Warm water. Flour. Salt. Yeast. The four primary, absolutely essential ingredients to any decent bread (some might claim that these ingredients, in various combinations, are all you ever need. I beg to differ. After all, we wouldn’t have brioche if it weren’t for butter!). Combine them together, let it rise, shape it, let it rise again, stick it in the oven, and enjoy the most heavenly scent known to man.
Anyone who talks to me in any capacity knows I’m obsessed with yeast dough. I love the feel of it, I love the smell of it as it bakes in the oven, and I love how you can watch it puff up before your very eyes, golden crust hiding a fluffy (sometimes, if you’re a bagel or a pretzel, chewy) interior. When I tell people I try my best to make my own bread every week and forego buying even a single pack of rolls from the grocery store, I am usually received with a mixture of surprise and awe.
“That’ll last until you have kids.” Probably the single sentence I’ve heard most often. I sure hope it will last longer than that. The tinny taste of store-bought Wonderbread or Pepperidge Farm loaves sends me running for a strong-flavored drink to mask it, and buying artisan loaves every week just isn’t realistic for my wallet.
And considering that yeast bread does not have to be scary, nor does it have to be terribly time-consuming… I don’t think it’ll be too hard to keep up with a simple multi-loaf batch of bread every few weeks.
Before we dive into a recipe, let’s see just how easy yeasty, bread doughs can be – by smashing a few common myths about yeast dough that might have kept you away.
Myth Number 1: Yeast doughs are difficult, time-sensitive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. It doesn’t have to be! All you need is about 10 minutes of ‘active’ time, then you let the dough sit around and do its thing while it rises. You can even ‘retard’ (slow) the rise time with the refrigerator, setting it aside overnight until you are ready to bake it off.
Myth Number 2: Yeast doughs require high-protein or bread flour to work properly. Nah! It’s recommended to improve the chewier texture for some recipes, and if you get really serious about baking bread, you should start adding bread flour to your pantry items. But if you are a beginner that is testing the waters in the world of bread baking, it is perfectly all right to stick with all-purpose flour. Keep in mind that your dough will be slightly more slack and tender due to the reduced protein content that gives bread its texture and structure.
Myth Number 3: Yeast doughs require very specific, scientific proportions or the recipe won’t work. Not so. Yeast doughs and yeast breads are probably the most inexact of all baking “sciences” (pastry chefs and classy boulangeries would sniff down their noses in horror at me for saying this). Have you ever looked at a bread recipe and seen the words “6-8 cups of flour” until dough is no longer sticky? Yeah, so have I. Don’t worry about specifics. It’s more important to focus on the feel of a dough than the written recipe, and even if you are off the instructions by a marginal amount, you will still have a tasty end product. Well. Unless your dough just doesn’t rise at all, but that still isn’t the end of the world. That brings me to my next point.
Myth Number 4: If your bread doesn’t rise, your yeast is dead and you need to throw away the dough and start over. This is the single most controversial myth I’m putting out here. All us bakers have been there: kneading the dough for minutes until our arms tire out, making sure all our ingredients are in roughly the correct proportions, setting the dough aside in a covered dish and crossing our fingers, hoping that the rise will come correctly. Then you return to check on your dough after two hours and… nothing. The darn thing hasn’t puffed up at all.
How can you possibly save a loaf of bread if the yeast won’t work? This is my little secret.
Take a separate bowl and make a sponge of 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup warm water, and 1 packet of instant yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons, if you use a jar like I do). Stir it together, make sure it starts bubbling up in 10 minutes. If it does, you’re good, and your yeast is alive. Put your ‘dead yeast’ dough back in your mixer and use your dough hook to knead in the sponge until incorporated, or, using a ton of elbow grease, knead the sponge into the dough by hand. With the machine use the minimum amount of kneading time to get the sponge dispersed or your bread will end up tough. I actually recommend cutting your dead dough into pieces as you incorporate, to make it easier. Once you incorporate it the best you can, form the dough into a ball and set aside to rise in your bowl per usual.
Presto! Now you have a bread dough that will work. You made sure of it with your sponge.
Of course, this will change the texture of your final bread slightly. It won’t be exactly the same as the recipe indicates. But you will still get an edible and perfectly delicious end result, and no one will know that a mishap occurred. Believe me, I know; I messed up an Easter Babka somehow and patched it up with this technique, and it still turned out lovely, tender, luscious, and cakey in the end. So don’t ever despair if something goes wrong with your bread dough. And certainly, do not waste all of those beautiful ingredients if there’s a way to salvage it.
Before all those pro bakers out there chase after me with pitchforks and torches, here is a basic recipe to get you started on your bread-baking journey. It is my absolute favorite white bread recipe, and possibly the simplest in my arsenal. It shouldn’t be a problem to half the recipe if two giant loaves are too much for you, and please feel free to experiment substituting some of the water with milk to enrich the dough and produce an even more tender crumb. Just make sure your milk is at least at room temperature.
