For as long as I can remember, my mom has made bread by feel. Start with a little yeast, add some flour and water, maybe throw in the dregs of that morning’s oatmeal, and, finally, mix.
As a recipe devotee, rather than baking by feel, I process how I feel by baking. Somewhere in the quiet calm of reading the instructions, weighing out flour, and kneading the dough until it just bounces back under my palm, I come to grips with whatever I’m dealing with.
This probably explains why there are two loaves of sourdough rising on my counter, half a loaf of raisin rye resting on a cutting board, and eggs set aside for making challah this weekend. It’s been a week. It’s been a month. Honestly, it’s been three years. Bread making has helped me get through it all.
If you haven’t ever baked a loaf—or haven’t baked one since you tried it in college—now is a great time to try again.
Bread takes time and tending, a thing almost all of us suddenly have in bulk. You can mix in the morning, then let the dough rise like your blood pressure as you manage your Zoom conference and your rowdy colleagues. Then deflate the dough after lunch, and give it a second rise. Turn on the oven as you wind down your workday. Pop it in. By dinner you have a fresh loaf.
While that’s a comfort in and of itself, I’ve found that there’s one other big reason to make bread these days: it’s impossible to scan Twitter for news (and a thousand bad takes about that news) while your hands are covered in bread dough. Put down your phone and dive in. I promise, you can do this—you may even enjoy it.
To take you through the process, we enlisted Susan Reid, King Arthur Flour’s senior recipe tester. Reid has worked for the Vermont-based B Corp for 19 years, helping home bakers tackle everything from basic sandwich loaves to showy braided Christmas breads and buttery brioches. She makes it all day, every day, for a living, and then comes home and bakes some more. If she says you can do this, you should believe her. She’s coached a million noobs to glutenous success. Her tips are mostly aimed at yeast-bread recipes, though some of them (like how to measure flour) will make all your baking better.
Get to Know Your Yeast
“People are afraid of yeast,” Reid says, adding that many bakers who love making cookies or cakes just can’t take the leap on yeast. “They get freaked out because it’s alive. They’re worried that they might kill it.” Sure, you might. But yeast is hardier than you think, and the worst that can happen is you have to start over. It’s really not that big of a deal.
The key thing you need to know about yeast is that it likes what you like. Most recipes call for lukewarm water. “If it feels comfortable for you, it’s comfortable for them,” she says. Yeast, like us, also loves carbs. Give it warmth, flour, maybe a touch of sugar, and time, and it’ll do exactly what you want.
My mom always proofed her yeast, a step where you let it bloom in warm water with maybe a pinch of flour or sugar before adding it to your mix. The idea here is that you’ll know the yeast is alive and well before adding it to the rest of your ingredients. I inherited this practice, but Reid says there’s no need to do that these days, “unless you’re incredibly neurotic.” (Point taken.) The drying process for yeast has improved dramatically over the years, and it’s rare to have it dead on arrival. The only exception to this rule would be if you were baking with yeast that’s mysteriously shown up in the back of a cupboard and you have no clue what decade it’s from.
Finally, try to buy regular yeast, not the rapid- or quick-rise type. Those “are sprinters, not long-distance runners,” Reid explains: while they work well for a quick pizza dough, which only gets one rise, they tend to tap out during their second rise. The result is a final product that won’t be as light as it should be.
Mix with Care
One of the worst things you can do to your bread is add too much flour. Extra flour takes water away from the yeast, which needs moisture to do its leavening thing. You’ll end up with a dense, dry loaf. Unfortunately, most of us at home are not measuring flour the right way. In much of the world and in restaurants, baking is done by weight. You should bake this way, too. But if all you have are measuring cups, Reid urges you to first watch her guide on how to properly measure flour.
Most bread recipes are written with a flour range, because things like humidity affect how much of it you’ll ultimately need. Start by adding the lowest amount of flour the recipe suggests, and then mix. If the bread is simply too sticky to work with, add a bit more. What you don’t want to do is get to the point where your bread feels like a dry rubber band, Reid says. That’s a sign you’ve used too much flour.
If this happens, all is not lost! You can add more water to bring things back to level. When you think you’re done mixing, finger-touch the top of your dough; it should lift off, with maybe a tiny bit of dough stuck to it, but not so much that your finger is coated in something like pancake batter.
Kneading Is Optional
You read that right.
Kneading is the process of developing the gluten found in flour. It’s what gives bread its chewy, sumptuous texture. “Here’s the good news: if you combine water, flour, and yeast, and you mix it together, the gluten will happen all by itself, it just takes a lot longer,” Reid says. There are many no-knead recipes that call for hardly any kneading at all, because they just let the dough sit for 12 to 24 hours.
If, however, you want your bread today, you’ll have to knead it. This is not a violent activity. “You should treat your dough gently. The dough should not have to pay for the therapy you are not paying for,” Reid says. Kneading is essentially a mix of pushing, rolling, and folding the dough around. (And, yes, she has a video for how to do it.) You’ll feel the bread moving from slack to almost elastic to somewhat firm as you work through the kneading process. Until you get a feel for these changes, aim for six to eight minutes of hand kneading, Reid suggests. And if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook? You’ll never hand-knead again. Turn that puppy on, and let it work for you.
Wait (and Wait Some More)
Most yeast breads require two rises, and there’s really not a lot here to screw up. I cover the bowl with a plastic shower cap, which is more or less infinitely reusable. Then I place it somewhere warm and wait.
After the first rise, you’ll give your dough a tiny bit more kneading—just a few turns—and then shape it into a loaf and plop it into your bread pan. Here’s a fun fact: most people have five-by-eight-inch loaf pans, but most sandwich-bread recipes are written for 4.5-by-8.5-inch pans, says Reid. If it feels like your loaf is never as tall as it should be, this may be why. Also, your loaf won’t reach its final height before it goes into the oven. In fact, you don’t want it to. That final “oven spring” makes for a light, soft finished product.
If it doesn’t seem like your bread is rising, don’t panic. Give it a bit more time and it may perk up. If time won’t fix it, go ahead and finish the recipe off and bake it anyway. A few times, I’ve had dough that seemed like it was dead resurrect itself in the oven. It happens! And if it’s a complete disaster? Well, turn that awful loaf into this baked breakfast pudding, or cut it up and toast it into fresh croutons.
Finally, Don’t Sweat It
Bread is more forgiving than you think, Reid says. “People tend to treat recipes like they’re a zip line over the Grand Canyon—one finger off and it’s all over,” she says. That’s simply not true. Will your first loaf be perfect? Maybe not. But here’s a secret: even bad homemade bread is better than most store-bought loaves.
Four Recipes to Get You Started
If you’re still too scared to dive into yeast breads, start with beer bread, which gets its leavening from beer and baking powder. This is a super simple recipe, and almost any beer you’ve got on hand will work. If you’re ready to play with yeast but not quite ready to knead or shape a loaf, try this English-muffin toasting bread. For crusty-loaf lovers, this no-knead recipe for crusty white bread is a great place to start. For those of you wanting to get totally fancy, I regularly bring this showstopper of a loaf to parties, where it’s always gobbled up. And if you are specifically interested in sourdough, here is a piece we ran in November covering that type of bread in detail.
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