I love going to schools and teaching baking as science – particularly bread. We make batches of sandwich bread, varying the amount of yeast. As they’re rising, we make batches of soda bread and vary the amount of baking soda. While the soda bread bakes, we watch the sandwich bread rise, and I get to explain the chemical processes that make each bread delicious: the simple chemical reaction with the baking soda that releases carbon dioxide, the more complex process with yeast that yields the same result, the fact that the yeast also eats sugars in the flour and releases additional chemicals that give yeast breads their distinctive flavor. And then there’s gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt that gives bread its stretchy, springy texture. Students are always fascinated by this. Who knew how complicated bread could be?
And yet, for all that, knowing the precise scientific processes that produce tasty bread, I find there’s also an art to making bread. You adjust the amount of flour you add to account for the humidity of the air. You knead it to line up the strands of gluten so that they trap bubbles of carbon dioxide. Too little kneading, and you get flat, shapeless bread. Too much, and you can exhaust the dough, making it tough and chewy. You gluten cloak it, stretching a flat layer around the loaf, to give it a nice crust. You add water to the oven to make that crust crispy. And kneading dough is deeply therapeutic and satisfying. This is the alchemy of cooking, the small, unquantifiable details you add to make it more that mere bread. I love the challenge of it, to balance all the elements of the recipe to produce a delicious work of art.
This is the most basic recipe for bread I know. You can easily double it or halve it. I have bad wrists, so I knead my dough in a stand mixer, and I know it’s ready when the dough just pulls away from the sides of the bowl and peels neatly off the dough hook.
White Sandwich Bread
1-1/2 Tablespoons instant yeast
1-1/2 Tablespoons salt
3 cups lukewarm water
6.5 cups flour (bread flour is best, but all-purpose will work as well)
Combine the yeast, water, and salt, then add the flour and combine. If it’s a rainy or humid day, you may need to add as much as a cup of extra flour. Knead the dough by hand on a floured board or in a stand mixer with a dough hook until the dough just ceases to stick to anything and becomes a smooth ball. Place in a container and cover but DO NOT seal. Let rise for two hours.
While the dough rises, prepare two loaf pans by coating with butter or spraying with a neutral-flavored oil such as canola or sunflower oil. When the dough has risen, cut it in half. Gluten cloak each loaf by shaping into a rough ball and stretching the surface of the dough from top to bottom and side to side, tucking the ends underneath. Lay the loaves in their pans and allow to rise another 40 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the bottom of a broiler pan on the bottom rack and place another rack in the center of the oven. When the loaves have risen, slash them three or four times across the top. Place on the center rack of the oven. Pour one cup of water into the broiler pan CAREFULLY. Watch out for sudden steam. If you prefer a softer crust, you may omit the water and brush the tops of the loaves with melted butter or oil.
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Turn them out onto a cooling rack immediately or condensate will form inside the loaf pan and make the loaves soggy. Wait ten minutes or so until the loaves have cooled a bit before slicing.
For a healthier version of this, you may replace up to half of the flour with whole wheat flour. I like to replace one cup with whole wheat and one cup with rye for a rich, complex flavor.
For a more complicated, enriched bread, see my recipe for Molletes.
For even more recipes, pre-order my new novel, A Pixie’s Promise.