Thursday, January 6, 2011

Let's Break Bread

Let me start by saying that i am NOT an expert in bread-making.  I like to make bread, and my husband likes me to make bread, and i have messed up a lot of bread.  Also i have done a lot of reading and experimenting to learn how to stop messing up the bread.

This i will share with you.

Today i made basic white bread from a very old Betty Crocker cook book, and i took pictures for you.

Every yeast bread recipe made with kneaded dough has certain elements to it, and the following very few tips can be used with any of matter what the recipe says you should do.

Tip #1, Take Your Temperature:  The recipe will tell you to take a liquid, usually water or milk, and dissolve the yeast in it.  Usually the recipe says something like "warm water," or "almost hot to the touch," or something else i can't properly decipher with my finger tips.  So i use a wonderful modern invention called a thermometer.  

The two types of yeast readily available in the American grocery store are Active Dry Yeast and Rapid Rise Yeast, a.k.a. Bread Machine Yeast.  If you're using Active Dry Yeast, your liquid should be 110 to 115 degrees (Fahrenheit).  If you're using Rapid Rise Yeast, your liquid should be 120 to 130 degrees.

Today, i used Rapid Rise Yeast, and my liquid was water.  This is perfect.

Tip #2, Always Proof Your Yeast:  Generally, the recipe will tell you to "dissolve" your yeast in the warm water or whatever.  But take it from me, "dissolve" doesn't mean "pour it in and stir it around."  I found that it pays to always proof your yeast!   

You proof your yeast by mixing a small amount of sugar into the "warm" water and then kind of scatter-pour your yeast on top of the water.  Set your timer for ten minutes and leave it alone.  In this recipe, i had more than 3 cups of water, and the recipe called for 1/4 cup of sugar.  So i added the 1/4 cup of sugar to the water before adding the yeast.  This is how it looks right after adding the yeast.

After ten minutes, it looked like this.  And the whole kitchen smelled of yeast.  If it doesn't foam up, or get smelly or anything, then you know something has gone wrong, and you need to start over.  

Possible problems:  your liquid may be too cold or too hot, or you may simply have yeast that isn't good anymore.  Either way, there's no point in wasting flour on inactive yeast.

Tip #3, Salt Kills Yeast:  Many recipes, for some unknown reason, instruct you to add salt directly to the yeast/liquid mixture, before adding flour.  Don't do it!  Salt is yeast's arch enemy, and if not diluted with flour, it could make your yeast less active and your bread too dense.  Instead, mix your salt with half of the flour before adding it to the liquid.

Also, don't worry too much about measuring the flour exactly, for this kind of recipe.  Depending on the weather and your general part of the earth, you may use a lot less or a lot more flour than the recipe predicts.  Don't sweat it.  Just make a good dough.

For example, my recipe called for 9-10 cups of flour.  And this is what it looked like with 9 whole cups of flour in it.

I proceeded and turned out the dough onto the counter to knead it and......oh wait!  Here's the next tip!

Tip #4, Forget About "Smooth and Elastic":  Almost every bread recipe i've ever read says, "knead until smooth and elastic," and may or may not give an estimated number of minutes that this should take.  When i found myself unable to accomplish "smooth and elastic," i thought something must be wrong with my yeast and would sometimes just give up.  What i have discovered is that whatever i think "smooth and elastic" means, almost never happens.  Instead, set your timer for ten minutes.

The geniuses over at Baking 911 explain something scientific about how long it takes for gluten strands and yeast to dance the right amount - or some such business.  But i have found that kneading for 8-10 minutes seems to do the trick.  Set your timer.

Here's my puddle of wet dough from today.  I ended up adding about 2 additional cups of flour to this, and it was still pretty wet.  This summer, it may only take 8 cups.  One (at least this one) never can tell.  

My personal success with kneading dough and baking bread has yielded this standard:  i want the dough to be dry enough that it isn't sticking to my hands, but wet enough that it almost wants to but doesn't.  I no longer look for a dusty looking lump of dough.  I want all the flour to be fully worked in, not resting on the outside.

After your dough is kneaded, let it rest/rise in a greased bowl.  You should roll it around in there a bit - or just stick it in there and then flip it over - so that the part facing up has some grease on it also.  This keeps it from sticking to things (whatever you're covering the bowl with) as it rises.

Now a note about the different yeasts.  

Traditional, Active Dry Yeast, which is called for in most recipes, requires you to allow the dough to rise until double and then punch down before shaping for the loaf pans or whathaveyou.  

