The following is how I bake bread. It works well for me- I hope it does for you as well.
If you have any tips to add, feel free.
These instructions are to be used with a Kitchen Aid stand mixer.
Get out whatever bread recipe you are interested in making.
The instructions below apply to any bread recipe you have. Even recipes that are made for bread machines.
Begin by putting your sweetener into your KA bowl. Most every bread recipe includes a sweetener-
sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, etc. If your recipe calls for multiple sweeteners, you can add both, or add just one for now.
It doesn’t matter. A sweetener is important because it helps to activate your yeast.
That’s why nearly every bread recipe includes some form of sugar.
Every bread recipe also includes a liquid.
Either milk, coffee, or water. Whatever your liquid is, heat it up.
Heat it until it’s about the same temperature as hot cocoa or coffee that you could comfortably sip.
This should be pretty warm. This is a good rule of thumb, because if your liquid is boiling hot, you will kill your yeast, but if it’s too cool, your yeast won’t activate at all.
Add your liquid to your sweetener and stir.
Sprinkle your yeast onto the surface of this mixture and give it a quick stir.
Active dry yeast is what I use.
You can buy a big bag of it at Fareway for under five dollars and it will last a very long time.
I’ve been using the same bag for almost a year. If you keep it in the refrigerator or freezer, it will stay fresh.
Put it in Tupperware. I clip the measurement information from the bag of yeast and tape it to my Tupperware- you should do this as well.
Mixing warm water, sugar and yeast- that’s called “proofing” your yeast.
Your bread won’t be better or worse than someone else’s who chose not to proof their yeast.
Proofing your yeast just means that you’re asking your yeast to prove to you that it’s functioning properly.
You want evidence.
If you let the water, sugar and yeast sit for ten minutes and it hasn’t become frothy, your yeast is bad or your water temperature was off.
If your yeast is bad, it’s good to find this out now, before you’ve wasted a bunch of ingredients.
Try again with fresh yeast or warmer or cooler water.
Put your dough hook attachment on your KA mixer.
Next, you should add some flour to your bowl of yeast, water and sugar- around a cup or two.
If you’re making a bread that calls for a specialty flour, such as rye or pumpernickel flour, use those flours first.
Turn your mixer on low speed.
Once you’ve added a little flour, you can add the rest of your ingredients (NOT THE REST OF THE FLOUR) one at a time, slowly.
You can add any cheeses or herbs, seeds, salt, oil, cocoa… anything you have not added yet that is NOT flour should be added slowly at this point, while the KA is still mixing.
Once all of that is incorporated, you need to add more flour.
The amount of flour a recipe calls for should be considered a suggestion only.
Your bread will need more or less flour depending on the humidity of the air in your home while you’re baking.
Sometimes you will need much more flour than the recipe calls for- other times you will use much less.
That is totally bizarre, but it’s true.
You can add the flour in ½ cup increments until your dough has as much flour as it needs.
Soon it will begin to look like a dough instead of a batter.
Once it looks like a dough, I add flour in much smaller increments- heaping tablespoons.
The dough should be pulling the dough and flour away from the sides of the bowl at this point.
In fact, once you have enough flour, the dough ball pretty much cleans the bowl for you.
It’s hard to explain in writing how to know you have enough flour, but here goes:
if you look straight down into the bottom of your KA bowl, right in the center, there will be a little pool of gooey dough that stays there while the KA is kneading the dough.
You don’t want that there. You need to add flour a little bit at a time until your dough is ALL part of the giant dough ball.
None should be hanging on at the bottom of the bowl. If at any point during the kneading process, you look in and see some hanging out down there, add a little more flour until it isn’t.
Once you have the right amount of flour in your dough, you should let the KA mixer continue to mix, or knead it, for about ten minutes.
Most recipes will tell you to knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic.
That’s a very apt description. Well-kneaded dough feels satiny.
If you aren’t sure if your dough has been kneaded long enough, there is a surefire way of finding out.
Grab a chunk of dough about the size of a golf ball or baseball and try to stretch it out to the size of a flashcard.
If you can stretch it out to the size of a flashcard and it doesn’t tear at all, and you can hold it up to the light and see some brightness coming through, you have created an excellent dough.
Bread bakers call this the windowpane test.
If your dough is sticky, like glue, add some more flour and continue to knead.
Your dough can be a little tacky, but not so sticky that it’s leaving your hands a huge mess.
Also, if your dough ripped during the windowpane test, you need to continue to knead it until it passes the test.
Once you’ve passed the windowpane test, it’s time for the first rise.
Grease a large bowl, pat your dough into a ball and plop it into the bowl.
Flip the dough over so it is coated lightly with oil on all sides.
Spray cling wrap with oil and put it on top of the bowl. Cover the cling wrap with a hand towel that was been wetted with hot water and then wrung out.
Let this sit until the dough has doubled in size- it takes about an hour- longer if you’re using whole-grain flours.
Once your dough has doubled, punch it down to get rid of the gas inside.
Shape your dough however you want. Braid it, shape it into a loaf and put it into a greased pan, or shape it into a round and put it on a cookie sheet that has been dusted with cornmeal.
You can also make it into rolls or mini loaves- whatever you want.
Cover the shaped dough with the same cling wrap and towel as before and let rise again until doubled.
It shouldn’t take quite so long this time- 30-40 minutes.
Bake according to the recipe.
If you want a harder crust, do nothing after baking.
If you want a soft crust, brush it with butter or olive oil once it’s come out of the oven.