Basic A** White Bread

The first post in this blog will serve as a starting point to those who may find the art of bread baking intimidating. People who can make great cookies or basic cakes from scratch often find the concept of baking bread a little more than they can handle. It is a step up in terms of complexity from your average muffin or scone, but still very manageable by the most amateur of bakers. The recipe contained herein is proof of this idea.

Keep in mind that this post is going to be pretty wordy. There’s a lot of material to go through for my first posting (lesson?). It may read more like a textbook than an opinion piece, and I apologize for nothing. I want to help make the best bread possible, and many people like having as much information as possible. If you think you’re above the training that follows and want to skip the theory portion, scroll to the bottom for a shorthand recipe. However, why an experienced baker would want to make basic ass white bread is beyond me. Go make some fancy stuff and then tell me how much better you are than me. That’s a better use of your time.

Anyway.

Bread, in its most basic, reduced form, is composed of four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. You can take out the yeast if you are making sourdough, but that’s a conversation for another time. Today, we are focused on the basic four components. Flour is necessary, as it provides the structure and food for the yeast. Without flour, you are making the equivalent of yeasty water. As this is not a beer blog, flour is deemed essential. By wetting the flour and mixing it vigorously by hand, we create dough. Water is needed to hydrate the flour, allowing the dry grain to be moist enough to be turned into usable dough. Salt is essential for a number of reasons. In my opinion, the first is taste. Bread with no salt tastes awful. It also helps the dough develop the necessary structure to trap the gas produced by the yeast. Furthermore, salt helps to control the rate at which yeast ferments, giving more control to the baker in terms of timing. Lastly, we need yeast. Yeast is a single-celled microorganism; specifically, a fungus. The Latin name for the kind of yeast you can buy in the store, be it instant yeast or active dry yeast, is Saccharomyces cerevisia, which roughly translates to sugar-fungus. It is this product that creates the little bubbles in the bread that are responsible for turning a dense brick of flour and water into something heavenly delicious. Yeast, basically, eats sugars in the flour and excretes carbon dioxide gas which, when heated up, expands.  This expansion of gas when heated forms the basis for which bread is based.

Moving on.

The following recipe and method will be as in-depth as possible without going into too many technical details. It should be able to serve as an excellent starting point, an introduction to bread. If you can master this basic recipe, you’ve mastered a good 75% of all bread making. This may come as a surprise, but the overwhelming majority of every loaf of bread in the world, throughout all countries and cultures, is a simple variation on this theme.

Things you will need:

  • Flour, water, salt, and yeast.
  • A medium to large-sized mixing bowl.
  • A digital scale (or, regrettably, measuring cups and teaspoons/tablespoons).
  • A loaf pan or parchment paper and a cookie sheet.
  • Spray oil.
  • Plastic wrap.

Please note that all ingredient amounts in this recipe (and really, in this blog) will be in weight, specifically grams. In order to ensure that your bread looks like my bread and that ingredients are measured out as accurately as possible, weight is the preferred method of measurement. What might be 5 cups of flour to you may not be 5 cups of flour to me. However, we can both agree on what 500 grams of flour is. I use grams instead of ounces and pounds because grams are more accurate and I am from Canada. Amounts for volume measurements, that is, cups and teaspoons and such, will be provided; however, I cannot guarantee that your results will mirror mine. If you do plan to tackle baking with any degree of seriousness, a digital scale is indispensable. You can find them for as cheap as $20 in many places and you certainly do not need a high-end one, just one that measures down to a single gram.

This recipe yields 1600 grams of dough. This equates to two 800 gram loaves. More than enough bread for a week. If this is too much bread for you to handle, feel free to cut the recipe in half, but bear in mind that it may be harder to work with.

Onwards.