Rapid Rise yeast claims that it needs just 5 minutes to rest and skip the first rising altogether.  I have found that the dough doesn't act right if i let it rest only 5 minutes.  I'm more comfortable with 20 minutes.  Today, i let it go almost 30 minutes, and that was a little too much.  But it made great bread anyway.

Edited to add:  Please see Let's Break Bread . . . again for more info about using Rapid Rise Yeast.

Here's my giant lump of dough "resting."

While it was resting, i greased my loaf pans.  The one on the right is an insulated loaf pan.  It never lets the bread burn, but if you didn't know better, you would think the bottom wasn't done, even though it is.  The one on the left may or may not have been rescued from a house fire, and it is very dark.  So dark, that it will generally burn the bottom of the loaf before it is done cooking.  The foil lining helps with this a little bit.  
This part isn't a tip; it's just me blathering on about loaf pans.

Once the dough had its nap, i cut the lump of dough in half.  This is the first half rolled out.  The recipe recommends a 9x18 inch rectangle.  My hand is there for measurement, since the span of my hand is 8 inches.  As you can see, i'm not worrying too much about getting the 9x18 rectangle exact.  Just aim for a rectangle that can be rolled up, and you'll be fine.

Edited to add:  Please see Let's Break Bread . . . again for more experimenting with shaping loaves.

For the second half, i concerned myself even less with the measurements, and i decided to make cinnamon bread.  A generous slathering of butter, sugar, and cinnamon, turn this white bread recipe into a light dessert. Yum.

 See? I didn't measure my rectangles, and i made loaves anyway.  This is how they looked after rising and just before going in the oven.


Tip #5, Slice off a piece immediately, and have it hot with butter.  This is the privilege of the bread maker.

In review, for better bread making, use a thermometer to make sure your liquid is the right temperature, always proof your yeast, dilute the salt in flour before adding to liquid, knead for 8-10 minutes, and enjoy the first hot slice right out of the oven.


  1. I am impressed. That bread looks gorgeous and I can smell it from WV. I have NEVER made bread but I would like to get a bread maker. Would you recommend that or just do it the old fashion way?

  2. Amy, bread makers make very yummy bread, and if you would like to have homemade bread and don't really want to think about it too much, bread makers are awesome. And they make the house smell amazing!

    Personally, i really enjoy the process of making bread and kneading the dough and shaping it how i want it, and i don't see myself ever getting a bread maker in the future. Once you learn it, it isn't a difficult process, and bread makers take up a lot of room on the counter. ;)

  3. Oh my word - I think I love you! Your walk through on how to make bread has given me the courage to try. I will be making some tomorrow and I will give all the credit to you. Thank you so much!

  4. I have to agree with Beth. There are bread makers that are simple to use and make pretty good bread. I was very nervous about making bread but was taught to start it in my Kitchen Aid (you can finish mixing the dough as well). I prefer to take it out and knead for the last few minutes, to get the feel of the dough. There is a satisfaction of making it yourself and there are VERY few things that smell better than fresh bread baking!

  5. I grew up eating homemade bread, but have never made it the old fashioned way. I have used a breadmaker and found a very big difference. I honestley would prefer the old fashion homemade bread and after reading this, I will definately try and makes some...:))

    Thank you for the tips...:D

  6. Thank you for the is my problem-The baking process. I have the oven set at 350 degrees, bread bakes for approx 30 minutes, looks all brown and yummy (just like your picture)and when tapping it, it sounds hollow (heard that I should do that from my mother). But approx 10 minutes after taking it out of the oven...I seem to have a loaf that looks like a saddle. Any ideas? Nancy

  7. I have so been wanting to try and make bread but I have always been so scared. You have given me the courage and I will give it a try. I do have a question. I live at about 8500ft above sea level and know very little about baking at high altitude. Will I need more flour?

  8. Heidi Fahrner LewisJanuary 11, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    I do both, with the brad maker I can set it to turn on in the night. So in the morning we wake up to hot bread. Nice in the winter! But I prefer to make bread by hand. Like my mom did...

  9. I used to help my grandmother bake bread nearly every other day. It was wonderful. However she passed away when I was nine and I never did learn from her how to do it. What little I could remember I took to my mom and the two of us tried for years to get it right. We never did. To this day we both buy the frozen pre-made loaves and just bake those. Much better than the pre-baked bread from the store but not the same. This has given me the motivation to try again. Thank you so much. <3

  10. Thank you for the tips. You have done a wonderful job!

  11. Wow!! Yep--that is what I will do this morn...make bread.Thanks for all your great tips..will definately use them. I also have a bread machine and love it..but there's something about kneading and making it yourself!
    Thanks~~deb in Tn.

