The most useful reference books I've come across are The Italian Baker by Carol Field (published by Harper & Row), Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish (published by Ten Speed Press), Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson (published by Chronicle Books), Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book - A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking by Laurel Robertson with Carol Flinders & Bronwen Godfrey (published by Random House NY), and Artisan Baking Across America: The Breads, The Bakers, The Best Recipes by Maggie Glezer (published by Artisan Publishers)
A note about machines (or lack thereof): I do all of our bread preparation by hand. This is mostly because we don't have a mixer (nor the counterspace for one). But there is something very satisfying about doing everything by hand. There is the added bonus that it is almost impossible to overknead by hand. (I gather from reading that the parts of machines can heat the dough as it is being machine-kneaded and can cause overkneading. Most bread baking books make provisions about this and offer advice on how to use machines while preparing the dough.) Having said all that, please note that I am not opposed to other people's use of machines for bread baking.
Here is the equipment that I use, with what I consider to be essential listed first.
Which leads to the following list of non-essentials for bread making:
I have added silicone bakeware to the list of "completely unecessary" because it tends to be floppy. It also holds onto odors. And I have a Silpat but am now leery about using it because it is a little damaged and I worry about the fiberglass mesh inside. It also smells....
Mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl. Mix wet ingredients in another bowl. Stir wet and dry together in as few strokes as possible.
Water: Sometimes tap water can have a lot of chlorine in it, especially during spring runoff times or after heavy rains. Apparently, the chlorine can be removed by boiling a kettle of water, pouring it into a jug and leaving it to stand uncovered overnight so that the chlorine dissipates. In the past, when our tapwater had a heavy chlorine smell, I used the jug water for preparing bread dough.
In October 2008, we installed a water filter on our tap and use filtered water directly from the tap.
Milk: Many bread recipes say to scald milk before adding it to the dough. This used to be necessary. However, the milk we buy is heat pasteurized which means the enzyme that hinders yeast from rising is already dealt with. Therefore, unless you are using unpasteurized milk, you needn't bother scalding the milk first.
Using natural yeast (aka wild yeast, levain, wild culture, sourdough): Making bread without using any commercial yeast is extremely rewarding and not terribly difficult, once you get the hang of planning ahead. It takes just five days to create a starter from scratch. All you need is a bowl, a plate, flour, water, and patience.
It was after reading "Cooked" by Michael Pollan, and "All You Knead is Bread" by Jane Mason that caused us to really embrace baking bread with wild yeast. (Emilie Raffa's book "Artisan Sourdough Made Simple" is also an excellent resource.) The flavour of wild bread really is superior to that of bread made with commercial yeast. It also seems less likely to get moldy or go stale.
Since July 2017, we have been using the same 100% whole wheat starter that took just five days to create. We store this culture in a Mason jar in the fridge where it has been happily bubbling away when not in use. To transform it from starter to leavener, we remove a small amount from the jar in the fridge and mix it with equal parts (by weight) of flour and water to make the leavener for bread.
I begin putting together the amount required for bread about 10 hours before mixing the dough. I take a small amount from the jar in the fridge and stir in equal parts (by weight) of 100% whole wheat flour and room temperature water. I stir a small portion of this mixture back into the jar for the fridge. The portion that is for the next batch of bread is left in a small bowl, covered with a plate, in the oven with only the light on. (In the heat of the summer, we don't turn on the oven light.) After 10 hours or so, we can tell that it's ready to be used to make bread when a small spoonful floats in a cool water. If a small portion of the leavener does not float, it is either a.) not ready, or b.) it is spent and needs to be fed. If the kitchen is cold, it's likely that it is not ready yet. If the kitchen is warm, it's likely that it needs to be fed. (In general, if the leavener doesn't float, we assume it is spent and we feed it.) I check that it floats, before proceeding. If it does not, I stir in small amounts (equal by weight - around 5 grams each) of flour and water. I check for floating about 30 minutes later. This usually does the trick.
I try to arrange things so that I am shaping the bread in the late afternoon. This way, the bread can be baked in the early evening and left to cool overnight on a footed rack.