This is a wonderful, basic white bread that bakes up soft and fluffy. Beginners, don’t fear, and trust in the process – you can make this bread! It works great as a sandwich bread, but my favorite way to eat it is with some butter and jam. If you slice it thick, it also makes a rockin’ French toast, though really, the best bread for that is clearly a brioche… but that’s for another day.
Can you switch out some of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat? Sure you can! I recommend going about halfsies and sticking to the lower end of the flour content range. Whole wheat flour tends to absorb more liquids, and you don’t want a dry, tough loaf. Don’t completely replace the all-purpose flour with whole wheat; you need a different recipe for 100% whole wheat flour, which I promise I’ll share with you another day.
For yeast, I swear by SAF instant yeast and it has never failed me, which you can find in bulk at King Arthur Flour. I bake enough bread to justify buying the large amount, but Red Star or Fleischer’s will do just fine, if you want to pick up a jar or a few packets at the grocery store, instead.
Recipe from Annie’s Eats. Makes two very tall nine-inch loaves or three to four smaller eight-inch loaves.
4 1/2 teaspoons instant (also sold as Rapid Rise or Bread Machine) or regular active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 2/3 cup warm water, divided (Just warm to the touch. I use warm tap water. Use a thermometer if you’re not sure; don’t let temperatures exceed 120 degrees)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon table salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
9-10 cups all-purpose flour
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (for brushing on loaves)
For Active Dry Yeast ONLY:
Dissolve the yeast in 3/4 cup of warm water in a large mixing bowl and add a pinch of your sugar. Stir together and wait until the mixture bubbles and foams, about 10 minutes. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
For Instant Yeast:
To make the dough, mix together the yeast, sugar, salt, and about 5 cups of the flour in a large mixing bowl (I used my stand mixer bowl so I could knead with a dough hook). Mix (on low speed) until a dough begins to come together. It will look really, really watery. That’s okay! Gradually add in the remaining 4-5 cups of flour about ½-1 cup at a time, more gradually with the last cup, until the dough is smooth and slightly tacky but not sticky. You might wonder what this means. Stop the mixer and poke the dough. Does it stick and coat your fingers when you pull them away? That’s too sticky! Continue to knead about 6-8 minutes by machine or about 10 minutes by hand – and put some elbow grease into it – until a smooth ball of dough has formed.
Spray a large bowl lightly with cooking spray. Transfer the dough to the greased bowl, turn once to coat, and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place until the dough has nearly doubled in bulk, about 60-90 minutes. Go watch a movie or an hour-long TV show and relax. You know your yeast is working if your plastic wrap starts to fog up with condensation after about 15 to 20 minutes. If you are not sure when your dough is doubled, use a clear glass bowl and mark where the dough starts out. A glance in about an hour to 90 minutes will let you know how much more the dough has to rise before it’s doubled.
Once risen, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently press down to deflate the dough. Divide into two equal portions. Press one portion of dough into a rectangle, about 9 x 15 inches. Starting on a short end, roll the dough up tightly into a log and pinch the seam shut. Roll the ends under the loaf. Transfer to a greased 9 x 5-inch loaf pan and press down gently to reach the sides of the pan. Repeat with the second portion of dough. Cover the pans loosely with a clean kitchen towel and let rise once more until nearly doubled, about 30-45 minutes. The dough will dome over the top of the pan. (NOTE: If you wish, you can try placing the loaves in the refrigerator and covering with plastic wrap for an overnight rise. When ready to bake, remove from the fridge while oven preheats to take the chill off, and bake as normal.)
While the dough is rising in the pans, place an oven rack in the lowest position and preheat the oven to 400˚ F. Just before baking, lightly brush the tops of the loaves with half of the melted butter. Bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the pans 180˚ and continue baking until an instant read thermometer reads 190˚ F in the center of the loaf, about 15-18 minutes more. (If the tops of the loaves reach your desired golden brown before the baking time is complete, cover the tops loosely with foil to prevent over-browning. I covered my loaves with foil after about 20 minutes of baking.) Transfer the pans to wire racks to cool. Let cool briefly, then turn the loaves out onto the racks. Brush the loaves lightly with additional melted butter. Let cool completely before slicing into the bread. I know it’s tempting with all those luscious smells, but you will have a gluey bread texture unless you leave it alone for at least an hour and a half before digging in. Sorry!
—Of course, you could choose to shape the dough into balls instead of loaves and put it them on a baking sheet for the second rise. Presto, rolls. Just bake them for about 12 to 18 minutes until golden brown instead of the full 30 to 45. Now you can eat a whole roll warm and not feel bad about ruining your bread texture. 🙂