Bread Baking Tips Part 1 Where to Start

Rosemary, garlic potato rolls, ready to pop into the oven

(This is a copy of an old post that I was just reading and thought, hey, why not? Its been a couple of years. I think its time for a review. I know I need one. I just put some bread in the oven and forgot to slash it. For some bread, this is not important. For this bread, it may mean a heavy loaf. More on that later.)

For those of you who want to be bold in the face of carbo-phobes. For those of you not afraid to risk becoming a closet bake-a-holic. Snifff, ahh, you can almost smell the yeasty aroma wafting from the oven already. Are you ready for wafting?

But maybe you have never baked bread? Are unsure about the whole loaf baking  business? Think it’s too complicated to tackle? All I can say is “Baaah!” If I can do it, you can too.

It brings me a great sense of satisfaction that I can take this dry, powdery flour, sandy yeast, water, salt and whatever else I throw in, given it a little time and some magic, (or so it seems) and it grows into something completely different. Apart, the ingredients taste nasty. Put them together and , ohhh, so delicious!

Its creation in the kitchen!

I look at the loaf and say “yes, this is good”.  I can get a glimpse of how good God must have felt when He created the world, “it is good” He said.

Alright, maybe I don’t know how He felt.  It is just a loaf of bread after all. Still,  He tells us “go eat your bread with joy”. So I shall.

Here I will give you some  basic-bread-baking  knowledge for those of you really interested in learning to make the basic loaf. Keeping in mind that entire books are written on the subject, so this post here is really just a way to get your baking toes wet. Lets start with ‘what is bread?”

Ahem. Well, bread has four basic components.

  1. Flour (the dry stuff)
  2. liquid (the wet stuff)
  3. yeast (the alive stuff)
  4. salt (do N-O-T forget this one thing. It makes all the difference. Ask me how I know. No, don’t ask)

And all the bread we eat around the world are variations on these ingredients. You can’t do without any of them, except yeast. Then you are talking flat breads, biscuits and so on. But for now I am talking about yeast bread.


1) Dry Ingredients

The Kingpin in the bakers world is wheat flour. It is the best grain for developing gluten, the stuff that forms the elasticity to hold the loaf in shape. There is regular all-purpose, bread flour, whole wheat, pastry flour, then there is rye flour, semolina flour, and on and on. Most of my breads are made with all purpose, whole wheat and blends of the 2. Different flours, different loaves. Buttermilk white, potato rye, sourdough, multi-grain…If you are looking to make a gluten-free loaf, you would need alternatives to wheat flour, which I am not as familiar with, so will not cover here.

While we are talking about flours, have you seen the movie “Stranger than Fiction”? It is one of my favorite movies by virtue of having a baker as one of its main characters. Well, main supporting characters anyway. In the movie, he, Harold Crick, wants to announce his intentions to a woman he was auditing (yes, he is an IRS agent), by bringing her a bouquet of “flours”. He brings her a box full of little 1 lb. bags of assorted flours, wheat, rye, buckwheat, etc. For being a boring, methodical, most unromantic guy, this is a huge leap and it melted my heart, (and hers). He indeed won his lady fair.

Okay, back to business. Sometimes I substitute a little of the wheat flour for other kinds of flour, or other dry ingredients. Like a few Tbsp. of Potato flour in place of some of the all purpose. Or some oatmeal I put in the food processor and ground into a flour to use. I love the taste oatmeal gives baked goods. You can make flour out of just about anything, but in the end, wheat flour is what develops that needed gluten. So over half of the dry should be wheat flour. (white, whole wheat or white whole wheat which is a lighter kind of whole wheat, less strong in flavor to traditional whole wheat,  but every bit a whole wheat product.)

Try to buy the best flour you can afford. Stay away from bleached flour. The chemicals used to bleach it destroy the enzymes and nutrition in the wheat and make for poor baking.  If I am going to go to the trouble to bake something for my family from scratch, I want to use ingredients I can trust for consistent results. I use King Arthur flour, Bobs Red Mill, Eagle Mill, Arrowhead Mills, Gold Medal or Pillsbury. Down south you have other brands like lily White, which is a soft low protein flour great for biscuits . Buy the best you can and never ever, ever use bleached flour! (Not that I am yelling or anything, but read my lips…).

Cinnamon Raison Stack Bread

2)Wet Ingredients

So for the wet stuff. Water or milk. Buttermilk or orange juice. It is not so much the liquid you use, but the dry/wet ratio. You learn to feel the dough, adding more flour if it is too wet, adding liquid if it is too dry. You learn that liquid is absorbed while it is being kneaded or raising, so don’t be too eager to add extra flour right away. Knead the dough on a floured board, but do not add a lot of flour at a time. Only as needed, dusting with your fingertips of flour.

