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The Fundamentals of Bread Baking

February 22nd, 2012 Cooking

Have you always wanted to bake your own bread but figured the process was too complicated for your poorly-outfitted kitchen? While you may not be able to immediately jump into creating amazing artisanal delights, baking a simple loaf of bread is actually a relatively simple process, requires only a few basic ingredients you can find at any grocery store and doesn't need any special equipment whatsoever. According to The Fresh Loaf, learning the fundamentals of bread baking will allow you to understand most of what more complicated recipes call for.

On the most basic level, a loaf of bread requires four things: flour, water, yeast and salt.

1. Flour. Although you may be intimidated by the sheer variety of flour out there, know that your generic all-purpose brand is usually enough to bake a downright tasty loaf of bread. Flour is what your bread is mostly going to be made from. Think of it as the substance on which the remaining three ingredients act.

2. Water. Water serves a few purposes in bread baking - perhaps most importantly, it activates the yeast and is something into which you can dissolve the other ingredients. It's important to ensure you use the right amount of water - too much can result in a large, sticky bread while too little can give you a tight, dry, almost stale loaf.

3. Yeast. Yeast is what causes your bread to rise. Without it, the dough will stay flat and won't have the same light, pillowy texture that you may associate with a good loaf of bread. You can find a basic yeast at most grocery stores, but be sure to check the back of the packet. If it's active dry yeast, you will need to activate it with warm water before adding it to the dough.

4. Salt. Basic table salt works just fine. Essentially, it slows down the yeast and makes sure your dough doesn't rise too much. Salt also adds flavor! Try making bread without it - even if it rises correctly, it likely won't have much taste at all.

When making a basic loaf of bread, you combine all of the ingredients into a bowl, mix them together and knead the dough for 10 or 15 minutes. Then, you allow it to rise (which takes between 45 minutes and an hour). You can optionally punch it down and allow the dough to rise again, or pop it in the oven, where it will bake for another hour or so.

If you're ready to get started, the New York Times has a recipe for a nice, simple crusty loaf of bread that's a great introduction to the art. It takes about 45 minutes of active time on your part, plus three hours for baking and cooling. This recipe should yield four loaves.

Ingredients
1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Cornmeal

First, mix the yeast and salt into three cups of lukewarm water. Once combined, stir in the flour until there are no dry patches left - your dough should be fairly loose at this point. Cover the bowl with a towel and allow it to rise for about two hours.

At this point your dough is ready to bake! Cut off a chunk about the size of a grapefruit and knead it until it resembles an ovular loaf of bread. Place it on a greased loaf pan (or the back of a cookie sheet) and allow to rest for about 45 minutes. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and place the pan on the middle rack. Bake for about half an hour, remove and allow to cool completely.