There's nothing better than a slice of fresh, homemade bread. But creating that perfect loaf can be a daunting task, tempting some people to head to the nearest bakery rather than try to bake bread themselves.
Get some insider tips from professional baker Chris Kimball, the founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine and the host of the television cooking show America's Test Kitchen. Kimball, and tips from his cookbook Baking Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, 2004), offer you the confidence you need to brave the world of bread.
Quality ingredients for quality bread
"Ingredients matter," says Kimball, "especially in a recipe as simple as bread." At its most basic, bread contains water, yeast, flour and salt.
Water: If you don't like to drink your tap water, don't use it in your recipe, especially if it tastes a bit "off." Use filtered water or bottled water for best results.
Yeast: Kimball recommends instant yeast, sometimes called rapid-rise yeast, which he says is reliable and works quickly.
Flour: When it comes to flour, don't deviate from the recipe. If it calls for bread flour, which has a high protein content to help create a sturdy dough, don't substitute all-purpose flour and vice versa.
Salt: Salt is the ingredient that gives bread its flavour, so don't even consider leaving it out. Standard table salt, which dissolves evenly and is easy to measure, will do just fine.
Having the proper tools on hand gives you a head start on creating that perfect loaf.
Measuring tools: It is essential to get the exact ratio of flour to water correct in a bread recipe, which is why Kimball uses a digital kitchen scale to weigh flour and a liquid measuring cup with a spout for water. Don't forget to put the measuring cup on a flat surface and bend down to make sure that liquids align with the right measurement mark at eye level.
Mixer: Kimball recommends a strong standing mixer that can handle kneading heavy bread dough, although he says single loaves can be made in a food processor.
Pans: "I use dark metal, commercial-style loaf pans for sandwich breads," says Kimball. Look for a non-stick coating and handles on the ends for easy accessibility.
Temperature: Bakers should have two different thermometers in their tool kit. A digital instant-read thermometer with a long probe to check the internal temperature of their bread, and an oven thermometer. "Ovens are boxes that get hot and most of the time they are not calibrated properly," explains Kimball. "Any two ovens can be off up to 100 degrees from one another."
Just what you knead
According to Kimball, kneading is overrated. "Autolyse, which means allowing the dough to sit for a long period so enzymes can work on the protein, can eliminate the need for most kneading." But for the few minutes you have to knead, he suggests using a food processor or a standing mixer to do the job. If you knead the dough by hand, don't be fooled by sticky dough. The water will become more evenly distributed as the flour absorbs it during the rising process. Rather than add flour to your hands so they don't stick to the dough, which will add more flour to the bread creating a dry texture, try moistening them slightly with water.
Beware of overkneading. Too much kneading adds air to the dough, stripping away some flavour, colour and aroma.
Why won't my dough rise?
Common reasons why dough won't rise:
- Old yeast. Check the expiration date on the package before use.
- Hot water. Water that is too hot can kill the yeast. Water should be warm at 110 F/45C.
- Too much flour.
- Dough rested in a cool, drafty location.
Choosing the right spot for your dough to rise is important. "I use a warm place, such as near a wood cookstove in the winter. Or you can heat your oven to 200 degrees, turn it off and let it sit for 15 minutes, and then use it as a proofing box," says Kimball. Another option is to bring two cups of water to boil in your microwave and then place the dough in a bowl covered with plastic wrap in the microwave with the preheated water. The water will keep the microwave at the proper temperature.
How to get a crispy crust
Moisture is the key to creating a crispy crust. Try using a roasting pan with hot water placed on a separate rack in the oven to provide a steady amount of moisture during baking.
Hot baking tip: Timing is everything
When it comes to measurements, the science of recipes should never be ignored. But given how unpredictable ovens can be, even when you're using an oven thermometer, you should always keep your eye on the prize. "Never assume that the baking time in a recipe is correct," Kimball says. Check the progress constantly and turn the bread around in the oven at least once during baking.
To determine if your loaf is ready to be removed, insert an instant-read thermometer into one end of the loaf, angling it toward the middle. And wait for your bread to cool before slicing or you'll end up with a gummy loaf.
Homemade bread is best when enjoyed within a day or two, which isn't usually a problem according to Kimball. "Who has leftover homemade bread? Must have been a lousy loaf!"
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