If my mother made homemade bread when I was a child, I don't remember it. I do remember going to my aunt's home in southern Alberta, though, and savoring the "exotic" Dutch breakfast of toasted homemade bread slathered with butter, then topped with thinly sliced Gouda cheese and cold-cut meat. The "mouthfeel" of that bread - substantial yet light, popping with yeasty flavor, and slightly crunchy from the toaster - blended with creamy cheese and finished with a rush of cool salty ham. Yes, there is also a tradition of spreading Dutch chocolate sprinkles on warm bread, but then as now, I preferred the savory version full of salt and butter. Though deceptively simple, that meal was a group event. As each person waited for their slices of bread to emerge from the toaster, the "grown-ups" drank coffee, we children sipped our juice, and we all subconsciously savored the just-out-of-the-oven smell that comes from re-heating home-baked bread.
Later, as a teenager, I coerced my mom into baking bread regularly. Well, somewhat regularly. For a couple of years, at least, we made bread many Saturday mornings, using the same recipe Auntie Norma used to make the iconic bread featured in my childhood memories. Our recipe has a note for how much fresh grain to use, because my mother has a countertop flour mill, complete with granite grinding stones. She sourced her wheat from local farmers, and let me tell you, there is nothing like starting your bread with flour that is still warm from the friction of milling. Combined with an old-school Bosch bread mixer, we got into a relatively effortless rhythm which took about 1/2 an hour of concentrated attention, and lingered across most of the morning, through two rises of the dough, and a final baking period.
When I left for university, that was the end of homemade bread for a while. Happily, the local bakeries in my university town are top notch, and market in the local groceries. However, when I would go home, I would again try to coerce Mama into making bread with me. I don't know why, but I never dared to do it alone. Perhaps because the couple of times I tried other recipes, and kneaded by hand, the breads came out tasty but flat and dense. Honestly, I doubt I had the patience for hand-kneading long enough to fully develop the elastins in the dough.
Years later, I married, and Mama found a screaming deal on a Bosch mixer! Hip, hip! I used it a few times, but as I said, the bakeries in that university town were more sophisticated, provided delightful variety, and were reeaallly easy. However, this past winter, my honey and I moved to eastern Canada, took a look around at food prices, and resolved then and there to do what it took to amp up our "cook from scratch, at home, as much as possible" approach to life another level.
I pulled out that trusty bread recipe and haven't looked back. It is safe to say we purchased one or two loaves of store-bought bread, while we were unpacking, and that's it. I make the "Bread - 3 loaves" recipe approx. once every two weeks, usually on the same morning I make granola. I will be the first to admit that having a bread mixer is key to motivating me to do this. It has also made me more daring, because I don't worry about under-kneading, and I have branched out to ciabatta, rosemary-potato bread, and an utterly decadent cheddar-onion cornbread which could send anyone happily towards high cholesterol without a second thought. Without any question, breakfast, lunch and dinner can be enhanced by homemade bread.
For now though, here's the original whole-wheat bread recipe in all it's simplicity. It might look like a lengthy complicated recipe, but it is only long because I offer some tips and suggestions at various steps in the process. If this is your first time, be sure to read all the way through before you get started. This is definitely a "process influences outcome" project.
*Typically, you can make a bread like this up to half-and-half whole wheat without having to adjust any other ingredient proportions. This recipe is written as just that 50% whole wheat : 50% white flour.
- 3 1/4 C warm water (105 - 115 degrees Fahrenheit)
- 1/4 C sugar (scant)
- 2T yeast (scant)
- 2 1/2 - 4 C whole wheat flour (3 C grain for fresh-ground)
- 3/4 T or 2 1/4 tsp. salt
- 3/8 C oil (scant 1/2 C)
- 1 egg
- 3-4 C white flour
- Oil for bread pans (vegetable oil, i.e. canola, sunflower, etc.)
*If you don't have anything but a baking sheet, this will still work. The following equipment just takes out some of the guess work, making it less stressful and more fun.
