“Give us this day our daily bread.”
For thousands of years, people have prayed for bread, given thanks for bread, dreamed of bread, and bled on battlefields – all for the love of bread. Imagine what they would say if they could read the Facebook feeds of today’s carb-counting society:
“I am so proud of myself; I’ve gone the whole month without a single bite of bread! #losingiswinning”
Can you imagine?
Do you really think that modern man’s belief that bread is bad is a brilliant discovery that all our forebears were too mindless to understand? Is bread really evil? Does it really deserve its modern reputation as the root of all evil, digestively speaking?
I think not.
What’s more likely is that bread has become the scapegoat for all about modern munching that is truly unhealthy. Yes, white bread lacks some of the vital components of more nutritious bread. Still, that doesn’t mean that it by itself is the cause of the obesity epidemic.
You can thank sugar for that.
Of course, there is bread and there is bread. It doesn’t take great discernment to tell the difference between a steaming slice of rustic Panera bread and a mass-produced, Styrofoam-tasting el cheapo hot dog bun.
Before I continue, let me tell you: I understand about how carbs work. I know that we need proteins and fats, and I get that if you want to fit into your high school wardrobe, cutting out carbs will work.
I’m just saying, cut bread some slack.
If you want to cut out candy and Coke, fine. But leave bread out of it. What is the biggest challenge of no-carb dieters? It’s turning up their noses at that buttery roll at the restaurant. Life is short. Eat you some buttery bread. It’ll give you that much more determination to drink water rather than soda.
Now, once we’ve resisted the demons of guilt trying to make us feel bad for buttering our bread – now that we’ve given thanks for such a wonderful gift, let’s talk bread. After all, so many people treat it as an obscene subject that society is beginning to lose its understanding of even the basics of this delightful food.
Bread is a surprisingly simple food to make – assuming you live in a place where flour and a very few other ingredients are readily available. While it’s true that books and books have been written about the many enigmas surrounding bread-making, the truth is that it’s very simple. If you have ever played with play dough, you probably qualify for bread-making – especially if you aren’t overly picky.
Bread Making 101: Quick Breads
The first and easiest type of bread to make is quick bread. It’s so named because it requires no time for the bread to rise. Usually quick breads use a leavening, or rising ingredient like baking powder or baking soda. Herein lies the biggest problem point for new bread bakers. Leavening agents like baking powder or baking soda must be added in precise amounts. Add too much, and your bread will be strangely yellow and the baking soda-toothpastey taste will make your tongue curl like it would if you’d eaten cat food.
I’m only guessing about the cat food.
Add too little leavening agent and your bread will be thick, hard, and flat.
There’s a very simple remedy to this, however. Most supermarkets carry self-rising flour, which already has the leavening agent mixed in. If you choose self-rising flour, look for a brand that says “Unbleached;” this means that no bleaching agents have been added to make the bread look artificially white. After all, if you’re going to all the trouble of making homemade bread, why use anything that bleaches your food artificially when you have a choice in the matter?
The only time that self-rising flour would be unsatisfactory would be when making pie crusts or pastries that you don’t want to rise. As long as you are a beginning baker, self-rising flour is your best chance of having a finished product that you’ll be happy to share with others.
Examples of easy quick breads include banana nut bread, zucchini bread, and cornbread. Each of these breads is made using a batter, and you barely even get your hands dirty. With batter breads, no kneading is required since the batter will be poured into the pan. By the way, it’s always a good idea to get the pan nice and hot before pouring in the batter to prevent the finished product from sticking to the pan.
Once you’ve mastered the simple science of batter breads, you can move up to slightly more challenging breads like biscuits and scones. While these do require a bit more discernment, the best way to learn is just to roll up your sleeves and start making mistakes. Remember this: When making biscuits, the most important thing is to work quickly and thoroughly. That means that you don’t knead the dough until it’s drying out like a piece of clay. Instead, you fold it over only as many times as it takes to make it thoroughly smooth without lumps. The instant it is smooth, roll it out and cut it; the same goes for scones. Hard biscuits are a result of playing with the dough too long. It’s not preschool play dough time. Get it done and move on.
