What I wish I knew before I baked my first loaf of bread:

Have you ever tried to find a loaf of bread at the supermarket that didn’t have an ingredients list a mile long? That didn’t cost a fortune? Well, if you have, you know that it’s impossible. And for a family on a tight budget like ours, weekly trips to a bakery for fresh, wholesome bread are not feasible (wouldn’t it be nice?)

My solution to this problem was to start baking our own bread. I started out with NO bread making experience, and over the last two years or so, I have tried, failed, learned, tried again, experimented, and at last, I think I have finally figured this whole bread thing out! So to spare you all the misshapen, brick-like loaves that I had to go through to get here, I decided I would put together a little bread making 101 tutorial. My goals were to come up with a recipe that provided consistent results, didn’t call for any weird specialty ingredients, and was as close to 100% whole grain as possible without being a brick. It was surprisingly hard to find recipes that fit that criteria! I also wanted to streamline my process so that I didn’t have to spend all afternoon cleaning up after I bake bread. I tried sourdoughs (too much maintenance), no-knead recipes (too messy and inconsistant) and about a bazillion 100% whole wheat recipes. Most of those called for vital wheat gluten, which is hard to find, expensive, and well, wierd. Not to mention that the loaves still they turned out dense, heavy, and too crumbly to slice. I tried several other recipes that used half whole wheat and half white flour, and some of them were pretty good, except that I am really trying to reduce the amount of white flour that we eat so I felt really guilty that our bread was still half refined flour. Finally, I came across one that has just enough white flour to get the dough consistency right, but not so much that I feel guilty using it. After some tweaking and testing and fiddling with the original, here is my version:

Jodean’s (almost) whole-wheat bread with cornmeal and flax seeds

  • 1 and 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 2 Tbs. molasses or honey
  • 2 Tbs. soft butter
  • scant 1/2 cup cornmeal or polenta (adds a nice texture)
  • scant 1/2 cup unbleached white flour
  • 2 Tbs milled flax seeds (completely optional, but adds a nice healthy touch)
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour (reserve 1/2 cup to gradually add as you knead)
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp salt

I will try to write the directions with the assumption that you have no bread baking experience, so if you do, just bear with me:)

Start with a large, wide mixing bowl (one big enough to knead in so there is less clean-up:) and add a generous 1 1/4 cup warm water. I use tap water that is just almost to hot to the touch, but if you are really persnickity, you can measure the temp. It should be about 110-115 degrees. Dissolve the yeast into the water, and add the molasses and butter. Dump in your flours (all but the last 1/2 cup or so! we will add that gradually later as we knead the dough to ensure a perfect consistency) and flax seeds, if desired, and then sprinkle the salt over top of the dry ingredients before you start mixing. (you don’t want the salt to directly touch the yeast too soon, or it will kill it). Mix the dough together until combined, then cover the bowl and let it rest for a few minutes while you put away your supplies and tidy up. Letting the dough rest for 10 minutes or so seems to make it MUCH easier to knead!

Now you are ready to knead your dough! Don’t worry, it isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. Honestly, I had a bread machine for a while, and never used it because 1. the bread always fell and turned hard as a rock, and 2. kneading is actually kind of fun to me and doesn’t take that much time. It also doesn’t have to be a mess if you follow my advice and use a big, wide bowl for mixing AND kneading the dough instead of turning it out on the counter.

Okay, get in there with your hands and start folding the dough over on itself repeatedly. That’s all there is too it. Remember that last 1/2 cup of flour I had you save back? Now is the time to start adding it gradually if your dough seems too sticky. It may take a couple of loaves until you start to get a feel for the proper consistency, but don’t worry, it will come. (This is the main reason I prefer to knead the dough by hand rather than use a machine or n0-knead recipe- the consistency is the KEY to a good loaf of bread, and you just can’t tell until you get in there with your bare hands!) The best way to describe the proper consistency is tacky to the touch, but not so sticky that it is difficult to knead and sticks to the bowl/your hands very much. If the dough feels hard or stiff, or if there is a lot of flour still on the sides of the bowl that you can’t work in, you probably need to add a little water. I have found that whole wheat recipes tend to rise better if the dough is a little more sticky than for a normal white flour loaf, and that it is better to err on the side of stickiness. Dry dough just won’t rise.

As you knead, the dough should eventually start to form a fairly smooth, round ball without any lumps. I usually knead about ten minutes or so. Since your dough is in a nice wide mixing bowl instead of on the counter, you can take it with you watch tv or something while you knead:)

First Rise: Leave your dough in that same big bowl and cover it (mine is a Tupperware with a lid, but you can also use cling wrap) and put it in a warm place to rise. I have an electric oven, and I like to turn the oven on for just a few seconds, then turn it OFF and put the bowl inside to rise. Sometimes I also turn on the little lightbulb in there to warm it as well. This is the first rise, and the dough will need to sit for about one and a half to two hours until it has approximately doubled in size. The time is not as important as the size. If it doesn’t look like it has risen enough, let it sit a bit longer!

Second Rise: Once the dough has doubled, punch it down. Now form it into a log-shape and place it in a greased bread pan. Cover the dough with a towel and return it to your warm place to rise for another 30 minutes to one hour, or until it has risen up over the top of the pan a couple of inches. Now is time to preheat your oven to 350, and (optional) brush the top of the loaf with milk and sprinkle with oats or seeds for a decorative touch.

Once the oven has heated, bake the loaf for approximately 45 minutes or until it is deeply golden on top (if it is browning too fast, try lowering the rack in your oven). Let it cool a few minutes in the pan before you try to remove it, then enjoy! It is soooo good warm with a little butter, but it will slice better if you let it cool first. It is best if used within a couple of days since there are no preservatives in it, but even if it is a little dried out, it makes wonderful toast, french toast, or grilled cheese.

Hope this little tutorial encourages you to get the kitchen and try baking your own bread. It is wonderfully satisfying to feed your family food that you prepared with your own hands, not to mention it just tastes better.

Happy bread making!

Munchkin can’t wait to get his hands on some of mommy’s fresh-baked bread!

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5 thoughts on “What I wish I knew before I baked my first loaf of bread:

  1. I didn’t know you had a website. I’m so anxious to try this bread recipe. I LOVE to make homemade bread. Such a cute picture of Miles!

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