Bread Making For Beginners

Last updated 03/14/2019

soured dough bread
Soured dough bread

For centuries, all bread was sourdough bread: there was no such thing as dried yeast.  A baker had to cultivate their own yeast, and keep it going.  There are stories about the pioneers who, when the weather was cold, stored their starters under their clothes, next to their skin, to keep it warm.  Often, bread bakers were called Sourdoughs.  Sourdough starter was a living thing, and quite a mythology rose up around it.

I remember reading about on San Francisco sourdough baker who would flop his bread dough against his bare stomach as part of the kneading process.  The health department made him stop that, and his customers said the bread didn't taste quite the same after that.  Comment is superfluous.

People are fascinated with sourdough bread, and for the life of me I can't see why.  Let's go over the methodology, and then go from there into new, more viable, areas.

The main thing that makes sourdough bread sour is lactic acid, as well as acetic acid (vinegar).  There are other things that add to the flavor, but lactic acid and acetic acid are predominant.  Lactic acid is created by what scientists call LAB, short for Lactic Acid Bacteria, of which there are several species.  Acetic acid bacteria (AAB), of which, again, there are several species, also add to the flavor.  Some "sourdough" breads on the market are nothing more than chemical stews, with lactic acid, vinegar, and citric acids added to make them sour.

I bet I know what you're thinking: why not just add vinegar to the bread dough to get that sour flavor?  I've tried that.  You need to use a lot of vinegar-- so much so that it can kill the yeast (added to that, the bread would just taste like it had vinegar added- it's not the right kind of sour).  I'm all for adding flavor, but just adding chemicals is not the way to do it.

There's a lot of wild yeast and bacteria (including LAB and AAB) in the air, and on things like fruit, and whole grain flours.  Professional wineries always sterilize their crushed grapes with sulfites, killing any wild yeast, before adding cultivated wine yeast.  For centuries, winemakers just used the wild yeasts on their grapes, but the results often ended up being vinegar.

I remember making my own sourdough bread years ago by simply leaving a mix of flour, water and sugar exposed to the open air.  I didn't refrigerate it.  I would use 1 cup of my starter for bread recipes, and then feed the starter with 1/2 cup of flour, 1/2 cup of water, and 1 TBS sugar.  This worked out well, except that after a month or so the starter went bad: undesirable bacteria and yeasts came into play, ruining it.

dr chase manual and white house cookbook
Title pages from Dr. Chase's Medical Manual (1874) and The White House Cookbook (1887)

Below are a few very old articles about yeast and bread baking in general.  All of these were done before Louis Pasteur's groundbreaking work on microbiology.  Yeast was still a mysterious thing back then. 

The first is from Dr. Chase's amazing Medical Manual (1874).  Dr. Chase, bless his heart, believed that drinking beer was good for you.  Now that's medical advice I sure would follow!  Dr. Chase must have followed his own advice when he wrote his manual, as most of it consists of downright epic run-on sentences.

Dr. Chase's Jug Yeast

"...As it is often troublesome to obtain yeast, to start with, I give you the "Distillers' Jug Yeast," starting without yeast."

3. Jug Yeast, Without Yeast to Start With

8 oz. hops
1 gallon water
1 cup fine malt flour
1/2 lb.  brown sugar

Boil the hops in the water until quite strong, strain, and stir in the malt flour; and strain again through a coarse cloth, and boil again for ten minutes; when lukewarm stir in the sugar, and place in a jug, keeping it at the same temperature until it works over; then cork tight, and keep in a cold place.

Advice For Baking Bread from The White House Cookbook

Below is some advice for bread baking from the 1887 White House Cookbook.  Note that back then, sour bread was not liked.  What goes around comes around.

The first thing required for making wholesome bread is the utmost cleanliness; the next is the soundness and sweetness of all the ingredients used for it; and, in addition to these, there must be attention and care through the whole process.

Salt is always used in bread-making, not only on account of its flavor, which destroys the insipid raw state of the flour, but because it makes the dough rise better.

In mixing with milk, the milk should be boiled—not simply scalded, but heated to boiling over hot water—then set aside to cool before mixing. Simple heating will not prevent bread from turning sour in the rising, while boiling will act as a preventative. So the milk should be thoroughly scalded, and should be used when it is just blood warm.

