so a very stiff dough can bruise my knuckles and make my finger joints hurt. If you think you'll graduate to bagels and stuff like that, you'll be well glad to have it I think.

                    2. The King Arthur web site has recipes and a wealth of information on bread baking. It's a great resource.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: sr44

                        I was going to say that their white bread recipe that's right on the flour bag is a very easy, very dependable homemade yeast bread option.

                        It's not fabulous bread, but it's tasty and the recipe is forgiving enough that you can learn and still have warm, fresh bread right out of the oven.

                        1. re: sr44

                          The King Arthur Cookbook is also super good as an introduction to baking and all sorts of bread making. I have been making bread for years, but I still turn to some of the recipes in it.

                          Explanations are thorough and sometimes just bordering on scientific without being overwhelming at all. I highly recommend it often!

                        2. If you're looking for everyday bread the easiest thing to do is go with a no-knead one. Minimal effort involved, and almost no chance of screwing it up. Flour, water, salt, yeast and mix. Throw into the fridge overnight or leave covered for 12 hours, bring up to room temperature then fold. Let rise. Pull dutch over out of 500 degree oven and throw in the dough. Cover and put back into the oven while lowering the heat to 400. Remove lid after 15-20 minutes, and done at 20-40 minutes depending on the size of your boule. Check with a thermometer to make sure it's done (190F).

                          Great bread for every day use.


                          1. Wow! I've had from good to great results with the Artisan in 5. I also have 2 Peter Reinhart's, BBA and another the name of which I can't remember (downstairs, and I'm lazy). I also have Bernard Clayton and the Bread Bible.

                                1. re: Lillipop

                                  Hey, thanks for this site; I only just got around to checking it. That KA whole wheat sandwich bread recipe is one I've meant to try and it's great to see him make it from beginning to end. But as I stated elsewhere, it's the mixing that could be a problem for me--esp. since the guy admits that it was hard to mix for 3 minutes. That's why I'm now debating about getting the Bosch Compact mixer.

                                2. There have been two references here to bread not rising if it hasn't been kneaded enough. This is false.

                                  I think the OP wants a basic enriched loaf, not a wild yeast levain. I also think that no-knead bread is not for a beginner - the dough can be difiicult to handle.

                                  A simple white loaf bread or honey whole wheat bread should be about right.

                                  Try, as suggested before, a Beth Hensperger book.

                                  12 Replies
                                  1. re: sandylc

                                    In soft, wet doughs, time can create gluten in lieu of kneading. If you're not making the dough ahead or using a bread machine, you need some mechanical method of kneading, even if it's beating the water and half the flour with a hand mixer.

                                    1. re: jvanderh

                                      True. I just don't think that soft, wet doughs are generally appropriate for beginners.

                                    2. re: sandylc

                                      Click the link, watch the video. That's about as basic and simple as it gets, there's little to no handling of the dough at all.

                                      1. re: sandylc

                                        re: feel to the dough

                                        Off topic but you know it's weird that you mention that. The absolute best part of kneading dough is that magical moment when it all comes together. You dump this floury raggedy mess onto your counter from the bowl, start kneading and it's goes from dry and piecemeal to all gooey and gets all between your fingers in a sticky mess, and then it just all smooths out. All the dough on your hands just gets sucked into this ball of dough you're kneading and it's smooth and feels like pushing around squeezable marble. So relaxing.

                                        1. re: Zalbar


                                          That's part of what I like about making bread.

                                          1. re: Zalbar

                                            I am a fairly experienced bread baker - I have done a lot of kneading in my time, both by hand and machine. I have also made the no-knead bread a good number of times. I was just objecting to the assertation that bread won't rise if it hasn't been kneaded - this just isn't true. There was even a wave of popularity for "batter breads" in the 60s/70s that used double the yeast and were simply beaten together without kneading. My mother was frightened silly to knead bread dough and made these frequently.

                                            There is really very little one can do wrong with yeast bread - the main things that come to mind are: too much flour, and too hot of liquids.

