A lot of people are intimidated by bread; it has a certain mystique, and it’s easy to stress about it — especially if you watch the Great British Baking Show. But making a basic loaf of bread, one that is perfect for breakfast toast, lunch sandwiches, or served fresh from the oven with dinner, is very easy and straightforward. There are things you need to know, but none of it is a mystery.
Here’s a recipe for a basic, healthy, loaf of bread, that you can make in as little as two hours — and most of that is just watching it do its thing. Check out the notes for helpful information on how to make sure it goes right, as well as lots of suggestions for how to customize it to make it your own. I made a variation of this recipe every Sunday for years, and my kids still love it — it’s known as “Dad bread” in my house.
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 packet dry yeast (roughly 1 tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 cups bread flour, plus some extra for kneading
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons vital wheat gluten (Bob’s Red Mill brand works well, and can be found in most grocery stores)
- 1-2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Heat the water to 105 degrees Farenheit. Add the sugar and yeast, and stir until both are completely dissolved — about 60 seconds. Set aside for 5 minutes, after which you should see bubbles on top. If there are no bubbles after 10 minutes, throw it away and start again (this should rarely happen, but see the notes below if it is an issue for you).
In a large bowl combine the bread flour, whole wheat flour, gluten, and salt. Stir until evenly mixed.
Add the yeast mix and the oil. Mix until it comes together in a ball — the dough will be rough, lumpy, and sticky.
Spread some flour on a counter top; turn out the dough onto the counter top, lightly dust the top with flour, and knead it for about ten minutes, adding flour as necessary. You are done kneading when the dough is smooth, not sticky, and slowly springs back when you poke it with your finger.
Lightly spray the inside of a 9x5x3 bread pan with non-stick spray.
Shape the dough into a cylinder about 9 inches long (the length of the bread pan), and put the dough into the bread pan. Leave it cylinder-shaped on top.
Cut off about 12 inches of plastic wrap, lay it on the counter, and spray a 9×5 area with non-stick cooking spray. Cover the bread pan with the plastic wrap, sprayed-side down.
Put the pan in a warm place (70-90 degrees) until the dough doubles in size, about 45 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and move the oven rack to a middle setting so that there is at least 10 inches of clearance between the rack and the top of the oven..
Remove the plastic wrap. Using a chef’s knife, slice the top of the dough lengthwise, about 1/4 inch deep. Immediately put the pan in the preheated oven.
Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees.
Remove the pan from the oven, and immediately invert it to remove the loaf of bread. Allow to cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Notes and tips:
- Here’s the quick science primer on bread: Yeast eats sugar and creates flavor and gas. The flavor makes your bread tasty; the gas makes it rise. Mixing wheat flour with water makes gluten strands, which create a web structure inside your bread dough that traps and holds the gas released by the yeast. Your dough will keep rising until either it runs out of sugar for the yeast to eat, the dough isn’t strong enough to hold any more gas, or the yeast is killed off by baking the dough.
- You don’t have to do this all by hand. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, that will do an excellent job of the mixing and kneading. I often use a bread machine to do the messy parts: mixing and kneading. I don’t like the way that bread machines shape or bake the bread, though, so I remove the dough after it’s kneaded and do the rest by hand. Cooks will tell you that the cardinal rule is “work smarter, not harder.” There is no shame in letting a machine do a laborious job for you, especially if it will do it faster and/or better than you — and free you up to do other things in your kitchen.
- Don’t worry about getting the proportion of flour to water exactly right. This is not an exact science, and the right proportion will vary from loaf to loaf based upon all sorts of factors, many of which you can’t control: the quality of your flour, room temperature, air humidity, and other things. The way we get dough right is by starting with it just slightly too wet and adjusting it by adding flour a small amount at a time. Remember, it’s easy to add flour to dough; it’s much more difficult to add water. That’s why we initially mix it too wet, and add flour as we knead until it’s the right balance.
- If you either don’t have or don’t like non-stick cooking spray, you can use olive oil instead: pour some onto a paper towel and then wipe down the surface with it.
- The step at the beginning where you mix the yeast and sugar into warm water is called “proofing” the yeast — literally proving that your yeast is alive and active. In olden days yeast could be pretty unreliable stuff. These days it’s mostly foolproof as long as it isn’t too old. Pro tip: if you’re having trouble proofing your yeast, it’s probably the water, not the yeast. If the water is too cold, the yeast won’t wake up; if it’s too hot, you can kill the yeast. The optimal water temperature for proofing yeast is between 100 and 110 degrees F. It’s best to use a kitchen thermometer to check your water temperature before you add the yeast. If that still doesn’t solve the problem, it might be the water itself: yeast doesn’t like water that is tooo metallic, or too salty. Try using bottled water as a test; when I lived in Bellevue I had this problem and learned to keep a bottle of store-bought water around just for making bread.
