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How to Make a Perfect Loaf of Bread

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Learn the best methods for creating the perfect loaf of bread

Learn the best methods for creating the perfect loaf of bread

Words Set the Mood

Last week I had an online conversation with a friend who is a professional author; I told him that he had helped me greatly in my writing by encouraging me to engage all of the senses of those who read my food-related articles. Here's what he said:

Don't just tell them how to bake a cookie—describe to them the golden color of the crisp edges, allow them to breath in the sweet, buttery aroma, let them savor the gooey melted dark chocolate chips and feel the crunch of the sugar crystals on top.

...I'm just going to pause now to allow that to soak in for a moment.

And now I'm going to give you something else on which to dream. Imagine a loaf of white bread. No, not the cheap lump in a plastic bag at your supermarket, the tasteless stuff that can be squished and compressed into a cube the size of a stick of butter. I'm talking about homemade bread, warm from the oven, ready to be sliced into a slab as thick as you wish. And, as you slice that loaf, the dark golden crust shatters revealing a soft white interior of whisper-soft nooks and crannies just begging to soak up... homemade grape jelly, or soft whipped butter, or perhaps a dab of gravy, or Italian spaghetti sauce.

You say you've never baked bread? Don't worry, I will guide you step-by-step. What's that, you tried before and your bread was flat and leaden? If you follow my guide, you will be rewarded with a loaf of which you can be proud.

So, let's get started.

how-to-make-a-perfect-loaf-of-bread

Talk of joy: there may be things better than beef stew and baked potatoes and homemade bread—there may be.

— Ray Stannard Baker

Such Simple Ingredients

There are some foods that are amazing in their complexity—the layering of flavors and textures, the unique blends of herbs and spices. I'm thinking of French cassoulet, rich Italian bolognese, perhaps a Latin American mole sauce. All of them are bold and elaborate, employ a lengthy list of ingredients, and require long hours of cooking. Each of them, when made correctly, is outstanding, memorable, Heavenly.

And then there is homemade bread... so exquisite in its pure simplicity.

Water, flour, yeast, salt.

How They Work Together

  • Flour is the foundation for a good loaf of bread, and a key component of that foundation is protein (otherwise known as gluten). Despite what you might think, gluten is not a poisonous substance. It is a nutrient, a basic part of many of our foods. When viewed under a microscope, protein looks like a spider web; it is that “web” that traps carbon dioxide bubbles. The other important part of flour is starch. When heated, starch becomes firm and supports the protein webs.
  • Water, when mixed with the flour starts a chain reaction. Water reacts with starch molecules and creates the gluten bonds (webs) that hold everything together. Water also carries the sugars to the yeast, helping it to bloom and form the gases that make bread dough rise.
  • Salt adds flavor and it also chemically alters the gluten to make it stronger. Salt also slightly inhibits the work of the yeast; it slows it down so that bread doesn’t rise too quickly. Why is this important? If the dough rises before the gluten strands have become tight and strong, the bread will collapse. (Think of how much sturdier is a balloon than a bubble).
  • And, yeast. Here’s the really cool part—did you know that yeast is a living thing? Enzymes in the yeast, when mixed with water, break down the starch molecules, converting them to simple sugars. And why? Yeast eats sugar. Sugar goes in, is digested by the yeast microbe, and then carbon dioxide is formed. It’s that gas, trapped in the webs, that makes your dough rise.
Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

2 hours 30 min

45 min

3 hours 15 min

2 loaves

The Recipe

Equipment You Will Need

  • dry and liquid measuring cups
  • measuring spoons
  • stand mixer with large bowl
  • large sturdy mixing spoon
  • large mixing bowl
  • baking sheet
  • very sharp knife or blade for scoring dough
  • cooling rack
  • instant read thermometer (optional but nice to have)

Ingredients

  • 5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 packages active dry yeast (not quick-rise or bread machine)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups warm water (110 to 120 degrees F.)

Mixing and Kneading

1. In a large mixing bowl combine 2 cups of the flour, the yeast, and salt. Add warm water. Beat at low speed of electric mixer for 30 seconds, scraping the sides of the bowl.

2. Stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can with a spoon. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and begin to knead. At first the dough will appear ragged, but as you continue to knead it will become smooth and elastic. Total kneading time will be about 8 to 10 minutes.

Kneading the dough

Kneading the dough

Proofing the Dough

3. When you have finished kneading, place the dough in a large, lightly greased mixing bowl. Turn the dough over in the bowl so that the entire ball of dough is greased. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place, away from drafts.