Taking It to the Next Level: Yeast Breads
Although many cooks who routinely prepare biscuits and cornbread assume that yeast bread is “just too hard,” they are sadly mistaken. In many ways, yeast breads can be even easier than making biscuits. The important thing is that you understand how the process works and why each step is important. To illustrate, I’m going to share with you the easiest mistakes to make when making yeast bread.
Mistake #1: Killing the yeast in water that’s too hot.
Most recipes call for the yeast to be dissolved in warm water before adding it to the mixture. Remember, warm means warm – not hot. Yeast wants to grow, but it can’t if it gets cooked before it even has a chance to feed on the sugars in the dough. Warm water activates; hot water decimates.
Mistake #2: Failing to dissolve the yeast in water that’s too cold.
The reason most recipes call for the yeast to be mixed with warm water is to get it in a liquid state so it can be added to the other liquids and uniformly distributed throughout the dough. If your water is too cold, the yeast won’t dissolve. Instead, it will clump into a gummy ball that will not want to spread evenly throughout your dough, resulting in a flat loaf with one crazy huge lump in one spot.
Mistake #3: Failing to form the gluten.
Yep, I said it: the nasty word gluten. Don’t be offended. Gluten is simply a protein that allows bread to rise. Without it, your bread will be flat – unless, of course, you’re using a special gluten-free recipe. In wheat bread, the bread rises as a result of the gluten, which is formed during the kneading process or as a result of a long period of time, such as in the now-famous No-Knead Bread recipe.
While the idea of kneading bread is a turn-off for many people, it’s really not as bad as you might think. If you are really serious about wanting to get in shape without giving up bread, use that kneading process as an arm workout. If you don’t have the ability or the desire to wrestle a lump of dough into submission, try a no-knead recipe that substitutes the arm workout with time in the fridge.
Mistake #4: Failing to give the bread adequate time to rise.
Many people get in a hurry to taste a slice of that hot, scrumptious bread and pop it into the oven too soon. Yeast bread is not quick. If you want it to rise, you have to wait on that yeast to convert into those little air bubbles that make the loaf rise high.
Mistake #5: Skipping the “punch down” step.
Most bread recipes call for a “punching down of the dough” after the initial rising, followed by a secondary rising time. It’s quite tempting to skip this step and just let the dough rise a bit longer without overhandling it. The result? Your bread is likely to fall, or at best, not rise like you’d envisioned.
The punching down of the dough is necessary because it reintroduces sugar to the yeast. As the dough rises, it feeds on the sugar it’s touching. Once that sugar is completely depleted, the dough will not be able to rise any further and it will implode on itself. Punching down the dough redistributes the yeast particles so they get fresh sugar to grow. This allows your bread to reach its full potential.
Mistake #6: Trying to let the dough rise in an inappropriate temperature.
Yeast is like most people; it moves slowly in the cold, thrives at warm climates, and dies when it’s too hot. An easy way to make your dough rise predictably is to turn your oven on 350 degrees for only two minutes, then turn it off. The oven should be just warm enough to provide your dough with the perfect warm environment to grow quickly and evenly.
Once your dough is risen sufficiently, carefully remove it from the oven so that the oven can preheat. You shouldn’t preheat the oven with the bread inside unless you like bread that’s very hard and possibly flat.
Mistake #7: Letting the dough rise too long.
It may be tempting to let your bread rise overnight, but be prepared: You’ll probably find a disappointingly flat loaf of bread to greet you in the morning. Once your yeast consumes all the sugar in the dough, it will stop rising and eventually fall flat. Once it does, there’s not a lot to be done except chalk it up to experience – and make bread crumbs.
Making bread is a delicious and fun science that anyone can become proficient at as long as they aren’t afraid of a wee bit of failure. After all, the best lessons are those you learned on your own, and one of the greatest mistakes you can make is to never make any mistakes at all.
Another big mistake is to live another day without bread – just so you remember that man cannot live by bread alone.
Breaking bread is universally a sign of peace.
Farmers receive, at most, 5 cents from every loaf of bread that is sold.
Are you a bread lover? Got a bread baking tip I missed? Please share in the comments…I love to learn!!