Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Series: Crunchy cooking: Homemade Wheat Bread

** I don't know if I've mentioned on here or not, but I also have a family blog that we keep private, just for friends and family members. But I occasionally post things on the family blog that I have to wonder if my fellow-cloth mamas might be interested in? Things about frugality, natural living, more sustainable and less grocery-store dependent homes and kitchens, etc. So over the next few days I'm going to share some of those things. Because let's face it - cloth may have brought us together, but there's so much more to us as parents and families than just what goes on the babies' bums!! I hope you guys enjoy my new short series on Crunchy Cooking, starting today with homemade wheat bread.

If I had to try and pinpoint why I stopped buying bread at the grocery store, I'm not sure I could come up with one single, solid, definitive reason. Partly just because I enjoy baking; a great deal because I've become more label-conscious, and I just don't know much about all the preservatives in a lot of store-bought food; more recently because I think that $3 for a loaf of bread is reprehensible. Also, bought bread doesn't have a tremendous amount of flavor to me, unless you buy the $5 loaves. No, thank you.

I don't use a bread machine for our bread. For me, the enjoyment of making bread at home is, well, making it! I started baking all our bread while I was pregnant with Little Miss R, and I used a recipe from Cook's Illustrated that Big M and Little M liked a LOT, but I was never wild about it. (I did like, however, that it was a super quick rise recipe and made 2 loaves at a time.) Right before she was born, I made a bunch of loaves and froze them so that I wouldn't have to bake bread for a while. Well, something went wrong with those batches, and we ended up tossing all the bread. (Groan.) We went back to store-bought bread.

Then, in January, Deb from Smitten Kitchen posted this recipe. I think I made it that very same day. (That, by the way, is one of the huge perks of keeping a well-stocked pantry! I often impulsively decide to prepare a dessert to go with dinner, or need to make something to carry to a group function, or make a meal to carry to a family or friend. It's so wonderful to not have to run to the grocery store to buy 1 or 2 things.) Oh, my goodness. This bread. Is. Perfect. Seriously. The first time I made it, I was a little frustrated at the rise times, and that for all the work it made only one loaf. So over the past 3 months, I've tweaked and played with the recipe and got it to a more desirable and manageable recipe for me. I'm going to blog it the way I make it (produces 2 loaves), but please remember this is not my recipe! Follow the link above for the original recipe and credit.

(A few disclaimers: First, I know this is not the uber-healthy homemade bread that a lot of people are looking for. I use more bread (white) flour than wheat, I don't soak my grains, or use any add-ins like flax, wheat germ, or kefir. But it's tasty. And I know exactly what I'm putting in it. Second, this is not a "Bread 101" or "Bread for beginners" kind of post. All I know about baking bread is what I know from my own limited experience. And I tried - and failed - a lot at bread before it got to be second nature. You just have to be willing to try! Although I will share my little tips and tricks that I've picked up along the way and use. And, I don't know any of the fancy stuff about bread and gluten bonds, and the difference between weighed flour and flour measured by the cup or anything. You don't need to know this stuff, so don't get intimidated by cookbooks, magazines, and websites who talk all about it!)

Okay, so here's the cast of characters:

Salt, honey, shortening, active dry or rapid rise yeast (you can get it in envelopes, but I go through so much that I buy it by the jar), powdered milk, whole wheat flour, bread/high gluten flour, and warm water. (Not pictured, white granulated sugar, although you could probably use brown sugar instead, or eliminate it completely by increasing the honey portion by 50%.)

Whenever I cook or bake, I like to pre-measure everything so that once I'm ready to start mixing I can just grab stuff. It makes the process go more smoothly - especially if you have something that needs to be mixed or added right away - and it kind of makes you feel like you're on a cooking show! ;o) So, start out with 3 rounded (not heaping, not level) teaspoons of yeast. I like using rapid rise yeast because I'm sort of impatient with rising, but it's handy to have plain ol' active dry in the house too.

If you use jarred yeast, you're supposed to keep it refrigerated after opening. (Frankly, even if you purchase the envelopes, I recommend storing them in the fridge to prolong the life of the yeast.) So, go on and measure out your yeast into a small, shallow saucer (^) so that it can come to room temperature.

In a separate small bowl (^), measure out 4 T (tablespoons) of solid shortening and 2 T of honey. You can buy solid shortening by the stick, but it's cheaper to buy a tub, and I go through a bit of it between bread, biscuits, and other baking that I do. You can use any flavor of honey you prefer, but I just stick with clover.

