Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Art of Bread Making

I love making bread. I have been making our family's bread for just about as long as I can remember. As a result, it is very easy for me and I can whip up a few loaves at a moment's notice. (Okay, I actually need about 3 hours notice, but you know what I mean). Homemade bread is so wonderful that when you bring a loaf to someone, they act as if you have just mastered French pastry-making!

One time, I can remember, we were having a backyard barbecue for a few friends. It was raspberry season and I had gone the day before to pick raspberries with my sister. I slaved over the making of two wonderful raspberry/peach pies. I poured my heart into them, even making woven lattice for the top. I couldn't wait to offer them to my guests. A few hours before they were to arrive, I got concerned that we might not have enough food, so I decided to whip up a few loaves of bread. Absent-mindedly, I tossed the loaves together and baked them.

When dinnertime arrived, the comments rolled forth about my bread. "Oh, this is the best bread I've ever tasted." "Oh, I can't believe you make homemade bread." "How in the world do you do this?" "I could never make bread. It is so difficult." I don't think it took more than about 20 minutes of my actual attention. When I served the pies, which were delicious I might add, I think a couple of people said they were good. Humph. THOSE had taken forever!

Many times, I get asked for my bread recipe, which I willingly share. However, several times the recipient has told me their bread didn't turn out the way mine did. That is because bread-making is an art, not a science. You can't just get a recipe, follow it exactly and have great bread. There are a number of factors at work:
  • the bread-maker's intuition (which comes from experience)
  • the quality of the ingredients (type of flour, freshness of yeast, type of fat/sweetner, etc.)
  • the equipment used (oven temperature, pans, mixer, etc.)
  • the environment (temperature, humidity)
Keeping these factors in mind, I would like to share my bread recipe/method with you. This is a basic recipe for a 5 qt. Kitchen-Aid. Bosch users can double the recipe. It can also be halved. In fact, you can adjust it just about any way you like. :) It's a free country. Also, following, I will share my recipe for a 20 qt. Hobart mixer. Through trial and error, I have found that our family likes mostly whole-wheat, but not totally whole wheat. This recipe yields a bread that is about 2/3:1/3. This is kind of a tutorial, though I don't have very many pictures. Let's get started.

Mostly Whole-Wheat Bread
makes 3 - 1 1/2 lb loaves

3 c. warm water
1 T. yeast
1/4 c. fat (I prefer melted butter or coconut oil)
1/4 c. sweetener (I use either honey or organic unrefined sugar -- use whatever you like, but no artificial sweeteners, please! We are trying to feed the yeast and yeast, unlike humans, is too smart to consume them.)
1 T. salt (I use a coarse, unrefined gray salt)
6 c. hard wheat berries if you have a grain grinder or 6 cups whole-wheat bread flour, if you don't
3-4 c. unbleached bread flour
1/3 c. gluten flour

(A note about flour: In doing the detective work with people who have told me their bread didn't turn out as well as mine, I have found the culprit is often the flour. The grocery store just doesn't seem like it is a very good place to buy flour. We have purchased for years from a local flour mill and can now buy the same flour at a small local store. (The mill stopped selling directly.) Grinding your own wheat is also an option with many benefits. Alternatively, you could try a food buying co-op or a health food store or maybe a local bakery. The exact brand of flour is not the issue. It is the freshness. Find good, fresh flour and your bread will be much better. Be sure to get 'bread' flour, not all-purpose. It has the highest protein content, making well-developed gluten.)

Place the water in the mixer bowl with the yeast. Stir a little to combine. Leave it to sit for a few minutes while you melt the butter. Yes, you can do this in the microwave and I admit that I often do, but it really isn't good for your food. Just get out a little pot and melt it on the stove. Stir in the salt and sweetener and combine. It doesn't matter if they dissolve. Grind your wheat if you are doing so.

Add the whole wheat flour, gluten flour and butter/salt/sugar mixture to the bowl. Put on the dough hook and turn on the mixer (stir speed at first, then speed 2 when the flour is no longer in danger of flying out) to combine everything. Once it looks pretty uniform, you can either leave it to sit for 15 minutes or so (sometimes I do, mostly I don't) or you can just start adding in your unbleached flour.

With the mixer running on stir speed, I add in the first couple of cups of remaining flour one cup at a time. Allow the dough to assimilate the flour before adding more. After the first two cups, I start adding it 1/4 c. at a time, mixing well after each addition. Knowing when to stop adding flour is a learned skill. You want to watch for the dough to start cleaning the side of the bowl. At first, when there is not enough flour added, you will notice that the dough will start sticking more to the sides. Add some more flour and wait patiently for it to assimilate. Eventually, it will become a nice smooth ball and will clean up the bowl. (If you aren't sure, err on the side of a little too sticky.) Now, you can turn the mixer up to speed 2 to knead the dough.

