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How Hard Is Baking Your Own Bread Really? (And The 7 Recipes I’ve Tried)

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I won’t lie – during those first few days, when everyone was buying up all the toilet paper, I was concerned about our chain of supply and demand. But now that things have mellowed a certain amount (at least I’ve seen toilet paper on the shelves again), items are staying on shelves longer*, and our local grocery stores have been implementing shopping limitations that reduce overbuying. But what I still have in AMPLE supply is time. So I decided, that even though I could now go out and buy a loaf of bread, why not try my hand at learning how to bake it myself? Everyone on Instagram is doing it, so how hard could it be?

*As a quick aside, I know flour and yeast have been in exceedingly high demand recently and may be tough to get. I still haven’t been able to find yeast in stores. I’ve got three tips: First, my brother’s friend manages a pizzeria, and they buy yeast in BULK for their dough. That’s where I bought a few teaspoons of yeast for a couple of dollars. It might be especially precious to them right now, but they might also be willing to sell you a small amount if you ask extremely nicely. Just an idea! But don’t worry if you can’t get any, there are ways to make bread without yeast (like soda bread, levain breads, and flatbreads). Secondly, bleached, all-purpose flour is definitely the most popular and I’ve seen those wiped out in stores. But there were still bags of whole wheat on the shelves in the store near me. Whole wheat just happens to be great for bread. If you’ve never tried baking with it, maybe now is the time. Finally, you could try ordering from a smaller flour mill directly. This one still seems to have flour in stock!

I’ll start by saying that I’m an avid cook and hobbyist baker. I can usually end up with something edible, and for the most part, I’m pretty happy with what I get. BUT BREAD IS DIFFERENT. I’ve tried bread a few times over my life and never had stellar results. What is it about the illusive bread process? There are just so many variables and different steps where the process could go amiss. The yeast, the water temperature, the temperature of your kitchen the first rise, the second rise, over proofing, under proofing, the list goes on!

Over the last few weeks though, I’ve been trying my hand at several different bread type recipes. We’ve been eating some sort of bread with almost every meal, and I’m probably 90% dough at this point. With some bread, I experienced great success, and the entire loaves were eaten in one day. With others, not so much . . .

JAMIE OLIVER’S SODA BREAD

Let’s start with what was hands down the easiest bread to make. This recipe can literally be measured out with a washed out vegetable can (15 oz), requires no yeast, and overall is pretty foolproof. Instead of using yeast as the leavening agent, this bread relies on baking soda, which does give it a particular flavor. It’s sharper, or even a little bit metallic. But it’s a delicious loaf, and we ate it with a big pot of beef stew. If your bread making experience is zero this is a good place to start. You can follow along step by step with his video here.

JAME OLIVER’S SANDWICH BREAD

I had so much success with his first bread recipe that I decided to give his sandwich bread a go next. This recipe required yeast and rising time, but again he has a super easy to follow video which makes it seem easy and manageable. Everything looked great each step of the way, but when it came time to actually cut into the loaves they turned out a bit dense and stodgy.

I have two guesses as to what happened – First I added too much flour during the kneading process, making the dough too heavy and not allowing bubbles to form in the dough. Or that I kneaded too hard during my second second knead when I was shaping the dough, which squished too much of the gas out of my dough. The flavor was nice though!

SATURDAY WHITE BREAD FROM FLOUR WATER SALT YEAST

I decided to take it from 0 to 100 real fast when I saw that the Kindle edition of Flour Water Salt Yeast was on sale on Amazon for $5. This is an ultra-focused bread baking book, and I’ve decided it’s my bread bible. From it, I’ve learned how to incorporate dough ingredients, about the importance of temperature, and all different sorts of important bread-making techniques.

