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Nuts & Bolts: Bread Baking Essentials

Today we’re talking nuts and bolts. The essential tools and tricks that I’ve found make a certain kitchen task easier, or that ensure the desired results, every time.

We spent last weekend in Washington, D.C. with family. It was a whole lotta fun, both sight-seeing in our nation’s capital and getting to know family that neither I or Baby Cousin Alycia had ever seen much of.

On Friday night, we went to eat at Nando’s, which just happens to be James’s favorite restaurant in the entire universe. While this Portuguese meets African grilled chicken chain is on nearly every street corner in London, here in the U.S., they only have locations in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

Dear Nando’s: New Jersey needs you. Specifically, Scotch Plains, New Jersey needs you. But we’ll take anything in a 30 minute driving radius. Please and thank you.

But this post isn’t really about chicken, or even Washington, D.C., really. Other than to say that when I mentioned to my aunt that I bake our weekly bread, the look on her face was priceless.

I assure you, folks: I’m not some crazy everything-must-be-homemade food Nazi. I’m the first one to order a pizza instead of making it (for me, pizza is about convenience on a random Monday night, not much else) or suggest going out for a meal. While I can and do often make my own pizza dough, I still find value in letting others do it for me too.

But when it comes to our weekly bread, I feel like I’ve finally cracked every nuance of making the perfect sandwich bread. I know exactly what goes into it, there are no preservatives, and as long as we keep it in the refrigerator, it lasts as long as store-bought bread.

Not to mention the taste. THE TASTE. Freshly made bread, be it white, whole wheat, or white whole wheat, is entirely different to that of bread made several states away in a factory. At roughly 23 cents a loaf, I kinda think it’s worth my time. And yours too.

The essentials of bread baking in my kitchen are as follows:

Good Quality Flour
A large bowl,
preferably metal or ceramic
A Dough Whisk
Good Yeast
A Pullman Loaf Pan

Flour is important.

No matter what you’re baking, if you want consistency in your results, you need to choose a flour that has a consistent protein content. The only company I know of that guarantees that protein content is King Arthur Flour.

Knowing that you’re going to get the same results every time you bake bread is priceless. King Arthur Flour is available in most stores, on their website, and even at Wal-Mart, where it is often times cheaper than more well known brands, at least in my experience. For guaranteed results, it’s worth searching them out.

Yeast – yummy little friends!

Yeast is indeed, a living thing. Yeast is what gives bread its rise, and its flavor. You don’t have to buy big sacks of it like in the photo, or even from King Arthur Flour (where I get mine). But I thought I would show you what I use. I keep it in a ziptop bag in my refrigerator, and it’s super easy to measure and see how much I have at a glance.

However, KAF says:
“WHY WE LOVE IT: SAF is easy to use (no proofing or pre-dissolving); it’s fast-acting and long-lasting, continuing to work for hours longer than “rapid” yeast. It’s absolutely reliable. AND it costs 75% LESS than supermarket active dry yeast. ‘Nuff said.

Never add water to yeast that’s above about 120F. 120F will start to kill it, resulting in an unhappy rise. At 140F it dies instantly, which means your baked good won’t rise at all. Keep in mind that boiling water has a temperature of 212F. That means the water you use in a baked good might need to be a lot cooler than you previously thought.

Having the right tools is key.

Starting out with the tools that make your task easy is, for me, half the battle. You’ll notice that a breadmaker is not in my list of essential tools. I used to think bread was way too hard, and I’d never make yeast bread without one.

Now, I’d never give up the process of kneading my own dough to a breadmaker! That’s like letting someone else use your spa gift certificate. Kneading bread dough is one of the most zen, relaxing experiences I can think of. Plus, I find that I get a much better crumb and tight loaf than a breadmaker can ever accomplish, with the right tools.

I mix my dough and let it rise in the same bowl. After I’ve turned out the dough, but before I’ve started to knead it, I re-wash my favorite metal bowl, and spray it with cooking spray. Then I’m ready to return the dough to its favorite spot once it’s silky smooth and ready to rise.

The first time I used a dough whisk was at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center. Heck, the first time I’d SEEN one was there. I believe most of us in the class were befuddled at first by this curly-cue utensil. Susan, our instructor at that moment, said, “Just try it. You’ll get it.”

She was absolutely right. Dough whisks mix yeast dough perfectly without much sticking. You’re less likely to overmix because the dough whisk works through the flour and liquid so well, combining them easily. And it’s nice not to cover my hands in sticky dough right at the start of my baking session.

Want square bread slices? Bake it in a square bread pan!

This tip might seem a little obvious. But until I clocked the Pullman or Pain de Mie pan on King Arthur Flour’s blog, as much as I love baking our sandwich bread, I didn’t always love the uneven slices that resulted from the rounded top loaves I baked.

When I saw that square shaped pan that includes a lid to keep the top of the bread perfectly square and even too, a lightbulb went on. Make sure that you purchase a Pullman Loaf Pan with a lid, and you’ll get a perfectly square, perfectly browned on all sides loaf of bread.

Baking bread is super easy. I promise.

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Monday 12th of December 2011

Those breads looks delicious. It's been a while since I've baked bread but will definitely go straight to my kitchen tonight.

Jamie | My Baking Addiction

Thursday 8th of December 2011

Love this post, Amber! Oh, and I'm totally buying that square pan - perfect for the OCD in me!

Rachel @ Not Rachael Ray

Thursday 8th of December 2011

Helpful post! I love that square loaf of bread...might be adding that to my Christmas list!


Wednesday 7th of December 2011

I think the bread pan and dough whisk will soon come to my house. Thanks for the tips!

Jenny G

Tuesday 6th of December 2011

I''ve always wanted to make bread and now I think I can.


Tuesday 6th of December 2011

Jenny, I KNOW you can do it! Feel free to email me if you need help along the way. Amber at bluebonnets and brownies dot com.