Freshly baked bread is as delicious as it is comforting. And as an increasing number of people are spending more time at home these days, many are finding solace in the art of turning simple ingredients like flour and water into something truly magical.
Baking bread at home is more than just a way of stretching resources and avoiding a trip to the grocery store, it’s a means of doing something constructive while social distancing.
Kneading dough is also a great form of stress relief, something a lot of people may find comfort in right now.
However, as tasty as bread can be, just one failed attempt can be a disappointing waste of ingredients and time.
TODAY Food talked to a few pros about what first-time bread makers need to know before they start heating up their ovens.
Focus on 4 key ingredients
The very best breads are usually the simplest.
“One of the great things about making your own bread at home is that you know exactly what is in it," Nick Malburg, bread manager at DiAnoia's Eatery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told TODAY. "Knowing that there are no preservatives, or any extra sugars or other additives, in your food is a big draw for many people to start baking."
All you really need to start are four basic ingredients (flour, water, salt and yeast), but depending on the desired outcome, the type and measure of each will vary. “Any good bread, be it from an artisan bakery or from your home, is built with these four ingredients,” said Malburg.
Malburg advised novice bread makers to start with a high-protein bread flour.
“Feel free to play with grains, just keep the total flour weight the same — about four and a quarter cups — and mix and match flour combinations to achieve the results you're looking for,” he said.
Popular grains include rye, whole grains, semolina or spelt.
For basic yeasted breads, equipment can be very minimal.
“(You need) good mixing bowls, a smooth surface on which to knead and work the bread, a bread pan and measuring devices,” said Malburg. “I say devices because you can, of course, successfully make bread using basic volume measuring methods, a cup flour, a teaspoon of salt, etc., but the ideal way to achieve consistent, delicious results is to bake by weight."
If you're ready to up your bread-making game, a decent kitchen scale is a very useful tool when baking at home.
Also, don't be deterred from baking if you don't have a stand mixer. “Mixing by hand is my favorite part of bread baking, and the fastest way to get familiar with your dough,” said Malburg.
Investing in a baking stone is a good idea if you're planning to make this a regular hobby. They're not too expensive, but they are heavy. Baking loaves in a Dutch oven is a great way to get started out.
To knead or not to knead?
While some recipes exist for no-knead bread, kneading usually plays a big role in getting the texture just right.
"When kneading the dough, work on a lightly floured surface," said Malburg. "Fold the farthest side of the dough onto itself toward you and, using the heel of your hand, press the dough down, stretching it back away from you. Turn the dough one quarter turn and repeat."
The dough should go from sticky and floppy to smooth and easy to work with after a few minutes. "A good trick to tell if you're dough is kneaded properly is to do a window pane test. Take a small amount of dough and stretch it out between your fingers into a square," said Malburg. If the dough is kneaded enough, it should be able to get quite thin without breaking. If the dough rips apart in your fingers very easily, just keep kneading.
Don't overwork the dough
If you are mixing your dough by hand, it's pretty unlikely that you'll overwork it. Still, it is possible.
"If when you are kneading the dough, it seems to resist being stretched, and very quickly springs back or you're having difficulty folding the dough onto itself, you're likely verging on overworking the dough," said Malburg.
Simply stop kneading and your bread should still turn out just fine.
Sticky dough is normal
When you start working with freshly mixed dough, you may be fearful of how sticky it seems. "Don't panic, and resist the urge to add more flour to your dough," said Malburg.
The more flour you add, the heavier and tighter the inside of the bread will be. "As you knead your dough, the gluten strength will develop, and the dough will start to stay together more — and stick to your hands and countertop less," said Malburg.
If you find that it's still way too sticky and nearly impossible to work with, put a bit of oil on your hands.
"Don't add oil to the dough, just your fingers," Malburg warned.
Proofing is powerful
Proofing dough (allowing it to rest and rise) may seem like a step people can skip when trying to save time, but it's really, really important.
"When making your dough, it should always feel strong and alive with air and bubbles in it. It shouldn't feel like it's on the brink of collapse or like a delicate soufflé. It should be supple and springy," Chris Wilkins, founder and head baker at Root Baking Co in Atlanta, told TODAY. "If it feels dense, it needs to proof longer. If it's delicate, it proofed too much."
Beginning bakers should follow whatever recipe they're using as closely as possible and, as they get more comfortable, can make adjustments on proofing time based on their desired outcome.
Experiment with flavor
Once you've nailed a basic bread recipe, keep going.
“Raid your spice rack for Italian seasoning blends to add to the dough. Or chop freshly picked herbs and add them in," Malburg said. "Try grating a beautiful hard cheese to add in, or chunk up a good cheddar and add freshly chopped jalapeño peppers."
When adding flavors, the sky is the limit, so don't be afraid to get creative.
Remember that making bread is a process, so just relax and take your time with it.