I’ve always wanted to learn to bake really good bread. Crunchy french bread goodness. I’m not there yet. I checked out *the* book from the library and found out it is a process that takes several days and I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment.
Enter sandwich bread. A couple hours to warm, fresh from the oven bread. This I can do. A friend posted a recipe with a rave review so I decided to go for it. Ready. Set. Bake.
The recipe uses a standing mixer. I don’t have a standing mixer.
I have a small house. Small house = small kitchen. Small kitchen = minimal counter and cabinet space. Standing mixers are bulky counter space hogs with a hefty price tag. My trusty hand mixer handles most tasks but is not designed to knead bread.
So now it’s Ready. Set. Knead by hand. Bake.
Sounds intimidating, but it turns out that it’s not. It’s actually really easy and the bread has turned out perfect every time. I’ve made it four times so far. How the bread is kneaded – whether by hand or by mixer – is not one of the keys to success in bread making.
There are two keys to success in bread making: temperature and yeast.
Temperature comes into play multiple times in bread making. It starts with the temperature of your kitchen. Warm is good. Yeast likes to be warm and cozy. I live in a still-needs-to-be-fixed-up house that is drafty and located in Illinois where winter is long. I use the proofing method described in the recipe. During those few short, but glorious days of summer, my kitchen is warm enough so that it is not necessary. If you need to use the proofing method, fire up the oven before you start assembling the ingredients and it will be ready when it’s time to pop it in the oven.
You’ll likely have all the ingredients on hand except for the yeast. If you have an old package, check the expiration date to make sure it’s still good. Yeast dies and without it, the bread won’t rise.
A quick note on the type of yeast. I’m using a quick rise yeast. The recipe calls for instant yeast. It seems every brand has a different description of the type of yeast. You’ll want to use yeast that can be mixed into the flour so read the package if you aren’t sure. The other type is typically called active yeast and needs to be bloomed (mixed with warm water) to activate the yeast and is used in breadmaking with long rise times.
I’m not using a mixer so I don’t follow the instructions verbatim. I combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a big bowl. The remaining ingredients are combined in a 4-cup Pyrex glass measuring cup and popped into the microwave to warm. You can replace the milk with buttermilk and use a flavored honey if you’d like to play with the flavor of the bread. No need to melt the butter separately since it is all going in the microwave. I just cut cold butter into 8 squares before adding it to the other liquid ingredients.
The temperature of the liquid ingredients is a key to success. We want 110°F. Too cold and the yeast won’t rise as quickly as the recipe indicates. Too high and the yeast will die. I use the Beverage button on my 1,000-watt microwave to get to 110°F. You’ll want to stir the ingredients to evenly distribute the heat before testing the temperature.
Don’t let the lack of a thermometer and/or microwave prevent you from trying your hand at baking bread. You can heat the ingredients in a pot on the stove and use touch to estimate the temperature. Think really warm bath water. Hot tubs are regulated so temperatures don’t exceed 104°F. You’ll want water that is hot, but doesn’t feel like it’s burning your skin. I recommend erring on the low side as the only risk is a longer rise time where too hot will kill the yeast. You can also MacGyver it and use an oral thermometer as most are rated to 110°F, but target a temperature below your model’s max (105°F is good).
You’ll notice I still have little chunks of butter floating in my ingredients. They will get worked into the dough during the kneading process so don’t worry about them. I combine the ingredients and use a spatula to mix everything until a solid mass is formed.
I then dump it out onto my heavily floured counter. I sprinkle some flour on top, cover my palms with flour and start to knead. Kneading is a pretty simple process. Press the heel of your hand into the dough to flatten, then fold the dough back over onto itself into a ball-like shape, rotate and repeat. Here’s a link to a quick YouTube tutorial. When the dough starts sticking to the heel of your hand dust your hands again. You’ll want to knead for the full 10 minutes to develop the gluten in the bread. Kneading is what makes the bread light and airy.
You may be concerned about adding too much flour during the kneading process. One of the ways I address that is by measuring out a 1/2 cup of flour to control the amount I use. I usually have 1-2 tablespoons left at the end.
I let my bread rise for the full 50 minutes. Pictured below are what the rise looks like after 40 minutes and then again after 50 minutes.
I dump the dough back onto my still floured counter. I only clean up after the kneading step if the kids are home when I’m baking otherwise I leave it messy and save myself a cleanup step. The dough will feel really soft and pliable. I set my loaf pan behind the dough and use it as a guide for how wide to spread the dough.
The dough will rise for a second time in the loaf pan while you heat the oven. I usually set my timer for 25 minutes and then boil the water. I tend to use the high end of any timing ranges since it’s cold out. I’ll probably go with the lower end when I make this bread during the summer. The dough should rise to at least the height of the loaf pan.
My oven runs hot so I usually go with the 40 minute baking time and then check with the thermometer to make sure the loaf gets to 195°F. Sometimes I let it cool before slicing into it. Sometimes.
The loaf usually lasts about 5-6 days in my house. I make it fresh for P&BJ night and then use it for grilled cheese or toast toward the end of the week.
Good luck and happy baking!