Bread Baking

One thing I have always had trouble finding is sandwich bread. A lot of the loaves I find in the supermarket just don’t quite satisfy my craving for light (but not spongy), crusty (but not crunchy) white bread. I did find some brands that I liked quite a bit, but they tended to be a bit expensive for the size of the loaf.

So I finally tried the recipe in The Joy of Cooking 75th Anniversary Edition. Back when I was learning how to bake, it seemed a bit daunting and I always gravitated toward the much simpler French bread recipe. But after learning to make brioche burger buns, I figured I could handle white bread. My first efforts were decent, at best, but I stopped buying bread and forced myself to bake my own. Now, having made two loaves a week for a few months, I think I’ve got a firm handle on it.

The Joy of Cooking is a frustrating book because there’s a lot of mediocre recipes and a lot of gems, all thrown together with nothing but trial-and-error on the part of the user to separate them. However, the white bread recipe (substantially revised from the earlier editions) is superb. Still, the missing ingredient that hampered my early efforts was technical know-how. That was supplied by Julia Child, who has an episode of The French Chef called “The Good Loaf” in which she goes through the entire process.

One other important note, if you have the anniversary edition of The Joy: the recipe contains a major omission! You’ll notice immediately that the dry ingredients overwhelm the liquid and the dough refused to come together. That’s because the recipe only calls for 1 cup milk when it should call for 1 cup milk AND 1 cup water.

Anyway, here are a couple of pointers. First, and most importantly, do not use yeast packets. Cook’s Illustrated tested them and found that the yeast packet is not standardized, as promised. While each one is supposed to contain 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast, they can vary wildly. A lot of people who have tried baking, and given up on it, will complain of their frustration that some doughs just fail to rise, while others mushroom out of control. While yeast will behave differently under different environmental conditions, the first thing you need to be sure of is the amount of yeast you’re using. So toss the yeast packets and get a jar of yeast. If you bake regularly, you’ll go through it long before it is past its expiration date.

Second, make sure you always have lard in the house. For one thing, good lard imparts a flavor that vegetable shortening cannot. For another, lard is also the absolute best way to grease a pan or a bowl that I have ever seen, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than olive oil. Nothing I bake ever gets stuck to a mixing bowl or a baking pan. You will never have to pry a cake from a cake pan or bread from a loaf pan. It will just fall right out, perfectly browned.

I get my lard here in Cambridge from Savenor’s Market, but it’s not hard to find. It helps, however, if there’s a Mexican population near where you live, because Mexican cooking calls for a lot of useful ingredients, like lard, that supermarkets might not carry. When I lived in Appleton, my butcher Pepe pointed us to a nearby carniceria where we found the tastiest lard ever. It wasn’t the perfect white cream that Savenor’s makes, but waxier and yellow. It was also tastier, which you don’t always want, but for some recipes it can add a lot.

Anyway, the important points with the recipe itself are as follows: watch the temperature on the milk mixture, turn the dough properly, and make sure it can rise in a warm place.

The milk mixture (above) is made of milk, butter, lard, sugar, and salt. You need to mix it together over heat until it is quite warm, but the chances are that it will hit the right temperature before the butter has completely dissolved into the mixture. Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to end up overheating this mixture and accidentally kill the yeast when you add it to the mixing bowl. I did that the first time I made this bread, and so did my father. Whatever you do, make sure the milk mixture is not actually hot when you add it. If that means letting the yeast and the milk spend an extra twenty minutes chilling out, so be it.

This unappetizing lump needs to be turned like it's the walking undead and you're the party's only cleric.

If you’ve got a stand mixer you’re pretty much good to go at this point. On my budget and without any counter space, I have to do do all this by hand.  Now I never used to get dough to that glorious smooth and slightly sticky texture it’s supposed to have after you’re done mixing, but the Julia Child DVDs I got last Christmas showed me the way forward.

For one thing, developing dough can be a violent process. You pick it up, and throw it down on the work surface with some real force. You really should have a board scraper (honestly, this makes a million things easier) so that you can keep the dough from sticking.

Most importantly, after you throw the dough onto the surface, you should turn it clockwise or counterclockwise from the edges. Work on the outer edges, stay way from the center, and don’t grip it. Just use the heel of your hand as you turn it. After you give it a couple half turns, pick it up, throw it back down, at repeat until you hit a good texture. Then put it all into greased bowl (use the lard!).

Now it has the right texture and consistency.

Finally, I’m a big fan of leaving my doughs to rise in the oven. My apartment has about five different climate zones and it’s a crap shoot as to what the weather is like in the kitchen. So rather than risking the dough doing a sullen rise in a cold room, I just turn on the oven, let it get warm, kill the heat, and put the dough inside. My results have been way, way more consistent doing this.

Frankly, this is over-risen dough, which is why the resultant loaves are slightly stouter than we might wish.

Don’t let them rise too long on the first rise; I find they won’t rise enough in the pans if they over-rise in the bowl. When they finish baking, rest them on their sides (I dunno, but I do what Julia Child tells me), and resist the urge to tear into them right away. Fresh baked bread is wonderful, but sandwich bread like this is better if it cool and rests overnight before you start eating it. You’ll get a better texture.

I’m at a point where this is really fast and easy. Bread-baking takes 4-6 hours, but the baker only needs to spend about 25 minutes of that time actually doing anything.  The yield is two beautiful loaves like this, costing about $.75 apiece. That is much better than you’ll do at the supermarket, and several times more delicious.

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