- Every baker has their own style for kneading dough by hand. The only requirement is that you need to make sure you’re working all of the dough, and not just a portion of it. My standard technique: start with it in a rectangular lump, running lengthwise away from you; lift up the half closest to you, fold it over the other half, and use the heels of your hands to push it down and through. Then turn the dough 90 degrees and do it again. Repeat about a zillion times until the dough is done. Remember to keep your hands dusted with flour too. Pro tip: when you’re done, the easiest way to get the dough off your hands is to grab some flour and rub it between your hands and fingers — it dries out the bits of dough and they just fall off. Getting your hands wet just turns the dough on your hands into a big sticky mess.
- How quickly your dough rises depends on the ambient temperature in your kitchen. In deciding how long to let your bread rise, you are actually trading off two things: the amount of flavor developed, and the amount the bread rises. The longer the yeast gets to do its thing, the more flavorful your bread will be, but if it rises too much then the dough expands beyond its ability to sustain its shape and will collapse. Generally speaking, you want to aim for letting it rise enough to double in size. This is why many bread recipes tell you to “punch down” the bread and then do a second rise: you give the yeast extra time to make more flavor, without over-rising your bread. This recipe works well with a first rise of about 30 minutes in the mixing bowl (covered so it doesn’t dry out), a punch-down, then a second rise in the bread pan. But the recipe doesn’t require a second rise, and coming in under two hours from beginning to end is a big plus too. Alternatively, you can let the dough do a first rise overnight in a covered bowl in your refrigerator; it will rise much more slowly since the yeast doesn’t like the cold, but you will still get a lot of flavor development. If you try this approach, take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it come back up to room temperature before you punch it down, shape it and put it in the bread pan for its second rise.
- Oven temperature is really important, and most ovens’ built-in thermostat is off by as much as 30 degrees. It’s well worth it to buy an oven thermometer and check your oven temperature. Also, when you preheat your oven, let it sit at the desired temperature for 10 minutes to finish preheating before you start baking. When the thermostat or oven thermometer tells you that the oven is at the desired temperature, it’s telling you that the air in the oven is at that temperature. But your oven is truly preheated when the walls are also that temperature, and that takes a little longer. It makes a difference every time you open the oven door: if the air is hot but the walls are not, then all that hot air rushes out, the temperature drops quickly, and it takes a long time to come back to the right temperature again — throwing off your bake. Thoroughly preheated ovens are much more stable.
- Don’t let the bread cool in the bread pan; tip it out as soon as you take it out of the oven and let it cool on a rack. If you leave it in the pan, then the trapped steam will make the sides and bottom of your bread soggy as it cools.
- You can modify this recipe in all sorts of ways, starting with the flour. You can make it with all bread flour (or all-purpose flour); or all whole-wheat flour, or any mix in between so long as it adds up to 4 cups. But keep in mind that whole wheat flour needs more water than white or bread flour, so you will need to adjust the amount of water up or down depending on the mix of flours that you use. Whole-wheat flour is also heavier and it doesn’t have enough gluten on its own to properly rise; that’s why this recipe adds vital wheat gluten. The rule is one tablespooon of gluten for every cup of whole-wheat flour in your dough; so add four tablespoons if you go all whole wheat; and none if you are using 100% bread flour.
- You can try other flours too, but making bread is tricky if you are using entirely gluten-free flours; you usually need some other kind of ingredient (e.g. eggs) to help give your dough enough strength to rise properly. Also, each kind flour will require a different amount of flour, so you may need to experiment a bit to get the balance right.
- You can substitute for the sugar, and I almost always do. Try 1 tablespoon of maple syrup, brown sugar, or molasses, or 2 tablespoons of honey (my favorite).
- Once you get comfortable with the basic “four cups of flour” recipe, try adding other ingredients. Pretty much anything goes: I’ve used herbs, parmesan cheese, garlic powder, 9-grain cereal, instant coffee, cocoa powder… get creative and have fun with it. Just be careful adding things that contain a lot of water, such as olives; it can throw off the water content of your dough.
- Have fun with this recipe. It has eight simple ingredients (six if you cut out the whole-wheat flour and gluten), and it quickly becomes second nature to make. Once you get the basics down, it’s almost foolproof and that makes it an easy base to play around with by swapping ingredients or adding other flavors.
- Making this recipe is worth it solely to watch how your family reacts as the aroma of baking bread permeates your house. It might even make them forget (or not care) that we’re all stuck at home.