I started with the very first recipe in the book, Saturday White Bread, which is a make-in-one-day bread. Because this bread is made in one day it does use instant dry active yeast. But it still takes about 7 hours from start to finish. There’s the first mix, then there’s a rest, then the full incorporation, then a rest, then a fold, then the first fermentation, then a second fold, then the bulk fermentation, then the divide and shape, then the final proof, and finally the bake. I had to literally write out a schedule to make sure I was keeping track of time. But again, since I’m working from home, I’m actually able to take a 5-minute break to go fold some bread dough.

The book was like a comforting friend, answering all my questions and showing my image by image how to do certain steps. It feels like a lot of reading, but it’s all very interesting, and I learned SO MUCH. And of course, the results were 1000x what I had achieved with my previous bread recipes, and the whole thing was gone within ONE DAY.

FLOUR WATER SALT YEAST PIZZA DOUGH

I set aside a bit of the dough from the Saturday White Bread to make pizza with (a recommendation from the book). It made a delicious, flavorful, and flaky pizza crust that I have zero complaints about. You can also make focaccia with leftover dough! There are recipes for both in the book.

FLOUR WATER SALT YEAST LEVAIN STARTER

The biggest trend on Instagram right now is everyone making their own starters and turning it into levain breads (i.e. sourdough). If you don’t have yeast, but have flour, water, and patience, then this is an option for you. It’s a long process, over several days (I’ll be able to finally finish mine TODAY!), but I’ve enjoyed the journey. It’s just very interesting to learn about the process and make something completely from scratch.

By the way, the most internet-famous recipe is this New York Times one, but you have to have a subscription to access it. But this looks like a pretty good recipe from Food52. Plus starters can be used for more than just bread. I personally want to use some to make these sourdough chocolate chip cookies.

SMITTEN KITCHEN OAT & WHEAT SANDWICH BREAD

Following my mild failure with Jamie’s sandwich bread recipe (and after we turned those loaves into croutons for soups and salads), but also following my success with the Saturday White Bread, I decided to try a sandwich recipe from one of my favorite food bloggers, Smitten Kitchen. I’ve always loved her tone and found her recipes easy to follow (it also helps that she provides plenty of process photos so I know how things should look along the way).

I still didn’t get perfect results. Either my kneading really needs some help or I didn’t let these rise enough. But I did have better results. I kind of see each loaf of bread as a science experiment, and sometimes you just have to try again.

MOLLY YEH’S ORANGE JUICE CHALLAH

This is my most recent baking adventure, and one that I have to admit I’m more familiar with. Back in college, I went on somewhat of a Challah baking bender. For some reason, Challah has just always worked for me. I prefer my challah on the softer, sweeter side. And this recipe did not disappoint.

The braiding of the loaf is the hardest bit with this bread, but she has a great gif at the beginning of her post which makes it so easy to follow along. And you’ll end up with some seriously impressive loaves. This is so good sliced with butter and jam, or turned into french toast, or used in a savory sandwich. I just eat by the chunks though.

So there are all the things I’ve baked since we’ve been hanging out at home. Since it’s just Mac and I in the house (plus our two cats), baking has really given me a lot of joy. Not to mention it’s added some good structure to my day. What’s my next project? Kindred’s Milk Bread, a cult icon in the bread world.

Lastly, if you’re gonna do some baking, you’re gonna need some tools. Over the year’s I’ve collected a good amount of baking tool essentials which I use weekly, but even I’ve added to my collection in the past weeks. Luckily, most of these tools are so basic that they already exist in some form in most kitchens, so don’t worry too much if you don’t have one! Bread making can still be achieved.

1. Electric Scale – When it comes to cooking, guesstimating is totally fine. Baking, on the other hand, is a more exact science, and getting the correct proportions of ingredients is essential. That’s why most baking recipes will be given in weight (120 grams of flour) rather than volume (1 cup of flour). I bought this little scale 4 years ago, and I use it several times a week.

2. Bench Scraper – This is a handy tool for dividing dough and scraping it off counters. A sharp knife will also work for dividing dough, but I use my scraper for a lot of other things (like frosting cakes).

