Thanks everyone who emailed me, commented, or even Facebooked me their bread questions! I’m very excited about doing this post and it has led me to the conclusion that I need to do a post, complete with pictures, on how exactly I make my bread.
I have picked the three best questions to answer. If you have more, or I didn’t answer yours, let me know and I’ll be sure to respond!
What types/brands of ingredients do you use?
I am really specific when it comes to my ingredients. Part of it is because I want to make sure I’m using the best and healthiest ingredients and part of it is because I feel that certain brands truly make better bread.
I use a variety of flours, but the most important quality I look for in my flour is that it is unbleached. Why unbleached? Because bleached flour (probably what you buy unless you are paying attention) has actually bleach in it. Yes, you read right! Bleach like you put in your whites to make them whiter! When I found this out, I was so disgusted. Why in the world would I want to put bleach in my body? I don’t, so I know buy only unbleached flour. Here is a longer explanation of the difference in the two flours.
So what brands do I buy? I buy Gold Medal most often, because it (very occasionally) goes on sale, or if I can’t find that, I buy King Arthur. KA is more expensive, but I would rather buy it than put bleach in my bread. I’m lucky that my local grocery store, Publix, carries it’s own brand of unbleached flour. I’ve found it to be a good substitute for the others with the added bonus of being cheaper.
I buy King Arthur whole wheat flour because I can rarely find another brand, and when I’ve tried other brands they haven’t produced a satisfactory product. I occasionally buy bread flour too when certain recipes call for it. I also find it makes a better pizza crust for whatever reason. When I have a lot of bread flour, I’ll bake bread with it, but be careful because it cannot be used in cakes, pastries, or cookies. It’s decent in muffins and other bread-like products, but I find that bread flour is best only in yeast bread. Gold Medal and King Arthur make good brands, but of course, Gold Medal is cheaper so I buy it.
The most important thing to look for when buying flours is to make sure it is unbleached.
There are several different kinds of yeast out there so it’s important to know the difference before you buy. I only buy instant yeast because it doesn’t require proofing. Here is good explanation of the two different kinds. Instant yeast sometimes goes buy the name “rapid rise”.
I buy my yeast in bulk at Sam’s. The small packages and even the jars are just too expensive for the amount of yeast baking I do. I bought 2 pounds of yeast in February and I still haven’t made it through the first package yet! It was a much better investment and since you can store yeast (in the package and in a tightly closed ziplock bag) in the freezer, I probably won’t have to buy yeast for another year! I buy Fleischmann’s because I trust the brand and I can find it in bulk. I’ve used other brands before, and they all seem to work the same. Just make sure you store it in a cool, dry place and that it hasn’t expired.
I typically bake with organic fat-free milk because that’s what we buy and it keeps the calories down in each slice of bread. When I need sugar, I never substitute Splenda, but always use plain, granulated white sugar. The same goes for salt; I only use regular table salt. I also only use unsalted butter, never margarine.
How long do you allow your bread to rise? Also known as “how do I know if my bread has risen enough”?
This is tough, even for me. I always have a really hard time determining if something has “doubled” or not. Luckily, as long as you follow a few simple rules (and as long as your yeast is still alive), your bread should rise gloriously.
1. Follow your recipe exactly. That means don’t over heat your water (a sure-fire way to kill your yeast), and mix and knead according to the recipe’s instructions.
2. Test after kneading to make sure your bread is ready to rise. To test, simple give your bread a little poke. If the indentation fills in quickly, you are ready for your first rise. If it doesn’t, then it needs a little more kneading.
3. Allow your dough to rise in optimal conditions. This means you should cover your dough and keep it it a fairly warm, draft free place. Everyone covers their dough differently. Some use towels, other plastic wrap, others use a shower cap. I use a tea towel, which is different from a regular kitchen towel in that it isn’t made of terrycloth. I’m especially fond of ones that have ridges or some sort of indentation. I dampen my tea towel with warm water before draping it over the bowl of dough. Keep your covered dough away from windows and fans to prevent drafts and make sure the room is fairly warm. Some people go to a lot effort in putting their bread in a preheated and then turned off oven or a warm microwave, but unless the house is really cold, I wouldn’t go to all that trouble. I keep mine near the walls, under the under-the-counter lights. I think that’s a perfect warm place for rising.
4. The first rise should be about an hour, depending on the recipe. Use your recipe as a guideline. If you come back after the time is up and your bread hasn’t grown a good bit (a regular loaf of sandwich bread comes almost to the top of my bowl), then you did something wrong. More than likely your yeast was dead to begin with or your liquids were too hot and you killed it.
5. Once you’ve rolled out your dough and shaped it, cover it again and allow it rise. This is when it starts getting a little tricky. Most recipes say to let it rise until doubled. What does that mean? I really can’t tell, but I set the timer for the minimum amount of time given and then come back and test it. If I poke it and the indentation fills in quickly, it needs to rise some more. If it the indentation remains, the bread is ready to be baked. If you are baking sandwich bread, the bread should have risen over the tops of the pans, but it shouldn’t be spilling over. Dough that has risen too much will collapse in a hot oven.
Rising times will vary, but always start with the lowest amount of time specified and keep checking in 10-15 minute intervals if it’s not done rising.
How do you store your bread?
I got this question for multiple people. I store my bread in the refrigerator and the freezer. If I make bread that we are going to eat within the next week or so, I allow it to cool completely, then I store it in a storage bag in the refrigerator. I do this for sandwich bread and French bread, but I don’t store muffins or crusty bread in the fridge. Some people would disagree with me on storing bread in the refrigerator, but we’ve always stored it there and I’ve never had a problem with excessive drying. One tip: don’t slice it until you are ready to use it right then. Sliced bread dries out much quicker. Whole loaves of bread will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.
I store all bread products (muffins included) that I’m not going to be using for at least a week in the freezer. To freeze bread, allow it cool completely, wrap in wax paper or parchment paper, place in freezer bag (be sure to label it!), and be sure to get all the air out. I’ve kept bread in the freezer for over two months with no ill effects. To thaw, place in the fridge overnight or on the counter for a few hours.
Some people suggest freezing individual slices of bread for quick thawing and using. I’ve found that this dries out the bread faster, but if you only need two or three slices at a time, you might try this. I would freeze them on a cookie sheet over night and then transfer to a freezer bag.
Whew! This was a lot of information! I hope this answers a lot of your questions. If you have more questions, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments or email me. I’m happy to try and solve any mysterious bread problems you may have. And look for a step-by-step process coming soon!