I said I wasn’t going to do this because it’s too basic, but it turns out there are people out there who read this stuff, know I’m a big “bread guy,” and said they’re too afraid to try making their own bread. Nooooo! This is literally one of the oldest recipes (well, after twigs, berries, and wildebeast steaks) made by all manner of people all over the world for millenia. If medieval mud-hut-dwelling peasants can do it, you can to. Personally, I make three or four loaves every Sunday, and except for things like hamburger and hotdog buns, I don’t even eat refined white bread anymore. In fact, even hamburger and hotdog buns are starting to taste a little gross to me. Call me spoiled, but for a couple of years now, I’ve been 100% aware of what ingredients go into my bread, and none of them have weird, scientific names.
Now, as with most things we’ve covered in these posts, the joy is starting with the basics and then experimenting with adding new ingredients to make it your own, so I’m going to give you a very basic bread recipe here, and get you started with a couple of modifications. Now, the French will tell you that “proper bread” is made from only four ingredients: Flour, water, yeast, and salt. They will also go on forever about which types of flower and yeasts are allowed, and which are not. Being a third-generation American of French descent, I like my job easier, and my flavors a bit more complex, so I’m adding a few things. Your basic list of ingredients will look like this:
- 3.5 cups Flour — I recommend you go with “bread flour,” but I usually just buy all-purpose because I use it for other things besides bread, and it works fine.)
- 1.25 cups Water — You’re aiming for room-temperature to warm swimming pool here. Not too hot, not too cool.
- 1 Packet of Yeast — Fleishmann’s active dry yeast has never let me down, but go with whatever you can get.
- 1 Tsp Salt — Salt kills yeast like a mother-in-law kills your happiness
- 1 Tsp Sugar — I add this to feed the yeast and speed up the process … because, I am the impatient type
- 1 Tsp Dark Brown Sugar — Alternatively, you can just use two tsp of regular sugar
- 1 Egg — I like to use an egg wash to brown the crust. You can also do this by steaming your loaf during the initial baking process to get a really dark, flaky crust — but I find this technique so much easier
- Olive Oil — Optional, and just a cople dashes. There’s some weird complex protien interaction this causes, and if you believe in Gluten — which I still maintain is a myth invented by food companies fifteen years ago — then it also apparently has something to do with lowering that. Honestly, I just think it makes the bread a bit lighter and ads a subtle flavor to it.
- Butter — This is optional, but I’ll show you a trick later.
- Garlic — See butter.
- Cornmeal — See garlic.
I know, it sounds like a lot of ingredients, but really, it’s easy, and only the first four are really crucial anyway. That said, we start by putting the water, sugar, brown sugar, and yeast in a big bowl.
Now, go take a break and check your email or something for ten minutes or so.
When you come back, your yeast should be starting to get a good sugar buzz on. You’ll probably notice it … well, I don’t know what it does … sometimes I think it’s swimming … or bubbling … or swirling … or something. Point being, it should look at least a LITTLE different after ten minutes. So now dump your flour on top of the yeastwater, dash a bit of olive oil on top of it, and then sprinkle the salt on top of the flour. The olive oil is optional, but the salt basically acts as a control to kill the yeast after a fashion, so while I normally say, “Don’t measure stuff. Just go with what you like,” you do pretty much do have to measure out the flour/water/yeast/salt ratio with bread, or you’re gonna have a big ol’ mess on your hands when it’s time for the dough to do it’s thing. So with all your basic ingredients all in the bowl now, best thing to do is just make a claw with your hand and start swirling it around until you get a nice ball of sticky dough.
Now comes the important part. Music selection. You’re about to knead dough for ten minutes, so in my opinion, that requires music with a good, steady beat at just the right tempo, that will end right around ten minutes. Personally, I like to play “Better Weather” and “Worse Weather” by Mt. Ossa back-to-back while I knead for those exact reasons. Now everybody has their own “kneading technique,” but personally, I use … “Press out, fold back, rotate 90 degrees, repeat for ten minutes.” The point is, you’re getting everything mixed together and giving your bread it’s texture. So, do a good job here.
After your musical selection is over and your bread is properly kneaded, it’s time for your second break while that yeast kicks in and dough rises. So, go watch a Star Trek episode, and then come back in about 45 minutes. Your dough ball should be roughly twice the size it was when you started.
Okay, hard part is over. Kick that cookbox on to 350 degrees and let’s work with your dough. This is the part where ad libbing and customization comes in really handy. Now, if you’re just basic, you can take that dough and slap it on a cookie sheet or bread pan right now. In fact, I’m going to split my dough in half and just throw half on a cookie sheet as is — this will make a basic round loaf good for sandwiches.
I’ll get fancy with the other half and go for a French-style baguette, but with a twist. The baguettes are a bit fluffier and tear apart easily for dipping in olive oil or whatever. We start by rolling the dough out completely flat. Then I like to lightly coat it with butter and sprinkle in a little something for flavor. In this case, just a bit of garlic powder and oregano. And I mean just a bit. A couple of dashes go a long way once this puppy heats up and starts baking, and you want bread to be subtle. You can alway add flavor after it’s done, but if you over-season this thing now, you can’t take that back.
Once you’ve got the flavor on (or heck, just roll it out and don’t add anything, that’s what a purist would do), start rolling the sheet of dough up like one of those Little Debbie swiss cake rolls. When you get to the end, pinch all the dough together so you don’t see the seam, sprinkle a bit of corn meal over that side of the loaf (completely optional), and lay it (seam down) on your baking sheet. Don’t worry, it will explode right out of that seam when you get in the oven. I’ve never figure out how to get that to work the way the store baguettes do.
Okay, last couple of steps here: scramble that egg up in a little bowl or coffee cup, grab a basting brush (or a paper towel if you’re a hardcore bachelor without cooking utensils — but seriously, go to the dollar store and buy a basting brush), and coat the outside of your loaves with egg.
Finally, crust work and extra touches: Unless you are just baking in a loaf pan, you’ll probably want to make a few surgical incisions to control the final shape of the bread when it starts expanding again in the oven. This is also where, for my loaf-style bread, I’m going to sprinkle a little secret ingredient on top to flavor the crust. (The baguette is garclic buttered inside, and cornmealed outside already, so this is just the loaf I’m hitting.)
Alright, time for your third break. Pop those puppies in your heated oven for 23 minutes. You’ll notice right about the time the smell of fresh bread becomes almost overwhelming, they will be ready to take out.
And that’s all there is to it. Those are my big secrets. Now you can enjoy the endless accolates and glory, the unlimited female companionship, and the life of luxury that comes from eating your own fresh bread on a daily basis.
As always, if you have a variant or an alternate technique in your bread, drop me a line, I’m always curious to try new things.