In my previous post, I introduced you to the ingredients used to make bread at home. You now know what each ingredient does to produce lofty, fragrant, scrumptious loaves of bread in your own kitchen. Now I will discuss the technical aspects of bread baking, from mixing ingredients to baking the loaves.
Once you have assembled your ingredients, remembering to bring everything to at least room temperature, you will begin your bread baking by proofing your yeast in your liquid in a large bowl. Once the yeast bubbles, you know it is active. Add the sugar, fat and start adding the flour one cup at a time. Mix thoroughly between each addition. When your dough becomes less sticky and more elastic, roll it out onto a floured surface. Keep mixing in the flour until you have all the flour the recipe called for mixed in.
Now comes the fun part, kneading. Kneading dough is the process by which the gluten strands are stretched and air is worked into the dough. Starting with your dough in a ball, place the heels of both hands in the center of the the ball of dough. Push away from you as far as the dough will easily stretch. move your hands to the near edge of the dough(closest to you) and fold it over the stretched part. Keep stretching and folding, turning your dough a quarter turn between each fold. This will become rhythmic and is quite a nice workout for your arms. It is also and awesome stress reliever! Keep this up for about 8 minutes. When your dough is finished being kneaded, it will have a smooth slightly shiny appearance, looking a bit like a woman's breast to be totally honest.
When you are finished kneading you will need to place your dough in a warm, moist place to rise. There are many different ways to rise bread and I will outline some of the more common ones. The purpose of rising is to allow the yeast to grow and feed on the sugar in the dough. Doing so will cause the yeast to produce carbon dioxide, which is the gas that makes the bread rise. Dough can become sticky when it rises in a moist place so it is helpful to use some cooking spray to coat the bowl you use to rise your dough. Place the dough in the coated bowl and turn it a few times to coat the dough. Drape a clean tea towel over the bowl to prevent the dough from drying out. I find the easiest way to rise dough is to turn your oven on to the lowest setting for about 10 minutes(before putting your dough in!!) and then turn it off. Place your oven rack in the middle of the oven and a bowl of steaming hot water on the bottom of your oven. Put your bowl of dough on the oven rack and close the oven door. You can also rig up a setting to rise dough in your sink. Fill the sink about a quarter full of steaming hot water and place a shallow bowl upside down in the water forming a platform for your bowl of dough to sit on. Place several tea towels over the bowl and sink, forming a tent for your dough. Alternately, you can leave your dough in the fridge overnight. The yeast will rise, but much much slower than in the presence of warmth. I've never tried this method, so I can not attest to its efficacy.
You will be advised in your recipe to allow the dough to rise for about 60 minutes. One way to test if the dough is fully risen is to insert your finger in the dough leaving an indent. Leave the dough for 5 minutes or so and check back to see if your indent is still there. If its not, your dough is still rising. Leave it a bit longer. When your dough is risen, you will need to "punch it down". It is what it sounds like: punch the dough in the bowl until it deflates. Roll it out on to a lightly floured surface and knead it lightly until it doesn't shrink anymore. This is how to remove all of the carbon dioxide that has built up in the dough. If you pull a piece of dough off the ball, you will see that it now has a pattern of tiny holes formed by the bubbles of carbon dioxide. This is the texture your baked bread will have.
Next you will shape your dough. Depending on what recipe you are using you will need to either form the dough into a given shape, like a round loaf or braid or you will place the dough into lightly greased loaf pans. You will then need to cover them and return them to the place you use to rise for another 40 minutes. This is the final rise, where the dough takes on the proportions of the final result.
Now we come to the end of your labours. Once your dough has finished it's final rise you can brush the surface with either milk or egg white and apply seasame seeds or poppy seeds if you desire. The milk or egg white coating creates a beautiful brown finish on the loaf. Place your loaves in the oven and then heat it to the required temperature, usually 425 degrees. By placing your loaves in a cool oven, you allow just a few extra minutes for the bread to rise a little bit more before the heat kills off the yeast. Bake your bread for about 30 minutes, or until it sounds hollow when sharply tapped. Be sure to take a moment to savour the fragrance wafting from your kitchen!! When your bread is finished baking remove it from the oven and place it on a cooling rack. After it cools for about 10 minutes, turn out your loaves from the pans. You may need to run the edge of a butter knife around the rim of the pan to loosen it and it should slide right out.
There, that's it!! You have successfully made your own bread. Now sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labours, preferably with some fresh butter or homemade jam!! Never again will squishy store bought bread satisfy you!