Everything You Need to Know to Start Baking Awesome Bread

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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Hi everyone, and welcome to the bread-baking club. Think of this as a safe space, committed to talking about—and demystifying—your breads and doughs. It's a vast world with a whole lot of potential for experimentation, but the root of the problem is this: Yeast, mysterious and giving, seems to scare the crap out of people.

This kneads to end! (Please don't stop reading. I had to, just this once). But in all seriousness, why should it be so scary? People started making bread a long time ago, before computers, bicycles, and shrink-wrapping existed. Our grandparents knew how to make it, and theirs too. Bread is one of humanity's oldest crafted foods, after all, and making great bread for yourself isn't just possible, it's often relaxing and delicious...plus it just so happens to keep your apartment nice and toasty come wintertime.*

*This is not an endorsement of using your oven to heat your home, which would be bad. Please don't do that.

Our goal is to break down some of the basics of the techniques, chemistry, and superstition behind great bread, and make the whole idea of getting your hands in some dough a little less intimidating. This column isn't about baking the right way so much as it is about acquiring the fundamental skills and know-how to bake phenomenal bread your way.

The Basics of Baking Bread at Home

I want to start with a look at the four major stages of bread baking that we're going to be working with throughout this series:

  • Mixing: That thing we do when we take our raw ingredients—in this case flour, water, salt, and yeast—and combine them into dough.
  • Proofing and shaping: Proofing is about letting the yeast eat up the sugars from the flour, and burp out gas and alcohol, which makes the bread rise and gives it a nice flavor. As bakers, proofing is about nurturing and caring for the dough, little-engine-that-could that it is. When shaping, we teach the dough what we want it to look like when it's a full-grown, fully baked loaf of bread.
  • Baking: We start by stabbing the dough we've nurtured and loved, usually several times, and then fling it into a screaming hot oven. Fire, brimstone, and Maillard reactions galore! What comes out of the oven should be airy, crusty, and delicious.
  • Storing/eating: Eat the bread. We made it, we deserve it. Are you going to try not to eat the whole fresh loaf right away, slathered in butter? Well fine, be that way. We'll talk about storage.

These pillars are going to be our template, and as we work through bread formulas together, they're all going to fit roughly into this framework, or we're going to demand to see their hall-passes. Along the way we're going to talk about some of the vocabulary bakers use to talk to each other in the wee hours of the morning. WTF is a bread formula and who-the-sh*t is proofing? You'll know the ins and outs soon enough.

And speaking of formulas, our first formula is going to be our workhorse: a tasty, crusty, airy, middle-of-the-road loaf that's so versatile you can shove seeds into it or make it into a rye. This bread is delicious as-is, and it'll be a great starting point for trying out your own ideas, making pan loaves or hearth loaves, French toast, bread crumbs, garlic bread, or a classic PB&J.

The Workhorse Loaf: An Introduction

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The Workhorse loaf is white bread done plain and simple, with no frills. The following, four-ingredient formula (you can catch the full recipe instructions here) yields two crusty hearth loaves with a nice, open crumb. It uses all white flour, and only calls for commercial yeast...for now. We'll get into the weird stuff in later posts.

  • All Purpose Flour: 1000 g (100%)
  • Water: 700 g (70%)
  • Salt: 22 g (2.2%)
  • Yeast: 10g (1%) if using fresh; 5g (.5%) if using active dry yeast; 4g (.4%) if using instant
  • Total Dough Weight: 1732g (173.2%)

But before we start baking, what is a formula? Is it the same as a recipe? Almost. It's like a recipe, but it's based on ratios (the percentages listed next to our weights above), not finite amounts. Why is this helpful? It's important for two main reasons. First, it makes scaling a recipe up or down really easy. Some days at work, I need to make two loaves of this bread; some days I might need a dozen. Memorizing the ratios in a formula allows me to easily make the amount of bread I want. Second, if we think of bread recipes in ratios, as formulas, it makes it easier to compare different kinds of bread with each other based on how much of each ingredient is present relative to the others—regardless of how many loaves we're making at once. As we get more practice looking at these ratios, it will allow us to alter a bread's formula to achieve certain qualities in the bread. It will also allow us to look at new formulas and have an idea of what it should feel and look like as we move through the process, before we even start baking. That means fewer failed experiments.

And that's just about all you need to get started—though the rest of our bread-making series will help you troubleshoot along the way. Well, that and some essential bread-baking equipment, including a stand mixer, bench scraper, and some kind of oven-safe, lidded dish to bake it in.