Bread is, at its heart, made of four things: Water, Yeast, Flour and Salt. Obviously, there are many, many more things you can add to bread, but without these four, you are not making a yeast-leavened bread. Some things to know about:
Flour. The three kinds of flour you will most likely encounter at the grocery store are Cake Flour, All-Purpose Flour and Bread Flour (we'll talk about specialty flours later). These designations are based on how much potential gluten the flour has. Cake flour has the least amount of potential gluten (which is why cakes are crumbly) and Bread flour has the most potential gluten, which is why it is used for making lovely, elastic bread doughs.
Salt. Salt aids the elasticity of your dough, as well as the flavor. Salt, however, is one of the Big Three ways to kill Yeast, so add it as late in the process as you can and still get proper incorporation. I use only Kosher salt. Each grain of Iodized table salt is much smaller than Kosher salt, so more grains will fit into your teaspoon or tablespoon, thus, it is effectively saltier.
Water. Water is water, and while people will claim that New York pizza can only be made with New York water, these people are overthinking it. One thing I will say is to always use tap water, no warmer than 115 degrees F. Distilled water has none of the minerals that are naturally present in tap water, which can actually give your bread a flat, uninteresting flavor.
Yeast. While there are a number of commercially-available types of baker's yeast out there, I generally use the activated dry yeast. It's easy to store, easy to find and usually what's called for in recipes. Win win win. The Big Three ways to kill yeast are 'your water is too hot' (above 115 degrees F), 'you added the salt too early', and 'your yeast was already dead'. The solution to the first one is a thermometer, the solution to the second one is waiting to add your salt until most of your flour has been incorporated, and the solution to the third is choosing recipes that use a starter or sponge method. (This is where you re hydrate your yeast in all of your liquid, with some of your flour and something for the yeast to chew on, like a sugar or fruit juice. Once it bubbles, you know you're in business.)
Baking For The Home Team
When baking at home for my family, my main concern is to produce bread that is both tasty and more or less healthy. Now, bread will never be health food. But whatever I can do to make the bread healthier, I will do that. I enjoy baking all the bread that my children eat, so that I can have the peace of mind of knowing exactly what is in it. As much as I can, I'm trying to instill in my kids that if you can do something yourself instead of buying convenience products, then that is the better way to go. We compost, we recycle and we have a medium-sized vegetable garden throughout the summer.
Bread that you buy at the store is, by & large, loaded up with extra salt, modified starches and preservatives, and sugar. Lots and lots of sugar, mainly in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is so bad for you that I am surprised it is classified as a food. When my two children & I bake bread at home, we go into it knowing a few things. Baking bread will take us a couple of hours. Now, there are plenty of things to do while we wait for the first or second rise to happen, so no worry there. We also know that the shelf life of our bread is about 3-4 days. Our batch makes 2 loaves, so once they're cool, one loaf goes into the freezer, and the other one is left out for us to eat. We also know that it's going to be work, and we're probably going to make a mess. (My daughter, currently 3 years old, likes to make designs with her finger in the flour that inevitably ends up on the floor.)
Our standard bread that we make at home is an Oatmeal & Flax bread. Our trade off for the sugar that I add to the dough (in the form of honey—it gives the yeast something to munch) is that this bread is high in fiber. Fiber in bread is important, because without fiber you're basically eating simple & complex sugars and nothing else. The recipe for our house bread is below.
3 cups Bread Flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dry active Yeast
½ cup Nonfat Dry Milk
2 tablespoons Honey
3 cups Water
5 ½ cups All Purpose Flour
2 teaspoons Salt
1 cup Oats, cooked & cooled
4 tablespoons Butter, melted
½ cup Flax Seeds, ground
In the bowl of a Kitchenaid mixer, combine the first 5 ingredients and wrap with plastic or a wet, clean dishtowel. Allow to sit until bubbly and roughly doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Attach the bowl to the mixer and, using the dough hook, add 4 cups of the AP flour and all of the salt. Mix until the dough is more or less cohesive, but it will probably still be a bit sticky.
Mix on the lowest speed for 4 minutes, then add the oats, melted butter and ground flax seeds. Mix this until uniformly incorporated, then add the remaining AP flour until the dough does not stick to the sides of the mixer (you may not need all of the rest).
Remove the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead once or twice, then return to the bowl and cover to rise. This will take roughly an hour to double.
Once doubled in size, punch the dough down and divide in half. Shape each half into a fat tube and place in prepared loaf pans. Again, allow these to rise for about 45 minutes, or until the dough clears the top of the pans.
Preheat your oven to 425˚ F and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375˚ F and bake another 30 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool. Once cool, enjoy!
Be sure to join me in my next Breads Class at Give Me Some Sugar!