Homemade Bread: 1 Year
Have you hopped on the quarantine bread train yet? I feel like everyone and their brother is making bread at home these days, if not for sustenance then certainly to break up the monotony of long days at home. And why not? Bread is cheap, relatively foolproof, and pretty therapeutic to make.
In the past year, I’ve started making my own sandwich bread, partially out of curiosity and partly out of necessity. When Kyle and I lived in Clarksville, TN, I got used to buying a tender white boule loaf from our local Publix – great for grilled cheese and really any type of sandwich. But when we moved, I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted anywhere, so I decided to try and replicate it at home with a recipe I found (where else?) on Pinterest.
Since it’s been about a year since I first started making this particular bread at home, I thought I’d do a recap of what I’ve learned in that time. Maybe if you’re a beginner like me, you’ll learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself!
The best tip I’ve learned for bread dough has been “wetter is better”, which applies to all stages – from the mixing and kneading to the resting and even baking. When the dough is moister, that will give you a more tender crust, and a deeper, more even browning of the crust while it’s baking. If the dough dries out at any stage, it forms a tougher skin on the outside, which bakes into a hard, rigid crust. (This might be nice in some instances, but maybe not for bread you want to use for sandwiches; it’ll rip the roof of your mouth off when you take a bite. Believe me. It hurts.)
This tip for keeping the dough more hydrated also solved a problem I’d been having recently of my crust “bursting” in the oven, even despite making score marks (which I’ll get to in a minute). Since I had been allowing my bread dough to rest overnight in the refrigerator, I believe it dried the dough out too much, and, when the loaf was baking, caused bursting.
So, we’ve addressed ensuring a moist dough, which is undoubtedly important, but a moist baking environment is equally important. If you can swing it, preheat your oven with a tray/dish of water on the rack beneath where your bread will be baking, thus creating steam and a moister environment for your bread to bake in. If you have a spritz bottle, fill it with water, and spritz the top of the loaf, AND the walls of your oven if you really want to make sure there’s enough steam in there to give your bread’s crust a burnished glow.
I’ve only been at this a year, so I haven’t experimented too much with scoring. Since I don’t have a bread lame (pronounced lah-MAY) to make those beautiful artwork crust designs, I’ve instead stuck to simple lines and crosshatches. However, the scores matter. Specifically, the direction of the score. Think of a baguette. You never see a long score mark running the length of the baguette; the marks are almost always made across the loaf the short way, on the bias. This allows the score marks to open, pushing the loaf into an even longer shape when baking, instead of pushing it outward from the long sides, which would give the loaf a bulbous middle.
This is another thing I learned the hard way. I couldn’t figure out why my loaves kept coming out of the oven oblong instead of as a nice round boule, the way I wanted them. And, spoiler, it was because I’d been scoring my loaves with three parallel lines. The loaves expanded perpendicular to the score marks, lengthening the loaf in only two directions. Now that I’ve switched to scoring the loaf in a crosshatch pattern (hashtag pattern, for the modern kids out there, or pound symbol, for the old-school kids), I’ve seen a marked improvement in the evenness of the loaves’ shapes. Since they expand outward from the score marks in all directions, the loaves come out of the oven in an even, round boule shape.
Proving, Storage, & Other Tips
The recipe I’ve been following has two rise methods: the first, which I’ve used most often (and achieved a tougher crust that often burst in the oven, regardless of the width of the score marks I made, or the presence of steam in the oven) is the overnight rise, where the dough rises, covered, in the fridge. Cold slows yeast activity, so the rising can happen very slowly over a much longer period of time than the second method, which is the same-day bake. With this method, you mix the dough, allow it to rise, “punch” it down, and allow it to rise a second time before baking it on the same day you started it. In my experience, this second method has led to a much more visually and flavorfully appealing loaf, but the first method is still great if you’re short on time or have to split the baking between a couple of days for whatever reason.
