Monday, June 2, 2008

Step-by-step illustrated breadbaking guide

Delicious, homemade whole wheat bread with crunchy hints of cornmeal and 10-grain cereal.

Recently, in Our Lady of the Lakes (my personal blog), I was waxing philosophical about bread baking. Though I've been making quick breads frequently for many years, it hasn't become a regular practice for me to bake yeasted breads up until recently. It's a combination of interest in cooking, desire for delicious homemade bread, concern for health, stress relief, and budgetary reasons* that compel me to make my own breads.

Under regular circumstances I don't have the time to do so as a doctoral student juggling papers, meetings, and teaching responsibilities, but the spring term brings some extra time. Now that I am becoming more comfortable with the process, though, I find that it isn't nearly as time-consuming as it can seem. If you're doing work from home, taking a break to knead or punch down a dough can be fun and very relaxing. Also, contrary to popular understanding, baking yeasted bread really isn't difficult, as long as you have a clear sense of the appropriate proportions and the stages involved. Recently I've made several variations including leftover rice, sweetened condensed milk, cream, and a variety of other things I had leftover and needed to clean out of the fridge. All of them have been exceptional.

As I explained in my post a few weeks ago, I bake from the Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown, which lays out the directions in easy, clearly explained steps with images, perfect for beginners. Here are a few photos of my process, making a nice sweet whole wheat loaf with molasses, whole milk, and a hint of cornmeal and multi-grain cereal.

I opted to make 3/4 of Brown's general whole wheat bread recipe, yielding three nice loaves. I only took the photos later in the process, after the second rising. I turned the nice dough out on a floured board, cut it into three roughly evenly sized pieces, and began the final kneading and shaping of the loaves.


I. For the sponge:
  • 6 cups lukewarm water (subsitute a portion with milk, if desired)
  • 2 tablespoons yeast (2 pkgs)
  • 1/2-3/4 cup honey or brown sugar or molasses
  • 2 cups powdered milk (I omit, using regular milk instead)
  • 7-9 cups whole grain flour
    -- Brown calls for whole wheat flour, but I generally use a mixture including whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur brand), buckwheat, spelt, and rye flours, and about a half-cup each of whole-grain cornmeal (polenta) and 10-grain cereal from Bob's Red Mill (the 10-grain cereal contains: whole grain wheat, whole grain corn, whole grain rye, whole grain triticale [wheat], whole grain oats, soy beans, whole grain millet, whole grain barley, whole grain brown rice, oat bran, flaxseed)
II. For adding after the sponge rises:
  • 2.5 tablespoons salt
  • 1/2-1 cup fat (oil, butter, etc; I often use almond or other nut oils with beautiful results)
  • 6-8 cups additional whole wheat flour
  • 2-3 cups whole wheat flour (for kneading)

Directions (I still recommend Brown's book for more complete explanation)

I. Make the sponge.
  1. Dissolve yeast in the water.
  2. Add sweetening and powdered milk.
  3. Stir in the flour until a thick batter is formed.
  4. Beat all these ingredients together well with a spoon, about 100 strokes.
  5. Let rise for 60 minutes.

  1. Fold in salt and oil.
  2. Fold in additional flour until dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.
  3. Knead for about 10-15 minutes on a floured board, using more flour as needed until dough doesn't stick to hands or board.
  4. Place into an oiled bread bowl, and let bread rise for 50 minutes
  5. Punch down.
  6. Let rise 40 more minutes.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (F).
  8. Turn the dough onto the board, shape into a ball, and cut into four even pieces. Shape into balls again, and let sit for five minutes.
  9. Now, shape your dough into loaves.

It's best, in general, to use a flat palm for kneading, pushing the dough forward with the weight of your whole body, centering the weight into the ball of the hand toward the end of the push.

Occasionally I also do a little punching, though. With a heavy dough like this one it can be easier to get it compacted this way, and it's a fun way of getting out aggression, too.

10. Once you finish the final kneading (about 5-6 rounds of kneading, folding in half, turning a quarter turn, and kneading again), it's time to finish shaping the loaves. Roll the dough into a little log shape, then proceed to pinch the seams together.

11. Then pat it into the form of a loaf, squaring off the edges.

(Action shots above courtesy of Umlud.)

12. Put the loaves into greased pans, and press down into loaf pan with flat fingers. (I actually have only one bread pan at the moment, so I typically make rolls or round loaves and just one rectangular loaf. Up top is the prettiest of the three that I made this time, a round loaf.)
16. Remove from pans and cool on baking rack.
13. Let loaves rise for about 20 minutes.
14. Cut slits into the top of the loaves, about 1/2 inch deep, to allow steam to escape.
15. Bake at 350 degrees for about 50-70 minutes, until the top is nice and golden brown. If you have differently shaped or sized loaves, they may need to bake different amounts of time.
17. Though Brown recommends letting it cool for an hour to ensure the slices are clean, I like to eat it right out of the oven with organic butter and organic strawberry jam. Sunspire makes a delicious one you can buy in a big jar at COSTCO for about $8, probably less than the cost of making it yourself in the height of berry season. (That is, unless you have access to berry fields where you can pick organic strawberries for $1 a pound, like Ms Scrumptious does at Eatwell Farms!)

*Even buying the highest-quality whole grain flours, I save considerably on the loaves. Comparable bread from local bakeries like Avalon or Zingerman's cost in the range of $7-10 for a fresh loaf, plus the cost of gas to and from the market, no small factor for those of us living in rural areas, as Wise Bread points out. In the winter, I also heat up my kitchen with the gas oven, reducing the heating required in the house.


Urban Vegan said...

Very nice. This is something I should do more often--since I enjoy it--and it saves you big bucks.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

scrumptious said...

What an awesome guide! Great pictures! So helpful!

It makes me wish I could tolerate wheat... I will have to just take the passing-out-dead-asleep risk and chow down on some when I see you. How could I resist?

Ms Heather said...

Scrumptious, just for you, we're going to get some soy and rice flours from the People's Food Co-op this week and try a wheat-free version of Brown's classic recipe. Urban Vegan, thanks for stopping by here!! :)

Bradipo said...

Have you tried keeping a sourdough starter going? It saves a little money (the cost of the yeast). That's probably not enough to justify the effort, unless you enjoy it. (That's why we do it--something about knowing that the starter we're using today is part of a direct line stretching back to bread that we baked years ago is special. And, of course, we like the bread.)

Also, thanks for the link!

Philip Brewer