Homechickens, let us speak of one of nature's most perfect foods. An integral part of our transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to that of small farming villages where people could do things like make art and create an ideal environment for incubating diseases. It's oh-so-delicious and oh-so-fantastic.
I am, of course, referring to bread.
Sweet, sour, whole-wheat, white, nutty, cinnamon-raisin, gluten-free, and everything between. Bread is amazing.
If you don't like bread, that's okay, but what's about to follow won't be of much interest to you, because it's my basic bread recipe, which can be endlessly adapted and repurposed to make all sorts of tasty breads and bread products (like pizza!). If you do like bread, well. Come right this way. (And if you want the short and snappy version of the recipe, skip on down to the bottom.)
Let's start with the basics: You need flour, some sort of liquid, some sort of oil, salt, some sort of sweetener, and yeast. You can use a huge variety of flours in breads (and you can mix them). I often do a straight wheat, but sometimes I do half-and-half, or throw in some rye or another flour that's heavier, with a little more texture. Very soft flours generally aren't as good, but feel free to experiment!
Lots of people use warm milk as their liquid, but you can totally use nondairy milk, water, beer, or pretty much any other liquid. Some fluids will probably taste better than others, but you rock on with your bad self. For oil, you can use melted butter, olive oil, coconut oil, or whatever tickles your fancy. In the sweetener department, brown sugar or honey are two of my favorites, but again, you can use white sugar, molasses, or whatever you please (some sweeteners, like agave, are more intense, so make sure to use a conversion chart if you want to get fancy).
Start by proofing your yeast. You'll want a tablespoon of yeast and another tablespoon of sugar, along with a half-cup of warm liquid of your choice (even if you're using milk or something like that, you may want to use water at this stage). Let it hang out for around 10 minutes in a large mixing bowl to activate the little yeasties. They should froth up, and if you stick your head in the bowl, you can hear them bubbling and crackling. (Not that anyone would do something like that, because that would be weird.)
If the fluid just looks kind of stagnant and nothing happens, your yeast is dead. Toss your batch and start a new one. Once your yeast is proofed, it's time for the real fun to begin.
Add two cups of warmed liquid (about 100 degrees, but not too hot or you'll kill the yeasties), a half cup of sweetener, and a tablespoon of salt. Whisk everything well to combine, and then start dumping in flour. Don't add it all at once, because the mixture becomes hard to work. And here comes the frustrating part: The amount of flour you need can depend on ambient humidity and a bunch of other uncontrollable factors, so I can't give you a neat and tidy measurement.
I typically use between four and five cups of flour. The goal is to get the mixture to loosely pull together so you can turn it out and knead it, so don't stress the flour measurements too much. (Sorry, I know some of you hate it when I go to vaguetown like this!)
Start by adding a cup of flour to make a slurry. Then, pour in one quarter cup oil (it's easier to beat in when there's some flour to distribute it). Add any inclusions you want, like leftover cooked grains (barley, etc), oats, nuts, and so on, at this stage too. Keep adding flour and whisking (you'll need to switch to a wooden spoon at some point) until you have a loose clump.
Flour your counter or another flat surface (be careful about things with veneers or finishes, as they can pull off during kneading) and then turn out the dough wad. Let it rest there for a minute or two (I do my dishes while it rests) and then start kneading it. You'll need to knead for about 20 minutes, and add flour periodically as it gets sticky. Eventually, it should turn silky and smooth, and when you poke it, it will spring back.
Some of this is intuitive and you learn it over time. It's okay if your first couple of loaves turn out a little funky, because you will learn things, I swear!
When your dough is nicely kneaded, oil your mixing bowl and roll the dough around in it (to cover all surfaces) before covering with a damp towel or some plastic wrap. Your goal is to keep the dough lubricated and moist so it doesn't dry out during rising. If you leave the dough uncovered, it can start to harden, which is no fun.
Let it rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in size. I'll often turn on the oven for a few minutes at the very end of the kneading and then stick the bread in to rise (always stick your hand in to check the temperature first -- it shouldn't feel hot). The rising process is pretty awesome, as the yeast generate carbon dioxide to fluff up the bread and the gluten in the flour relaxes even more than it did during kneading. (Quick tip: if the thought of a 20 minute knead makes you want to cry, you can cut the knead short and pay the price with a longer rise.)
When your dough has risen, punch it down. Divide it into chunks and sort of squash them out into rough rectangles. Roll up each rectangle, tuck in the ends, and stick it in a greased loaf tin, with the rolled ends facing the short sides. Why do this? It helps your bread have a more even and delicious crumb.
Cover the tins and allow the dough to rise again for about half an hour before sticking them in the oven and turning it to 350. I don't use a preheated oven, and instead take advantage of the preheating process for a last-minute minirise. If your oven is preheated (if, say, you're baking other things and you're putting the bread in partway through the process), the bread will require around 45 minutes of baking time.
Your bread needs to bake for around an hour, or until it starts to turn a rich brown and sounds hollow when tapped. If your loaf pans were well-greased, the bread can slide right out, allowing you to quickly tap the bottom and slip it back in again if it needs more baking.
If it's all done, tip it out onto a cooling rack and let it hang out for a while. Make sure to cool your bread all the way before slicing, instead of being impatient like some people who will remain nameless.
tl;dr version of this recipe:
Proof yeast in a large mixing bowl:
- 1 tablespoon or 1 package of yeast
- 1 tablespoon sweetener
- 1/2 cup warm water (approximately 100 degrees)
After ten minutes, add:
- 2 cups warm water
- 1/2 cup sweetener
- 1/4 cup oil
- 1 tablespoon salt
- about 4-5 cups flour
Mix until the dough forms a loose mass before turning it out onto a floured surface and kneading for 20 minutes, adding flour as necessary. Place the dough into an oiled mixing bowl covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap to rise for 1 hour (or until doubled in size). Punch down, divide, roll out, and roll up into loaves. Place loaves into oiled bread pans, cover, and allow to rise another half hour. Set loaves in oven, set it to 350 degrees, and bake for one hour or until browned with a hollow sound when tapped. Turn loaves out onto a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.