Monday, September 20, 2010

Bread Baking

Besides the three to four hours of lead time, you'll need the following:
Bread flour:  All purpose flour can be used, but bread flour is rich in gluten and that's what keeps some of the yeast gasses trapped to enable rising.  It also gives bread dough that springy, stretchy feel you will be enjoying during kneading.  Self-rising flour, however is not recommended, nor is Bisquick due to the baking soda in each.

Other types of flour:  I would encourage experimentation here.  I always start with bread flour as a base because of the gluten, but you can buy wheat gluten by itself and make bread with other types of grain.  If you want to try other grains or whole wheat flour, I suggest you experiment with small amounts added to the bread flour first.

Salt: I've tried leaving it out entirely, but it just doesn't work.  For a pound of bread, I’m guessing I use just about a teaspoon of salt and it really makes a difference.  This is especially important if you use unsalted butter or margarine instead of salted butter.

Sugar: I use honey and lots of it.  The bread seems to taste better and it makes proofing the yeast (see below) much easier.   Pure cane sugar works well too, but must be dissolved in the water before proofing begins and results in a cooler temperature and slower proofing.  Cane sugar does have the advantage of not imparting any coloration to the bread, but I use whole eggs, so color is never pure white for my breads.  Molasses is a definite NO.  There are a large variety of sugar substitutes out there, but you need to proof it to see if yeast will eat it before spending a lot of time.

Powdered milk: I use this instead of regular milk because I like to proof the yeast with hot water and honey.  My experiments have not revealed any taste difference.  Whatever the directions say for the amount of water you are putting in will be fine.  I just dump a goodly handful in.  I tried it without any milk and it doesn’t have that rich taste.

Eggs: These, along with the wheat gluten will help to seal in the yeast bubbles.  I put a couple of whole eggs in.  Some recipes will tell you to use the egg whites, and the bread does turn out whiter if you don't use the yolks, but I like to use the whole egg as nature provided it.

Oil: Any sort of cooking oil will do here.  I use butter.  An entire stick of butter generally.  Some sort of oil is needed to keep the flour from gluing itself to everything around you.  If using oil, you need to add a couple of tablespoons to the dry ingredients and use a paper towel dipped in oil to coat the pans and things.

Yeast: Can't make bread without some yeast.  I don't have a foolproof sourdough starter recipe and it is difficult nowadays to keep it alive.  It used to be grown in a small crock behind the stove where it would be kept reasonably warm.  Yeast is certainly the way to go for occasional bakers.  I use active dry fast acting yeast in small envelopes.  Get the freshest you can find and use it.  If camping, I like to have yeast with at least two expiration dates in case one of them doesn't "proof" properly.  Unlike cakes and biscuits, the air pockets in bread are the result of carbon dioxide released by the yeast as they consume the sugars during the first two risings and expanded during the final rising by the heat of cooking.

Dry potato flakes:  If you want the bread to have some heavy body to it, add a cup or so of dry potato flakes.  You don't taste the potato, but it does make the bread hearty.  Without the potato flakes, the bread will look more like wonder bread from the grocery store.

Water is not just an ingredient.  In the oven at home, I'll include an oven-safe glass bowl of water in the back of the oven when I put the bread in to keep the crust from being too tough.  I think convection ovens are real bad about drying out crusts.  Some people like a chewy crust though.

The process:
Like most of life's lessons, proofing the yeast is something I've learned about the hard way.  Some of my early loaves looked and smelled like bread but had no air inside.  These I called cannon balls and discarded on my way to the grocery store for an emergency bread purchase.  Dry yeast is activated by  putting it in warm water with sugar or honey.  There are instructions about what temperature the water should be, but I don't like thermometers.  When the tap water is as hot as it will get, that's when I draw a cup or so into a big bowl with lots of extra room.  Next I add honey.  I use lots of honey but don’t tell my wife.  I stir it in good so it is blended with the water and immediately stir in a couple of packets of yeast.  There are recipes that tell you how much yeast to use, but those tiny little yeast grains are alive and start breeding as soon as you activate them.  More yeast to start with means faster results, but less would probably work too if you have two or three days to wait.  If you aren't sure, add another packet of yeast.  Again, if camping, you might try two different date codes in case one of them doesn't work.  Once the yeast is all wet, set the mix aside and get the dry ingredients together.