We have also shaped bread in the evening, covered the shaped bread with a clean tea towel and put it into a large plastic grocery bag, leaving it on the counter for about an hour before putting it into the fridge overnight to bake it first thing the next morning. While this does work, we find it to be problematic - the bread sometimes over-rises even though it is in the fridge. It also takes up a lot of room....
Proofing commercial yeast: If we have not planned ahead to get our wild yeast ready in time, we use "active dry yeast" (because that's the kind of yeast Mum used). If I know that the yeast is viable, I don't bother to check it for foaming. I do rehydrate it though: in about ¼ c of body temperature water (I do the baby's bottle test on the back of my wrist). I stir it into the water with a miniature whisk til it is creamy looking. I then add it to the rest of the ingredients. However, T does not bother rehydrating dry yeast and adds it directly to the flour. His bread dough rises in exactly the same manner as bread dough that has been made with pre-rehydrated yeast.
Any extra water added should be generally at room temperature or body temperature. Under no circumstances should you use water from the hot water tap. Water from the hot water tap sits festering in your hot water tank, leaching copper, lead, zinc, solder, etc. etc from the tank walls... the higher temperature causes faster corrosion. Of course, saying that it is unsafe to use water from the hot water tap might be an urban myth, but why tempt fate? To get warm water, heat it in a kettle or microwave (if you have one - we don't...) and add cold water until it is the correct temperature (use the baby bottle test on the back of your wrist - your fingers have no idea of temperature!)
If there is any uncertainty that the yeast is viable, let the small bowl of rehydrated yeast sit on the counter before adding it to the rest of the ingredients. After about 15 minutes, the yeast and water mixture should be quite foamy - if it is not after a period of 20 minutes have passed, either the yeast is dead or the water was too hot or far too cold. Check the due date on your yeast container. If the date hasn't passed, try again.
Many older recipes say to add sugar to activate the yeast. This is entirely unnecessary. If you feel compelled to add anything, use a tiny sprinkle of flour - the yeast will feed on the natural sugars in the flour.
Stirring in the flour: After reading Chad Robertson's book "Tartine Bread", I began mixing and kneading in the bowl. It reduces the amount of stirring required and keeps the counters clean. I put all but ¼ c of the water or milk, oil (if called for), leavener and all the flour at once in the mixing bowl and stir it around quickly until all the flour has come in contact with the water. It looks very rough. I then cover the bowl with a plate and leave it for about ½ an hour. After that time, it's quite amazing how the dough has smoothed out. I then pour the rest of the water or milk on top of the dough and sprinkle on the salt. I then run one hand under the cold water tap and use it to squoosh the salt and water into the dough; I use the other hand to steady the bowl â€“ this way I always have a clean hand. At first the dough might be a bit messy. But I persevere. Suddenly, it seems more like dough than a horrible separated glop.
Before embracing Chad Robertson's method, after reading about "autolyse" in January 2002, in Maggie Glezer's wonderful book "Artisan Baking Across America", I gave that a try. It works very well and greatly reduces the amount of stirring required. I put all the water or milk, oil (if called for), the yeast and all but ½ c flour at once in the mixing bowl and stir it around quickly until all the flour has come in contact with the water. It looks very rough. I then cover the bowl with plastic and leave it for about ½ an hour. After that time, it's quite amazing how the dough has smoothed out. I then sprinkle the board with ¼ c flour (from that left over ½ c), turn the dough out and sprinkle the salt over the dough. If necessary, I use the remaining ¼ c in the course of kneading.
And here is what I did before reading Maggie Glezer's book: (This method works very well too) When I first started making bread, I wasn't mixing the flour enough into the liquid. But after reading Joe Ortiz's directions for mixing, I realized that it was a very good idea to add flour by ¼ cup intervals (instead of ½ to one cup at a time as I had done before) With each addition of flour, I stirred 50 times in the same direction (did the same direction really make a difference? I don't know... Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford recommend it and it made sense to me) before adding the next handful of flour. The dough was already quite silken by the time that all the flour was added. This drastically cut down on the amount of extra flour to be added while kneading.