Get out your flours. It's important to stir the flour to aerate it before measuring. Mama, don't freak out, but the most effective way is to stir it with a knife. See above (^); this is a brand new bag of flour. You can even see the imprint of where the sealed bag pressed on the flour. It's densely packed. But after you aerate it...

It's looser and looks fluffier. I don't think these pictures do it justice, because I'm not a skilled photographer and can't take photos the right way. So trust me on this one!

Into a large mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, measure out your dry ingredients. Start with the flour first...

By dipping your measuring cup into your aerated flour...

And leveling off the top with a knife. You need 5 C of bread flour, 3 teaspoons of salt, 1 T of granulated sugar, 6 T of powdered milk, 3 C of whole wheat flour, and the 3 teaspoons of yeast you premeasured before.

Here's the mixing bowl, full of all the ingredients! Now, I layer the dry ingredients in the order I listed them above. This is because when I used to use a bread machine, the directions said to never put the salt against the yeast because it can "deactivate" it somehow. And sometimes, I measure out all my ingredients and don't start mixing up the bread right away. It probably doesn't matter, but that's just how I do it.

Next, you'll need 2.5 C of warm water. I know it's a little anal retentive, but I use my digital kitchen thermometer and take the temperature of the water. That way, I know that the water is not so cool that it fails to activate the yeast, and not so hot that it kills it. For the approximately 10 seconds that it takes, it gives me a tremendous amount of security! The labels on your yeast jar or envelope should tell you the temperature to use, but pretty generally, anything between 110*F and 130*F is good.

See? 120.9*F. Just right! I start with hot water right out of the tap, take the temp, and then warm it in the microwave from there. Go slowly - you can always keep heating it, but if it gets too hot then you have to start all over or wait for it to cool.

Okay, so I use my stand mixer for the initial mix, but you can also just do it by hand in a large mixing bowl. If you're using a mixer, fit it with a paddle attachment, and turn it on low (for those of you with a KitchenAid mixer, I never turn it above "stir" for this bread) to mix the dry ingredients together. If you're doing it by hand, then the only alternate direction you need is "stir." :o)

Add your shortening and honey, still mixing on low (i.e., "stir").

In a slow and steady stream, add your warm water (^). Can you see how thin a thread of water I'm pouring out in the above pic? This is how slowly I add the entire 2.5 C. Adding the water slowly prevents lumpy clumps of wet flour in your dough - yuck. You're probably going to want to lock down the head of your mixer (if that's an option for you) so it doesn't start bumping around. The dough will slowly begin to come together and leave the sides of the bowl.

After you have added all water, if any flour remains dry on the bottom of the bowl, sprinkle in additional water.

Can you see that little bit of dry flour (^)? I think I added about .5-1 teaspoon of water.

Mix just until dough comes together. It will be lumpy and sticky, but soft and pliable. Scrape the dough off the mixer paddle, and dump dough out onto floured (either wheat or bread flour) surface...

(In the above pic (^), that's not something nasty on the counter at the bottom of the pic, it's a nick in the laminate counter top. Just wanted to make sure you know I didn't knead a bug into our bread!)

Sprinkle the top with more flour...

Dust your hands with flour...

And let's get started! I tried my hardest to take pictures of the kneading process, but it's tough to take pictures one-handed by yourself. But, nevertheless, here's my little "Kneading for Novices"! Kneading scares a lot of people, but it is really, really simple; it's basically just pushing, folding, and rotating the dough to mix and incorporate all ingredients well. It starts out sticky, and it takes some time and patience, but by the time the dough is ready to rise, it should no longer be sticking to your hands or the counter. There is no one single right way to knead, but here's what I do:

Start by (^) pushing the dough away from you.

Grab the elongated "point" you just pushed out (^), and pick it up...

...Folding it on top (^) of the rest of the lump. Rotate your dough about 60-90* clockwise or counter-clockwise...

...And repeat! That's it! That's all there is to it! Do this about 1,000 times - haha, just kidding. Kneading for this particular recipe takes around 10 to 12 minutes. Just keep sprinkling flour on top of the dough, your kneading surface, or your hands as needed. Remember, the dough should be tacky, but not sticky. Pliable, but not goopy and NOT tough. If your dough is tough while you're kneading it...well, frankly, I would probably just chunk it and start over. People who know more about bread than I do might know a way to redeem it, though.

