My Busia (Polish grandmother, 100%!) raised nine children and made all of her own bread, well over 5 loaves a week. Maybe 9? She kneaded it in a huge bread pan at her feet while she sat on a stool. I was honored to use both items in the decorations for my wedding to honor her legacy:
The white stool is on the right side of this photo, and that humongous, wide wash tub on top is the bread pan! It’s filled with flowers, but I think you can still see how big it is (large enough to bathe a baby, that’s for sure). That’s a lot of bread!
My maternal grandmother also does a great deal in the kitchen, and one of her specialties is homemade pasta. Amazing. My favorite part of eating, ever. She also can whip up a wickedly perfect pie crust in about 15 minutes. The woman is a whirlwind to watch.
Her mother-in-law was the sort to grab a bag of flour and tip some into the bowl, just eyeing up every single ingredient. I wish I could have seen her in action! My grandma had to observe and fiddle just to be able to write down her famous apple dumpling recipe, which is, naturally, out of this world.
My own mother was famous for her homemade cinnamon raisin bread, and I have a feeling that the teachers in our hometown would secretly jump up and down when they saw one of us in their class, knowing they’d get a loaf or two at Christmas. I have incredibly strong memories of my mom kneading bread, rising it perfectly, and that intoxicating smell of fresh baked bread filling the house.
I might label myself the black sheep of the operation, however, because not only did I fear baking bread, hate it at first, and now always rely on machines to help me out, but I’m really just not that skilled at the art (or science?) of baking bread. I’ve had my share of doorstop bread, concave loaves, and downright weirdness.
Since I’m leading the crusade in Seeking the Perfect Homemade Whole Wheat Bread, however, I figured it only fair that I share my limited knowledge of bread baking and explain some of the techniques I use habitually when I bake.
This post will also help you adjust any bread recipe for a breadmaker, stand mixer, or hand kneading.
What Katie Does to Make Bread Dough
- How to get water hot: I never use hot tap water, because there’s a chance that hot water leaches anything that might be bad (lead, for example) in your pipes at a much greater rate than cold water. For bread baking, I prefer to use dechlorinated water, which I achieve by leaving a jar of water sitting out open on the counter for at least 4-6 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate. My jar is just always there, always full, since I use it for water kefir and feeding my sourdough starter as well.
If I really need to warm the water to follow the recipe, I always heat it on the stove, then mix with cold water to make sure it’s warm but not hot. 100F is optimal for yeast, so that’s barely warmer than body temp. You should hardly be able to feel the warmth on your finger. Often, if I can get away with it, I’ll just use room temperature water.
- What kind of fat to use: I prefer butter, coconut oil (melted or solid), or olive oil for baking. Depending on what the recipe calls for, I pick and choose at random. I’m not afraid to use extra virgin olive oil in baking, because even though high temps aren’t safe for EVOO in sautéing, the internal temperature of your bread isn’t going to reach anywhere near 350-400F. Think of roasting a chicken: after 2 hours in a hot oven, the chicken only gets up to 160-180F inside. Bread is the same way, so EVOO should be a totally safe choice.
- Sweetener philosophy: Although I’m not afraid of white sugar, I should be. I prefer to use honey whenever possible and often substitute it in breads approximately 1:1 if it’s just a few Tablespoons. I like to use “scant” measurements for sweeteners anytime I can. We’ll learn more about sweeteners all the way around in the next series, Sweeteners in the Spring!
- What kind of yeast I use: For budget purposes, I buy a pound of SAF instant yeast and store it in the freezer.
- What kind of flour: My Nutrimill grain mill from Pleasant Hill Grain (giveaway for YOU to close out this series!) allows me to use freshly ground wheat in all my baking. I use either hard red winter wheat or hard white spring wheat, often a half and half mixture of the two. From what I understand, hard red wheat, the traditional whole wheat found in stores as flour, has a slightly higher gluten content, so it’s better for bread baking in some ways. Hard white wheat, although slightly lower in gluten, is lighter and more reminiscent of white flour, so it’s nice for bread in that way. Some people love all hard white wheat bread, but I’m just not one of them. I’ll always note the kind of flour I chose in each individual recipe, but assume it’s freshly ground (or frozen a few days).