3. Good Set Of Bowls – These work as mixing bowl, dry ingredient/wet ingredient bowls, proving baskets, you know name it. It’s especially important to have one good, big bowl for mixing your dough in, and letting it rise.

4. 6 Quart Tub – If you’re going to making your own starter then you’re going to want one of these to house it.

5. Banneton Proofing Basket – This isn’t an essential, any bowl with a linen napkin will do for letting your dough prove. But this is the bowl that’s going to give you the pretty circular pattern you see in fancier loaves.

6. Airtight Food Storage Container – These are what I use to store my flours, salt, and sugars. They’re amazing, keep everything fresh and dry, and make it very easy to access and asses when I’m running low.

7. Bread Knife – If you’re gonna be baking bread, you’re gonna wanna a GOOD bread knife. We upgraded last week and it’s made a world of difference. Honestly. Our old bread knife was a hand down from my great grandmother, and while it’s sentimental, the cutting power was causing more crushing and mashing of bread than it was cutting. This knife helps our bread keep its shape and texture when we slice it.

8. Flour Sack Cloths – You’ll need these for covering bowls during dough rises, and for lining bowls during dough proving. They’re the simple, basic workhorses of your baking ensemble.

9. Dutch Oven – Besides a basic loaf tin or cookie tray, this is what I’ve been using to bake my rustic round loaves in, and what most recipes call for. I’ve been using my friends 7.25 qt Dutch oven, because I don’t have one of my own, but I’m thinking it’s time to treat myself. If you’re looking for a budget version try this one. I have do have a 5 qt. Dutch oven and it’s worked fine. I just have to make smaller loaves.

10. Flour Water Salt Yeast – I owe this book so much . . . .

11. Proofing Bags – These are perfect for making sure your dough stays nice and warm and humid while proofing. And unlike saran wrap, these are reusable!

12. Bread Lame – If you want to get artistic with your bread scoring, then you’ll want to use a real razor.

Happy Baking!

Fin Mark

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stacey

Bread , and especially sourdough is such fun kitchen science. I made wonderful very very easy crumpets this week with my sourdough starter “discard”using the recipe from the King Arthur Flour website. It does require an electric griddle and baking rings but they were so much easier than the English muffins I usually make. I bake my sourdough in a four quart cast iron dutch oven I got a few years ago at a yard sale for $5, so I hope not everyone is laying out $600 for a le Creuset in this economy. Lodge sells a nice $40 cast iron through Target.

Amber

I recently made these too, and they were awesome and so easy. Highly recommend. We didn’t have baking rings, so I used the rings from canning jar lids. It was a little weird, but worked out fine.

Sheila

Great post! I love hearing about recipes that you’ve actually tried vs a round-up of recipes that sound good. This is so much more helpful.
Flour Water Salt Yeast is absolutely a stellar book and the companion videos on Ken Forkish’s website are so helpful! He also recommends the much less expensive cast iron Lodge combo cooker which even at today’s inflated prices is a fraction of that Le Creuset Dutch oven.

MKW

I have both and prefer my lodge for bread baking.

LKB

I’ve been making this recipe from breadtopia.com at least once a week for the past few years (I do the sandwich loaf): https://breadtopia.com/cooks-illustrated-almost-no-knead/.

I was spending so much money on bread that would just go stale! This is a no knead bread, but with more flavor than the original No Knead Bread recipe that everyone went crazy for. Delicious and easy. (Once I’d made a fresh loaf when one of my son’s friends was over and offered them a slice. Ever since then, he asks for a piece of bread when he comes over. If it passes must with an 8 year old, I call it a hit!)

Another great source for flour right now is Hayden Flour Mills. They grow and freshly mill their wheat and it makes a big difference in the taste of your bread. http://www.haydenflourmills.com

J

I love the book artisan bread in 5 min. A day the bread is so good it’s like magic!

