Baking your own bread is sometimes viewed at the top of the list of homesteading cooking tasks. When one masters the art of bread making, the feeling of accomplishment is high. There is an art to it, there is a finesse, and some of the steps are best mastered with experience. The ability to read the dough only comes with experience. It is guaranteed that every expert bread maker has been through many failures over time. There are many factors beyond our control that affect the steps of bread making, temperature and humidity are two of those factors. The flour you choose can also make a huge difference in the outcome. Once you learn how the dough should feel at each stage, and understand what each step does, it makes mastering the process of bread making faster and easier. While nothing can take the place of experience, there are a few tips that I have learned over the years from other bakers that have helped me have more successes than failures when baking bread for my family. Hopefully by sharing these, your success will come more quickly. There is not better time to practice than in the winter when the temperatures keep you inside except for the most basic chores that are necessary to keep your animals happy, warm and healthy.
You can use my Basic White Bread recipe for sandwich bread, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, yeast doughnuts, etc.
Proof your yeast by adding it to a warm liquid, usually water included in your recipe. The water temperature should not be too hot, or it will kill the live yeast, causing your dough to be flat, dense and hard. The water needs to be warm enough to “wake up” the living yeast and start its fermentation activity. The best temperature if you want to measure and be exact, is between 105 and 100 F. A simple test is for it to feel warm to the inside of your wrist, but not hot. As your yeast proofs, it will get bubbly and foamy. Proofing gives your yeast a head start and encourages quicker rising.
When adding flour to the liquid/yeast mixture, add just a little at time. You want enough flour to make a dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl. Too little flour makes a stick dough that is hard to knead, and too much creates a heavy loaf of bread. If you are hand kneading, and working a bit of flour in as you knead, leave the dough a touch on the sticky side, as you will be adding a bit from your floured surface that you are kneading on. If you are using the Kitchen Aid, like I do, you can add a bit more initially. At the very end, I actually add just a pinch at a time. It is surprising how little it takes to push the dough to the final stage.
Kneading is a good workout! It takes time to get the fibers to align and become elastic. Whether you are kneading by hand or using a stand mixer like my Kitchen Aid, it takes several minutes to knead it to perfection. You dough should feel soft, smooth and “springy”. A good test to see if it is at the right stage is pull off a small pinch of dough and pull it apart. If is rough and tries to tear, you are not there yet. A dough that is at the right stage with gluten developed, fibers aligned and elasticity at the right point will pull smoothly and become a smooth and almost transparent.
Most recipes call for letting the dough “rise until doubled”. Depending on what your dough is rising in, it is sometimes hard to tell when your dough has doubled. I do two things to help me determine when my dough has sufficiently risen. First I place my dough in a large bowl with a lid. When the lid “pops” off, it is a good indication that it may be ready and I give it the ultimate test. Dough is natural “springy” and “spongy” because of the elasticity. When poked with a finger, it will spring back to nearly it’s original state. When it is sufficiently risen, it has enough air in it that the hole will remain indented from your finger. If you poke your finger gently into the dough, up to the first knuckle and it springs back, you need to let it rise a bit more. If the indention remains, you are ready to shape your loves or other bread product. When you let your loaves do their final rise, the same test holds true.
One final tip, that I thought of last minute, is how to tell when your loaf of bread has finished baking. Bake it until golden brown, but depending on your oven, you may have a nice golden top, but the loaf may not be quite done in the middle. Flip the top of the loaf with your index finger to see what the loaf “sounds” like. If the bread is done, you will hear a nice hollow “thump”. If you don’t get the thump, bake a few more minutes.
I hope these tips help take some of the mystery out of bread baking. The process is intimidating to many, it has been made easier with stand mixers, and conventional ovens, the age old bread making process is a great way to feel a sense of satisfaction in your modern day homesteading skills. There is nothing better than a fresh slice of warm bread covered with homemade jam, honey or homemade butter!