 Once the dry ingredients are ready, go back and look at the proofing bowl.  You should see a foamy froth on top of the mix.  Hopefully the foam hasn't overflowed, but I did warn you to use a big bowl.

If there isn't a lot of frothy foam, your yeast didn't proof and you'll have to get other yeast and add it to the bowl.  Don't bother mixing the bread dough unless your yeast has "proven" to be viable.

The size of the mess in the kitchen is inversely proportional to the size of the mixing bowl you select, so pick the biggest one you have handy.    Into the mixing bowl, the flour is sifted.  Sifting is actually pretty important to make sure the flour doesn’t have any dry clumps left behind after mixing.  I generally start with at least two cups of flour with another cup or two in the sifter ready to dust the work surface and to work into the dough as I go.  The salt and any other dry ingredients like exotic flour, potato flakes, or fresh rosemary from the garden go in next.    I like to mix these up before going any further since it ensures even distribution of dry ingredients.

Forming a dip in the middle of the dry ingredients, I put a couple of eggs (cracked and mixed elsewhere), most of the butter (melted elsewhere) or oil.

If the proofed yeast is ready, I pour it right on top and start mixing it with a wooden spoon or one of those mixing spatulas used for cake batter.   This is going to require a stiff device though because you will keep stirring until everything is mixed together and the dough will begin to roll around in the middle of the bowl with the stirring spoon in the middle of it.

Once it forms this ball, you are ready to knead the dough. 

A large cutting board:  You don’t want to knead the dough on your lap and I don’t intend to explain how I know that.  Dust the cutting board with flour and dump the dough out on top.  I like to coat my hands with butter for kneading, but nothing is going to make this part neat, so it probably doesn’t matter.  You need to spend 10 minutes doing the standard kneading.   Pound it flat with your fists, fold it in half, lift it over your head and slam it back down.  This is a good time to work out your aggression.  During this time, the dough is going to stick to you which you just have to get used to.  It will also stick to the cutting board, which you need to scrape up and incorporate quickly or discard to keep crunchy bits from becoming what people remember about your bread.  You’ll be sifting more flour on top of the dough ball and keeping a dusting of flour on the cutting board.  Once there is enough flour, it will stop sticking to everything so badly.  The amount of flour a given amount of water will require varies so widely that bread recipes will give you a large range of amounts that might be needed.  I’m not going to go that far.  I have no idea how much flour you’ll need, typically 4 cups or so, but don’t hold me to that.

At the end of ten minutes, the dough should have a rubbery springy feel.  Take a large clean mixing bowl (or clean the first one quickly like I do) spread some of the butter kept back from earlier all over the inner surface of the bowl and coat the dough ball too.  Cover with a damp towel and set it aside somewhere warm to rise.  It needs to double in size before you go any further.  It should take anywhere from a half hour to an hour depending upon the amount of yeast, temperature and other factors too varied to mention.  The point is, you need to wait until it doubles in size.  Something you’ll probably discover is that estimating when a shapeless blob that you were looking at 30 minutes ago has doubled in size is a real talent.  Just give it your best guess.  People get nervous if the cook starts taking digital photos of their work in progress and it doesn’t help when you tell them it is for comparison later.  To the average diner, this is like telling them “it is for insurance purposes”.

While the dough is rising this first time, you might want to rinse out some of the dishes used to mix it up.  In the kitchen, I am usually getting the last bare footprints of flour up from the floors throughout the house about the time the dough is ready for the next step.

After the first rising, you’ll repeat the kneading process again.  Most of the bulk of the dough will leave as soon as you start punching it down.  Make sure to keep the cutting board dusted with flour, but you shouldn’t have quite as much problem with sticky dough this time.  The process is the same as above with all the violence and passion.  Believe it or not, the pounding is important.  The gluten responds to being pounded and abused.