                                            1. re: sandylc

                                              you've never met my mother...or her doorstops, er, bread.

                                              I love her dearly, but breadbaking is just not one of her many talents.

                                              1. re: sunshine842

                                                Ha! My mom's "batter" breads were quite tasty, but they were overly yeasty, had a large crumb, and staled quickly. We thought they were pretty delicious at the time, though....

                                          2. re: sandylc

                                            "There have been two references here to bread not rising if it hasn't been kneaded enough. This is false."


                                            Generally speaking, after I mix up my bread dough to the point of being a shaggy mess, I let it sit for 20-30 minutes to allow the flour to absorb the liquid (autolyse), then I'll knead it for ten strokes, wait 20 minutes, knead 10 strokes, wait 20 minutes, knead 10 strokes, wait 20 minutes, then form the bread. It always rises.

                                            There have been times I've gotten distracted and forgotten to do any kneading at all and come back to the dough a few hours later - it's risen anyway. From that point, I'll form the dough and let it do its second rise.

                                            1. re: LMAshton

                                              The key phrase here is shaggy mess. If it isn't a soft dough, gluten doesn't develop on its own.

                                          3. Here is a "hack" for the Lahey no-knead bread made in a sandwich loaf.


                                            It doesn't answer your question on how to learn to bake bread but I find that it is a stepping stone. If you do this and like it then you can springboard somewhere else and experiment.

                                            1. I love The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Birnbaum, but it is a large book and has more detail than most would enjoy. or start with four cups of AP flour, a cup and a half of hot water, some yeast and a teaspoon of salt and start experimenting from there. If you proof the yeast in the water, stir in three cups of flour and the salt, work in the forth cup a little at a time, knead for about six minutes, let it rise in a quiet place under a towel, knead it again and let it rise in whatever form you plan to bake it, and bake until golden at 350 you will have basic bread. You can start tweaking it with things like honey, rosemary, or up to half whole wheat flour. Heavier flours generally take a little more yeast.

                                              1. the biggest thing is to practice -- baking bread isn't difficult -- but there's a "feel" to the dough that's really hard to describe.

                                                If there's anyone you know who's made bread, maybe they could coach you for a loaf or two? How about any classes around you?

                                                Once you know how the right texture feels, there'll be no holding you back...and you'll love it.

                                                1. If I can summarize all of the chatter above in a single phrase, it is this: "It's complicated."

                                                  All of the comments have some truth to them...the problem is that baking a successful yeast bread is all about the technique, not the recipe. Which is why good bread books are so painfully detailed and seem to focus on what seems like needless detail. Think of it this way: Most breads largely or entirely consist of four ingredients: Flour, water, yeast, and salt. And yet the differences among them (texture, flavour, crust, etc.) are dramatic. There are some small differences in terms of the proportion of these ingredients (especially the percentage of water), but the big difference between loaves is in the technique with which the ingredients are assembled, fermented, shaped, and baked. Simply put, bread baking isn't about a recipe--it's about a whole series of techniques that come together to produce a magical thing.

                                                  That said, if the goal is a sandwich loaf, here are some thoughts:

                                                  1) By baking in a loaf pan, you remove what is probably the most tricky step, which is shaping a free-form loaf. Just rolling it up and tossing it in the loaf pan will make a decent loaf. With a little more effort you can roll it up under tension and end up with a prettier, more evenly textured loaf. But that is not essential.

                                                  2) For a sandwich loaf, you are looking for a soft, fine crumb. Several things help with this: First, using all purpose flour instead of bread flour yields a softer, tighter crumb. Second, including some dried milk in the mix also helps soften the crumb--you will see this in many recipes. Third, fats of various sorts also help keep the crumb tender and moist (e.g., butter, oil, lecithin, eggs).

                                                  3) I would start with a white sandwich loaf as whole wheat loaves are a little harder to master--they can easily get heavy and dry. Once you have the white loaf down, start experimenting with adding some whole grain flour to the mix (usually you can substitute up to about a third of the flour with whole wheat flour without any modifications).