You can both over-knead and over-proof your bread dough. It’s next to impossible to over-knead if you are kneading by hand, but if you’re like me and you’re using your stand mixer with the dough hook, you can easily over-knead if you’re not watching closely. By hand, the recipe I use will produce a ball of dough that takes about 10 minutes to knead by hand. For my mixer, I’ve found that, though the recipe calls for kneading for anywhere from 5-8 minutes, on my mixer at a medium speed (which is a level 4 on my machine) it should only take about 4 minutes to get your dough to the place it needs to be to be ready for proving. To test if your dough is ready, all you have to do is pinch off a ping-pong ball-sized ball of dough, and, using your thumbs and the knuckles of your forefingers, stretch and rotate the dough to form a “windowpane”. If you can see light from a window/light showing through, and the dough doesn’t pull/break apart as you’re watching it, your dough is ready to proof. As for over-proving, this can happen if you leave your dough too long during a rise stage. It gives the dough a kind of sour smell, contributes to an unappetizingly dense or irregular crumb (crumb = the size and pattern of the bubbles in your finished loaf), and can give your bread an extremely tough crust. Yes, I’ve been there. If you’re letting your dough triple or quadruple in size during proving instead of just doubling in size, you’re almost certainly over-proving. Knock it off.
The kind of bread that I’ve been making for about a year is a plain white loaf. It’s simple and tasty and lends itself perfectly to sandwiches – especially hot, pressed sandwiches or grilled cheese. However, since it’s homemade and we don’t have the types of preservatives that allows bread to stay fresh (or looking fresh) and mold-free like some factory bakeries do, we have to rely on other means to extend the lives of our loaves if we want them to last longer than a few days. I haven’t actually bothered trying to leave a loaf out on the counter for several days to see how long it takes to mold because, well, that’s wasteful, but I would guess that it would take 2-3 days for the bread to begin to get stale or moldy on the countertop, especially if it was stored in plastic. But I haven’t tried this. Instead, right from the time I made my first loaf of homemade bread, I’ve stored any leftovers in the freezer. For a loaf like this, I let it cool, slice it, and pack it in a gallon sized Ziploc bag in the freezer, labeled with the date it was baked. (Still on the lookout for a method that doesn’t involve using plastic bags - am tentatively looking forward to trying a linen bread bag - will report back when I find one that works.)
To use the frozen sliced bread, just toast a couple slices at a time whenever you want bread. Let me assure you, this freezer storage method does not lower the quality of the bread in any way. I think it really helps maintain that fresh-baked essence more than storing it on the counter could ever do. And since we don’t eat a ton of bread in my house, we can usually stretch one loaf of this bread for about 3 weeks for two adults. We enjoy it with butter and jam, peanut butter and seeds and honey, with runny eggs, with homemade pesto (THE BEST), as sandwiches*, and the recipe can easily make a loaf that's the perfect vehicle for pull-apart cheesy garlic bread to bring to your next potluck (if potlucks are still a thing after all this). I also save the heels to make my own Italian breadcrumbs, but that’s another blog post. *Toasting the bread you make your sandwiches with also provides a sturdier base for wet ingredients or condiments – meaning your sandwich will hold up a lot better, and won’t be so soggy and mushy in, say, a bag lunch, when you go to eat your sandwich hours later. But that’s something I learned making sandwiches for a bunch of younger siblings during our school days, not from any mystic bread-baking enlightenment.
The recipe I use calls for a baking stone. If you, like I, do not have a baking stone or equivalent, just do as the recipe suggests and use two baking sheets stacked on top of each other. I’ve never had a problem with this. Oh, and if you don’t have a pizza peel? Which… I don’t think I know anyone who does unless they own a restaurant? Just use the flat side of a cutting board (i.e., the back side, so any edge grooves don’t get in the way of sliding) dusted with a little flour. Lay your loaf baby out on this makeshift pizza peel and give it a jiggle or two to make sure the dough doesn’t stick, and will slide right off the board onto your baking stone (or sheet) in the oven.
There you go, some of the best tips and lessons I've learned over a year of making my own bread. Of course, I'm just a beginner, so things like baking stones, lames, hydration percentages, and all those other advanced elements of bread baking will have to wait till I have a couple more years of bread-bakery under my belt.
Do you ever make your own bread? Do you have any bread-making tips or hacks that I missed mentioning? I’d love to hear about your own baking experiences! Thanks for reading!