Bread is a living entity. Unlike carpentry or metalwork where you cut something out and come back a month later and it is exactly as it was a month before, bread, or more correctly dough, is a living, breathing entity. It develops at its own pace, according to the seasons and according to the temperature and humidity of the room. Learn to identify the stages of the bread development, first rise, second rise after shaping, etc., and have patience when it takes a little longer (in the winter) or be on your toes if it goes quicker (in the summer). Be in tune with the bread, not the clock on the wall.
2. Knead well with lukewarm water
Perhaps the biggest mistake when making bread is not kneading it long enough. The more you invest in kneading the dough, the higher your bread will rise and the lighter and fluffier it will be. You also need to adjust kneading times depending on which flour you are using. White wheat flour should be kneaded the longest, at least 10 minutes by hand or eight minutes by mixer on medium speed. Whole grain flour and flours with less gluten like spelt, rye, oats and barley should be kneaded for less time, seven minutes by hand or five minutes by mixer. Lukewarm water is the optimal temperature for dough development.
3. Use poolish
If you use sourdough, you can skip this. If not, this tip will increase the flavor of your bread by leaps and bounds. The night before baking, take 1 cup of flour from the recipe, combine it with ½ cup of water from the recipe and add about 4-5 granules of instant dry yeast. I mean granules – a very small amount. Mix, cover with cling wrap and leave overnight. The following day when you bake the bread, mix all the ingredients from the recipe minus 1 cup of flour and ½ cup water and exclude the yeast from the recipe entirely. Add the dough mixture (poolish) from the night before and knead. Poolish was invented by Polish bakers in the 1800s to simulate sourdough (without the fuss) and it adds complexity of flavor to the bread. If you use sourdough to bake, keep using sourdough, nothing tops it if you are willing to invest the time and energy.
4. Do the prod test
Another major stumbling block in baking bread is not knowing when to put it in the oven to bake. Has it risen enough? Not enough? If you put bread in to bake before it has risen sufficiently, the dough will be too tight and the bread will rip and crack while it is baking. If it has over-risen, there will not be enough elasticity in the dough to keep its shape while baking and it will pancake. The best time to put the bread in the oven is between these two extremes. To detect this stage, lightly prod the bread with the tip of your index finger – and I mean lightly. If the dough indents and then fully springs back leaving no trace of the indentation, the dough needs to rise more. If the indentation from the prod does not spring back at all, the dough has over risen. If it springs back partially, then it is ready to bake. Keep prodding periodically until you get the required response.
5. Use steam
Preheat your oven to the baking temperature at least 20 minutes before baking. While heating, place a metal pan on the shelf below where you will bake the bread. Five minutes before baking boil a kettle of water. Put the bread in the oven on the upper shelf to bake. Close the door. Then go get the kettle of boiling water and carefully pour a good amount into the hot pan on the lower shelf and quickly close the door to trap the resulting steam in the oven chamber. The steam will make the crust nice and crispy.
6. Tap the bottom of the bread
To check if the bread is fully baked, give the underside a light tap with your fingers. If you hear a hollow sound, the bread is baked. If it does not make a hollow reverberating sound, the bread may need baking longer. This is good only for crusty breads. If your bread is fragile and soft, like a challah, this test is not applicable.
7. Cool on wire
After removal from the oven and the pan, leave the bread to cool on a wire rack so that it has ventilation as it cools. If not, moisture accumulates between the bread and the pan and the crust becomes soggy.
8. Never put bread in the fridge
Bread stales quickest at 4-7º centigrade, the temperature of your fridge. If you want to extend the shelf life of the bread beyond its natural one- to three-day shelf life, slice it, bag in plastic and freeze it. This way you can take out a slice or two when needed. If your freezer has other foods in it like meat, pizza, lasagna, etc., the bread will eventually get the smell of these other foods. If not, bread can freeze well for up to three months.
9. Resuscitate stale bread
Even if bread has gone stale (not moldy), you can still use it to make good toast, French toast or pig-in-the-poke. Alternatively pop a slice in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds. The heat will change the structure of the starch and revitalize it.
10. Always break bread with company
Bread is not meant to be eaten alone. Nothing beats breaking bread (not slicing it) with friends or family.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Jewish Baking Center (www.jewishbakingcenter.com), which specializes in baking and teaching how to bake healthy, traditional Jewish bread. He also manages the Showbread Institute (www.showbreadinstitute.org) which researches the biblical showbread.
Onion Bread Recipe
2 cups flour
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. instant dry yeast
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. poppy seeds
2 tsp. crystallized garlic
50 gr. of butter (dairy) or margarine (parve)
¾ cup water
Peel and dice three medium-size onions. Brown the onions in a lightly oiled pan over heat. Leave to cool.
Mix all ingredients except for the onions. Knead for 10 minutes by hand or 8 minutes in mixer. Add browned onions and mix until fully incorporated. Leave to rise for 45 minutes. Shape in free form loaf on tray, or place dough in loaf pan. Leave to rise at least 90 minutes (do the prod test). Bake at 180ºC for 25-30 minutes until crust is golden brown.