(Note: this is a long post (although mostly because there are a bunch of pictures). If you just want some general bread tips, scroll down near the bottom, where I have bolded some general tips I have collected.)
I have been making a lot of bread lately. Part of it is that I inherited some sourdough starter from my previous roommate, and that encourages you to make copious amounts of bread like nothing else. Then we had an event that could use up excess bread and, well, I went a little crazy.
But, I do feel like I learned some things. Bread (like anything else) gets easier and more intuitive with practice. That said, it is fairly easy to make good bread without practice, although if you are looking for a specific type it can be a little trickier. My favorite beginner easy recipe is the famous New York Times no-knead bread recipe, which also might be one of my favorite all-time breads, especially with a little whole wheat.
I am also a big fan of ciabatta, which I’ve been working on recently, or a general good rustic loaf/pain de campagne: good rise, chewy, crusty, holy.
I’m going to include links to a couple different recipes here. To be honest, I think bread takes some personal time to really get used to. But there are sites that can help you speed up your journey. I’ve mentioned King Arthur flour before, and how I like them because they are a B-Corporation, but also because they have a tremendous lexicon of recipes (and a great blog called Flourish. What a great name). They have a good sourdough rustic loaf recipe, as well as a general rustic loaf with detailed instructions. This is one of my favorite kinds of bread and very doable.
Let me talk about sourdough a little. I have to admit, in the beginning having a sourdough starter was a little stressful. It was like getting a new pet. Or at least another plant (of which I have quite a few), but one that required feeding EVERY DAY. At the same time each day. Absurd. Before that scares you off, I have now determined that keeping sourdough in the fridge is perfectly acceptable, and means you only have to feed it (which means using it, as I’ll explain in a second) every week or two.
A starter is basically a mix of flour, water, and yeast. You can actually pay a lot of money for a good starter, basically paying for the flavors of the yeast collection. Some have been maintained for thousands of years or something. That all seems a little crazy to me – yeast is alive, and my guess is that it adapts to the local environment, which will change the flavor profile of your bread; so paying for an amazing Italian starter (also known as a biga) will only get you so far. Not that I’m an expert or anything.
I keep my starter in a jar, covered with a coffee filter. If you keep it out, you feed it every day, maybe even twice a day. Begin with half a cup of starter, and add a little less than a cup of flour and about half a cup of water. Stir. The next day it should grow (it’s alive, how exciting!), and will crest and then fall again. Sourdough Home has more details on this process if you are looking for more resources. How much it rises depends on temperature, humidity, etc. I usually end up with about 1 1/2 cups of starter. Take out a cup – this is what you bake with – and then feed the remaining half a cup again to keep it going.
The cup that you have taken out is ready to be used! I have mostly been making sourdough like I would normal bread, except without yeast (although sometimes I do add a little extra yeast if I’m worried my sourdough wasn’t very happy that day). And I’ve been experimenting, and honestly I think you can do pretty much whatever the heck you want with bread. Basic guidelines: 1 cup starter, 3 cups flour, 1 cup water, 1 tsp salt. Mix it up, knead, and let it rise.
Watching the rise:
Some tips: All bread is essentially flour, water, salt, and yeast. More water will make a holier dough, like ciabatta, but it also makes it more difficult to knead and keep shape (I am currently making a loaf with a lot of water that is rather flatter than I intended, because it kept spreading out on the baking sheet. Hence the NYTimes tip of putting it in a pot). However, you can still knead wet, sticky dough – just keep your hands wet. Wet dough doesn’t stick to wet hands. Either keep a bowl of water at hand or keep one hand clean to turn on the sink if you are close by. A cold rise (i.e. put it in the fridge) I think is what makes it chewier, although that is a fairly recent hypothesis. When using sourdough, less starter and a longer rise means more sourdough flavor, because it has more time to develop. If you want to use whole wheat, make sure you add at least half white flour or it won’t rise properly (unless you don’t mind having a dense bread). Whole grains are a good addition to lots of breads. Eggs will make a richer dough, as will butter. Oil and honey or other sweetener makes it softer. For a hard crust, spray with water (in a clean spray bottle) every few minutes for the first 15 minutes or so of baking (I still don’t have a spray bottle, which is a little silly because they are pretty inexpensive, so I’ve just been taking handfuls of water and throwing them into the oven. It sprays around a lot but seems to work). Transfer to a cooling rack right after taking it out of the oven to prevent the bottom crust from getting soggy.
Storing: crusty breads can be kept on the counter, without a bag or anything. Just prop them up on the cut end. Other breads should be kept in a bag. They keep fresh for a few days. All breads also freeze super well – usually I make a loaf, eat about half of it, then slice and freeze the rest (make sure to slice before freezing, it makes your life a lot easier. Unless you want a fresh whole loaf for future dinner parties, in which case you can freeze whole, and then warm it up by putting it in a cold oven, then turn on the oven to about 400 and leave it in for about 20 min, depending on the size of the loaf).
If you are looking for something a little homier (meant to be slathered with plenty of butter, even more so than most breads), Easy Little Bread from 101 Cookbooks (who also have a good ingredient search and some good recipes if you want more vegetable ideas) is a good recipe.
You can also add stuff to bread. I made dill bread using Smitten Kitchen’s recipe, which turned out very well. I have also made cinnamon swirl bread (without the topping), although I messed up the egg bit and added a little too much filling, so it pooled in one section of the loaf. I do like egg filling better than just butter/sugar/cinnamon though. I think I’ll make separate posts for those later.
Happy bread making! Have fun! Post questions!