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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

How to Get Started Making Bread at Home

If there's a singular culinary wave that's washed over America since the start of Covid-19, it's a love for home-baked carbs. A warm, fluffy slice of sourdough might not be as scientifically studied as exercise or meditation for alleviating our countless anxieties, but anyone who has torn into some tangy crust after a long day at the virtual office knows how cathartic home-baked gluten can be.

As many of us have come to find out, the joy we get from bread (and breadlike substances) isn't in just how good they taste. The simple act of baking can be a spiritual experience, taking your mind off the world around you to deal with one small living thing.

I've made a few decent loaves in my time, but I've also consulted our resident gear nerds, local bakers, yeast experts, and even my sourdough-worshipping mother. Here are their favorite tools, tips, and recipes, from their mouths to yours.

Updated February 2021: We've added art, checked links, and tweaked copy throughout.

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Step 1: Check Your Gear

I was surprised at how many awesome breadmaking tools recommended by experts, friends, and coworkers are actually affordable. Here are some favorites, alongside more basic kitchen tools you may already have around. In the name of simplicity, I mainly link to products on Amazon, but similar goods are almost certainly available at your favorite local shops or etailers.

A marble breadboard ($41): A standard cutting board or countertop will often suffice for rolling and kneading dough, but this marble one keeps dough colder longer (ideal for pastries and other temperature-sensitive doughs). Pop it in the fridge for 15 minutes before you use it, and you'll have even less of an issue with dough sticking.

A digital food scale ($20): There are many great food scales, but I like this Etekcity model. It comes with a nice removable stainless bowl to weigh out your dry ingredients.

A 10-inch bread knife ($23): There are many more expensive bread knives, but this cheap serrated model, while not the prettiest, will do just fine. It's made from Japanese steel, so it will stay sharper longer, and it comes with a lifetime warranty. I also like that it's longer than the 8-inch chef's knife I used to use before this arrived, making it a no-brainer for slicing bigger loaves. Just watch your fingers—these come sharp.

A 6-quart Dutch oven ($70): I've had a slightly smaller version of this Dutch oven in my pantry for years, and it's probably my favorite pot in the house. I cook nearly everything in mine, but Dutch ovens are particularly great for baking because they allow you to develop a better crust—trapping steam beneath the lid during the initial part of the bake.

A wood dowel rolling pin ($30): Many people like traditionally shaped rolling pins (with the two handles on either side), but I find I can provide more even pressure when using a big dowel.

A 6-inch measured dough scraper and chopper ($11): A good bench scraper makes dough easier to cut, fold, and move around. This one is particularly useful because it comes with both centimeter and inch length measurements on the side for perfect portions.

Flexible silicone spatulas ($8): If you're anything like me, you never have enough silicone spatulas. They're great for scraping wet ingredients, plus they're super cheap. It's always good to have a few around.

Stainless-steel mixing bowls ($25): You probably have a good set of bowls around, but if you don't, here's a quality set of stainless ones for your dough-making adventures.

Silicone baking mats ($13): My lovely Gran gave me a pair of these silicone mats to put under cookies, bread, and veggies in the oven. They make cleanup and spatula use so much easier, I'll never go back to baking without them. Don't worry about how cheap they are. I've compared these AmazonBasics mats to the fancier Silpat-brand ones my mom has, and there's not enough of a difference to matter.

A bread lame to score your dough ($12): If you want to make prettier designs on top of your dough, try a lame (pronounced "luh-may"). They're little handles you can attach razor blades to, allowing you to make more precise incisions on your dough.

A bread proofing basket ($20): Ever wonder how people get such perfect swirly flour shapes on their bread? They use a proofing basket like this one! It's not required, but it sure makes your loaves look pretty.

A KitchenAid stand mixer if you wanna get serious ($450): The most expensive tool you might want if you're really getting into the baking hobby is a proper stand mixer. There are many brands, but KitchenAid's mixers have stood the test of time—literally. My mom has used hers for decades with minimal maintenance, as have most amateur bakers.

You don't need a bread-making machine: This was the one tool that was almost universally panned by amateur bakers and experts alike. A few people liked them, but the general consensus is that they're not necessary unless you're super strapped for time and need to constantly feed lots of people. The bread it makes isn't as good as the stuff you'd bake in an oven.

Step 2: Find Flour and Yeast

The flour shortages that plagued us in the early months of the pandemic are probably over where you live, but it's worth hitting up local bakeries, pizza shops, or other bread-baking restaurants for their favorite flours. Many will sell you smaller quantities from their own supply. If you have your own mill (or a friend with one), local homebrew supply shops are an awesome source for different unmilled grains. They sell malted wheat, barley, and many other grains, as long as you can break them up into flour at home. Homebrew shops have mills, but theirs are designed to crack the grain, not pulverize it into flour.

You can also grab yeast at local bakeries, pizzerias, and homebrew supply stores (and even local breweries) if you want to get outside the traditional dry yeasts at the grocery store. Be aware: There is a difference between quick-rise bread yeasts and sourdough; the two types of yeast can make similar bread styles, but they have different characteristics and flavors. The general consensus among those I spoke to (and my personal opinion) is that sourdough can be tastier overall, but it's more work to make. Many folks have sourdough starters around right now. A quick Facebook post or Instagram story may nab you some responses (and fresh yeast to bake with).

If you don't want to venture out to buy yeast, or you can't find any, it's very easy to make a sourdough starter. If you have a couple of days, here's my favorite sourdough guide.

Step 3: Time to Bake!

Now that you've got the ingredients and tools, find a great recipe and get to baking.

The foody geniuses over at Bon Appétit put together this excellent list of bread recipes to get you started. From dinner rolls to whole wheat chapatis, there are tons of great options to pair with nearly any kind of food. Pick a recipe and go to town. Or you may have family recipes collecting dust. Now's a great time to get in touch with older members of your family and ask for them.

Baking is a fun activity to do with kids. In a conversation with WIRED, Stephen Jones, who leads Washington State University's Bread Lab, recommended a children's book also called Bread Lab. It's a great way to get your kids interested in the science of baking.

Step 4: Bread Storage Tips

Here are a few tips and tricks to keep your bread tasting great for longer.

  • Don't refrigerate bread: It gets stale three times faster in the fridge than at room temperature.
  • Wrap it up: Plastic wrap and aluminum foil (or other reusable containers that trap a minimal amount of air) are great ways to seal in the natural moisture of your loaf between slices.
  • The two-day rule: In general, bread is cool to keep at room temperature (wrapped up) for a couple of days. Keep it in a dark place, and make sure the humidity is low, or it could mold faster.
  • Freeze extra bread, then thaw at room temp: After two days, consider putting whatever you're not imminently eating in the freezer. You'll want a freezer-safe bag or thick aluminum foil. If you want slices ready to go, you can cut them before you freeze the bread, so you aren't thawing a whole loaf. Remember: Once you reheat bread, it won't freeze and reheat to normalcy again. It's best to let it thaw at room temperature, and be sure to unwrap it first, otherwise, the liquid can make it soggy.

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