A couple of years ago, my wife and I decided we would start baking all our bread products ourselves. Since January, 2010, we have not bought any bread, buns, rolls, pizza crust or pitas from the grocery or bakery. Homemade bread is not only more economical, but it is also better tasting and usually healthier for you as well, especially if you use healthy ingredients like whole grains and avoid things like hydrogenated oils, preservatives, and ingredients you can’t pronounce!
You don’t need a bread machine or a heavy duty mixer to make good homemade bread, though they can speed up the process. But there are a few relatively inexpensive tools and tricks that I want to share for making good homemade bread, and for making it easier.
1. Instant read thermometer
This is one of the most-used gadgets in our kitchen. It’s not only essential for baking bread, but also used here for yogurt making, cooking meats, and even heating up milk for hot cocoa. After using several different less expensive types that didn’t last, I finally sprung for a Thermapen. It’s a little pricier up front, but it has survived daily use for almost three years now.
When baking bread, a thermometer is the only surefire way to tell when it’s done. Experts recommend baking hard, crusty breads until the internal temperature is 200-210°F. Soft breads like sandwich bread and dinner rolls are usually ready at 180-190°F. Use the thermometer probe to reach the very center of the baked item.
2. Digital scale
I’ve become a big fan of weighing the ingredients for our breads. Flour is usually the main ingredient in most breads, and measuring it by scooping out the flour is notoriously inaccurate. I’ve also found that not all measuring cups are created equal. We have two sets we use in our kitchen, and they measure differently. Which set is right? Who knows!
Many cookbooks and recipes are now specifying the weight of flours and other ingredients, as well as the volume measure. That makes it easier to use a scale. I put a bowl on the scale and zero it out, then add the flour. If you have more than one kind of flour – say both white and whole wheat, then you can add one flour, zero out the scale, and then add the other.
I’ve been adapting my recipes so I can weigh the main ingredients. This has made for better baking, and better breads. I still have to make minor adjustments, such as adding more flour or water to a dough, but overall the results are more predictable.
3. Fresh yeast
While it may seem obvious to some, yeast is one of the most important ingredients in yeasted bread products. It’s possible that more bread baking problems are caused by yeast than by any other single thing. If yeast is too old, your breads won’t rise. If you use yeast very often at all, it’s most economical to buy it in bulk.
We usually buy it in one pound packages. The first thing I do is take the yeast, divide it, and put it in two pint glass jars. Then I write the current date on both, and put one jar in the freezer. Frozen yeast should keep for at least a year in the freezer if kept in an airtight container. Store the other jar in a cabinet or pantry away from heat. The yeast should keep for at least 4 months at room temperature.
If in doubt about your yeast, you can always test (proof) it by dissolving it in a small amount of warm water (110-115°F) to which a little sugar has been added. You can find instructions here and here. If the yeast is good, you can use it in your recipe. Just add the yeast/water mixture to the flour and other ingredients.
4. Silicone baking mat
The silicone baking sheet is a fairly recent tool in our baking arsenal. My wife bought this one several years ago, but I didn’t realize we had it. We don’t actually bake anything directly on the mat, but it is great for working with sticky doughs, rolling out pizza crust and pita dough, etc.
A silicone mat can tame even the most difficult doughs. Once I started using it, I now reach for it automatically whenever I need it – which is usually every time I make bread!
5. dough bucket
At Happy Acres we’re fans of no-knead breads, and a dough bucket is handy to have for storing dough in the refrigerator. Most no-knead doughs will keep for 1-2 weeks refrigerated. It is so convenient to take out enough dough to make a loaf of bread, or breadsticks, or whatever you’re in the mood to bake and eat.
If you haven’t tried no-knead recipes, you really should give them a try. Some of our favorite no-knead recipes come from “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day.”
That’s my top five tools and tips for great bread baking. I hope there is something here for everyone who wants to bake better breads, or for those who are ready to take the plunge and begin baking them. And one other thing I have found out is that the more bread you bake, the easier it gets. So for my last tip for baking great bread I quote the late, great Steve Mizerak and say practice, practice, practice!