How Hard Is Baking Your Own Bread Really? (And The 7 Recipes I’ve Tried)

I won’t lie – during those first few days, when everyone was buying up all the toilet paper, I was concerned about our chain of supply and demand. But now that things have mellowed a certain amount (at least I’ve seen toilet paper on the shelves again), items are staying on shelves longer*, and our local grocery stores have been implementing shopping limitations that reduce overbuying. But what I still have in AMPLE supply is time. So I decided, that even though I could now go out and buy a loaf of bread, why not try my hand at learning how to bake it myself? Everyone on Instagram is doing it, so how hard could it be?

*As a quick aside, I know flour and yeast have been in exceedingly high demand recently and may be tough to get. I still haven’t been able to find yeast in stores. I’ve got three tips: First, my brother’s friend manages a pizzeria, and they buy yeast in BULK for their dough. That’s where I bought a few teaspoons of yeast for a couple of dollars. It might be especially precious to them right now, but they might also be willing to sell you a small amount if you ask extremely nicely. Just an idea! But don’t worry if you can’t get any, there are ways to make bread without yeast (like soda bread, levain breads, and flatbreads). Secondly, bleached, all-purpose flour is definitely the most popular and I’ve seen those wiped out in stores. But there were still bags of whole wheat on the shelves in the store near me. Whole wheat just happens to be great for bread. If you’ve never tried baking with it, maybe now is the time. Finally, you could try ordering from a smaller flour mill directly. This one still seems to have flour in stock!

I’ll start by saying that I’m an avid cook and hobbyist baker. I can usually end up with something edible, and for the most part, I’m pretty happy with what I get. BUT BREAD IS DIFFERENT. I’ve tried bread a few times over my life and never had stellar results. What is it about the illusive bread process? There are just so many variables and different steps where the process could go amiss. The yeast, the water temperature, the temperature of your kitchen the first rise, the second rise, over proofing, under proofing, the list goes on!

Over the last few weeks though, I’ve been trying my hand at several different bread type recipes. We’ve been eating some sort of bread with almost every meal, and I’m probably 90% dough at this point. With some bread, I experienced great success, and the entire loaves were eaten in one day. With others, not so much . . .

Let’s start with what was hands down the easiest bread to make. This recipe can literally be measured out with a washed out vegetable can (15 oz), requires no yeast, and overall is pretty foolproof. Instead of using yeast as the leavening agent, this bread relies on baking soda, which does give it a particular flavor. It’s sharper, or even a little bit metallic. But it’s a delicious loaf, and we ate it with a big pot of beef stew. If your bread making experience is zero this is a good place to start. You can follow along step by step with his video here.

I had so much success with his first bread recipe that I decided to give his sandwich bread a go next. This recipe required yeast and rising time, but again he has a super easy to follow video which makes it seem easy and manageable. Everything looked great each step of the way, but when it came time to actually cut into the loaves they turned out a bit dense and stodgy.

I have two guesses as to what happened – First I added too much flour during the kneading process, making the dough too heavy and not allowing bubbles to form in the dough. Or that I kneaded too hard during my second second knead when I was shaping the dough, which squished too much of the gas out of my dough. The flavor was nice though!

I decided to take it from 0 to 100 real fast when I saw that the Kindle edition of Flour Water Salt Yeast was on sale on Amazon for $5. This is an ultra-focused bread baking book, and I’ve decided it’s my bread bible. From it, I’ve learned how to incorporate dough ingredients, about the importance of temperature, and all different sorts of important bread-making techniques.

I started with the very first recipe in the book, Saturday White Bread, which is a make-in-one-day bread. Because this bread is made in one day it does use instant dry active yeast. But it still takes about 7 hours from start to finish. There’s the first mix, then there’s a rest, then the full incorporation, then a rest, then a fold, then the first fermentation, then a second fold, then the bulk fermentation, then the divide and shape, then the final proof, and finally the bake. I had to literally write out a schedule to make sure I was keeping track of time. But again, since I’m working from home, I’m actually able to take a 5-minute break to go fold some bread dough.

The book was like a comforting friend, answering all my questions and showing my image by image how to do certain steps. It feels like a lot of reading, but it’s all very interesting, and I learned SO MUCH. And of course, the results were 1000x what I had achieved with my previous bread recipes, and the whole thing was gone within ONE DAY.

I set aside a bit of the dough from the Saturday White Bread to make pizza with (a recommendation from the book). It made a delicious, flavorful, and flaky pizza crust that I have zero complaints about. You can also make focaccia with leftover dough! There are recipes for both in the book.

