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 them......no 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.