                                                  4) The texture of bread is evened out and reinforced through an extra rising: Rise, "punch down," rise "punch down," shape, proof, and bake. I put "punch down" in quotes because the goal is not to deflate it. You actually want to try to retain as much of the air as possible as you fold it up to redistribute the yeast and strengthen the structure of the loaf. The extra rise also adds flavour.

                                                  5) Above all else, what makes simple breads good is...a slow fermentation process. That complexity you get in a great baguette is not an additive or flavouring, and it is not the flavour of the flour--it is simply the end result of a complex fermentation process, carefully managed. Slower fermentation results in a more complex flavour, as a general rule. So if you do your "back of the flour bag" recipe with lots of yeast and a 1 hour rise and 1 hour proof, you will get a respectable but fairly bland loaf. Using a sourdough starter adds the most flavour, but it does take a bit of patience and confidence. For the beginner, the easiest way to add flavour is to use a sponge, in which you mix all of the water, part of the flour, and part of the yeast and let it ferment away for...a while. Even an hour adds quite a lot of flavour. Four hours is even better. But the best flavour, in my mind, comes from one hour at room temperature and then overnight in the fridge. In the morning, add the remaining flour, a bit more yeast, and salt and mix it up to make the final dough. There are other "preferments" as an alternative to a sponge (poolish, biga, pate fermentee, etc.), but I think that a sponge is the most forgiving.

                                                  6) That said, what I think the OP needs more than anything is...CONFIDENCE. Remember, it's less than a dollar's worth of ingredients, and even if it is not perfect, it will still be pretty good. So start with the flour bag recipe, and as you gain a little experience, start experimenting a little with pre-ferments.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: zamorski

                                                    I could probably debate you on point 1-4, 5 is spot on sort of, and I'm going to whole heartedly agree with you on #6.

                                                    Like Nike says, JUST DO IT! :)

                                                    Experiment, have fun, try things. In general even if things go 100% wrong, you still have something edible.

                                                  2. I have heard this author on the radio and it has been well received, has anyone tried this book, Bread by Nick Maglieri.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: Ruthie789

                                                      don't know the book, but Nick Malgieri is a very well-known pastry chef who used to do guest spots on several Food Network shows back in the day. He's famous for his recipe for Supernatural Brownies.

                                                    2. One other thing I forgot to mention. If at any point you are kneading the dough and it's difficult, or hard like trying to knead stiff clay walk away. Cover with a towel and let the dough relax for 5 to 15 minutes. You should also do this after you initially dump it out onto the counter and form it into a rough ball. The flour needs to hydrate and letting it do that will make it much much easier.

                                                      5 Replies
                                                      1. re: Zalbar

                                                        That sounds like too much flour.....

                                                        1. re: sandylc

                                                          No, it's initially when forming, if you don't leave it alone for a few minutes then it just tightens up and it's impossible to knead. If it was too much flour then no amount of resting would help.

                                                          1. re: Zalbar

                                                            It's your adjectives, I think. Hard and stiff or clay-like are different than, say, too springy or elastic-y, for example.....

                                                            1. re: sandylc

                                                              That's exactly what it's like, stiff and clay like, not springy or elasticy. Raw clay, not fired and glazed clay.

                                                              1. re: Zalbar

                                                                OK. Still sounds like too much flour.

                                                      2. In Edna Staebler's Food that Really Schmecks, she gives her recipe for the bread made in Neil's Harbor, as well as a pep talk to those who think they will never be able to bake bread. All her yeasted recipes from this book and More Food.... are in a small book called Baking with Yeast with Schmecks Appeal (ISBN 0771082789). It's available cheaply online.

                                                        These recipes are very tasty and easy. She has a master bread recipe, and a master sweet dough, with lots of suggestions for tweaking it. I think this is worth considering. She has some whole wheat and other grain recipes in there, too.

                                                        I also think King Arthur's recipes are reliable and tasty, and there are tons on their website.

                                                        1. I have to give a plug for the River cottage bread book. Well written, easy lay-out and awesome recipes.