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How to Make a Perfect Loaf of Bread

Talk of joy: there may be things better than beef stew and baked potatoes and home-made bread - there may be.

--Ray Stannard Baker

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.

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 so 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.

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 time: 2 hours 30 min
Cook time: 45 min
Ready in: 3 hours 15 min
Yields: 2 loaves

The Recipe

equipment:

  • 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.

--How to Knead Bread Dough--

Fold the dough over and push down with the heels of your hands. Give the dough a quarter turn, then fold and push again. Repeat until the dough is smooth and elastic.

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.

--------What is Proofing?--------

Proofing is what happens when you allow the yeast in dough to ferment, thus causing gas bubbles which inflate the dough. Why do we want "inflated" dough? It is the inflation, the formation of bubbles that create a sturdy crust, a tender crumb, chewiness, and flavor. If proofing (rising) does not occur, you will have a flat, and probably very dense and hard loaf of bread--something more akin to hardtack than bread.

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.

© 2016 Carb Diva

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18 comments

Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 13 days ago Author

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 13 days ago

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


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 2 weeks ago Author

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.


Happymommy2520 profile image

Happymommy2520 2 weeks ago from East Coast

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!


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 3 weeks ago Author

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.


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 3 weeks ago from Central Florida

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.


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 5 weeks ago Author

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 profile image

FlourishAnyway 5 weeks ago from USA

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.


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 5 weeks ago Author

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 profile image

Rachel L Alba 5 weeks ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

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.


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 5 weeks ago Author

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."


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 5 weeks ago Author

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.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 5 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

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. :)


Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

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


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 6 weeks ago Author

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?


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 6 weeks ago Author

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 profile image

Paul Edmondson 6 weeks ago from Burlingame, CA

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


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 6 weeks ago from the short journey

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.

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