- How I measure flour – the wrong way. I know the bread bakers of the world would toss their oven mitts at my face for even admitting this terrible way that I measure flour. I know I should be using a scale or perfectly leveling a measuring cup with a knife, but here’s what I do: I fluff up the flour with my 1/3 or 1/3 cup measuring scoop, scoop lightly and level off with my finger. It goes right into the bowl from there. Terrible, I know, but I’m always in a hurry! My philosophy on this is that we often have to add a little extra flour to bread recipes anyway, so I don’t feel like it has to be exact when I measure.
- How do you know if the gluten is developed? Generally I’m sort of a structured gal when baking. I don’t really understand all the science behind bread baking, so I just follow the recipe as well as I can and see what happens. However, one of the tiny pieces of savvy information I’m picking up is how to run a quick test to see if you’ve kneaded the dough long enough to develop the gluten.Background science: Gluten strands need to be all lined up and organized in order to allow them to work together to make the bread dough rise. When flour is first mixed into the dough, the gluten strands are all haphazard, and kneading the dough makes them line up in nice rows. If the gluten is not well developed, you’ll have a flat loaf. There are a few other ways to develop the gluten, which I’ll explore in some of the “no-knead” and “stretch and fold” kneading methods.
The test for nicely organized, well-developed gluten is called the “windowpane test.” You take a piece of dough and stretch it out toward the four corners, and if you can see light through it before it breaks, you’re on the right track.
- Where does my bread rise? Sometimes I try to rise my bread simply on the counter, but in the winter it’s 64F in here, so that’s not very conducive to happy yeast. If I’m using the breadmaker, it creates the perfect environment, warm and toasty, to rise the dough. I can fake it as best as I can by putting the dough in the oven, turning it on to 350F for exactly a minute – I always set the timer! – and then turning it off. To really keep it warm in there, I leave the oven light on.Note: My oven light is not very powerful, but some people have found their oven gets too hot – even up to 150F – with the light on. Test yours with an oven thermometer to make sure. Anything over 115F will kill yeast, and 100-105F is optimal.
- How do you know when the loaves are done? This one is always a battle for me, because it’s so subjective. The test for bread doneness is to tap the bottom of the loaf, and if it sounds hollow, it’s done. I have a hard time pinpointing exactly when it “sounds hollow.” A reader shared that most breads are done at 190 degrees, so I can just pop an instant read thermometer in and check.
- How to form a loaf: many bakers have intricate ways of rolling out some dough, folding it just so, and making a gorgeous loaf. Half the time I’m afraid to add too much flour to my recipe so I don’t end up with a dense, doorstop loaf, so my dough is often quite sticky. I tend to just dump it in the pan and go! (Yet another reason why the winner of this challenge will be a simple, simple bread. I don’t like the idea of having to get out my rolling pin and dirty another surface just to make a loaf, since I never knead by hand.)
What are Dough Conditioners?
Dough conditioners, if you’re not a bread baker (kind of like me; I’m just a poser), are things added to the dough to help give it a nicer rise and fluffier, more airy texture in the finished product. They are called for particularly with 100% whole wheat bread, which can struggle against the weight and sharpness of the bran especially and often ends up on the dense side.
Dough conditioners include:
- added gluten (the protein naturally in wheat that allows for rising action; gluten looks like flour and can be found in the baking section of most large grocery stores)
- lecithin (usually from soy but not always, naturally found in things like eggs)
- citric acid (a form of Vitamin C)
- ginger (just the powdered stuff like you might use in Chinese cooking or gingerbread)
Some recipes call for a commercial blend of dough conditioners, many just require added gluten, and some call for all four.
Tammy’s Recipes has an excellent breakdown of what’s what and why you might want to use them in her post on bread dough conditioners. After much research, she is of the opinion that the dough conditioners are a positive addition and not harmful. I am still wary of soy lecithin, just because it’s soy – if it’s in eggs, why not add an egg? I also frown at added gluten, for a couple reasons:
- By taking something out of the wheat and adding extra, I feel like that’s pushing the limits of “whole foods” and “as God created them.” Even though gluten is already in wheat, in nature there’s a certain ratio. I don’t really want to overdo that.
