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Baking simple bread

An attempt at explanation of a process

No secret recipe

"There's no recipe for bread."

"Yes there is."

Discussing trade secrets with a head chef....

Yeast is an animal and it does well in a temperature that feels comfortable to the human touch. Too much heat will kill it. The growth of yeast and its life process is its purpose in bread.

Start with bread flour. Use as much as you'd like, and add salt. The ratio of salt is just a guess, or a matter of preference, but too much salt will inhibit the yeast.

Mix dry ingredients.

Add water. The yeast can be "proofed" in the water with sugar (to start its reproductive growth) — but that's not necessary. If the yeast is fresh and not dry, then sure, you'd want to disolve it in that warm water. If it's dry yeast, then you can add it to the dry ingredients, or to the water.

Add less water to the dry ingredients than you will need. This first addition of water is a simple action that may take a bit of practice. It's not difficult — but it's best to do it well. Done well, the dough mixes easily and with little mess. The wet/dry ratio is important [in an artistic way that does not deserve stress, but merits practice.]

When the dough pulls together enough to set on the countertop, do so. With skiffs of flour brushed beneath, fold the dough until it is more integral, firm and yet soft. (You can do this in a large bowl, as well, and avoid having to clean a countertop before and after.)

Gluten

Kneading stretches, folds together, and binds a glue-like protein substance called gluten (the Latin root of which is the same as that of "glue.")

The gluten content of flour is highly variable. As a part of the milling process, gluten may be removed, to make for example pastry flour (you don't want your cake nor croissants to be tough and adhesive.) Gluten may also be added.

The bread flours that I have used seem to break down like this, regionally, as per their gluten content: West coast America, superlative. French, good. Dutch, not very good.

Knead

The correctness of the flour-water content in the dough — a critical parameter — will become easier to assess with a bit of kneading. It is always easier to add flour than to add water, so it's best to add flour slowly, when in doubt. It's best, too, to learn over time how to add "just too much" water in that first admixture. A dough just barely too moist will do the finest.

The dough will develop a characteristic feel and texture when it is well-proportioned and sufficiently kneaded. It will be firm but soft, and not sticky. It will not be strenuous to knead, but elastic and supple. It may tear slightly but not rip easily.

It would be difficult to overknead bread dough by hand — though not so by machine. There is no point suggesting anybody knead dough by hand for twenty minutes, because the benefit would not reward the extra effort. A few good minutes of working, and bread dough should be sufficiently kneaded.

Cover the dough, and leave it in a warm but not hot place.

Let it rise until it doubles in volume. This is an approximation — it will be larger and softer. The time that this takes will just be the time it takes. There are many factors that affect the speed of the rise. Relax, if you have the time.

When the dough has risen double, move it to the countertop.

Cut the dough into sizes, if necessary, according to the sizes of the pans you will use. The dough may rise double in the pans.

Shape the pieces of dough soon after cutting, while they're still moist at the surface. Shape according to the pan(s). Make the lump of dough as symmetrical as possible.

However you shape the piece(s) of dough, set it (them) in a greased pan seam down. (The shaping of doughs takes practice, is a matter of professional dispute; and can be easily adapted to your personal method.)

Proof

"Proofing" just means "letting the dough rise."

Let rise until a poke retains the shape of your fingertip. No longer.

Before the bake, you might want to spray or (carefully) rub water across the exposed surface of the dough, to help develop a good crust.

Bake. How hot? I don't know, 350-375 F — 180 C.

When done? Tap bottom — it should sound hollow.

Experiment. It's a craft; you learn.

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