The above photo (^) is about 5 or 6 minutes into kneading. You can already see how it's looking smoother, but it's not quite there yet.

Okay, so the above photo (^) was about 12 minutes after I began kneading. You can see it's significantly smoother (however, wheat dough will never look as smooth as white bread dough). So what do you do if you think it's ready, but you're not positive? You can do a windowpane test! Pull off a golf-ball sized hunk of dough...

And gently stretch it, holding it up to the light. You should be able to see light through the dough (^) before it tears, like a window! If it tears before thinning, then the dough is not ready, and needs more kneading. If it passes the windowpane test, you're ready to let it rise. Reincorporate your windowpane test hunk of dough, and gently shape your dough into a round. Place in a lightly oiled or sprayed large bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel...

...And put it somewhere to let it rise until doubled. I usually rise things on the stovetop for a few reasons. First, because I'm ridiculously impatient, and I cheat-rise things by placing them on the stovetop with the oven turned on to create a warm and cozy environment. Second, the stovetop is not my countertop and workspace, so things are out of the way!

Now, the original recipe over at Smitten Kitchen calls for instant yeast, but I used rapid rise. I also used slightly more yeast than the recipe calls for. So even though the original recipe says to let rise for nearly 2 hours, when I checked on my dough last night, it was nearly doubled after just 14 minutes! So I...

...tossed it in the fridge (^) to slow down the rising...

...And tossed the kiddos in the bathtub so I could get them to bed.

Anyway, so once the kids were in bed, I checked on my dough again. Well...

...It had risen far more than double (^). No sweat. The second rise is the one to be careful on. Anyway, dump your risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface again. (I'll be honest - I don't even clean the countertop from the kneading to this step.) Separate your dough into 2 halves...

...and press - by hand - each half into a rectangle about 6 inches wide by 10 inches long (^). Perfection is not key here! You can also use a rolling pin if you like, but it's not necessary, and why wash something if you don't need to?

Start rolling the rectangle up (^) by starting at the short end. When you get to the end, roll it over so that the seam side is up...

...and pinch (^) the seam closed...

...and I also like to pull the ends over to the seam side (^) and pinch all that together too.

Place rolled up loaf, seam side down (^), into lightly oiled or sprayed bread loaf pan.

Repeat with remaining half of dough. Lightly mist the top of each loaf with cooking spray, or rub gently with oil...

...cover loosely (^) and let rise.

Be careful on this second rise - if dough rises too much, then either during or immediately after baking, it can fall. This is both unattractive and un-delicious. I generally let them rise until they've crested over the edge of the pan, or maybe even a little more.

See above (^): the dough has risen just a little over an inch above the lip of the pan. Time to go into the oven! Preheat your oven to 350*F (or you can preheat it during the second rise so that as soon as the dough rises to perfection you can get it in the oven right away).

Bake the bread at 350*F, rotating your pans frequently to avoid the hot spots in your oven. I generally rotate each individual pan and/or swap the pans around every 15 minutes. But then, I'm the Type-A poster child. :o) Either way, total bake is between 45 minutes and an hour.

Look at those lovely loaves! But are they done? There are a few ways to check! First, you can dump a loaf out into an oven-mitted hand, and knock on the bottom. It should sound/feel hollow. I know this sounds ambiguous, but you'll know it when you hear it.

The other way is by temperature! Grab your digital kitchen thermometer...

...and take the bread's baby temperature (ahem, in the bottom). Finished bread should register between 190* and 205*F.

Dump loaves out onto wire cooling racks to let cool. I like to use a little trick I picked up from Big M's mom and rub some butter - REAL butter, unsalted - on the outside of the loaf.

I use about 3 T per loaf (^). This just softens the crust, which is really great if you're planning to use the bread for sandwiches, especially for kids. Take especial care to rub the butter into the corners and any spots that feel particularly...crusty.

Let the bread cool completely before slicing to prevent gumminess. Then slice each loaf. I pre-slice the loaves because then it's already done, and you can just grab a piece (or 2) whenever you want it! I like to slice the bread as thin as possible, because homemade bread tends to be a little denser than store-bought bread, and thinner slices are just more pleasant for sandwiches.