At the end of the second kneading, you are ready for the second rising.  This time the dough needs to rest in-situ.  If baking in the kitchen, I often divide the dough into three more or less equal lumps at this point, roll them into long skinny strands and braid them into a wreath which is placed on the greased (with some of that leftover butter) baking pan.  If baking loaves in conventional loaf pans, place them in the pans (I use non-stick pans coated with butter).   If baking in a Dutch oven, I use shortening on the inner surface of the oven because the cast iron is going to be hot enough to burn the butter.  The amount of dough you can get into a camp Dutch oven is about ¼ full.  This allows for the second rising as well as the final rising during baking.

The dough needs to be set aside in that warm place again for this second rising and should double in size before proceeding. 

Once the dough has again doubled in volume, you’re ready to bake.  When baking at home, I use an oven temperature of around 325 to avoid the crust browning too fast.  In a camp Dutch oven, you’ll have to refer to any of the online guides to set the temperature.  My advice is to err on the cool side. 

Those of you familiar with camp Dutch ovens undoubtedly know all about the chants and incantations required, but be patient while I bring some of the others up to date.

The origin of the Dutch oven is shrouded in the mists of the past.  They have been around at least since the sixteenth century.  For the purposes of this description, the only oven I am referring to is what some call the Camp Dutch Oven and is made of cast iron.  There are aluminum examples and fancy kitchen types, but that isn’t what this is about.  Generally speaking, we are talking about a cast iron cooking pot with a steel bail connected to flanges on each side of the lip.  The oven itself has three stubby legs cast into the bottom to elevate it just above the coals of a campfire.  The tight fitting lid is also cast iron and has a flange around the edge to retain a bed of coals on top for even cooking.  If you’ve never enjoyed peach cobbler, cooked in such an oven (I have a recipe for that too), you’ve really never had a cobbler.  These ovens were immensely popular in colonial America and throughout the westward expansion.  I have used mine to bake biscuits, breads, cakes, cobblers and even nachos.  I have made popcorn, deep fried French fries and potato chips.  I have made pot roast and stews and used them to keep flap jacks warm until served. 

When cooking at home in an oven, unless it is a convection oven, turn the bread frequently to avoid hot spots.  In a Dutch oven, every ten minutes or so rotate the oven a quarter turn clockwise and the lid a quarter turn counter clockwise.  This will ensure even distribution of whatever “heat level” you have selected with your coals.  Wherever you cook it, you’ll need 20 to 30 minutes of cooking time.

Test it often as the crust begins to brown.  Testing is done with a skewer or other poker.  The tester should be smooth and slender.  It is inserted into the thickest part of the loaf and there should be nothing stuck to it when removed when the bread is done.  As soon as the bread comes out, I pour and spread whatever butter is left over the top.

The bread needs to cool and this must be done on something raised like a bread cooling rack.  Air needs to circulate beneath the hot loaf or the escaping moisture will give it a soggy bottom.  If you are cooking in a Dutch Oven, you will want to invert it once the bread is done and the loaf should simply drop right out.  This should be done before the bread begins to cool or you will have a soggy bottom on your loaf.

I can take no credit for my method for general baking in the Dutch oven.   It was given to me as a boy like so many other lessons I learned in Boy Scouts while not realizing it was a kind of school.  I don’t even have a vague recollection of who to give the credit to.  I will say that lining the ovens with foil when cooking things like cobbler is foolhardy.  It takes no more than 15 minutes to clean a Dutch oven after anything you could cook in it.  When cooking bread, I simply wipe the few inevitable crumbs out with a clean rag and spread a bit of shortening to keep it fresh.  The exception is when one is left dirty long enough to dry and rust.  This requires a wire wheel and re-seasoning.  Even with that trouble, you will not find another non-stick coating that you can restore at home.

When you’re testing this out in your kitchen, you might want to keep in mind the size or quantity of Dutch ovens you’ll be using so you can adjust the recipe as needed.  The adjustment I recommend is in the flour and water rather than the other ingredients.  You’ll need to adjust the water down along with the flour proportionally because the dough is worked to a consistency by incorporating flour until the right texture is reached.

My bread recipe doesn’t include much in the way of measurements.  That is just the way I cook.  My wife would be happy to relate some of my more spectacular defeats.  Without this inclusion of serendipity, my cooking knowledge would be forever stunted.  For instance, I am probably the only person (besides my ever patient wife, Carla) who has empirical evidence that you should not boil the noodles for macaroni and cheese it leftover coffee.  Who would have thought?

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