Cari

Artisan bread in 5 Min is soo great- and Dangerous! My fridge is full of dough (it can keep for awhile waiting to bake, and becomes even better) and every recipe I’ve tried out of it has been amazing. And author Zoe Francois has been doing amazing instagram live baking recipes.

Ali

Bread is something that takes practice. Keep working at it to get the feel. With practice handling the dough you can knead with less flour added. That will help keep the dough softer.

Amber

FWSY is also my bread bible, but I sometimes turn to the https://www.theperfectloaf.com/ to supplement. Maurizio uses a smaller starter, which is useful in these flour challenged times.

Also, check out Williams-Sonoma for dutch ovens. They put Le Creuset On sale for the first time ever.

I’ve always loved baking bread, but it’s been hard to work the baking schedule around my regular life schedule… I’m trying to appreciate that being home ALL THE TIME gives me the opportunity to practice, and hopefully get better, at baking. Have to look for the silver linings.

Kelly

I actually just bought a le creuset (not for bread baking) at Williams Sonoma on sale and the delivery date is in June. Wahhhh.

Annie

If you’re making sandwich bread or any kind of whole wheat bread, I 1000% recommend getting some vital wheat gluten. A couple of tablespoons completely changes the rise and texture of the loaf. It’s my secret weapon for getting a soft, fluffy loaf every time. Not sure how easy it would be to find at the moment but I get Bob’s Red Mill brand from Amazon.

My go tos: king Arthur flour sourdough starter, this sourdough recipe: https://cooking.nytimes.com/guides/59-how-to-make-sourdough-bread with some modifications after you get familiar with your starter. This pizza recipe, but with 80g sourdough discard instead of yeast and 120-130g water: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/crispy-cheesy-pan-pizza-recipe. You can make it in the morning without the overnight rise if you want.

Kelly

Omg I feel like you and I are kindred spirits! I literally just made Smitten Kitchen’s pizza dough (a rift on Jim Lahey’s) and made Molly Yeh’s scallion challah last week!

Your Saturday bread is legit a thing of beauty! As is your challah braiding!

Someone just shared this blog with me of the Jim Lahey/Mark Bittman No knead bread that’s featured in The NY Times and this version is helpful because of all the pictures. https://www.simplysogood.com/crusty-bread/?mc_cid=0438ad5773&mc_eid=eb78674697

Addies Mom

If you want something easy buy Bread Toast Crumbs by Alexandra Stafford blog Alexandra Cooks. Peasant bread is the base recipe is excellent & the pumpkin bread is amazing. No kneading required. King Arthur flour is a great resource & I’ve ordered flour yeast from them took 2 weeks to get here worth the wait especially since there is still no flour to be had in grocery stores I frequent in sw city I live in. I did find rice on Thursday – ya!!!

Alecia

Fun Fact! My mom was once in the midst of making friendship bread, which apparently is a seven day process when it was time to fly from Seattle to NYC and visit me for a week. She packed the mixed dough in her suitcase, flew it across the country, and finished the process in my apt leaving me and my now husband with about 10 loaves of bread to work our way thru. That was the second time he had met her. The first time, she flew across the country with a suitcase full of pork chops she wanted to share with us.

Roberta Davis

Haha! I once made lasagna noodles, froze them and took them on a plane to see my grandkids!

E

I once flew with a giant raw zucchini from my own garden in my carry on. The TSA agent scanning bags thought it was a water bottle on the x-ray screen and did NOT believe me when I claimed it was a zucchini. The look on his face when he opened my bag to indeed reveal a giant zucchini was priceless!

Lisa

Yum! Everything looks good. Challah bread sounds delicious. We do a fair bit of quick breads at our house- baking powder biscuits, soda bread, banana or and dumplings too. I have a few packs of yeast yet, when we need a change. If you come across a Norwegian rye recipe, and have ingredients, give it a shot, it’s one of my favorites.

