The mechanics of making bread

I find this the best part of making bread. The mixing, beating, and–Oh, YEAH!–the kneading are the best therapy for a really bad day. And you’ll get light, fluffy bread out of it, too.

If you have to scald some milk, then let it cool, just do that when you’re in the kitchen for whatever. I like to add the butter and sugar to that while it’s hot, mix it up, then let it cool to baby bottle temp. Whether you do that or not, cover the container while it cools.

Block out about an hour of time later that day. It will take an hour or so for the scalded stuff to cool to baby bottle temp, so you don’t have to just hang out and wait.

Make sure you have a largish clear spot on your counter or a breadboard for kneading.

When your milk is cooled, and you can take a break from the world, get out a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast to the water, stirring a bit, then let it bubble. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, reserving some of the main flour used for kneading. Now, add the yeast to the liquid ingredients and stir. Make a well in the dry ingredients, and pour in the liquids. Stir with a spoon until is gets gooey and comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Flour your board or bit of counter space, and dump out the dough. If your skin is dry, oil or butter your hands, then dunk them into flour. Sprinkle a little flour on top of the dough, and knead. Dig the heels of your palms in, pushing the dough, folding the dough up with your fingers, and pushing your hands in again. Keep doing this, turning the dough a quarter turn occasionally, adding flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Kneading dough is something I sometimes really get into. I primarily use my hands and arms, but there’s a certain amount of body motion, too, moving back and forth with the kneading motion. Naming each batch after people who bug you helps in producing even results.

Okay, you’ve done your 10-15 minute physical release of aggressions. Leave the dough on the board to rest and get used to being dough while you wash, dry and grease the bowl. You want to grease it fairly generously. The dough will raise in the bowl, and what is not exposed to air will stay a little sticky. This helps in taking it out, and keeps the exposed part from getting crusty. Put the dough in the bowl, turning it to grease it all over, then cover it with a towel and put it someplace where it won’t be bothered, but will stay warm.

Go away for an hour or so. It usually takes about an hour for the dough to raise, but that’s not hard and fast. You can be a little late.

When you get back to your bread dough, take your pointy and your freeway fingers, and make dents with them in the dough about half an inch deep. If the dents stay there, it’s done raising. If they keep raising, cover it and go away for another 20 minutes.

These times I’m quoting are standard stuff, there are a lot of variables. If it’s raining, if it’s cold, age of yeast, mood of the baker, phase of the moon. But the time spans are what is usually required.

Dough done raising, punch it down in the bowl, then dump it out on your floured counter or board, and knead the air out of it. If the dough is to raise again, make sure the bowl is slick enough, round up the dough, put it back in the bowl, roll it around, then cover and leave alone again. This time, it may not take quite as long to raise as before.

If the dough doesn’t require another raise, shape it into loaves. When I was first baking, I thought I should roll the dough out to some proportionate rectangle, then, starting at a narrow end, roll up the loaf and put it in a pan. I decided later it was just a step that didn’t need to be performed, and shape the loaves with my hands. It comes out much the same. Just knead them into the shape you want, put them in a pan or on a sheet.

There are some bread doughs that just need to be in a bread pan. To put them in a pie pan (like for a round loaf), or on a sheet, they come out more spread out than really raised. If the recipe calls for a pan, you probably want to use it for esthetics. Unless you’re going for that “biscotti” look for dips…

Grease the pan, sometimes cornmeal is used to prevent sticking, too. Italian and French breads use this. Shape the loaves, put them in pans. Cover the pans, put them where they won’t be bothered, go away for another hour.

When you come back, if the dough is within half an inch of the top of the pan, fire up your oven, let it preheat, then put your pans in. The loaves are done when they sound hollow when knocked on.

Cool bread on its side. The reason is that while bread is hot, until all the soft stuff has “solidified,” it can still fall.



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