- Mixer with capacity to knead dough
- Dough hooks for mixer
- Bread pans (4) and/or baking sheets, if you prefer "rustic" loaves
- Kitchen scale (ideal, but not essential)
- Meat thermometer
- Turn oven on warm, no more than 150-200 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Proof yeast: Place yeast, warm water and sugar in mixer. Pulse once or twice, then allow to rest for about 5 minutes, until the yeast begins to "puff" and the mixture appears to thicken and look cloudy.
- Add remaining ingredients in order written above, except for one cup of white flour. When flour is added, blend thoroughly before adding additional ingredients.
- Knead on high for 3 minutes, slowly adding final cup of white flour until the dough no longer sticks to the sides of the mixer. If you do not use all of the flour, that is fine. If you don't have a mixer, knead by hand for around 10 minutes, until the dough is elastic enough that it stretches rather than breaking when you pull it apart.
- Oil a large bowl, a truly large bowl, weigh it, and turn the dough out into the bowl. Weigh the bowl again, and subtract the weight of the bowl. Write this number down.
- SHUT OFF the oven, and place the bowl in the oven. Allow dough to rise until doubled in size, approx. 1 hour.
- Oil the bread pans and/or baking sheets. Do NOT use olive oil, as it doesn't do well in baking due to its low flash point. You will wind up scrubbing for a long time to remove sticky darkened oil residue off of your baking sheets.
- Punch down the dough. This is exactly what it sounds like - take your fists and punch the dough a couple of times until it deflates.
- Separate the dough into 4 equal portions, by dividing the original weight of the dough in 4ths, then weighing each portion of dough, and adjusting the amount of dough until it is even. This is a good idea because all the loaves should bake evenly, preventing lots of opening and closing of the oven to check, and reducing the possibility of some over-cooked and some under-cooked loaves.
- Using your hands, gently shape the dough into an elongated-oval shape, tucking in the edges underneath. Place each section of dough into a bread pan, or on a baking sheet. If using baking sheets, you should be able to fit 2 or 3 on the sheet without concern that they will rise and stick into one another.
- Set the bread in a warm-ish non-drafty location, and allow it to rise until doubled in size (probably around another hour). I typically just place it on the stove, and preheat the oven about 1/2-way through. This speeds up the rising process a little.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place all bread in the oven, and bake for about 25-35 minutes, until internal temperature is between 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a meat thermometer to check loaves at around 25 minutes. If you do not have a meat thermometer, go get one. It is essential for making safe decisions about cooking meat, and takes all the guessing out of bread baking. Other methods, including "thumping" a loaf to check for a hollow sound or "baking until golden brown" still require you to use your own judgement. Once you've baked for a while, this might be fine, but it's no fun if it is your first time.
- When loaves are at the correct internal temperature, remove to cooling racks. If you used a baking sheet, slide the bread off the sheet and onto the racks. If you used bread pans, place the bread pan on the cooling racks and wait 10-20 minutes until the bread cools a bit. This reduces the likelihood of tearing the loaf apart when removing it from the pan. Then, use a knife to gently separate the bread from the sides of the pan, lift out the loaf and place it directly on the cooling rack.
- Try hard not to eat it all right away! Actually, as soon as it cools enough to handle, I strongly recommend slicing open a loaf, slathering a thick slice with butter, and trying not to moan out loud when you eat it.
- For storage, wait until the loaves have cooled completely (several hours) before putting in plastic bags. If you put them away warm, the moisture released as the cool will be trapped in the bags, and the loaves will become soggy. Store on the counter for a day or two, in the refrigerator for a week or so, or in the freezer for a couple of months. Ideally, you will eat it within a month, if frozen.
- To thaw and use, remove from freezer and place in refrigerator overnight. Warm in a toaster or toaster oven, and it's almost-but-not-quite the same as straight from the oven.
- Use for sandwiches (slice thickly), breakfasts (with local butter and homemade jams or honey), or with soups for heartier meals.