But remember, bread wants to be bread. It doesn't really seem to matter how you mix it. Just use the method that feels most comfortable.
Developing a slack dough: About 30 minutes after the salt is mixed in, I begin "stretching and folding": This is done in the bowl, without removing it to the board. I run my working hand under water then reach down along the side of the bowl and lift and stretch the dough straight up and almost out of the bowl. I fold it over itself to the other side of the bowl, turning the bowl and repeat until it's a little difficult to stretch the dough up any more. The dough almost immediately feels significantly smoother. I cover it with a plate and leave on the counter for about 30 minutes. This step is repeated 3 or 4 times (Robertson says to do this 4 times in all). Robertson writes:
[N]otice how the dough starts to get billowy, soft, and aerated with gas. At this later stage, you should turn the dough more gently to avoid pressing gas out of the dough. [...] A well-developed dough is more cohesive and releases from the sides of the bowl when you do the turns. The ridges left by the turn will hold their shape for a few minutes. You will see a 20 to 30 percent increase in volume. More air bubbles will form along the sides of the container. These are all signs that the dough is ready to be [...] shaped (- Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread)
If the dough seems insanely slack, the "slap and fold" or "hand washing socks" method works quite well: After the salt is mixed in, put the dough onto an unfloured board (you don't want to add more flour) and "slap and fold" it until it forms a smoothish ball (see Richard Bertinet's video). Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with a plate and leave to rest for about 30 minutes, before proceeding with about 3 sessions of "stretching and folding", with 30 minute (or so) breaks between each session.
This earlier, somewhat more labour-intensive version I used to use to knead slack dough also works: Using a dough scraper (or spatula), scoop one part of the dough from the bottom and lift it onto the top. I press away and down lightly but firmly with the heel of my hand. I then scoop from another side of the dough and do the same thing. I make sure that the board stays empty of extra dough, scraping and composting any hard bits that stick to the board. Often, I pick the dough up and knead it in the air, to prevent myself from adding extra flour. Near the very end of the kneading, unless otherwise instructed, I make sure that there is a light dusting of flour under the dough. Eventually, the dough seems to sort of hold some shape and I can use my hand to lift and fold. At this point, I turn the dough a quarter turn each time I push away and down on the dough. I hand knead for 10 to 15 minutes.
With insanely slack doughs, I have also encorporated a method I learned from Maggie Glezer's Artisan Baking Across America. I've found that even after 15 minutes of squooshing the dough on the board (using a dough scraper to help me) it still stays pretty sloppy and sticky even though most of it pulls away from the board. After "kneading" for about 15 minutes without using any extra flour, I dump the mess into the rising bowl, cover it with a plate and leave it on the counter for 20 minutes. Then I lightly dust the board with a tiny amount of flour and carefully tip the still sloppy dough out. Using the bread scraper and trying not to disturb any bubbles, I fold the sloppy left side into the center, then the top into the center, then the right side, then the bottom. As I am lifting it into the bowl, I fold it in half once more. Cover and repeat in 20 minutes. I do this 3 times. It's usually not until the third time that the dough looks like the smooth soft pillow that people describe. The amount of dusting flour used in those three maneuvres is not more than a couple of tablespoons and probably much less (sorry, I've never actually measured). After the third time, I let it rise undisturbed.
First rise: Put a lid (or plate) on top of the bowl and place at room temperature away from draughts. (Because our kitchen is quite cool in winter, we put the riding dough into the oven with only the light turned on.) I've found out that it really isn't necessary to oil or flour the bowl. The bowl just has to be relatively clean. When I turn the risen dough out to shape the bread, it is a very simple matter to use my fingers to get any dough that has adhered to the bowl. The dough just pulls cleanly away if I rub it with the side of my finger.
A good way to tell if dough has doubled is to run your finger under the tap to wet it, then poke a hole in the top of the dough. If the hole fills up, it hasn't risen enough. If there is a whoosh of air and the dough deflates a little, it has risen too much. If the hole stays in exactly the same configuration and the dough remains otherwise intact, it is ju-u-st right.
