What I’ve learned about bread baking this winter

As I have mentioned, this endless record-breaking winter has had us encased in snow and ice – picture the White Wall guarded by the Knight’s Watch on Game of  Thrones.  This has awakened my cocooning instincts big-time, with freshly baked loaves out of the oven every two or three days.

I’ve learned a few things that have made this easier, more economical, and more successful:

  1. Use SAF Instant Yeast and buy it in at least the 1 lb package from Amazon.  This is what the professionals use.  It produces a quick rise, removes the need to proof the yeast separately from your dry ingredients – just add it to the flour – and it will keep fresh indefinitely in a tightly sealed ziploc bag in your freezer. Just spoon out what you need and put the rest back in the freezer.  Way more economical than those ridiculous 3-packet envelopes at the supermarket.  The 1 lb package goes for about $7.50.  And if you’re really into it, the 2 lb is about $11.  Check it out http://www.amazon.com/Saf-Instant-Yeast-Pound-Pouch/dp/B0001CXUHW
  2. You can use all-purpose flour in lieu of bread flour if you also keep a box of Vital Wheat Gluten on hand.  Definitely not for those observing a gluten-free diet, but 1 tsp per cup of AP flour is all you need to restore the texture and rise you’d get from bread flour.
  3. If you have a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer (or other brand), use it with the paddle attachment to gently stir your dough ingredients together, and then use the dough hook instead of your arm strength to do the kneading.
  4. Bake your big round loaves in a Dutch oven.  Honestly, this is the key to producing an artisan loaf without the fuss of water-spritzing or using a water-filled baking pan under your baking sheet.  30 minutes covered, 25 minutes uncovered, all at 400 degrees – has worked for me every time.  But if you use this method…
  5. …then buy a roll of parchment paper.  Put your shaped loaf on it before the final rise and transfer it in the parchment to your Dutch oven.  Otherwise, it will be impossible getting that loaf out cleanly and you’ll lose your bottom crust.  Trust me from a lesson learned the hard way.
  6. If you’re adventurous about trying multigrain breads, realize that whole wheat and whole grain flours need lots of encouragement to rise.  That calls for more of that Vital Wheat Gluten than you’d use with simply all-purpose white flour – 1-1/2 tsp per cup for that other flour.  And give it plenty of time to rise or your loaf will be puny and dense (another lesson learned)
  7. Pizza dough made with some semolina flour will produce a chewy rising crust that’s so much better than those limpid crusts that turn soggy under a mound of sauce, cheese, and toppings.  And no need for a pizza stone – I use a sturdy Wilton baking sheet with a rim on one side (for easy grabbing) and press the dough out into one giant somewhat rectangular crust.
  8. You can make the most gorgeous 6-braid challah by dividing challah dough into two portions, one almost twice as large as the other.  Then roll out your ‘snakes’ to be braided into two loaves and place the smaller one atop the larger for final rise and baking.  A bit of egg wash lightly brushed atop the larger loaf will help keep the top one from sliding askew, and you’ll get a loaf that looks like thisIMG_0254
  9. Seeds – sesame, poppy, caraway, flax, sunflower – they all taste great in your bread and look lovely on top.  Buy them in bulk at a health foods store or online source – never in those small spice jars.

Time to go check on that focaccia dough that’s rising. Right now it looks like thisIMG_0309 Hope this has been helpful.

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