  12. bread machines are not a stress reducing method for making bread.
    Make it by hand whack and thump your stress away.

  13. I fully agree with Peppermint Mocha Mama! I have never thought about making bread but yours looks beautiful and the steps make me want to try!! Thank you for sharing.

    Now for a question, you said...
    "You can skip the first rising altogether." Does this mean that even if you use tradiitonal yeast you can just let it rest??

    Just wanted to clarify before I go on my own bread making adventure :)

  14. does high humidity make a difference to the bread making? Want to give it a go but have been too scared after my first failures.
    Wendy - Belize

  15. This bread looks great. Thanks for posting. I tried to make dark bread several times, but it was never the way I wanted it. I found the IKEA bread mix which I love. Always looking for new recipes.

  16. Great tips!! I personally have a bread maker and love it! I have problems with my hands (maybe early arthritis) and kneading is just too difficult for me, so I have the bread maker do all the mixing and kneading for me using the dough cycle. I then take the dough out of the bread maker and shape it into loaves or rolls or whatever I am making. Works the best for me...I do proof the yeast outside the bread maker however instead of just adding all the ingredients in the order the recipe calls for. Thank you for the great tips!!

  17. Peppermint Mocha Mama: I'm so happy that you are inspired! I hope i get to hear how your loaves turn out. =D

    Anonymous with the saddle loaves: I have never gotten saddle loaves - though my raisin bread was a little funny because of the way i formed it and stuffed it in the pan. However, the first thing that comes to mind is that i can't remember ever baking a loaf of bread at any temperature under 400 degrees. Usually it's 400-450 degrees, so i wonder if you would have better results if you raised the temperature.

    Tara Steward: I live less than 100 ft above sea level, so i don't have much experience to draw from for your high altitudes. However, from my reading, i would not expect the altitude to affect your flour use very much. Your humidity will probably have more to do with that. And the humidity may cause your dough to rise much more quickly than expected, so look out for that.

    So happy to see the responses here from you all. Many happy loaves to you!

  18. Wendy in Belize: Sorry i missed your comment a moment ago. Please refer to my response to Tara Steward, above. =D

  19. Kristine,

    If you are using Active Dry (traditional yeast), you must let it rise the full two times. Sorry if that was confusing. The shortened "rest" period only applies if you are using Rapid Rise or Bread Machine yeast. Thanks for asking! I don't want anyone to be confused about that! =D

  20. I have been making bread for my family for years from an old family recipe. The recipe came from my husband's grandmother and she made all her bread into loaves. I have made the loaves, but my family of 3 kids and spouses and 9 grandchildren prefer the buns I make out of the dough. I have recently had a little problem in that someone, friend of family member wants the recipe. I am trying to keep it within the family, pass it down to generations below below me, since it is an old family recipe. It IS a family icon and I want to preserve that. Is that selfish?

  21. Great tips. I would also put in a plug for using good bread flour. King Arthur's unbleached bread flour is wonderful and it will improve the flavor and texture of your yeast breads. (I made pizza crust, sweet rolls and French breads from all-purpose flour for years...never again.)

    If you want a soft top on your bread or rolls, here's a tip shared with me by an avid baker: when the bread comes out of the oven, have a little half and half or milk on hand to brush on with a pastry brush. You can then slather the top with butter if you want it buttery as well. The milk trick is wonderful on sweet rolls, Parker House rolls, sandwich buns, and plain or cinnamon swirl breads...just don't use it on crusty breads like French, Italian or Ciabattas.

    Happy baking!


  22. Anonymous with the age old recipe:
    I must defer this question to Psalm 139:23-24.

    “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.”


  23. I'm still confused... If using the rapid rise yeast, don't you still have to let it rise after it "naps"?

  24. I would also like to add, thanks for the temperature tips. I have my grandmothers recipe to make 10 loaves at a time(everybody always wants some) and I use the rapid rise but let it rise twice. Don't know if I have to but gram always did. Of course, she used the yeast brick. It is still delicious and comes out great. I also make innamon rolls like you did with the cinnamon bread. Just roll up jellyroll fashion and slice 1inch rolls and let rise once. Bake about 15 minutes.

