The art of breadmaking isn't as difficult as many people believe. With a basic understanding of the ingredients and mastery of a simple recipe, you can create all sorts of breads, from savory to sweet. It takes time and patience, true, but not as much as you may think. I love yeast doughs because they are very forgiving. Unlike pie crust or other pastries, yeast breads love to be handled, shaped, stretched, punched, and kneaded. Breadmaking is a great outlet for frustration. Take it out on the dough, you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results.
So take the plunge, try making bread. Nothing beats the smell of baking bread, either.
Basic Bread (This recipe is hand-kneaded. If you have a heavy-duty mixer with a dough hook, you can use that. But be warned, it has to be heavy-duty. I've stripped gears on many cheaper mixers that just weren't able to handle the dough. Even if your mixer came with a dough hook, proceed with caution.)
2 c. warm water
1 T. yeast
3 T. sugar OR honey
The water should be about 100°, nice warm bathtub water. If it's too cold, the yeast won't activate. If it's too hot, you'll kill the yeast. If you have a thermometer, you can check, but I rarely bother. Yeast is forgiving, to a certain extent. The water should feel warm to your hands, but not hot. I usually use hot tap water.
Put the water into a 4-quart mixing bowl. Sprinkle yeast and sugar on top. Set aside for at least 10 minutes.
Note about yeast - I buy yeast in the big bags. Seal it in a freezer-weight ziploc bag or a tupperware-type container. It keeps in the fridge for at least 6 months or in the freezer for a year or two. If you bake a lot, you'll save plenty of money buying yeast in bulk. If you're still timid, you can buy the individual packets or the small bottles of yeast. 1 packet is equal to 1 teaspoon of yeast. You will need 3 packets for this recipe.
2 c. flour
2 t. salt
Your yeast should have "bloomed", which means the mix in the bowl should be foamy and look almost like milk. It should smell yeasty, strong and almost unpleasant. This is a good sign. It means your yeast is active and ready for the next step. If the yeast is still in the bottom of the bowl, either your water was too hot or too cold or your yeast is too old. Dump it out and repeat step 1.
If the yeast is nice and foamy, go ahead with step 2. Add the flour and salt. Beat with a spoon, a big wooden mixing spoon is ideal, until everything is well mixed. The dough should be gloopy and sticky. We aren't done yet. Keep beating until the mixture begins to form stretchy strings. It should take about 2 - 3 minutes with a mixer or about 5 by hand.
2 - 3 c. flour
Add another 2 c. flour. Work into the dough. When it gets too thick for the spoon, use your hands until it comes together into a soft dough. Sprinkle 1/2 c. flour onto a counter or sturdy, clean surface. Turn dough onto floured area. Knead - push heel of hand into dough, spreading and smushing it, turn 90°, fold dough in half, repeat. Keep doing this process until the dough is smooth and elastic. If dough is sticky, add flour 1/4 c. at a time. But BE CAREFUL! You don't want to add too much or your bread will be dry. It takes 5 - 10 minutes to really develop the gluten in the flour and make a nice chewy bread. The longer you knead, the chewier your bread will be.
Wash out the mixing bowl and dry. Spray inside with oil spray coating, just a light coat to keep the dough from sticking. Put the dough back in the bowl. Spray the top very lightly with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and set aside in a warm place. Let the dough rise until it is about double in size. This should take about one hour. If your kitchen is really warm, it will rise faster. If it is cold, it will take a lot longer.
To check the dough, press a finger into the top. If it springs back, give the dough another 10 minutes or so. If the dent remains, you're ready for the next step.
Punch down the dough. Don't be shy, slam it around for a minute. Squeeze the dough into two equal portions. Pinch together and roll each into a loaf shape. Lightly grease two regular size loaf pans. Drop dough loaves into pans. Cover and let rise again. This takes less time, usually about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375°. Let it get all the way to temperature. Set loaf pans on a rack in the center of the oven. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes. Loaf should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Remove loaves from pans and cool on wire rack. Wait at least 20 minutes before slicing. Hot bread does not cut very well. If you let it cool completely, it slices much better. But hot bread is really good, so dig in if you want. Just don't expect it to be pretty.
This is an art form all by itself. Try making French bread loaves by stretching out the dough and baking them on a cookie sheet. Pinch the dough into 36 balls and bake as rolls. Roll it out flat and make pizza. The variations are truly endless.
For a softer loaf, add 1/4 c. butter with the hot water.
For richer dough, add 1/2 c. powdered milk to hot water.
For egg bread, add 1 - 2 eggs with the flour. You may need to increase flour by 1/2 c. or so.
For healthier bread, replace half of the flour with whole wheat flour.
For sweet bread, increase sugar to 1/2 c.
For Italian pizza bread, add 1 T. Italian seasoning with the flour.
For Scandinavian sweet bread, add 1 t. ground cardamom with the flour.
Make sweet rolls, sandwich buns, raisin bread, pizza - whatever you can imagine. Bread is truly a versatile food.