FLOUR WATER SALT YEAST LEVAIN STARTER

The biggest trend on Instagram right now is everyone making their own starters and turning it into levain breads (i.e. sourdough). If you don’t have yeast, but have flour, water, and patience, then this is an option for you. It’s a long process, over several days (I’ll be able to finally finish mine TODAY!), but I’ve enjoyed the journey. It’s just very interesting to learn about the process and make something completely from scratch.

By the way, the most internet-famous recipe is this New York Times one, but you have to have a subscription to access it. But this looks like a pretty good recipe from Food52. Plus starters can be used for more than just bread. I personally want to use some to make these sourdough chocolate chip cookies.

Following my mild failure with Jamie’s sandwich bread recipe (and after we turned those loaves into croutons for soups and salads), but also following my success with the Saturday White Bread, I decided to try a sandwich recipe from one of my favorite food bloggers, Smitten Kitchen. I’ve always loved her tone and found her recipes easy to follow (it also helps that she provides plenty of process photos so I know how things should look along the way).

I still didn’t get perfect results. Either my kneading really needs some help or I didn’t let these rise enough. But I did have better results. I kind of see each loaf of bread as a science experiment, and sometimes you just have to try again.

This is my most recent baking adventure, and one that I have to admit I’m more familiar with. Back in college, I went on somewhat of a Challah baking bender. For some reason, Challah has just always worked for me. I prefer my challah on the softer, sweeter side. And this recipe did not disappoint.

The braiding of the loaf is the hardest bit with this bread, but she has a great gif at the beginning of her post which makes it so easy to follow along. And you’ll end up with some seriously impressive loaves. This is so good sliced with butter and jam, or turned into french toast, or used in a savory sandwich. I just eat by the chunks though.

So there are all the things I’ve baked since we’ve been hanging out at home. Since it’s just Mac and I in the house (plus our two cats), baking has really given me a lot of joy. Not to mention it’s added some good structure to my day. What’s my next project? Kindred’s Milk Bread, a cult icon in the bread world.

Lastly, if you’re gonna do some baking, you’re gonna need some tools. Over the year’s I’ve collected a good amount of baking tool essentials which I use weekly, but even I’ve added to my collection in the past weeks. Luckily, most of these tools are so basic that they already exist in some form in most kitchens, so don’t worry too much if you don’t have one! Bread making can still be achieved.

1. Electric Scale – When it comes to cooking, guesstimating is totally fine. Baking, on the other hand, is a more exact science, and getting the correct proportions of ingredients is essential. That’s why most baking recipes will be given in weight (120 grams of flour) rather than volume (1 cup of flour). I bought this little scale 4 years ago, and I use it several times a week.

2. Bench Scraper – This is a handy tool for dividing dough and scraping it off counters. A sharp knife will also work for dividing dough, but I use my scraper for a lot of other things (like frosting cakes).

3. Good Set Of Bowls – These work as mixing bowl, dry ingredient/wet ingredient bowls, proving baskets, you know name it. It’s especially important to have one good, big bowl for mixing your dough in, and letting it rise.

4. 6 Quart Tub – If you’re going to making your own starter then you’re going to want one of these to house it.

5. Banneton Proofing Basket – This isn’t an essential, any bowl with a linen napkin will do for letting your dough prove. But this is the bowl that’s going to give you the pretty circular pattern you see in fancier loaves.

6. Airtight Food Storage Container – These are what I use to store my flours, salt, and sugars. They’re amazing, keep everything fresh and dry, and make it very easy to access and asses when I’m running low.

7. Bread Knife – If you’re gonna be baking bread, you’re gonna wanna a GOOD bread knife. We upgraded last week and it’s made a world of difference. Honestly. Our old bread knife was a hand down from my great grandmother, and while it’s sentimental, the cutting power was causing more crushing and mashing of bread than it was cutting. This knife helps our bread keep its shape and texture when we slice it.

8. Flour Sack Cloths – You’ll need these for covering bowls during dough rises, and for lining bowls during dough proving. They’re the simple, basic workhorses of your baking ensemble.

9. Dutch Oven – Besides a basic loaf tin or cookie tray, this is what I’ve been using to bake my rustic round loaves in, and what most recipes call for. I’ve been using my friends 7.25 qt Dutch oven, because I don’t have one of my own, but I’m thinking it’s time to treat myself. If you’re looking for a budget version try this one. I have do have a 5 qt. Dutch oven and it’s worked fine. I just have to make smaller loaves.

10. Flour Water Salt Yeast – I owe this book so much . . . .

11. Proofing Bags – These are perfect for making sure your dough stays nice and warm and humid while proofing. And unlike saran wrap, these are reusable!

12. Bread Lame – If you want to get artistic with your bread scoring, then you’ll want to use a real razor.

Happy Baking!

Fin Mark

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