  25. I made bread for the first time when I was about 24 yrs old & pregnant. My belly kept getting in the way when I was trying to knead on the kitchen counter so my mom told me to tray standing on a chair. She has a picture of me with pigtails, red t-shirt, standing on a chair bent over & kneading bread dough! And yes it turned out good!! I'm 57 now, still don't have a breadmaker. But then I don't make bread but very seldom anymore. I lost my favorite cookbook & have been trying different recipes. Not all bread recipes are made equal!! I MIGHT break down & get a breadmaker. Especially for cold winter days! Thank you for the fun article on breadmaking!

  26. kramer4546,

    With the rapid rise yeast, as i understand it and as i have done it, you let it "rest," and then you form it into rolls, loaves, or whatever you're doing. Then you let it rise normally. I believe the manufacturers mean for us to skip the normal first rise that is in almost every bread recipe...or at least shorten it.

  27. @ Beth & Tara: About high altitude bread making:
    I used to live in Mexico City (6,000 to 7,500 feet altitude) and experimented with bread making. For white bread your dough is going to rise much faster. If you increase the salt a bit it also slows it down and add a little extra water (1-3 Tbs. should do) to add moisture lost in flour stored at high Alt -dries out flour. I can't remember if I changed the oven temp or not. You just have to experiment and see what combination works best for your bread. When I made rye bread I think I used the original measurement of yeast that it called for in the recipe since rye flour tends to be much heavier and increased the water a little more than with white bread. Hope this helps. If it doesn't work do it again and again if you need to. I went through pounds and pounds of flour until I got it right. Going to the kitchen now and pull out that rye flour! Ymmmm! I just found this website with perfect info! And now I remember exactly what I did!

  28. I tend to think the bread maker kneads it way too much.. I don't know but I'll try your ideas for sure the old fashion way and see how it turns out. Thanks for sharing!

  29. @ Anonymous:
    I recently bought a bread maker and I agree that the dough is kneaded too much and maker the bread too dense and heavy. I may just let it knead the dough just to incorporate the ingredients well enough, unplug it and knead the rest myself. I also don't like that the yeast is put in at the last. Maybe if I put the salt into the flour like this recipe ays it won't kill the yeast and the bread be of a lighter, finer texture? I'll keep trying and post if I get it right.

  30. @ Beth:
    I've never heard of rolling out the dough to form the loaf. Do you then roll it up and tuck the ends under? Interesting. Does this method make the bread more tender?

  31. @Susan S
    To be perfectly honest, i'm not sure why that recipe says to roll it out. I was using a Betty Crocker recipe that recommends rolling out for all its bread loaf recipes.
    My guess is that it should make it a little easier to have a uniform sized loaf.
    According to Betty Crocker, you are to smash the ends with the sides of your hands and then tuck them under.
    I personally do not think that it makes too much difference, and i would likely get a better looking loaf without the roll-out method.

  32. Because of the questions about using rapid rise yeast - and about shaping loaves - i did a little experiment today, and you can read about here:

  33. Glad you said that about the elasticity thing. I always think I am doing something wrong because I have a time with that part.

  34. Bethie, I am sorry to say that I have not proofed yeast since I was a kid baking with my mom. I have NEVER had it not rise. As for the kneading, I found this when I first started making my own bread and it has NEVER failed me! The Gluten Window is from God. If you're kneading away and you think it's done, pull off a hunk of dough and spread it out between your fingers. If you can get it spread out enough to see light through it without it tearing, you're done. (Photos @ the bottom of this page:

  35. Yay for homemade bread! You can make it so much better (whole wheat flour, etc.). I have to say, though that I NEVER proof my yeast. (?) I make so much bread in spurts that I buy the large packet of yeast @ Cash & Carry and keep it in a jar in the fridge. What I have found to be EXTREMELY useful is patience and the gluten window concept. When kneading, pull off a hunk of dough, spread it out between your fingers as thin as you can get it. If you can see light through it without it tearing, you're done--NEVER fails. (see photos @ the bottom of the page here: As for patience, the bread rarely rises in the hour or so that most recipes state. One more tip: get your oven SCREAMING hot 400-500 add a small pan of hot water to the bottom of the oven AND when you throw the pans in, spray in several squirts of water. Wait 5 mins and repeat the squirting. This causes "oven spring" and will get your loaves at least 15% higher!!

  36. Thank-you for the great tips, Stefi!


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