There is something completely satisfying, almost to the point of smugness, about baking your own bread for the first time. But the satisfaction is earned during the journey, and appreciated in the execution.
At first, you’re intimidated.
Um… this brown granule stuff is yeast? Wait, how long is this going to take me, again?
What do you mean I have to knead it? Isn’t that tiring?
You think I over-exaggerate, but these thoughts were running through my head in a blur the first time I even thought of attempting bread, let alone actually making it. I vigorously follow directions to the point where I overdo it once in a while (e.g. butter instead of whipped cream, rock-hard ladyfingers). I was really worried about over-kneading bread and missing out on the fluffy awesomeness that our yeasty friends supply in our dough.
But after a few trips to the rodeo (with a different bull each time, I guess you could say?) I’ve learned a few things that might be helpful to others standing on the precipice of baking bread for the first time.
- It is much harder to over-knead by hand than by mixer. When in doubt, take it out… of the stand mixer and knead it yourself.
- Also, there is no shame in using a stand mixer. Or maybe I’m the only crazy one that initially insists on doing everything by hand. Yeah… technology exists for a reason.
- Know your oven and don’t trust timed recipes. Yeah, I know this sounds ridiculous—especially because all recipes list bake times. But these times are solely based on my experiences with my overactive, overheating oven. Yours is probably much less temperamental.
- Don’t walk away when the bread is in the oven! If the estimated time to completion is 20 minutes, check on it at 10-12 minutes (through the oven window of course, don’t open it!). I’m serious. I’ve walked away in my haste to multi-task in the kitchen and have burned many a roll. I know this is more or less a repeat of #3, but it really is important if you want great results the first (or any) time.
- Make sure you know your yeast and its expiration date. If you want to follow the recipe to a tee, make sure you have the type of yeast the recipe calls for—be it active, instant, osmotolerant, etc. And definitely make sure it hasn’t expired yet; it is, after all, a living thing. Where did you think all that gas came from? (Burpy yeast!)
- There is a difference between bread flour and all-purpose flour. I know, this is also obvious—bread flour stands apart because it has a higher gluten content than AP flour, making it much more amenable to the elasticity that bakers look for in dough. But that doesn’t mean that all bread recipes require it!
- Always cover your dough when you’re not working with it. If you’re working with two loaves, always keep one covered with a damp dish towel/plastic wrap while working with the other unless the recipe states otherwise. Dry dough is sad dough.
- Account for the expansion/rise of your dough during 1st/2nd/etc. leavenings. I recently made ciabatta bread for the first time and during its 2nd leavening, put it in a bowl that was barely twice the size of the dough. After 2 hours, It was rising in a mound above the lip of the bowl! Scraping the sticky dough off of the plastic wrap covering the bowl was time-consuming and frustrating.
- Keep trying. Even though I jump from one type of recipe to the next, I know what the basic benchmarks are for rising dough—whether it’s soft pretzels or French bread or even plain ol’ white sandwhich bread. You gain confidence in working with the yeast-to-flour-and-water ratio. I definitely feel much more comfortable baking bread than I did a year or even a month ago.
Baking bread from scratch was at one time my personal goal in the kitchen, and I was scared of screwing it up for years before I tried it. Don’t be irrational like me—give it a shot, and you’ll be surprised at how much more delicious it tastes than what you can find at the grocery store. (Either that, or it tastes better because of all the love, time and effort you put into the dough.)