Seven tips for the perfect loaf of bread

Published on Fri, 10/27/2017 - 11:06am

Easy as Dough Re Mi

Many years ago, my girlfriend and I decided our families needed fresh, whole wheat bread each day. Problem was, we had no one to teach us and gleaned all our instructions from a book. If you’ve ever made bread before, you know that reading a book never does the process justice. You have to feel the dough, smell the aroma, and experience every leaven-filled step.

Unfortunately, it took a long time before either of us turned out something we actually enjoyed eating. Through this period of trial and error, our families ate a lot of bricks. I don’t want the bread-making learning curve to be as steep for you, so here are my best tips to the perfect loaf—whether you’re making white or whole wheat bread.

More than 30 years have passed since I served my first few bricks of bread. But those years have taught me that if I follow these tips I can count on the perfect loaf, or pan of rolls, for supper, every time.

Always use fresh flour
The secret to a light loaf of whole wheat bread is to make it immediately after grinding your flour. If you don’t have access to a wheat mill, buy whole wheat flour in small quantities and store it in the freezer.

Whether you want wheat or white, adding egg, honey, or lecithin to the recipe lightens the loaf.

If you have your heart set on wheat, and the family needs to get used to the texture, start with a half white, half whole wheat recipe, slowly replacing the white flour with each batch, until they get used to the 100-percent whole wheat.

Use the correct flour
Did you know that wheat grown at different times of the year can have different properties? For a good loaf of bread, use hard white spring wheat. Red wheat works but has a stronger flavor than white. The spring wheat has a higher protein content which lends itself well for a lighter loaf.

If you are using store-bought flour, choose one specifically milled for bread baking. For other bread products, like pie crust, biscuits, or cakes, soft white wheat creates a softer texture.

Mind the temperature
Begin with room-temperature ingredients. If you store your flour in the freezer, you need to take it out in time to warm up or warm it in the oven. Also, your water temperature should be right for the type of yeast you use. Check the packaging for the perfect temperature to proof your yeast.

Avoid using too much flour
The most frequent mistake that new bakers make is using too much flour. Too much flour causes a dry loaf. If the stickiness of the dough bothers you, oil your hands. Just don’t keep adding more flour.

Overbaking the bread will cause a dry loaf, too. To test for doneness, tap the bottom or sides of the loaf. It should sound hollow. If you are still unsure, use an instant-read thermometer to test the internal temperature. Most loaves are done at 190° F.

Start with a trusted recipe
Beginning bread bakers often err by not following directions. If you want to bake whole wheat bread, do not use a white bread recipe and substitute whole wheat flour. This will not work.
Whole grains absorb more liquid than refined grains do. Therefore, to prevent dryness, the liquid-to-flour ratio must be correct. Most experts agree that two teaspoons of liquid per cup of whole wheat flour are best. Whether baking white or wheat bread, successfully master a trusted basic recipe, then have fun substituting and experimenting on your own.

Knead the dough enough
Kneading dough activates the gluten in the wheat, which stretches during the rising process. The ability of the gluten to stretch to its fullest is what gives you a soft, airy loaf. When kneading by hand, beginners frequently tire out before the gluten is completely activated. Generally, kneading by hand takes at least 15 minutes. If you are using a mixer, the rule of thumb is to knead until the dough pulls away from and cleans the sides of the bowl.

To test the gluten in your dough, perform the windowpane test. Tear off a lump the size of a golf ball and hold it between the thumb and first two fingers of both hands. Gently spread your fingers and thumbs apart to form a translucent membrane. If it breaks, it is not kneaded enough. Sufficiently kneaded dough will stretch thin enough to see light through, and still hold its shape.

Take your time
Baking bread is not fast food. To get the perfect loaf takes time. Soaking the flour in the water for at least 30 minutes before adding the other ingredients (some folks say overnight) results in a softer loaf. Slow rises (and second rises) improve the quality of the loaf. Allowing the dough to rise twice in the bowl and once in the pan gives the gluten more of a workout that results in a lighter loaf.

Traditionally, homemakers started their bread first thing in the morning and didn’t expect to eat any until supper time. Or, during the winter when the fire would die down in the stove and the house was cool, they would let it rise overnight.

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