Pip

While I love the writing, the adventures, and the photographs…it still doesn’t make up for the unavailability of ingredients. I appreciate that you all had an inside source but, let me emphasize, the local pizza makers are hanging on tight to their resources (as they should!). Finally, linking to NYT recipes is another unfortunate choice – their paywall prevents reading their recipes. What should be a feel-good lark…yeah. I know, we are all doing our very best! Thank you for an interesting post – really, in spite of my negative comments, I enjoyed your writings!

Irene

When I clicked on Sara’s NYT link for the sourdough starter, their cooking site gave me a 4-week free trial without asking for any information!

Roberta Davis

I had one, too- all used up now. Very annoying.

Deborah

Just search for Mark Bittman or Jim Lahey no knead bread instead…

Margaret

In the days before my shoulder replacement I baked a lot of bread. My main suggestion is to use “hard” flour, made from winter wheat for anything made with yeast. It has more gluten and rises better. I think King Arthur sells it, but I am able to get it from my local food co-op.
I use “soft” flour, made from spring wheat, for pastry, cakes, and cookies. Nice and tender. I can make 100% whole wheat cookies without anyone even noticing.
All-purpose flour (known in my house as no-purpose) is just a blend of the two. I think it makes mushy bread and tough cookies, but YMMV.

Roberta Davis

I did not know that! Now I will try whole wheat pastry flour for my cookies!

Caity

What would you suggest using for sourdough bread? Hard vs. soft??

Margaret

Hard for sourdough, soft for quickbreads.

Amy

Here’s my favorite tip for new bakers: get yourself some aluminum-free baking powder. It doesn’t have that gross metallic taste and also won’t give you weird green halos around your raspberries if you put raspberries in something. Thanks for this post!

Roberta Davis

I actually made a loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread, too! I thought I should try because who knew if I would be able to get out to the store? I made a vegan version, and I liked it. It was actually a no-knead bread, and very easy to make. But, since I now know that I can get to the store, I haven’t made any more. Like you, I have always been intimidated by any food that requires kneading. Until I went vegan, I avoided bread like the plague, and I am happy to be able to eat it again, as long as it’s not full of stuff that’s bad for my blood sugar! These loaves look very tasty- how did you get them all in the perfect state for photographing together? By the way, I have had no trouble finding any kind of flour, and no trouble finding dry yeast, in my neighborhood grocery store. I think maybe all the larger stores have been hit hard and the smaller neighborhood stores have fared better?

Rusty

Hahaha… so very timely! When we did our pre-lockdown BIG shopping (about 3 weeks before everyone went crazy- I’m high risk, so we had to be ahead of the game), I insisted on buying a large bag of pre-m8x bread making flour. My partner balked at my intent, but gave in, so we have some sourdough with the dry starter built in and some rye mix too. I also crawled onto the floor to scavenge two boxes of dried yeast from the back of the bottom shelf-dates were good! Today, we both checked out bread makers and kettles… our kettle is old and SO noisy. We’ve decided what we’re going to but, but I’ll phone tomorrow to check stock availability first. I had a bread maker years ago and used it soooo much. I made jam and other bits n bobs in it too … I used it so much it literally wore out! I hope I don’t jinx myself saying this, but I’ve made a fair number of various loaves by hand over the years, with dried yeast and standard flour, and they’ve all turned out. Once, a friend gave us a home grown pumpkin, so I invited her… Read more »

Alexandra Rose

Thank you for this post! My husband has been making bread in the last couple of weeks and really enjoying it. Good tips!
Also, I wonder why so many of posts here include a call to buy stuff? If it’s necessary for the income of the blog, I get it. Otherwise, sometimes we don’t need to buy stuff to make our lives better! And like you said, though it can be nice, you don’t need most of that stuff to make bread.

