Bread machines make it possible for anyone to turn out an acceptable loaf of bread, but their push-button convenience also takes away the very real satisfaction of working hands-on with the dough. The basic steps of manual bread-baking are quick to learn, and only a few minutes of the process consist of actual hands-on preparation. Your dough does most of the work on its own, and all you need to do is enjoy the end result.
Professional bread bakers measure everything by weight, the most reliable method. A simple, standard loaf of bread usually calls for 3 parts water to 5 parts of flour by weight, a ratio that works for a pound of flour or a ton. For home users, a good rule is 1 cup of water to 3 or 4 cups of flour. That's approximately the professional's 3:5 ratio, and it's also the correct amount of flour for one envelope -- or 2 1/2 teaspoons -- of yeast. For a batch that size, you'll also need a teaspoon of salt.
Mix the ingredients together with a wooden spoon, or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer, until they come together into a rough, shaggy dough. Don't use all the flour initially. Measuring in cups is sadly inaccurate, so you might not need all of it. Just add flour until the dough feels stiff and loses most of its stickiness.
Knead the dough by hand for approximately 10 minutes, or until it forms a smooth, elastic mass. In a stand mixer, switch to your dough hook and knead for 6 to 8 minutes.
Ten minutes is a long time to knead by hand. As an alternative, once the dough's mixed, let it rest for 20 minutes instead. During this time, dubbed the autolyse by French bread scientist Raymond Calvel, the dough's moisture distributes evenly through the flour, and gluten begins to form. After the 20 minutes' rest, you'll only need to knead for about 5 minutes.
Cover the dough and let it rise in a draft-free place until it's nearly doubled in bulk. It can be hard to tell whether it's risen enough in some bowls, so when in doubt poke the dough with your finger. If it springs back, it's not ready. If the finger-shaped dent remains in your dough, or if it sighs and collapses, it's had long enough.
Punch the dough down, so it collapses, and knead it again for a few more minutes. Breads made with quick-rise yeast are ready to be shaped and put into pans at this stage, but almost any bread benefits from a second rise. Punch it down again, before you go on to shaping the loaf.
Flatten the dough into a rough rectangle, on a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Roll the dough into a compact cylinder. Press the end of the dough firmly into the body of the loaf, so it sticks together and makes a seal. Pinch the ends of the loaf together as well, and place the loaf in a pan.
Let the shaped loaf rise until it stands about an inch over the pan's edge. Bake it at 350 F for 25 to 35 minutes, until it's golden and sounds hollow when you tap on the underside of the loaf.
Tip: For a less subjective measure, insert an instant-read thermometer into the loaf. Most breads are ready when they reach an internal temperature of at least 190 F to 200 F, but there's no harm in letting them bake a bit longer to lend them a deeper color or crustier texture.
Cool the bread on a wire rack until it reaches room temperature, before slicing or packaging it. If you like a soft crust, brush the loaf with milk, cream or butter while it's still hot.
About the Yeast
Those familiar beige granules of dry yeast are made up of live but dormant yeasts, surrounded by a protective coating of dead yeast cells. Modern quick rise yeasts are very small, with only a thin, quick-dissolving protective coat. You can add those directly to the bread's dry ingredients, and they'll absorb all the moisture they need from the dough.
The coating on active dry yeast is thicker and takes longer to dissolve, so you'll normally stir that into part of the recipe's wet ingredients. Once it's dissolved and growing -- which, as a bonus, tells you the yeast is still fresh and usable -- you can incorporate it into your bread.
Taking the Next Step
This basic bread is what bakers call a lean dough, because it has no added fats or softening ingredients. Once you've mastered this simple recipe and understand what the dough should feel like at each stage, you can begin tweaking it to suit your taste.
- Whole-grain flours add texture and nutrition.
- Adding a tablespoon of oil or melted butter softens the bread's crust and crumb.
- Substituting milk for some or all of the water leaves the dough softer and richer.
- So does the addition of an egg, which counts as part of your 1 cup of liquid ingredients.
- Sugar adds flavor, as well as softening the loaf.