4. Let the dough sit in this cozy safe place until doubled in size, about 1 hour. One way to test if the dough has risen enough is to lightly and quickily press two fingertips into the dough about 1/2 inch. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for the next step.

5. Punch down the dough by pushing your fist into the center of the dough. Pull the edges of the dough to the center, and then place the dough on a lightly floured surface. It will be smooth and bubbles will be visible under the surface.

Proofed, punched, and waiting to be shaped. (See the bubbles just under the surface?)

Proofed, punched, and waiting to be shaped. (See the bubbles just under the surface?)

Shaping and Preparing for the Oven

6. Divide the dough in half. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes. (This is to allow the gluten strands to relax so that the dough is easier to shape).

7. Lightly flour your hands and the top of the dough. Pick up the dough with both hands, thumbs on top and fingertips underneath. Use your thumbs to smooth the surface of the dough, moving from top to the underside. Rotate the dough and repeat 3 or 4 times until you have a round of dough that is perfectly smooth on top.

8. Place the dough smooth side up on a greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled in size (about 45 minutes).

9. While the dough is rising, preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.

10. When your dough is risen and ready to place in the oven, score the top with a sharp blade. The purpose for this is two-fold -- it creates a decorative top and (more importantly) releases the pressure inside of the dough so that it expands evenly while baking.

Baking and Testing for Doneness

Bake in 375 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Not sure the bread has baked long enough? Turn a loaf over and tap the bottom with your thumb. If it sounds "hollow," your bread is done. You can also use an instant-read thermometer. The internal temperature of the bread should be 190 degrees F.

Immediately after you take your loaves from the oven, remove them from the baking sheet and place on a wire rack to cool. If they remain on the baking sheet the bottoms will steam and become soggy. Setting the finished loaves on an elevated cooling rack allows for air circulation and insures that the crust will remain "crusty."

Now, All That Is Left to Do...

...is eat a warm slice of freshly baked bread.

Questions & Answers

Question: I love to bake and have tried adding eggs, sugar, and milk and baking at 375 for 35-40 minutes. I have used combinations of bread flour and white wheat. The bread breaks apart when cutting it into pieces. Why? Any suggestions?

Answer: I’m sorry that you’re having difficulties. Some bakers use milk in place of water to create a loaf that will have a longer shelf life. And the use of sugar in bread will increase browning. However, there are down-sides to using milk and sugar. Fat (in milk) and sugar slow gluten development and weaken it.

I suspect that the reason your bread is not holding together is because your dough did not form enough gluten and/or needed to be proofed (allowed to rise) for a longer period of time. Some things to keep in mind:

• Knead your dough for 8-10 minutes and then test to see if it is done. If it holds a ball shape and springs back when you poke it, it’s ready.

• If your loaf has not proofed enough the heat of the oven will cause it to raise in one big burst of energy, but not have the elastic structure to hold it together.

• Loaves that have proofed long enough will be doubled in size. Also, use the finger test. Gently prod with your finger in the side of the loaf. If the indentation remains, your bread is ready to go into the oven.

Find a recipe that you like and stick to it. Be precise with your measurements. While cooking is an “art” I feel that baking is more science. If you have other questions please feel free to write again.

Question: Why does my bread dough deflate when it goes into the oven?

Answer: Without knowing more (for example, what type of flour are you using, how long did you knead the dough, etc.) it is difficult to troubleshoot your problem. My guess is that the dough was allowed to proof (rise) for too long. Think of the raw dough as a balloon that needs to be inflated. The yeast gives off gas which inflates the dough, but it is possible to allow TOO much gas, creating an environment that stretches the gluten strands beyond what they can reasonably support. Be sure to use the two-finger method of testing your proofed dough. If the dough has been allowed to proof for too long (I understand, sometimes life happens), gently punch down the risen dough and start over, allowing it to proof a second time.

Question: Can I use this recipe to make yeast rolls?

Answer: Generally speaking, to make rolls instead of a loaf of bread, divide the portion of dough for a single loaf into two, roll each half into a long strip (18" or so), and then divide into rolls. I usually divide strips into 10 to 12 rolls, so one loaf is equivalent to 20 to 24 rolls. I use a bench scraper to divide my dough, and if you bake and divide dough often it's definitely worth getting one, but you could also use a knife. Bake at same temperature for 15 to 20 minutes, or about half the baking time for a loaf.