Knowing when to stop kneading is also a learned skill. With the Kitchen Aid, I find it is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6 minutes. However, this is a very general guideline. When you think the dough looks nice and smooth and has kneaded for awhile, stop the mixer and pull off a golf-ball sized piece of dough. It should feel a bit like your earlobe. More importantly, though, you can do the 'window test'.

As you can see in the above picture, when stretched, I can see light through my dough without it ripping. This means the gluten has developed enough and the bread is ready to be set aside to rise. If you try to stretch it and you cannot get a window without it ripping, be patient and knead it some more until you can.

Remove the dough from the bowl and put a little splash of oil in the bowl. Form the dough into a ball and turn it around in the oil to coat both the dough and the bowl. Now, cover the dough. It would be much more romantic and healthier to cover the dough with a nice cloth. However, I find that I end up with dough sticking to the cloth, even if I wet it. I hate to post this, but I actually cover it with a plastic bag. (I'm so sorry.) I find it keeps the dough from drying out.

Place the bowl in a warm oven. 110 degrees is ideal, but many ovens don't have a 'proofing' setting. I was seriously ticked off when we bought a new stove and I found out it didn't go below 170 degrees. Apparently, the manufacturers think people are too dumb to cook their food at an appropriate temperature, so they make the oven unable to go below a setting which will sterilize the food. We need the yeast to stay alive to rise the bread, so killing it will not do. What I do is, begrudgingly, put my dough in the oven, set the temperature to 170, turn the timer on for 2 minutes and turn the oven off when it beeps. At no time do I open the door. This seems to work well.

Let the dough rise until doubled, about an hour or so. Punch it down to deflate it and squish it up a bit. Now, I suggest using a kitchen scale, but you don't have to. Measure out 1 1/2 lbs of dough, or just cut it into about 3 equal parts. I like measuring because then they all turn out even. Of course, adjust quantities up or down a little to even things up.

Prepare your pans. My friend, Elisa, shared a kitchen secret that has changed my life. If you combine 1/2 quantity of liquid lecithin with 1/2 quantity of oil, mixed together and brush this very lightly on your pans, grains will never stick to them. It is like magic. No more muffins sticking to the pans. No more bread ripping off in chunks. It is wonderful stuff. :)

(A note about pans. The type of pan you use makes a difference, particularly when baking whole wheat bread. Whole wheat bread needs a slightly narrower pan for support than white bread. My favourite pans are Norpro, which I bought here. She also has great bread bags, by the way. I was also lucky enough to find a few very similar pans with the namebrand 'Kaiser' at Winners, but I haven't seen any there since.)

Shape into loaves. To do this, I form each piece into a ball and then pinch the bottom in a few times. Making nicely shaped loaves is another learned skill. :) Place in pans and return to oven. Make sure they have lots of space around them to rise. Warm oven as above and leave to rise. Watch until the loaves are risen a bit less than you want them to be in the end. Leave them in the oven and turn the oven on to 350 degrees F.

Bake somewhere around 45 minutes, give or take. Knowing when to take the bread out is...say it with me, now...a learned skill. I watch for:
  • smell - you can tell when they are done because the house just smells right -- like super-yummy bread, not too yeasty and not overdone. You will get to know the smell. (You can use the smell method for cakes, too, by the way.)
  • sight - the bread will be nicely browned all over
  • sound - if you tap the bottom, it should sound hollow. I admit that I don't completely get this one, but it might be helpful for you.
If you aren't sure, err on the side of a little overbaked, rather than underbaked. Another 5 mintues at 350 degrees won't hurt.

Tip the loaves out right away and leave them on a rack to cool. Let them cool as long as your self-control allows before slicing. 30 minutes is pretty good. If you slice them before this, you will probably crush them. I have also heard that too much steam will escape and the remaining bread will dry out too quickly, but we don't have experience with any 'remaining' bread. ;)

Bread Recipe for 20 qt. Hobart Mixer
makes 12 - 1 1/2 lb loaves

12 cups warm water
1/4 c. yeast
1 c. honey/sugar
1 c. melted butter/coconut oil
1/4 c. salt
3/4 c. gluten flour
20 c. hard wheat berries
Approx 8 c. unbleached bread flour

I combine everything but the unbleached flour and then leave to sit for 15 minutes, or just jump into the next step. I follow the basic method outlined above, except that I add in the flour 1 c. at a time. I timed how long I had to knead after adding all the flour and was very surprised that it took 20 minutes on speed 1 before the dough passed the window test.

I need to do two bakings, since my oven will only really hold 6 loaves at a time.

I hope this is helpful to you! I love helping others learn to make bread and would be happy to answer any questions in the comments section. :)


  1. I just love your bread recipe! it took me about a year to perfect it! I realized (with your help) that the flour i was using just wasn't fresh enough and ever since switching flour brands i have had heavenly light and fluffy bread, thanks Christine!

