Sunday, October 18, 2009

How To Make Your Own Bread Part 1

Once upon a time you would be hard pressed to find an average woman who couldn't make bread for her family. It was a required skill for women and it was taught to girls at a young age. I learned to make bread as a young girl also and while I don't do it on a regular basis anymore, it is something that I enjoy and I honestly feel that there is no better fragrance in the world than that of a loaf of bread baking in your own oven. Crack open a window and let the scent waft out, your home will be the envy of the neighbourhood!

Making bread can seem daunting and there are few things that you really need to know about the nature of yeast breads. Once you have this knowledge, bread baking becomes a simple and enjoyable task. All risen breads require a leavening agent. In the case of white bread, yeast is used. Yeast is a single cell fungus that is present in the environment. One method of bread baking requires harnessing wild yeast from the air and growing it. This produces a tangy bread called sourdough. For now we will focus on the use of commercially grown and packaged yeast. Understanding that yeast is a living organism that requires certain conditions to grow dispels some of the mystery of bread baking. Yeast can be a bit temperamental. It likes to be warm and moist and dislikes cold. It won't grow in the cold, which is why all of your ingredients need to be at least room temperature or warmer. As much as yeast dislikes cold, it also dislikes too much heat. When using liquids in a bread recipe it is best to have them heated to a temperature in which you can insert your baby finger and hold it comfortably for ten seconds. This is the ideal temperature in which to grow yeast, not too hot and not too cold. Yeast should be dissolved in the warm liquid that your recipe calls for. This is called "proofing". If the yeast starts to produce bubbles, it is working. Some of the newer brands of yeast say that you don't need to proof, but I feel that it is best to do it anyway to avoid potential disappointment later. Yeast is called "leavening" because it is the agent that causes bread to rise. Yeast activates in a warm moist environment and it feeds on sugars. As the yeast feeds, it produces carbon dioxide (the bubbles you see when proofing) which will cause the dough to rise. This is what gives bread its lift and texture. Yeast can be purchased in individual packets or in bulk. I prefer the packets myself, as it is premeasured and easy to use and store. I also prefer storing yeast in the refrigerator, as this keeps it in a dormant state.

The second most important part of your bread recipe is the flour. Wheat flour makes the best bread because it contains the most gluten. Gluten is the protein found in most grains. It forms stretchy strands that give bread dough its elastic texture and allows it to rise. Bread flour contains more gluten than regular all purpose flour, but all purpose flour works just fine for making bread. Atmospheric conditions can alter exactly how much flour your dough will need. A typical two loaf recipe will call for about 6-61/2 cups of flour but humidity in the air can cause the dough to soak up more flour so don't be afraid to add a bit more if you find your dough too sticky. Baking is a very inexact craft, you needn't be concerned about tweaking recipes to suit your situation.

The next ingredient you need to know about it sugar. As I pointed out before, yeast is a living organism that feeds on sugars. A bread recipe will call for sugar in any of the following forms: white table sugar, honey, molasses or milk. Milk contains lactose, which is also a sugar.  I prefer to use honey as a sugar because it seems to help preserve the bread. In my experience, bread made with white sugar will go stale and grow mold much faster than bread made with honey. Molasses is used to turn white bread into brown bread. It is called for in Boston Brown Bread and some unscrupulous bakeries will use it to make pumpernickel or rye breads darker than they should be(making them appear more wholesome) or they will market molasses bread as "brown bread" intending to fool consumers into believing the loaf is made from whole wheat flour. Always check the ingredients list on commercial brown breads to be sure that the loaf is made of whole wheat and isn't just white bread in disguise.

Your bread recipe will also call for fat in some form. Butter,margarine,  lard or oil may be called for. Each type of fat will produce different results. Oil, for instance, produces a denser, chewier texture than butter. French and Italian breads are made with oil, where your typical everyday white bread uses butter or lard.

Those are the basic ingredients required for every loaf of risen bread. Once you know what they are and what they do, bread baking starts to seem very simple. And it is! My next post will deal with the technical aspects of baking bread.