© 2016 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 17, 2019:

Slcbapril I'm glad to hear that. Thanks for stopping by.

slcbapril89@hotmail.con on September 17, 2019:

I am learning!!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 22, 2016:

Lawrence - I don't see the connection between a loaf of white bread and a chocolate muffin, but if it made you feel better, bravo. I know that your wife (and daughter?) have a gluten intolerance. Perhaps you should try to write a hub(s) on your experiences of cooking and baking gluten-free.

Lawrence Hebb on November 22, 2016:

Linda

I used to be an 'avid' bread baker. Every Saturday afternoon would see me in the kitchen baking, and my wife telling me to make sure I cleaned up afterwards!

Did you know that of the 9 types of flour used in ancient times 6 were gluten free?

One day I'm gonna try a Focaccia bread with GF flour!

This hub made me go buy a chocolate muffin!

Blessings

Lawrence

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 20, 2016:

Hello happymommy. I'm so glad that you found this post; I sincerely hope that you will give this a try. Port Orchard is beautiful--I love the peninsula. Best wishes to you and may you have a blessed Thanksgiving Day.

Amy from East Coast on November 20, 2016:

Hi Carb Diva! I have always wanted to bake my own bread. It's nice to find a recipe that doesn't require a bread maker. It's very simple and I look forward to giving it a try. I also read your profile. I lived in Port Orchard WA for two years before my husband finished his Navy career. It was so beautiful and the people were so nice. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 11, 2016:

Bravewarrior - I love learning about and sharing the science of food--what ingredients do and how they work together. (My husband is a scientist and I guess a little of his inquisitiveness has rubbed off on me).

I sincerely hope that I've given you the encouragement that you CAN bake a loaf of bread. I'll be standing right beside you cheering you on.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on November 11, 2016:

Diva, the science lesson in the recipe is a huge bonus. Now we know what gluten is, it's role in life, and how flour reacts with water, yeast and salt. Thank you for that.

I love the smell of freshly baked bread (it's right up there with bacon and popcorn), although I've never tried baking bread myself. I might have to give it a try sometime.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 25, 2016:

Thank you Flourish - I agree with you. The aroma of freshly-baked bread is absolutely Heavenly. I hope a few people read this Hub and see that making bread is really not that difficult and will give it a try.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 25, 2016:

There is nothing like homemade bread. Nobody seems to make it anymore and that's a shame because the smell of it as it's rising and cooking is heavenly.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 25, 2016:

Rachel - Thank you so much! The aroma of bread baking takes me back to my childhood.

In our family my mom was the "bread and pie" baker, and my oldest sister (who was 26 years older than me!!) was the cake and cookie baker. They each knew (and respected) their individual gifts. During the week I could depend on my sister to provide the cakes and cookies. But Saturdays were reserved for my mom to work her magic in the kitchen.

By the time I got up for breakfast there was usually a bowl of yeast dough proofing. I knew the rest of the day would be filled with the aromas of fresh bread, a pie, and (if we were lucky) even homemade noodles. Wonderful memories.

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on October 25, 2016:

That home made bread in your picture looks so inviting. Especially since the temperatures have been dropping; home made bread is perfect. Thanks for your recipe. I pinned it.

Blessings to you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 25, 2016:

Eric, this might be a fun thing for you and your little boy to work on together. Especially the kneading. It's something he can't break or mess up , and think of how proud he will be when he can say "I helped Daddy make this."

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 25, 2016:

Bill, good morning to you. Too much angst for so early in the morning. I know that you can do this -- and, if you fail, I know where you can find some hungry quail and runner ducks to feed. Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 25, 2016:

I've got a better idea, Linda: why don't you just drop off a loaf of this bread to our house and then I won't have to butcher it. LOL I can smell it from here and I'm quite upset about that. :)

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 25, 2016:

You are making me inch closer and closer to really cooking stuff. It is a good writer indeed who inspires us to do new things and think new thoughts. Thanks

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 24, 2016:

RTalloni - I totally agree with you. Wouldn't it be great if they made an air freshener that smells like bread baking in the oven?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 24, 2016:

Paul from Burlingame - So very nice to meet you. I am glad you found this interesting. So, will you now give bread-baking a try?

Paul Edmondson from Burlingame, CA on October 24, 2016:

I enjoyed learning how the different ingredients work together. I didn't know that salt slows rising:)

RTalloni on October 24, 2016:

There's nothing like fresh baked bread. Once an older mom told me that it didn't matter what she had done that day, what the house looked like, what condition the kids were in, if she had a loaf of bread baking in the oven when he came home he was happy. :)

Nice review of making a simple loaf of bread.