Ingredients –

  • Bread Flour: 970 grams (1835 ml (a little less than 3 cups))
  • *Do not use all purpose flour. Or, God forbid, cake flour or whole wheat flour.
  • Water: 600 grams (600 ml (about 2 & 1/4 cups plus two tablespoons))
  • Salt: 19 grams (16 ml (about 3 and 1/4 teaspoon))
  • Instant Yeast: 10 grams (16 ml (about 3 and 1/4 teaspoon))

That’s it. Nothing more is needed to achieve a very edible bread.

Method –
20170326_172017

Begin by weighing out each ingredient separately. Resist the urge to weigh everything into the same container. It is very easy to dump far more salt than you need into a batch of dough, and incredibly hard to pick out the excess salt accurately.

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Mix it with a spatula or large spoon until you cannot mix it anymore. Dump the contents onto a clean, non-floured work surface, scraping every last bit out of the bowl that you can.

Knead.

Then knead more.

Do not add anymore flour. If the dough is too sticky, just keep kneading. 600 grams of water will hydrate 970 grams of flour perfectly for this recipe. If you used a scale to measure out these ingredients and still believe that you need to add more flour, you are wrong. Just keep kneading. Scrape the counter from time to time as you go along with a dough-scraper or another flat edged tool.

When you have finished kneading, knead for five more minutes. Making bread is a journey. It’s not something that you can just bang out in five minutes and be done with it. Savor the kneading adventure. Put on some music. Listen to a podcast. Talk to your spouse about their day. Get a little sweaty. I won’t go into detail on how to knead in this post, as I have my reservations about telling someone how to do it. There are countless Youtube tutorials and other ways to discover which way kneading works best for you. Ask your mom. The important thing is that you knead until it is done. When your dough looks like this:

20170326_173029

it is not done. You should not see any small tears or any weird bumpy bits. The goal is to make the dough as smooth as possible, and this can only be achieved with a hefty amount of kneading. Do not be afraid of over-working the dough. As a human being, it is nigh on impossible to overwork dough such as this on a table. You are not a mixing machine. Do not be afraid to take a small break from kneading. If you need a few minutes to catch yourself, take them. The dough isn’t going anywhere. If your dough looks like this:

20170326_174204

you can call it done. Get a drink, you’ve maybe earned it.

The next step is to wait. The dough needs to rest and ferment. You’ve spent a good amount of time developing the gluten in the dough via all that kneading. Now, the yeast will begin to consume the sugars in the dough and start to release carbon dioxide gas. The gluten, expertly formed by your hands, catches that gas and expands like a balloon. Spray your dough ball with non-stick spray and cover it with plastic wrap. Over time, the dough will increase in size:

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Once your dough has rested for roughly 60 minutes, it is time to divide it in half. Using a scale, cut the dough in half and wiegh out as close to 800 grams as you can for each piece. Gently shape each piece into an oblong loaf shape, ensuring that any seams in the dough are resting against the flat surface of your table. If your loaf shape looks shoddy, don’t fret: we will be finalizing the shape in the next step.20170326_191048

Oil and wrap your dough again, and wait twenty minutes. Your dough should now be20170326_194115 ready to be shaped into its final form. Firmly squish the dough into an oblong, flat shape. Using your hands, form the end of the oblong closest to you into a narrow point so that the dough has a shape like a tear drop or a bicycle seat. Flip the dough upside down, so that the point is now facing away from you. Gently roll the dough from the pointed end to the blunt end. Use a little force to press and roll the dough back and forth until it is the same length as the pan you are using. If you are not using a pan, then the length of the loaf should be about the width of a standard cookie sheet. Bear in mind that the shaping process you do here takes some serious practice. It does not come naturally, and most certainly merits its own blog post or two. As long as your loaf is smooth on the top, feels taut, and the seams you make are on the underside of the loaf, you should be good. Plunk it into a greased loaf pan. Loosely cover the top of the loaf pan with plastic wrap. Turn your oven on to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Let the dough rest about one hour.

After one hour, the dough has noticeably swelled. If your oven is pre-heated, feel free to place the dough in the oven now. However, it is always more fun to score the loaf before it goes into the oven. Scoring the loaf does two main things: it facilitates a nice, even rise of the bread as it bakes, and it looks bad ass.

