Making Bread: Fear Not

Who doesn’t love the amazing smell of baking bread? Even more so delicious yeast bread, with a beautiful crisp yet chewy crust that is just the right color?

Do not be afraid of yeast. Many kinds of yeast float in the air, causing fermentations of all sorts, some of which are among the most delicious and sacred things in life, like bread and wine. Now cheese, that’s another critter, also dear to my heart. Bread, like most ancient things, is natural and easy. Follow me here. Think paleo.

The most ancient bread I have ever eaten is the Indian roti. It is just wheat (chapati) flour and water, and oil, sometimes anointed with a little ghee, which is clarified butter. You mix it up, form it into balls, roll it out into little pancakes, cook it on both sides in a dry frying pan, and then toast it over the flame with a pair of tongs. This last step is probably to approximate how it is supposed to taste after being cooked on a stone from which hot embers have just been swept.making pita bread (4)

Now, imagine yeast landed on a primitive gruel of cooked whole or pounded grains that was leftover and sitting in a cooking basket. It bubbles, but the taste isn’t bad and the woman isn’t about to throw it out.  Do they drink it, and get a mild alcoholic buzz? Does it accidentally get too close to the fire and get baked into a hard cake that is tasty, chewable, and stores well? Does it get mixed with more pounded grains and cooked on a hot stone, where the air bubbles expand rapidly as heat hits the primitive dough and the whole thing puffs up- like a pita?

Trust me, you can make bread and it will be good. And timewise it really doesn’t take that much time if you plan it around your schedule, especially when making the no-knead bread further down. But if you’re going to be like that about it, pick up a bread machine (that is a link to my article) for 5 bucks at the local thrift store. People are always dropping them off. OK, here’s the basic proportions:

3 c. flour

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp sugar of some kind- honey is fine too

1 tbsp. oil

1 c. warm water

1/4- 2 tsp yeast.

IPour flour into a big measuring cup. If you scoop the flour, it packs and you have more flour than you need. Dissolve yeast into the water with a pinch of sugar and flour, let it get foamy. Meanwhile dump other ingredients in a mixing bowl, the bigger the better. Pour in the yeast culture and stir until combined with a heavy wooden spoon. Then roll up your sleeves and knead the dough. I used to just knead like a cat until the mass got long, then turn, fold like a letter, and repeat, until I saw a friend from Taiwan just turn it a third, fold, turn it a third, repeat, so you are constantly stretching and turning the corners of a triangle. It does work well inside a large bowl, so you don’t make as much mess as when you turn it out onto a floured board. Now, you may find your dough is to dry to stick together and become elastic, or you may find it is too wet and sticky. Either make a little pocket in the dough and add tiny amounts of water that you seal into the dough so they don’t make a big mess, or add flour.

When it is smooth and elastic, like the recipes all say, it feels really nice. It is sort of satiny and doesn’t stick. It’s fun to push your face into,… at least if you are a kid. Wash, dry, and oil your mixing bowl, put the dough in it, cover with a wet cloth and a damp towel (I use recycled plastic grocery bags a lot), set in a place that is warm and won’t be disturbed (my unused microwave) until it is doubled in bulk. This will take varying times, depending on how much yeast you used per amount of flour, how much sugar and salt you used, the heaviness of the flour, the dryness of the dough, the warmth of the room, altitude… With 2 tsp I would say 2-3 hours, but it will taste nicer if you use less yeast and wait longer, as in my next recipe.

Anyway, oil whatever pan you are using- this makes 1 loaf- and form the dough so it will be about the shape of the pan only a lot smaller. No need to punch it down and let it rise again really. You degas the dough as you are forming it. Then cover it again and leave it until it is risen enough to be really soft and yielding on top, but hasn’t gone flat. That is not quite doubled. Preheat the over to 400F and bake it until it sounds hollow when it is rapped. 40 minutes to an hour. (That is a lot of energy, so try to have other things in the oven at the same time to use the heat.) Take it out, turn it out of the pan- it should fall right out and the bottom should be as brown as the top- and let it cool before cutting. If you cut hot bread it doesn’t slice well. Plus the French say it’s bad for your stomach.

OK, that was super basic beginner bread. This next one is easier. This is the famous no-knead bread that was flooding the internet a while back. I was dubious, but when my non-baking aunt brought me a gorgeous golden loaf with perfect hole structure, I had to try it.

You need a dutch oven, which is essentially a big heavy pot with a lid. Mine is cast iron. You need that kind of weight. The dutch oven fools this bread into believing it is in a steam oven, like professional bakers use, so it becomes this round crisp ball that you would pay through the nose for in an artisanal bakery. It really rocks. So:

In a big mixing bowl put:

3 cups flour

1 1/2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons salt,

1/4 tsp rapid rise yeast

mix well and add 1 1/2 c. warm water. Stir it up with a spoon until combined. It is quite wet for a dough. You could never knead it. Cover for 12-18 hours in a sheltered spot. It will be bubbly and wet.

You need something you can put it on to proof that you will be able to lift and flip into the dutch oven. I use a thin flexible plastic cutting board. My cousin’s wife uses a floured kitchen towel. When I did that it stuck. I thought it was ruined but it still turned out great. So: flour your board very well and dump your wet dough onto it. You may even need to scrape a little. Flour your dominant hand and flip the sides over the middle, so when you flip it over it looks like a round loaf. Cover with something that won’t stick and let rise 2 hours. When it has risen an hour and 20 minutes preheat the oven to 475F. Maybe yours heats faster than mine but that is what works for me. Important: put the dutch oven in to preheat as well, including the lid. When the dough has risen and the oven has preheated, wasting no time, open the oven, pull out the rack with the dutch oven on it as far as you safely can, remove the lid, pour a little olive oil into it and wipe around quickly with a paper towel, being careful not to burn yourself. Now take the dough board in both hands, aim, and neatly flip it into the pot. If you miss the middle, you can jiggle the pot a little to slide it in, but don’t panic. It will still be good. Put the lid on, push it back in and bake for 12-15 minutes. Then take off the lid and bake another 15. Put the oven light on- it is fun to see. When it is done take it out of the pan to cool- although this pan won’t ever give a soggy bottom. You could leave it in if you wanted it to stay warm longer.

Start with at least half white flour on your first try. Then move on to other flours. I prefer spelt and rye, but rye does make a flatter, heavier loaf. And I like to throw in a handful of flax seeds. It looks nice and they are healthful and delicious. I have used sourdough starters which make a very tasty bread, but have nicer results using sourdough in heavy breads.

Next post: Pitas as Promised.