Bread-Baking Basics

Yes, You Can

The ingredients for almost all bread making are nothing special and are pretty much the same from recipe to recipe: flour, leavening (baking powder, baking soda, or yeast), water (or other liquid), salt, and sometimes fat or other ingredients for added flavor. As in other chapters, the recipes here build from simplest to most difficult, but really: These breads are easy enough for a complete beginner.


Flour Fundamentals

All different kinds of flour are increasingly available in both natural food and regular grocery stores, ground from grains like rye, buckwheat, rice, and spelt. But when you’re starting out, it’s best to stick with the basics, and the recipes in this chapter work best with the flours detailed here:

All-Purpose Flour Made with wheat kernels milled so that the dark germ and bran is removed, creating a creamy-colored flour. (Bleached flour is bright white, but there’s no reason to buy it.) It gets the name for good reason: You can use it in everything.

Cake (or Pastry) Flour With lower protein than all-purpose flour and a finer texture, this helps make many biscuit, cake, and cookie recipes become light and delicate. (Beware: Their doughs and batters are fragile.)

Bread Flour With more protein than all-purpose flour, this makes yeast breads more elastic, chewy, and crusty than those made with all purpose flour. Not essential, but useful.

Whole Wheat Flour
Milled (preferably stone ground) from whole wheat including the bran and germ, so it has more fiber, a denser texture, and a nuttier flavor than white flour. You can substitute up to 50 percent whole wheat for white flour in most recipes and the results will be good. Buy all-purpose whole wheat for bread and whole wheat pastry flour for cakes and cookies.

Cornmeal Made from dried corn kernels and available in fine, medium, and coarse ground (in white or yellow, sometimes even blue; all are interchangeable). Look for medium stone-ground cornmeal (if it’s just labeled stone-ground cornmeal, that’s it), which tastes better and is more nutritious than steel-ground cornmeal.

The magic ingredients that make dough rise and give it its appealing light texture. They work by generating carbon dioxide, which is in turn trapped by the structure formed by mixing flour and liquid into a batter or dough. Simple enough, right? There are some easy-to-understand differences among types of leavening:

    Chemical leavening, like baking soda and baking powder, is used in quick breads, pancakes, waffles, cakes, and cookies. The reaction that makes the batter rise begins upon mixing, so the batter or dough must be baked right away. The results are tender and crumbly insides, not sturdy and chewy like yeast breads.

   Yeast is a living organism (a fungus, actually), and breads made with it can vary from ultra-tender to super-tough. Yeast takes time to activate after you mix it into a dough (it’s actually multiplying, by feeding on the flour), so recipes that call for it take a while. (Thus they’re not “quick” breads!)

Here are more details:
Baking Soda An alkaline compound—sodium bicarbonate—that reacts when combined with an acidic liquid, like buttermilk, yogurt, vinegar, or lemon juice.

Baking Powder
Baking soda mixed with a dry acidic ingredient, so it’s activated by any liquid at all.

Instant Yeast Also called rapid-rise or quick-rising yeast, this convenient powdered yeast comes in individual pouches, large bags, or jars. It keeps almost indefinitely in the refrigerator and can be mixed right in with the dry ingredients. It’s the only yeast I use.

Active Dry Yeast Also available in small envelopes or in bulk and looks much like instant yeast. The difference—and this is big—is that active dry yeast must be mixed with warm (110°F) liquid to become active; that’s a step you can avoid as long as you use instant yeast, and that’s what I’m doing.

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