  2. Wow! This is a great tutorial. I am blessed to be able to get fresh flour from a mill, but since I live in a tiny space there is no room for a mixer, and I can only cook one loaf at a time in my little Japanese oven. Still, I am thankful for my bread machine, which I use to mix the dough, which I then cook in the oven. We all love homemade bread -- there is no going back! My kids call store bought bread "styrofoam bread".

  3. Hi Christine,

    I saw your post and wanted to write you to tell you what a lovely job you did. Like you, I home schooled my children. I'm now a veteran Christian home schooling mom, as my girls are now 23 and 20. The eldest is an R.N. and the youngest is a Jr. in college. Both have attended college on full scholarships.

    Also, I since you are interested in all things natural, I just wanted to let you know that it IS possible to get a light, fluffy loaf without the use of unbleached flour. You can use 100% freshly milled grains and produce a beautiful, airy loaf of bread, if that is your desire.

    I've been doing so since the early 1990s and teaching others how ever since. I believe that we should eat only what God created as good for
    food, and as closely to the way God made it as we possibly can. That belief and the health benefits my family saw from this one change (100% freshly milled grains) is why I do what I do and encourage people to make the leap and do the same.

    Please feel free to check out my site, the testimonials, the FAQs.

    Great job on your blog!

    Beth Holland
    Bread Lady

  4. Hi Christine!

    I'm otherwise known as 'kiwimum' on TBW, and just followed your comment on Eyes of Wonder to here. :-) It's good to 'see' you.

    I was mostly just commenting to say 'hi', but I too have a bread recipe that is all whole, I can give you the recipe if you are interested.

  5. Great to hear from everyone! Please feel free to post your own recipes and tips here, in the comments section, and I encourage everyone to check Beth's site. It is a wealth of info. :)

    Sue -- LOL on the styrofoam bread. That's what we think of the bread from our local bakery, too, if you can believe it. :)

  6. This is wonderful! I'm inspired to bake bread with my kids today. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Thanks for sharing your recipe, Christine. So far it's the one my kids like best (I received a grain mill for Christmas - yipee! and have been experimenting a lot.) I halve the recipe (since I don't yet have a large mixer) and use a bread machine to do the mixing, and then bake in the oven. (That just reminded me - I had a loaf rising in the oven and needed to go turn it on!) Rachel

  8. I forgot to ask - where do you buy your gluten?
    And I usually use olive oil for the fat (just 'cause it's quick and easy)- do some kinds work better/differently than others?

  9. Rachel,
    I'm so glad to hear you are enjoying the recipe. :)

    I don't know the answer as to whether some fats work better than others. I would imagine there is a difference. I said that I like coconut oil or butter because they are traditional, saturated fats. Saturated fats are usually heat stable. For more info, this site has some decent info: I'm not a completely die-hard Weston Price person, but I think they have a lot of excellent information. EVOO is, obviously, a very good fat. I know it is better not to heat it past a certain point, but I'm not sure if that includes the temperature that it will eventually reach in bread. It would be worth some research. Let me know if you look into it and find out. :)

  10. Rachel,
    I see that I never answered your question about where I buy my gluten. I just buy it from the Bulk Barn. Probably The Flour Barrel has it, too, and I will check next time I am there and probably start buying it from them instead of at the BB, since I like the FB better. Anyway, I noticed that the Bulk Barn specifically marked theirs "Product of Canada", which is good since there is a lot of concern about Chinese gluten.

  11. Christine,

    Do you have a recipe for a Bosch Mixer? I have used this for many years and I have never had my bread look like yours. I am impressed with you tutorial and look forward to trying this recipe. My Bosch make 5 loaves at a time.


  12. Christine, is gluten flour the same as gluten/ I bought some last week in Lancaster County to make bread with. thanks!

  13. Jaclyn,
    It is almost certainly the same, but I'm not 100% sure without seeing it. For my recipe, you need to use something called, 'vital wheat gluten'. The trouble is that it isn't always called this in stores. In many stores, it is called, 'gluten flour'. This is different from 'high gluten flour'. Here is a link that outlines the differences:

    You should be able to take my recipe and double it for the Bosch. Have you ever tried doing 6 loaves at a time? Most of the recipes I've seen for the Bosch are this capacity. Not being a Bosch owner, I'm not 100% sure, but several Bosch recipes I have call for 6 cups of water and make 6 loaves. :)


  14. Christine, mine is baking in the oven as I type- can't wait to see how it came out- although I ended up only using 7.5 cups of flour- and it was hard to knead. It did rise though so we'll see. Do you freeze your bread or just always make it fresh?

  15. How did the bread turn out, ladybug?

    You only needed 7.5 cups of flour? Really?

    I do freeze the majority of my bread when I make it. I make it about once a week (12 loaves) and keep out 2-3 loaves. My mom slices her bread before freezing, but so far, I'm too lazy for that. :)


  16. What is gluten flour? Vital Wheat Gluten? Thanks Nancy

    1. Here we just purchase something called 'gluten flour'. I believe it is the same as vital wheat gluten, but I've never really received a 100% satisfactory answer. Let me know if you find out!