|Delicious Bread for the Family, not the County Fair|
Forget, for a minute about what you may have learned in Home Ec*. This is not about winning a prize at the County Fair; it is about providing wholesome and delicious food for your family. Since shunning store-bought bread, this is what I have learned:
Skip the loaf shape. Bread is supposed to be loaf-shaped, with a perfectly round dome on the top, right? That particular shape is hard to achieve (hence the whole county fair thing) and the slices do not fit in the toaster, anyway. Sticking to rolls, or mega-buns is more practical. Rolls fit into freezer bags more easily and can be thawed as many at a time as you need. When sliced with a good bread knife, you can get four little circles for toast, which is a hit with our kids. A mega-bun gives your bread that "artisan" shape. You can free-form loaves and bake them on a cookie sheet, too.
For gluten-free, use a mix. Wheat flour is made up fiber, starch and a sticky-stretchy protein called gluten. Most gluten-free flours are blends of various flours to represent the components of the wheat. Getting the blend just right is an art in itself, one that companies like Bob's Red Mill, King Arthur and Tom Sawyer have perfected. Gluten free mixes do not require the same rising or punching down as with wheat flour, so follow the directions.
Mix and Match Liquids. Most recipes will call for a mix of milk and water. You can use all milk to increase the density and richness, or all water for a higher rise. I often use whey left over from cheese making and it rises somewhat higher than if I used milk. Yeast can tolerate some acidity, so if you have some tomato juice to use up that will work, too.
An extra punch-down. When bread is rising there are two separate actions at work: The yeast is multiplying, consuming sugars while producing carbon dioxide. The gas bubbles make the bread rise, but can also be toxic to the yeast. Meanwhile, the gluten, a stretchy protein found in wheat flour, is softening. The kneading, and then the bubbles from the yeast, pull and stretch the gluten. The longer it can soften, the easier your dough will be to work with. Thoroughly punching down the dough releases the gas bubbles from the dough to keep the environment suitable for yeast while allowing more time to soften the gluten. Standard bread recipes call for one punch-down, but I let it rise some more and punch it down again. Each rising takes less time as the one before, so this extra step is not as time-consuming as you would think, and the dough will form into loaves or rolls more easily.
Divide by twos. When dividing dough into rolls, if the yeast is really active and the bread is rapidly rising, you can find that eye-balling them for equal portioning does not work. If you divide by two equal parts, over and over until you get the size you want, it is quicker and more accurate. My standard roll recipe makes thirty-two rolls, or four mega-buns.
There is no shame in a bread machine. I don't happen to own one because I enjoy the exercise involved in kneading dough myself. Putting ingredients into a bread machine would sure free up time. You can even take the dough out and form it yourself into whatever shape you want.
Bake ahead for sunny days. On a hot day, nothing heats up a kitchen like running an oven for a long time. (Regular loaf-style bread can take 35-40 minutes to bake, while rolls can take 17-18 minutes per sheet full.) Bread freezes well, so you can make double batches on cooler days to save for when the summer heat arrives. You can take the air from a ziplock with a drinking straw right when you seal it for a "vacuum seal." (You can also bake fresh buns on your outside grill.)
Use up grains and cereals. I had a box of Red River Cereal (cracked wheat, rye and flax) that had been open for a while so I chucked it into a batch of bread. Oatmeal, seeds, ground flaxseed, and other grains are good, too. Oats will make a stickier texture, and dry grains will not soften in the dough unless you soak them first. Gluten is the structure that holds up the bubbles, so unless your goal is for gluten free bread (and you have a flour blend and another recipe geared for that) use at least half wheat flour. As harder grains and seeds soak up the wet portion of the dough, you may end up using less overall.
Mix the ingredients in in this order:
1) hard grains, seeds, and brans
2) whole wheat flour
3) white flour, as much as will knead in by hand. (Or skip the white and use as much whole wheat as you can.)
This can be fun. The worst outcome is bread that is dense, which makes excellent toast so it's still a win! If you think this might be the case, stick with a mega-bun/artisan bread shape since rolls might end up pretty tiny.
Yeast not active? Make tortillas. It is such a sinking feeling to go to the work of mixing and kneading dough, only to discover that the yeast is not active. A few weeks ago I was kneading my dough, and noticed the measuring cup on the counter with the yeast mixture in in it. Bad news....The good news was we were going to have tortillas! Let your dough rest for an hour (or longer) and make little golf-balls of dough. Coat your hands in olive oil and roll each ball around in your hands lightly, then let them rest for ten or fifteen minutes before rolling out flat. On a hot skillet or cast iron pan with a light spray of olive oil, plop on a tortilla and turn over as soon as it gets brown spots on the other side. You'll get a rhythm and find that cooking them once at a time goes quickly.
Make your own flour. I have not tried this yet, but it looks delicious and simple. Diana at A Little Spain in Iowa discusses the benefits of owning a household grain mill. I think I will be putting one on my wish list.
Have fun and act like you meant however it turned out! No matter what happens, it's better than Wonder Bread.
* My experience with Home Economics Class is limited to half a year in seventh grade; half of us took Home Ec while half of us took Shop, and we switched for the second half of the year. Home Ec was interesting enough, I guess. I learned how to make a white sauce from a roux, and how to make a pin cushion from a brillow pad. But in Shop? We got to use torches, saws, lathes, jigsaws, sanders, varnish.... For eighth grade we got to choose between the two for the whole year and I was the only girl who opted for Shop. Oh, well. I learned a thing or two about cooking from my mother, and from the chef at the restaurant I worked at in high school.
I shared this post with Simple Lives Thursday, Full Plate Thursday, the Weekend Whatever, Ruth's Real Food, Tasty Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Healthy 2Day, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways and the HomeAcre Hop, link-ups for money saving, homesteading and natural food recipes.