Wholesome bliss, straight from your oven
There's nothing quite as satisfying as making homemade bread. From kneading the dough to the heavenly aroma and taste of baked bread, it's a blissful experience.
If food is the universal language, then bread is the punctuation to every sentence. Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods, and has for centuries held cultural, religious and political significance.
Every society makes its own form of bread. In fact, it is believed that the ability to sow and reap cereals may be one of the chief reasons our ancestors were able to renounce their nomadic hunting and herding lifestyles and settle in communities.
Although intimidating, even for experienced cooks, baking bread is very gratifying and comes with a host of health benefits. The common variable in all bread is that it is made with some kind of flour. By baking bread at home, you can ensure the use of wholemeal and wholegrain flours. A grain is whole when all its parts are present: the bran, germ and endosperm.
White flour, on the other hand, uses only the endosperm, which is energy dense but nutrient poor. It is the bran and the germ that are the two most nutrient-rich parts of the grain. Wheat bran and wheatgerm are rich sources of healthy fats, antioxidants, fibre, vitamin E and iron. Eating wholegrain foods has been shown to help protect against cardiovascular disease, maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
With the infinite styles of bread to try, there is no need to shy away from making your own bread at home. Often, as with yeasted breads, much of the process is hands off, leaving you time to do other things. Short on time? Quick breads can usually be mixed together in a flash and be on the table in about one hour. Once you are familiar with the bread-making process, a whole new world of healthy and tasty delights awaits you.
Temperature control is very important when making bread. Everything from the temperature of the ingredients to the room temperature will affect the final bread. Professional bakers can take many temperature readings; however, the home baker should take note of the following temperatures: yeast is best bloomed in warm water that is between 105 and 115 F (41 and 46 C). Ice water and hot water above 120 F (49 C) will kill the yeast. Proofing is done optimally at a room temperature of 75 to 80 F (24 to 27 C). Alternatively, you can proof your dough in the oven with oven light on to provide a gentle heat.
The art of making a loaf of bread can be broken down into several different steps.
Step 1: Measuring
It is important to accurately measure your ingredients, as bread baking all comes down to science. Just the right amount of each ingredient will produce the desired result.
Measuring can be done by weight using a scale or by volume with cup and spoon measures. When measuring liquids, make sure the liquid measuring cup is stationary and on a flat surface. Take the reading from the bottom of the meniscus (the curved upper surface of the liquid). Flour will settle and compact as it sits. Make sure to stir flour with a fork before spooning it into the cup measure. Level it off with a straight edge (the handle of a spoon or spatula works well).
Step 2: Primary fermentation
Also known as pre-fermentation, this is an important but sometimes optional step usually involving a simple mixture of flour, water and yeast that is left to sit and ferment. This step is key to developing an extra depth of flavour through the production of alcohol and acids from the yeast feeding off the flour. Primary fermentation also allows you to use less yeast because it kick-starts the fermentation process before the dough is actually mixed together.
Step 3: Mixing
This step involves combining and evenly distributing all the ingredients into a shaggy dough.
Step 4: Kneading
Kneading the dough helps finish the mixing process and gives the bread structure by helping to develop gluten, a protein that forms when water is mixed with flour. By pushing and pulling on the dough, gluten is stretched and strengthened, which in turn will help trap air bubbles formed during fermentation, allowing the bread to rise.
When hand-kneading the dough, it is best to reserve 1/3 cup (80 ml) of the flour from the recipe for this purpose. Doing so should help reduce the risk of adding too much flour when kneading, which will result in a denser loaf. To knead, flatten the dough by pushing it away from you with the heel of your hand. Then pull and fold the dough’s far edge back over itself. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat until dough is smooth and even-textured.
Step 5: Proofing
Also called benching or resting, this step allows the gluten to relax and the yeast to continue producing carbon dioxide, alcohol and acids, thereby further developing the flavour. The dough has sufficiently proofed when it has doubled in size, and if you poke it, you leave a deep impression in the dough.
Step 6: Punching down and shaping
To punch down the dough means to press down on it gently, causing it to deflate. This is an important step to ensure the dough does not overproof. If overproofed, gluten will stretch to the point of breaking and dough will collapse, no longer able to hold pockets of carbon dioxide. The resulting loaf will be quite dense. Sometimes, a second proofing is required after punching down. Dough is then shaped, giving it its final shape prior to baking.
Step 7: Final rise
This is a final or secondary fermentation in which the dough is allowed to proof one final time to reach the appropriate size before baking.
Step 8: Baking
Just before baking, some breads need to be scored or cut to help release some of the trapped gas that could cause the bread to bake unevenly. It also promotes proper oven spring (the slight additional rising in the oven) and creates an attractive look. In baking the bread, three vital reactions occur: the gelatinisation of the gluten, the caramelisation of the sugars and the coagulation and roasting of the proteins, all of which combine to create a delicious loaf of bread.
Step 9: Cooling and storing
While nothing beats warm bread, it is advised to let your bread cool completely to room temperature before cutting. As it cools, bread will evaporate moisture, drying out slightly, which will intensify its flavour. Trapped steam will evaporate off the crust or be absorbed by the crumb of the bread, resulting in a moist crumb and crunchy crust. Bread is best eaten the day it is made. Crusty breads can be stored in a brown paper bag (to maintain a crisp crust) at room temperature for two days. Alternatively, slice and freeze in an airtight container so that you can remove only what you need without defrosting the entire loaf.
The Importance of Salt
Salt is a key ingredient in many yeasted breads, as it performs several important functions. Salt helps to tighten the gluten structure, which enables the dough to more effectively hold carbon dioxide released by fermenting yeast. Salt reacts with yeast to slow its function and in turn helps control the fermentation process. Salt also contributes to the crust colour and adds flavour.