- Gluten also has been pegged as causing many health issues lately, quite possibly because we’re consuming too much of it for various reasons, one being its addition to whole wheat bread. I wrote about my lessons on gluten previously if you want to hear more about why I’m wary.
One other possibility to improve your bread’s rise and overall texture is to use some unbleached white flour in place of the whole wheat. Granted, this defeats the purpose of 100% whole wheat, but some would say that blending some white flour in actually is better for us, because we don’t want too much bran (see thoughts on that here and here).
I also found in one recipe that called for gluten, that when I left it out the bread rose fine, but then sank upon baking. Adding about 1/4 cup extra whole wheat flour per loaf gave it the necessary body to hold its shape. I don’t know that that would work every time, but it was one solution that worked for me.
How to Adapt to Soak
When I take a bread recipe and attempt to make it “soaked,” I follow this general strategy:
- Mix the flour with all the fat and 1/2 cup less water than is called for. I mix 1 Tbs whey in per cup water.
- Allow to sit overnight at room temperature.
- When ready to begin the recipe, I mix the yeast with the remaining 1/2 cup of water and the sweetener (if there’s 1/4 or 1/2 cup of sweetener, I might only use a Tbs in this “proof”).
- Once the yeast is bubbling after about 5 minutes, I mix it all into the soaked dough along with any other ingredients in the recipe.
- If I’m using my breadmaker or stand mixer to help me knead – which is always, of course! – I often skip step 3 and simply mix all the flour and all the water on day one, then all the other ingredients on day two.
More about soaking grains – more than you’ll ever want to know!
How to Adapt any Recipe for Any Machine
If a recipe requires a certain amount of time kneading, decrease a few minutes for a stand mixer (they’re more efficient). If the recipe is written for a mixer and you want to knead by hand, add a few minutes and rely on your windowpane test.
To make a breadmaker recipe by hand:
We were coached by Katherine Wehrung on the on the slightly sweet recipe:
If you’d like to do this recipe without a machine, this is what the original recipe suggests:
Combine water, oil, and honey. Add 3 cups of flour, yeast, salt, and gluten. Mix thoroughly. Add the remaining flour and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 min.).
Let rise until double.
Shape into loaves or rolls, place in greased pans, and let rise again.
The bread machine dough cycle basically mixes, kneads, and gives the dough the first rise. You can easily adapt any bread machine recipe following the basic structure outline above.
Here’s some great advice from Milehimama on how to convert to a stand mixer from a bread machine recipe:
- Mix the dough (dump in your wet, then dump in your dry ingredients with half the flour)
- Mix thoroughly, and gradually add more flour while using the kneading hook.
- When the dough comes together into a ball, start timing – usually a minimum of 5 minutes is needed. Then check the “gluten window” and knead more if necessary. (More on the windowpane test.)
- Keep a close eye on the mixer and put your hand on the part with the motor to make sure it doesn’t overheat because that will trash it. I have a 6 qt and haven’t had a problem with this, but I have heard the 5qt. artisan series are notorious for this. If the motor feels really hot, turn it off for a minute or two to cool down.
- Let rise until doubled, then proceed with recipe.
And from The Local Cook:
I use a KitchenAid mixer. I proof the yeast in a warmed-bowl, then mix everything using the dough hook, let rest 15 minutes, then knead for just a few minutes until it starts coming away from the sides of the bowl and it’s smooth and elastic. Let double (usually takes an hour); punch down, shape into loaves, let double again, and bake. Pretty much all the recipes I’ve found are the same way.
Thank you, ladies, for filling in the gaps in my knowledge!
Do You Like the Idea of a Breadmaker to Help you Out?
I know buying big appliances kind of defeats the purpose of saving money making your own bread. A stand mixer is a huge investment. BUT a bread machine is one of those things that tons of people think they want, and then they end up never using it. Practically any garage sale or church sale you stumble upon will have a breadmaker for sale. I highly recommend looking for one for about $10. Craig’s List is another super resource.
That’s about the extent of my knowledge, folks. If I missed a category – betcha I have! – do ask questions in the comments and I’ll fill in the blanks by updating the post. This post will be linked to from each bread recipe so casual followers can determine exactly what I’ve done in case they want to replicate a recipe. You can catch up on the recipes so far right HERE.
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