Basic white bread should be tacky, like a post-it note. For all my early years, my loaves would slice and kind of crumble or break apart. I got so excited when a slice of my bread stretched apart, not wanting to let go. It had some spring to it. It was all a matter of water ratio. I had been adding flour until it wasn’t sticky and had not realized what I was doing wrong. My bread books had recipes, not techniques. Since those days, I usually err on the side of too wet. sigh. Now some breads like ciabatta, are very wet doughs. But this post is for basic white loaves. Tacky-tacky-tacky.

already kneaded, nice and elasticy

3) Yeast

Yeast is what gives your bread the puff. Turns it from a hockey puck to velvety soft crumbness. (yes, I am making up my own words here.) In the old days you usually mixed your yeast with a little warm liquid, warm but not hot, and a pinch of sugar. Then let it sit about 5 minutes. If it is not foaming up, it needs to be replaced, it might be too old.

Now we just throw yeast in with the flour. Use active dry or bread machine yeast, which is pretty much all that’s available out there. You can buy the little packets, usually in sets of 3, or 1 lb. blocks from warehouses like Costco. It freezes well and I have a glass jar I store in the fridge with some, freezing the rest. Yeast is alive, just dormant. Asleep. It eats the sugars in the flour, gives off a gas and expands your dough! Every once in a while I might check my yeast the old-fashioned way, if I am not sure. Don’t want to go through all this time and flour, just to find out the yeast was dead and the loaves would turn out like bricks. I have had that happen before and its very disappointing. Very!

Yeast, safe and snug in her jar. She lives in the fridge and is happy.

4) Salt

Salt. Don’t forget the salt. It will be icky without it.That’s all you need to know.

So that is the 4 basic ingredients. French breads, baguette, italian breads, sourdough  many are made with just flour, water, yeast and salt. (and you would think with only 4 ingredients, it would be hard to miss adding 1, but when I bit into a loaf of french bread I had baked once, it had no flavor, turned out pale, after all that nurturing I gave it, ruined it. I did a head slap and realized I had forgotten the salt.) Even sourdough has yeast, just usually not the kind you buy at the store. It uses wild tribal native yeast floating around in your air. More on that later.

French bread, with salt!

Depending on your recipe there are all kinds of loaf enhancers. Eggs, oil, butter, sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, raisins, herbs, cheese…All these to make the loaf softer, sweeter, tastier, longer lasting, etc. The recipe will tell you when to put them into the dough. Some go right into the dough, others, like raisin for raisin bread, are rolled into the dough after it is kneaded.

The best way to measure your ingredients is by weight. If you happen to have a scale in the kitchen, that’s great,  you can weigh things like flour and water. If  you don’t, when you go to  measure the flour, be sure to stir it up a little with a fork first to fluff it a bit. Then reach in and scoop it out, using the back of a knife to level out the measuring cup. Do not do the shimmy-shimmy shake of the cup to see the flour settle and level. You don’t want the flour to settle. You can end up using too much flour that way. You could be off my an ounce or more per cup, which can add up, leaving you with a dry loaf. Level the flour off with the back of a knife. Or use a scale and weigh out the flour. Many recipes now give you both measurements.

I am baking a loaf today and for instance, I am making some substitutions. The recipe calls for molasses, which I do not have. I am using equal parts of honey. It also calls for 2 1/2 cups warm water. I am using 1 cup buttermilk and the rest of the measurement in water. I like buttermilk for its tenderness and flavor. I had some walnut oil in the cupboard and thought,’ hmm’, so I used that for the 1/2 cup oil called for. I used some potato flour and whole wheat instead of all white flour. Since I did all those substitutions, I have to go by feel to determine just when to stop adding flour. For one thing, whole wheat flour absorbs water slower, so I want to be careful not to add to much flour right away. I let it be pretty sticky while I kneaded it, knowing it would still absorb while raising. You don’t even really have to measure. You just add 1/2 or 1/4 cup flour at a time, or sprinkle it in with your fingers, kneading it in until it feels tacky, not too sticky, but not too dry. But for beginners, follow the recipe!

Okay, I have talked about the ingredients you might be using, depending on your recipe, and the role they play. But this is already very long. I figure most of you have not even got this far, and I am talking to myself. Next post will be about technique.


2 thoughts on “Bread Baking Tips Part 1 Where to Start

  1. Bollocks to the carbophobes! Those pointy nosed thin people who used to be vegans who are now raw foodists and who love nothing better to tell everyone just how fantastic they are and how much lower in the food chain we carb lovers are. There is nothing like a delicious fresh loaf of bread pulled hot from the oven to remind you just how amazing life is and to show you that the simple things in life are the most precious and poignant. I loved Stranger than Fiction :). R.I.P. Herman and I don’t want to speak ill of the dearly dehydrated BUT Herman did not give me what I wanted from my loaf. I have regular yeasted bread down pat but sourdough was something that I really wanted to be able to get myself into. I have dabbled in fermenting in the past (Kimchi and Kefir) and really wanted to be able to do the Earth Mother thing with my bread but Herman was grandstanding and decided that whatever he was culturing it didn’t include very much yeast by the sound of it. I fed him, I coddled him, I gave him my heart and he gave me back vinegar bricks and a life lesson. I am saving these posts for posterity. I am so happy I found this blog 🙂

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