Julia

I’ve been using the recipe from It’s Alive Bon Appetit videos for my sourdough. I’ve only been doing it for 6 weeks (a week before lockdown started) and I was able to make a spectacular loaf on my second try! Couple changes I made though: lower the oven to 430 once you put the loaf in, bake 25 minutes lid on and another 25 with the lid off. I just score my loaves with an Exacto knife from my craft supplies
https://www.reddit.com/r/Sourdough/comments/96a5wb/my_first_shot_its_alive_bon_appetit_recipe/

Also, this recipe makes two loaves. You can freeze one: just pop it in the over, frozen, at 350 for about 40 minutes. It comes out tasting freshly baked!

Becka

That Saturday White Bread is GORGEOUS. Pass the butter please.

Kristyn

I stumbled across this recipe when I was trying to bake sandwich bread.
https://alexandracooks.com/2012/11/07/my-mothers-peasant-bread-the-best-easiest-bread-you-will-ever-make/
She uses a pyrex bowl for baking, but I use a regular loaf pan. It turns out perfectly every time. It’s a very forgiving recipe.

Diana

I didn’t read all the comments, so sorry if this has been said! Whole wheat is SUPER hard to get just right in a sandwich loaf. So kudos to you for trying! I am currently a chicken and do 4 cups white, 1 cup wheat. Depending on your wheat, if it includes the bran (a lot of storebought whole wheat doesn’t), the bran can actually cut the strands of gluten that you have developed, causing your loaf not to rise as high. Many people add extra gluten (sold as “vital wheat gluten”) to counteract this. I don’t think it’s likely that your kneading is the problem–especially not kneading too much. I really think it would be hard to knead too much from my experience. Maybe in a mixer. It’s more likely that your ratio of flour to water is off. Are you using a scale to weigh your flour? If not, you’ll definitely really need to go by feel! If your dough is stickier than you like, slightly oiled or wet hands can prevent it sticking to your hands as well. It often seems to me like the wetter the dough, the lighter the bread. A SUPER good book on… Read more »

Caity

I’ve been an avid baker for the past year and a half or so. It was great therapy for me when my baby was born premature and we had to spend 6 months in the hospital. I love baking with a starter and I also use instant yeast occasionally. I’ve found that the flour you use + the vessel you bake in makes a huge difference. For awhile I was able to bake with Emile Henry pots, that gave a fantastic oven spring every time. Now I’m baking with a handmade clay pot from Columbia: it doesn’t have a perfect seal on the lid, and that affects the oven spring due to not having as much steam in the pot. But, I still like it. Sometime I bake on a cookie sheet, and I get great flavor even if my oven spring is not as good. My quest was always trying to get huge open crumb, nice ear, and good design using my lame razor. I even downloaded a 250 page pdf book dedicated solely to achieving different styles of open crumb LOL. Baking bread is such a fun journey, happy baking everyone!

Caity

p.s. I use water for shaping my loaves for the bench rest and proofing. This way I am not adding any extra flour. I wet my shaping surface, my fingers, and my dough scraper. Another tip: You can make your own recipes by playing with baker’s %’s. For example, say you want a smaller loaf. Try 300 g white bread flour, 300 g whole wheat flour, 480 g water, 12 g salt, and about 50 g starter or however much instant yeast you usually use (tbsp?). How I got the numbers: total dry flour amount x % of water you want to use = water amount. So this one would be 80% water, which would make a very wet loaf: more challenging to shape but potentially more open crumb. BUT 65% water makes a stiffer loaf, easier to score etc, and that would be 390 g of water. I generally do 2% salt in my recipes. (600 x .8 =480 g water, 600 x.65 =390 g water, 600 x .02= 12 g salt). This allows you to play with the sizes of your loaves with ease, and also save flour etc! Here are a couple of neat tips for whole… Read more »

Jessica

Hi, you refer to “instant dry active yeast” but “instant yeast” and “active dry yeast” are two different things that need to be treated differently to have them work properly. Might help explain some of your rise issues. See a primer here: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/03/all-about-dry-yeast-instant-active-dry-fast-acting-and-more.html
Happy baking!

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