A friend told me that, due to COVID-19 panic buying, her supermarket was completely out of flour and yeast. A lot of people seem to be using this period of hunkering as an opportunity to explore bread making.
I always thought that there was some sort of magic involved in baking bread; some mystical alchemy that transformed flour, yeast and water into lovely, fragrant loaves. In my mind, bread bakers were akin to those medieval wizards who could convert lead into gold.
Flour is bread’s essential ingredient. Flour is made by grinding all or parts of wheat kernels, the grain of the triticum genus of grasses. Wheat is considered human’s oldest cultivated grain, probably first grown domestically in the Fertile Crescent’s Euphrates Valley, so many thousands of years ago that its origin is lost.
Different types of wheat and different processing methods give us a variety of flours, each resulting in a different type of bread. The main difference in flours is their protein content. When mixed with liquid, certain proteins form gluten that gives an elastic quality to dough. Gluten enables dough to rise by stretching and trapping the gas bubbles given off by yeast as it grows. The higher the gluten content, the more volume the bread will have.
Doing It Yourself
Home bread bakers should be aware of several types of flours and the types of breads that result from their use. I favor flours milled by The King Arthur Flour Company. They are America’s oldest flour company, and their products are free of any bleaches, bromates or other chemicals. Additionally, they design their flours specifically for home bakers and offer a range of helpful advice and resources.
Bread’s second essential ingredient is yeast, a collection of microflora that eats starch and sugar and spits out alcohol and carbon dioxide. Along with a host of other helpful characteristics, yeasts make bread rise. Yeast is available in active dry or compressed forms, used interchangeably. Recently developed quick rising yeasts enable dough to rise in half the time.
It will take a certain amount of trial and error to develop a recipe that works well for you. Various recipes can call for varying amounts of water, milk, sugar, salt, butter, or eggs. Each ingredient will have an effect on the bread.
Once you’ve gotten all your ingredients together, it’s time to get physical. Technology has given us automatic bread making machines. Just add the right ingredients, turn the machine on, and get ready to eat. I am not knocking that method, but I think that it lacks a certain element of personal engagement. Is the product really yours if you don’t get your hands dirty? I admit that I use some technology in the form of a food processor to mix the dough, but I do most of the kneading and I certainly get my hands dirty.
White Bread 101
This recipe is from King Arthur Flours, kingarthurflour.com, and yields one loaf.
3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
1 1/8 to 1 1/3 cups lukewarm water. Use the lesser amount in summer, the greater amount in winter, and something in between the rest of the time.
Combine all of the ingredients, and mix and knead them together — by hand, mixer or bread machine — till you’ve made a soft, smooth dough. Adjust the dough's consistency with additional flour or water as needed; but remember, the more flour you add while you’re kneading, the heavier and drier your final loaf will be. Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 1 hour, or until it’s puffy (though not necessarily doubled in bulk).
Transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface, and shape it into an 8-inch log. Transfer the log to a lightly greased 8 1/2 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pan, cover the pan, and allow the bread to rise till the outer edge has just barely risen over the rim of the pan, about 45 minutes.
Uncover the pan and place it in a cold oven. Turn the oven heat to 350°F, and bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, tenting it lightly with aluminum foil for the final 10 to 15 minutes if it appears to be browning too quickly. Remove the bread from the oven, take it out of the pan, and place it on a wire rack to cool completely. While the bread is hot, brush it with butter or margarine, if desired; this will give it a soft crust.
Reed Hellman is a freelance writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Email your questions and comments to RHWay2Go@yahoo.com.