Monday, April 25, 2011

Basic Whole Wheat Bread

If you have never made bread at home before, this is a good first loaf to try. A lot of people are intimidated by bread making that isn't done by machine, but there is no reason to be! It does take a lot of time, up to 7 hours, but most of that time is spent waiting around doing nothing while the bread rises or bakes. Have a free day on the weekend that you are planning on spending on the couch playing video games? Why not have bread rising while you laze around! There is only about an hour of active work involved, and you get two loaves out of it, that are way tastier than any pre-sliced commercial wheat bread you can buy in the grocery store.

I learned to bake bread from Laurel's Kitchen, an old vegetarian hippie cookbook I found at a thrift store a couple years ago. It has a lot of advice that is useful for novice vegetarians, but if you can get a hold of the New Laurel's Kitchen, or the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, I prefer those, as they are a little less dated - unless you want to learn how to make nutritional yeast butter. My technique and knowledge of bread mostly come from those books, and if you want to learn more about baking with whole wheat, check them out!

This recipe includes yogurt and honey, but if you would like to skip those, you can sub an additional cup of water for the yogurt, and sugar for the honey, for a vegan bread. We'll just ignore the yeasties, I suppose.

Whole Wheat Yogurt Bread 
1/2 c warm water
2 t yeast
5 1/2 c whole wheat flour (I use stoneground organic, alternatively use a medium or coarsely ground flour)
2 t salt
2/3 c plain yogurt
1/4 c honey
1/4 c olive oil
1 c warm water 

Mix the yeast and the half cup of  warm water together until the yeast is all wet. Laurel's Kitchen says to make sure that every single grain is wet, but guys, be realistic. Be sure to stir your flour before your measure it, to make sure it isn't packed down - too much flour will make your bread rock-like. In a large bowl (the dough will double in size), mix the flour and salt. Then use your spoon to kind of scoop the flour up the sides of the bowl to form a well in the center. Into the well, add the yogurt, honey, olive oil, cup of warm water, and the yeast and water mixture.

Stir from the middle out, until almost all of the flour is incorporated - you will know when to stop, because it gets harder to stir. Now for the lazing! Cover your bowl with a damp towel and let it sit for half an hour. This is to allow the flour to absorb the water and make the dough easier to handle.


After half an hour is up, we knead. Kneading is a sort of art form. Knead too much, your gluten comes undone. Knead too little, and we're back to rock loaves. I started out kneading by hand, but I have an old wrist injury that makes kneading pretty painful, so I now use a food processor to do the work for me.

I slaved over this food processor all day for you.

Kneading by hand is basically the process of pushing, punching, and folding the dough against a counter. This activates the gluten, which makes the bread soft, chewy, and high rising. Your dough may start off a little sticky, but try not to add too much flour during kneading. Putting a little olive oil on your hands will help with this problem. About half way through the kneading process, the dough will stop being sticky, and start getting soft and springy. This is good, but it doesn't mean you are done. I knead by hand for about ten more minutes after the dough hits this point, but it could take you a little more or less time, depending on your strength and, uh ... vigor. When your dough is ready, it will feel very soft, springy, and stretchy. If it's not stretchy that means the gluten isn't developed, so keep kneading until it is.

Only the bottom portion of dough has been kneaded.

The hard part is over. Really! Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let it rise. The rising time depends on the temperature of your kitchen. Hotter = a faster rise. Ideal temperatures are between 60 and 90 degrees F. At 60 degrees the dough could take up to four hours for the first rise, at 90, as little as an hour and a half. You can speed it along by putting the dough in the oven with the light on, but! The bread will taste better, and keep better, if you let it take its sweet time! You will know the dough is ready to punch down when you poke it, and the hole you make stays, and does not  start filling back in. If it does start filling back in, you need to wait a bit longer.

Twice poked dough. See how the poke on the right filled in, but the poke on the left stayed?

Punch the dough down and form it back into a ball. Let it rise a second time. This usually takes only about half as long as the first rise. So if your kitchen is around 60 degrees, and it took four hours for the first rise, assume it will take another two hours for the second rise.

After applying the highly scientific and accurate finger poke test, and determining that your dough is again ready to punch down, you are ready to shape the loaves. Now is the time to preheat the oven to 400F. This recipe makes two loaves. I like to make one free form and one rectangular pan loaf ... also I only have one loaf pan. To shape, divide the dough in half,  and flatten half into a circle. For a round loaf, fold the edges of the circle into the middle and then turn it upside down, and use your hands to form it into a ball. For a rectangular pan loaf, flatten the dough into a vaguely rectangular shape, roll it up and pinch the edges together. Make sure the seam where you pinched the dough together is on the bottom when you put the dough in the pan to rise.

Let it rise one final time - this time will only take half an hour to an hour. When the dough has about doubled, or is at the top of your loaf pan, slash the top with whatever pattern you like, just try not to cut too deep - only about 1/4 of an inch. Turn the oven down to 375F and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. How do you know when the bread is done? It should have risen a little more in the oven, have a brown, crispy crust, and sound hollow when you thump on the bottom of the loaf.

Two delicious loaves of bread.
 I usually make one raisin and one plain loaf. To make raisin bread, just knead in the raisins and other goodies before shaping. I like to add raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, and sometimes a little molasses. You can switch this up all kinds of ways with pretty much any kind of dried fruit  and / or nut variation. For the raisin haters I recommend cranberry walnut.

For comparison, here are my first two loaves ever. I can now tell you from my long months of baking expertise, that these were under-kneaded, and underproofed (I didn't let them rise long enough), and thus dense and crumbly.
 Your first loaves of bread will probably not be perfect - mine certainly weren't! But they will almost certainly taste good, and you will only get better from here. Also nothing smells as nice as baking bread, so ditch the febreeze and get baking!

This recipe was adapted from the "Yogurt Bread" recipe from The New Laurel's Kitchen.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, Paige. Light-hearted and instructive, it is a fun read. Thanks. :-)