Slicing is kind of tough to get used to, but I'm getting better at it (^)! The key is using a really good quality knife specifically intended for bread slicing. I love my Cutco 9.75" slicer that I got from my best bud's husband Isaac.

So, slice both loaves. I put one loaf into the freezer, and we keep one loaf out at room temperature for munching on for the next few days. For the loaf that goes into the freezer...

I separate the loaf into 2 halves, and bag each half separately (^). This is mostly because an entire loaf won't fit into a standard gallon-size storage bag.

The loaf that we're going to eat also goes into 2 storage bags, and then into our bread box (^)! That's the remains of a loaf of banana bread beside it, yum. I don't like putting bread in the fridge, because it makes it hard and tough. If you don't think you'll use an entire loaf before it gets moldy or stale, then freeze half of it, and just leave half out at room temperature.

Ta-da! So that's it! I really hope that you give bread-baking a try. It's not nearly as time-consuming or difficult as a lot of people tend to think that it is. (In case you didn't pick up on it, I mixed and kneaded the dough AND photographed the entire process while the kids were eating supper and playing!) And if you have only ever eaten store-bought bread and you try this, let me warn you that you may not love it at first. We're so accustomed to the ways things taste (and feel, the texture is quite different) that it takes a while for our tastes to adjust. But give it a shot - I bet you'll enjoy it! (Remember, if you want to make a single loaf or check the original recipe or instructions, head on over to the recipe on the Smitten Kitchen.

2-Loaf Wheat Bread

5 cups high gluten/bread flour
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons powdered milk
3 rounded teaspoons active dry or rapid rise yeast
4 tablespoons solid shortening
2 tablespoons honey
2.5 cups warm water

In large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine all dry ingredients. Add shortening and honey, and then slowly add warm water. Mix until just combined, dribbling in additional water if necessary.

Place dough on surface dusted with bread or wheat flour, and knead for 10-12 minutes or until passes windowpane test, adding flour to surface, dough, and hands as needed. Place dough in lightly oiled, large bowl and turn to coat. Cover loosely and let sit to rise until doubled.

Place risen dough on lightly floured surface. Divide dough into 2 halves. Press each half into rectangle, and roll up, closing seams. Place dough, seam side down, into 2 lightly oiled bread loaf pans. Cover loosely and let rise until dough crests top of pans.

Place loaf pans in 350*F preheated oven, and bake for 45 to 60 minutes, rotating as needed.

Remove loaves immediately to wire cooling racks. Rub loaves with unsalted butter to soften crust (optional), and let cool completely.

Slice, store, enjoy!


Jenney said...

OOOh I will so be trying this sometime soon. I am terrible at making bread, but I am willing to try again. We've been getting whole grain/whole wheat bread with no high fructose corn syrup (a big no-no for me if I can help it) in it that has flax seed for $2 a loaf and it is actually tasty. However, I can't always find this particular this will be great!
Also, I just wanted to give you an FYI about hot tap water. Did you know that the hot water from your tap is horrible for you to drink or cook with because your hot water heater harbors tons of very bad bacteria in the warmness of it? If you were to open your hot water heater up and look at what grows on the sides etc you would never drink hot tap water again. What comes out of the cold is perfectly healthy (in most places). Just thought you might want to know that.
I am new to your blog and I LOVE IT!

The Cloth Diapering Mama said...

Oh, yay! Welcome to the blog, and I'm so glad you like it! I hope you try the bread out soon! You can probably add in up to a half-cup total of things like wheat germ and flax and just add some additional water without altering the results too much. I use add-ins on other things, but I haven't experimented with them with this bread yet.

As far as the hot water goes, I had not heard that! I sometimes boil our drinking water first (to kill bacteria and such) and then let it cool uncovered at room temperature (to let the chlorine evaporate). But not all the time. But then, we're more of the school of thought that says that a lot of germs, viruses, and bacteria are actually pretty benign, and it's better for your immune system overall to be exposed to those things than to live in a sterile environment! :o)

Melissa said...

I am totally going to try this! My pantry isn't quite as stocked though, so I'll have to wait until after I go grocery shopping.
BTW, thanks for the Jillian's Closet CD trial info! I tried out several kinds and ended up with Fuzzi Bunz as my favorite. I thought it would be BG, but I was wrong, so I'm glad I got to figure that out without a lot of expense.
Thanks for the post, and the blog! I'm learning as I go with cloth diapering!