Most people will tell you that baking bread takes too long, or that it’s too hard, or that it’s cheaper and easier to just buy it from the store. They’ll think you’re absolutely crazy for even bothering, but I have never met anybody who didn’t gush over the warm wonderfulness that is a fresh loaf of bread, and that, I think, makes the effort completely worthwhile. At any rate, those naysayers have got it all wrong anyhow. Homemade bread, worked entirely by hand, takes no more than half an hour of your time. The work of kneading is extremely pleasant and soothing and hardly strenuous at all. You will be able to use superior ingredients for a fraction of the cost of store-bought bread, and you will never have to run out in a snow storm to fight the mad crowds for the last loaf on the shelf. For basic yeast breads, the process is simple, and by changing the ingredients a little, you can make all sorts of wonderful breads that will delight your family and friends.
1) Dissolve the yeast in at least a small portion of the liquid, warmed to no more than 110°. It should feel pleasantly warm to the touch. A little bit of the sweetener added to this liquid will help wake the yeast, but it isn’t necessary.
2) Combine 2/3 of the flour called for with all the other dry ingredients in a big bowl. When they are well mixed, use a wooden spoon to form a well in the center.
3) When your yeast is dissolved and/or nicely foamy, add it and the rest of the wet ingredients to the hollow in the flour mixture and stir it up as best you can.
4) When it is well combined or you can’t stir anymore, sprinkle a good layer of the reserved flour on the table and turn the dough out onto it. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour, too.
5) Begin kneading. Kneading is accomplished by folding the dough from the outside toward the center and pressing it in firmly. Then, turn the whole dough ball a quarter turn to the left so you have fresh dough to fold. With a little practice, you’ll be folding and turning simultaneously and it’ll all become second nature. Continue kneading the dough, adding more flour as necessary, until your dough is smooth and supple, but not the least bit sticky. You may need more or less flour than called for in the recipe; flour absorbs moisture from the air, too, and that will affect your usage.
6) Form the dough into a ball by pulling all the edges in toward the center and plop it into an oiled bowl. Turn it over so both sides are oiled, but so that the smooth side is on top. Then cover it with a clean towel and set it in a warm place to rise.
7) When the dough is doubled in size, which can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the dough and the warmth of your kitchen, it is time to punch it down. This is accomplished exactly as you think it is, and it’s quite fun.
8) Divide the dough and shape it according to the usage or the pan. Then cover it again and let it rise a second time, which will take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. It’ll rise more in the oven, so don’t let it get too high now.
9) Bake according to recipe directions.
10) Remove from pans and eat as soon as it’s cool enough to handle. You’ll probably need lots of butter.
There. That doesn’t sound so difficult, does it? Now, let’s make some bread!