The image on the left is before scoring, while the image on the right is after scoring. Just take the sharpest knife you have and gently drag it no more than half a centimeter through the top of the dough. Make one long line. Make three or four short diagonal lines. Try and score your name in the top of the dough for fun, or at least your initials. Make it cool. Once scored, there’s nothing left to do but jam it in the oven. Put the loaves in, turn it down to 350 degrees, and set a timer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, rotate the breads 180 degrees to ensure they receive even baking. Set the timer for another 10 minutes. After a total of 20 minutes in the oven, the bread should be very close to being done. Depending on your oven, it may need a few more minutes.20170326_213445

This is after exactly 20 minutes. Notice the light – brown coloration on the crust. Not bad, but not ideal. In the world of bread, darker is better. A darker color means that the sugars in the bread dough have caramelized nicely and that the proteins in the flour have roasted up good. That’s where a large amount of bread flavor comes from: caramelized sugars and roasted proteins.

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Notice the color of the top of the second loaf. Darker, to be sure, but still a far cry from being burnt. Do not be afraid to go darker than you initially think would be safe.

It is important to cool the bread before you cut into it. Let it hang out in the loaf pans for a few minutes, then gently remove it and place it on a cooling rack for a minimum of one hour before cutting it open. Failing to do this will result in a gummy, ruined loaf that will impress no one. The bread continues to cook as the last bits of steam escape during the cooling process. Don’t rush it.20170326_231433.jpg

Once cooled, cut it. Then, eat it. Notice that the bread has a discernible flavor; unlike regular wonder bread, it tastes like something. The flavor of this bread is very mild and would make passable toast or sandwich bread. It doesn’t have the big, fancy holes of ciabatta bread or french baguettes, nor does it have the buttery, complex flavor of a brioche or similar bread. It’s just basic ass white bread. Nothing fancy, nothing overly impressive, but will nourish you all the same.

This bread is a starting point. A springboard into other realms. As previously mentioned, most bread on this planet is a simple variation of the recipe mentioned here. A little butter, a little more sugar, some cinnamon and raisins; boom, fancy cinnamon raisin bread. A little cheese, some garlic and onions, perhaps some Italian seasonings, a change-up on how you shape it; presto, Mediterranean garlic cheese bread. The options are literally limitless.

I don’t expect a lot of people to be inspired here. People don’t get overly jazzed at the idea of making the world’s most boring loaf of bread. In the weeks to come, I will be posting some slightly harder recipes, some downright difficult recipes, and some bread stuff that I would have considered batshit crazy at some point in my professional career. When you see some of that stuff, you may get inspired, but it is important to realize that these recipes all come back down to this basic loaf. Start here. Make this basic loaf. Send your mom a picture and show off to your friends. Then make it again, but do something weird. Have it fail. Try again. Come back to the blog, read some things, try some more. Flour is cheap, as are salt and yeast. Don’t be afraid of failure. If it doesn’t work, ask questions; why didn’t it rise? Why does it look like crap?

Baking is a skill. It takes practice. Starting at the bottom is the best way to ensure success at the top.

Take pictures of your successful loaves and post them here. I would love to see them. Also take pictures of your bready train-wrecks. I would rather see those so that we can all laugh and then collectively learn.

— The Breadest

Express Recipe

Ingredients –

  • Bread Flour: 970 grams (1835 ml (about 7 & 1/3 cups))
  • Water: 600 grams (600 ml (about 2 & 1/4 cups plus two tablespoons))
  • Salt: 19 grams (16 ml (about 3 and 1/4 teaspoon))
  • Instant Yeast: 10 grams (16 ml (about 3 and 1/4 teaspoon))

Method –

Mix it.

Knead it.

Rest it 1 hour.

Shape it.

Rest it 1 more hour, until doubled in size. Pre-heat oven to 400.

Score it. Toss it in the oven. Turn oven down to 350.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating once halfway through.

Let cool for 1 hour.

Eat it.

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