At baking time, if we're not using the combo-cooker, the bread goes directly on the stone and the temperature is immediately turned down to the temperature called for on the recipe. I usually turn the bread around (uneven heat in the oven) after about 20 minutes of baking.
If I bake bread in a tin or on a cookie sheet, I bake it on the second to the bottom shelf of the oven, unless the bread has a lot of sugar in it (cinnamon buns, Luciacats). For sweet bread, I use the upper most shelf. Dough that has a lot of sugar in it wants to burn on the bottom.
When the bread is done, turn off the oven. Put the finished bread back in the oven and leave with the door ajar for 5 or 10 minutes. Remove to cool upended on cooling racks.
Cooling Allow just baked bread to cool completely on a well ventilated footed rack. Wait til the bread is cool before cutting into it. It is still continuing to bake inside!
If you wish to serve warm bread (of course you do), reheat it after it has cooled completely. To reheat any uncut bread, turn the oven to 400F for 5 minutes or so. Turn the oven OFF. Put the bread into the hot oven for about ten minutes. This will rejuvenate the crust and warm the crumb perfectly.
Uneaten bread should be stored at room temperature rather than refrigerated. (The refrigerator causes the bread to go stale faster.) Bread can also be stored in the freezer - double bagged airtight plastic. Take it out of the freezer and leave it in the bag until the bread has thawed. To reheat any uncutbread, turn the oven to 400F for 5 minutes or so. Turn the oven OFF. Put the bread directly on the rack in the hot oven for ten minutes.
Stirring in the flour: I've found that it is better to have a slightly wetter dough. I mix it in well with a fork, stirring in the same direction (does the same direction really make a difference? I don't know... Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford recommend it and it made sense to me all those years ago when I read it) several times to encorporate the flour well into the water and to develop the gluten.
For unleavened bread dough, such as that for chapatis or parathas, I learned (from trial and error) that it is essential to use boiling water when mixing the flour and water together. Use a wooden spoon for the initial mixing, but as soon as the dough is cool enough to handle, switch to hand kneading until the dough is very smooth (about 5 minutes for dough made with just flour, water and salt).
Kneading: I often knead flatbread dough in the air to stop from adding too much extra flour. It seems to improve the texture if the dough is left to rest for longer than 1/2 an hour. I make sure that the bowl is covered with plastic wrap to keep the dough from drying out.
Rolling out the rounds: It is better not to stack uncooked bread rounds. They have a horrible tendency to stick together. It is preferrable to roll out a round, begin to cook it and roll out the next round as the first is being cooked. (Yes, two of us do this together to facilitate things.)
Cooking: Place the round of dough on the hot tava (griddle). As soon as you see little bubbles form, turn it over using tongs. As soon as there are little bubbles on the reverse side, lift the bread off the tava with the tongs and place it on the wire rack. It should puff up. Turn it over once or twice to ensure that it puffs up completely. Don't be worried to see a few dark brown spots on it. (If you are lucky enough to have a gas stove, you can hold the bread directly over the flame.) Put the finished bread on a serviette covered warm plate. Cover with a lid. It is perfectly alright to stack the finished breads.
Flatbread: Chapatis (tortillas) . Focaccia . Naan . Pita . Pizza dough
Gluten Free: Rice Flour
Quickbread, Biscuits and Muffins: Buttermilk Biscuits . Cheese Baking Powder Biscuits . Cornmeal Muffins (or Bread) . Popovers (Yorkshire Pudding) . Date Bread . Orange Date Muffins (or Bread) . Scones
Yeast Bread: Babas au Rhum . Cheesehorns . Cider Cheese . Corn . Focaccia . French Stick . Hot Cross Buns . Italian Country . Lucia Cats . Molasses Fennel . Multigrain . Naan . Pita . Pizza Dough . Poppy Seed . Raisin . Rice Flour (Gluten Free) . Rustic Boule . Rustic Couronne . Rustic French . Sandwich Bread or Hamburger Buns . Savarin Dough . Whole Wheat