You gotta walk before you can run, although most toddlers’ first steps are often more like a run, what with gravity pulling them forward and all. That’s completely irrelevant to baking, of course.
Learning to bake bread has two purposes: Homemade bread tastes better than anything in a plastic bag, and, once you get the skills down, you get to make the bread you like. It’s fresh and it’s yummy – and since you made it, it’s ego-satisfying as well.
Bread only needs four ingredients:
That’s it. You can skip the yeast, of course, and just make a flat bread, but tortillas make lousy toast. You can also skip the salt, but only if you enjoy baked school paste. Many food writers have concocted odes to the magic of baking, but here’s the thing: They are right. These four ingredients processed properly – and the process is relatively simple – can yield wonderful bread for toast, sandwiches, and well, that’s most of what bread is used for.
Here’s the basic process for 1 loaf.
In a large mixing bowl, combine
3 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon dry instant yeast
1-1/2 cups water
Stir these together thoroughly and then let sit for 10–20 minutes.
1 teaspoon salt
Turn the dough onto a clean counter. Knead for 5 minutes, pulling the dough
Some important points.
The “sit for 10-20 minutes” step is important. This allows the flour to absorb water. If you begin to knead immediately, it may feel too wet and you’d be tempted to add more flour. If you do, you are on your way to making a brick. This step called “autolyze” is critical. Do not skip.
Salt inhibits yeast, so don’t add until it’s time to knead. If you add with the other ingredients, your loaf may not rise as well.
The dough should start out very sticky. A bench scraper is important here because you can scrape the sticky dough off the counter and help form it into a blob that you can knead. If it’s impossibly sticky, a light handful sprinkled on the dough should be ok. Go very light on extra flour for the first five minutes; you’ll discover that as you knead the dough, it will get less sticky (it will stop being a paste to being an actual dough). Trust the process. Knead it with vigor for a good five minutes, then add small amounts of flour if you absolutely have to.
The dough is meant to be somewhat sticky or tacky when done. It should barely stick to your hand and the counter – barely. But if it’s dry and completely non-tacky, you have probably overdone it and may end up with a dense loaf.
Take notes of what you did. Take note of the weather; a really wet day (heavy rain) can add extrananeous moisture. If you live in dry climes, you may need to start with more liquid. You need to keep track of what you did so you can learn, adjust, and adapt. Trust me: winging it loaf-to-loaf is no way to get good at baking. It is a good way to get disappointed.