Many people are extremely intimidated by bread making. I’ve heard folks say everything from “I’m afraid of yeast,” to “I can’t make bread.” And that last is usually before they even try their hand at it.
With the proliferation of helpful tools–everything wonderful bread cookbooks to stand mixers to electric bread makers to baking stones–one would think that bread baking has become more accessible. The basic ingredient list is very simple and easy to find.
Of the four main ingredients, water, flour, salt and yeast, I’m willing to bet that everyone has at least three of them in their kitchen or pantry right now. Maybe what’s needed here is not gadgets, but knowledge. An understanding of how the ingredients work together along with some tips on technique will hopefully help you become more confident and successful with your bread baking.
#1. Buy a Scale.
A successful bread dough is all about the ratio of flour to water. You will get more consistent and reliable results if your measurements are accurate.
If your bread recipe is written in cups, do the conversions. Measure flour in a cup and then weigh it. Write down the weight. Do this three times, and then take the average of the three weights. If your three cups weigh 4.3, 4.5 and 4.4 oz each, the average weight is 4.4. Now you can use that weight to do your conversions. If the recipe calls for 7 cups of flour, you know you will weigh out 30.8 oz.
#2. Proof Your Yeast
When you proof yeast, all you’re doing is proving that it is alive. That it is eating sugar and emitting bubbles of carbon dioxide, because that is what yeast does.
If you are starting with brand new yeast well within its use-by date, it is not strictly necessary to proof every time you bake, especially if you make bread frequently. But, if you found some yeast shoved into the back of your cabinet or you haven’t baked bread in months, it is best to err on the side of caution and prove to yourself that the yeast is alive.
If you are using a bread recipe that calls for putting all your ingredients, including the yeast, in the mixer together and turning it on, warm up a portion of the water called for in the recipe. Yeast will die in temperatures of over 140°F anyway, which defeats the purpose of proofing your yeast in the first place.
Don’t stress over the temperature too much. As long as it feels warm and comfortable to you, it will be warm and comfortable for the yeast. Add a tiny pinch of sugar, squirt of honey or splash of maple syrup, just enough to give the yeast a reason to wake up and eat.
Stir everything together and wait 10-15 minutes. If the mixture is nice and foamy with a dense head on top (kind of like the head on a freshly pulled pint of Guinness stout) you’re good to go. If you don’t see any bubbles, let alone foam, the yeast is dead and you’ll need to buy more.
#3. Limit the Flour in Your Dough.
One of the real sticking points for many people is the range of flour amounts that many recipes call for. Most of us like clear instructions, and telling us that a certain bread requires between 7-8 cups of flour is just not precise enough for us. Maybe this will help.
Most sandwich bread does best when the ratio of flour to water is 2:1. So, for every 4.4 oz bread flour, you’ll need 2.2 oz water by weight. One half the weight of the flour is the amount of water you’ll need.
Know that, even if you think the dough seems too sticky, if your ratio is correct, your bread will be just fine. Resist adding extra flour. While adding more flour does make dough less sticky, it invariably leads to a dense loaf that does not rise as much as it should.