Even though I grew up with my dad baking bread, yeast was still a source of wonderment and intimidation. So temperamental, easy to mess up, and mysterious – would it make the dough rise today or would it turn into a brick?
But a few years ago, after much practice, I cracked the bread code, at least for my little home baked loaves and I wanted to share three tips that I found to be the most useful in going from a fearful mess to a confident breadbaker. Plus I have a really simple bread recipe below that I think you’ll like.
Now, I know that using a bread machine takes all the worry out of baking bread. Just pop all the ingredients in and several hours later, you have a loaf of bread. However, a friend and I got to talking about bread machines the other day, and we agreed that there is something extremely satisfying about making bread by hand and, often, it tastes much better.
Okay, let’s get started.
Tip #1: Don’t push through making the bread if the yeast doesn’t bloom and bubble up at the beginning.
I haven’t worked in the food service industry for many years, but it seems that the time I did spend serving up hot coffee and carrying hot plates to hungry diners desensitized some nerves and what feels too hot to the yeast, feels just nice and warm to me. So this was a big issue for me with breadmaking. I’d add water that was much too hot for the yeast, inevitably killing it and any hopes of a delicious well-risen loaf along with it.
Add yeast to WARM water and then set it aside to bloom and get bubbly. This takes about 5-10 minutes. THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART: If the mixture just looks like stale muddy swamp water after that time, then dump it and try again. That’s the great thing about using yeast packets. They come in strips of three and they’re inexpensive. So always buy a few sets of yeast packets at a time so that it doesn’t matter if you kill your yeast or if the yeast is old and doesn’t bubble up.
Some bread recipes do not have you do anything special with the yeast at the beginning. You’ll just add it into the bowl along with everything else. But the same rule applies – if the yeast doesn’t do anything in this case (make the dough rise), then toss it out and start over. Unfortunately, this will mean wasting more supplies than if you knew about the issue with the yeast had it been mixed with water at the beginning.
Tip #2: Be patient and work hard at the kneading.
Bread recipes vary on how long you need to knead. Some recipes call for a little-to-no knead shaggy dough. Others, especially if the recipe uses whole wheat or tougher flours, need lots of time. Others, like Goldilocks, just need a medium amount. You’re working the gluten and activating the yeast. This is an immensely important step so learn how to do it correctly.
If you’re a fan of The Great British Baking Show, then you know there are several different kneading styles. Like Paul Hollywood, you could slap the dough on the counter. Maybe you’d like to work out some tension by using a rolling pin on it. But I prefer just the basic fold style of kneading.
Step 1) Push the dough away from you with the heel of your palm.
Step 2) Fold the dough.
Step 3) Admire your folded dough and how good you’re doing already.
Step 4) Push the dough away from you with the heel of your palm, fold, and repeat. You’ll also want to turn the dough between folds just to make sure you’re working all of it throughout the kneading time.
Pretty simple right? Just be prepared for a nice little forearm workout from this.
Tip #3: Find a toasty place to let your bread rise and bigger does not always mean better
If you are one of the lucky ones who has a proving drawer in your kitchen, you don’t need this tip. But for everyone else…you want to set your head someplace warm and draft-free. In a sunny spot by a closed window. On your stovetop under a warm light. I found the place to get my dough to rise the most consistently is in the oven itself. The lowest temperature I can get the oven is on the “warm” setting at 145 degrees. I place the bread, covered with a clean dish towel in the oven, which has been turned to the lowest setting. And then I let it sit there for the full rising time, turning the oven off after about 15-20 minutes. And here’s the important part: I DO NOT open the door but once towards the end of the riding time. Otherwise, I risk a draft that may make the dough collapse or wrinkle. I do this process for each rising time that the bread needs.
Also remember, if the recipe says “rise until dough has doubled in size,” do not let it go until it’s tripled now or quadrupled in size. You can over-prove dough and you’ll wind up with a large albeit not very tasty and air-bubbled filled loaf.
Conversely, if the dough doesn’t seem to have risen as much as you’d like in the given time, be patient and wait a bit longer. Your dough should have gotten considerably bigger and when you gently press your thumb into it, the indentation should fill back in within moments.
Bonus Tip: Look for signs other than bake time to know when your bread is done.
Does it smell like bread is baking in your house? Does the crust have a pleasing color to it? When you take it out and flip it over, knock on it. Does it sound hollow?
If you answered yes to those questions, your bread, regardless of time in the oven, is done. Now make sure you don’t slice into it while it’s still hot. You’ll just wind up squishing it and losing that nice interior texture you worked so hard to get.
Country White Loaf
Simple and delicious bread dough that toasts up great and is perfect with butter.
- 1 c warm water
- 1/8 c sugar
- 1 packet active dry yeast
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 c olive oil Plus extra
- 3 c all-purpose or bread flour
In a large bowl, whisk together warm water, sugar, yeast and salt. Set aside for 5-10 minutes or until the yeast is bubbly.
Stir in the olive oil and 2 cups of flour and then turn the dough out into a surface heavily floured with the remaining cup. Knead the dough until most of the remaining cup of flour has been added and the dough is soft, pliable, and not “shaggy.” The entire kneading process should take about 5-7 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball.
Add a teaspoon or so of olive oil to a large clean bowl. Add the dough ball to the bowl, rolling in the oil so it’s coated. Put a clean dish towel over the bowl and set it aside in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 3 minutes. Shape into a round, about 8 inches across and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with the dish towel and let rise another 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove dish towel from the dough and place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake the bread for 25-30 minutes or until the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when you knock on it.
Remove to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting into it. Serve with lots of butter and enjoy!
Do you have any bread tips that helped you? Please share your glutenous knowledge below!