Too small a proportion of yeast, or insufficient time allowed for the dough to rise, will cause the bread to be heavy.

The yeast must be good and fresh if the bread is to be digestible and nice. Stale yeast produces, instead of vinous fermentation, an acetous (sic) fermentation, which flavors the bread and makes it disagreeable. A poor, thin yeast produces an imperfect fermentation, the result being a heavy, unwholesome loaf.

If either the sponge or the dough be permitted to overwork itself—that is to say, if the mixing and kneading be neglected when it has reached the proper point for either—sour bread will probably be the consequence in warm weather, and bad bread in any. The goodness will also be endangered by placing it so near a fire as to make any part of it hot, instead of maintaining the gentle and equal degree of heat required for its due fermentation.

French Bread (1654 Recipe):

Take half a bushel of fine flower, ten eggs, yolks and white, one pound and an half of fresh butter, then put in as much of yest as into the ordinary manchet; temper it with new milk pretty hot, then let it lye half an hour to rise, then make it into loaves or rowles, and wash them over with an egge beaten with milk; let not your oven be too hot.

Modernized Version:

3/4 cup flour
3 TBS butter
1 pkt yeast
3/4 cup warm milk

Make a sponge with the above.  Allow to sit a couple of hours until bubbles form.

Add:

2 1/4 cups flour
1 egg, beaten 

Process in food processor until well kneaded.  The original recipe calls for 30 minutes rise time.  That is not enough.  Put the dough in a bowl sprayed with cooking spray; spray the top.  Allow to sit in a warm place until doubled, then shape into a loaf or rolls  Cover with towel and allow to rise until doubled again.  Brush with 1 egg beaten with 1-2 TBS of milk.  Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

Sourdough Starter:

Traditionally, sourdough bread is made with a starter.  Some people use rye or whole wheat flour instead, and some add 2 TBS sugar to the starter.  Below is a recipe for sourdough starter, with instructions on how to maintain it.  The likelihood of this going bad is minimal, but as with all sourdough starters it will eventually become unusable, and you will have to create a new starter.

Starter:

1 cup flour
1/2 cup water

Allow the starter to sit in a warm place.  After a week, measure out 1/2 cup of it and discard the rest.  Add 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water.  Repeat this process over and over again, on a weekly level, until you see fermentation bubbles and it has a good, sour smell.  For each batch of bread, use 1 cup of starter, discard everything but 1/2 cup of it, and stir in 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water, to keep the starter going.

Starter can be stored in the refrigerator at this point, allowing it to warm to room temperature before using it and feeding it.

In my own work with sourdough, I have found that a liquid separates from the starter.  You can either  stir this back in when baking bread (it has a very sour taste), or you can measure it out, stir in the same amount of water, and then proceed to use the starter in your bread.

the fad now is what is called "artisan bread," which, when translated into English, means anything that makes the bread baking process longer or more complicated. 

This is a lot of work for a very small payoff.  Yeast is cheap.  And you're essentially throwing away a lot of flour.  Some people even use a packet of bread yeast to make their starter, which makes it all even more pointless.

In the olden days, baking soda was often added to sourdough bread to cut down on its sourness.

How do commercial yeast manufacturers get their yeast?  They have vats of liquid, sweetened with molasses or something similar.  They let wild yeasts in the air land in the liquid.  After it starts fermenting, they use microscopes to identify strains of yeast that have qualities they're looking for.  They separate the individual cells, and put them in tanks with sugar in them, and harvest the yeasts when ready.

To my mind, this is almost the same as making sourdough, only it's done scientifically, with more even results.

Anyone who has made home made beer knows to stay away from dried yeast, using liquid yeast instead.  Why?  Dried yeast also contains bacteria-- bacteria that is bad for beer, but great for bread baking.

I make what I call soured dough bread.  This uses what bread bakers call a sponge, because it has lots of bubbles in it.

Basic sponge recipe (1 loaf):

1 cup water
1 cup flour
2 TBS vegetable oil
1 tsp dried yeast
3 TBS sugar

Mix this all together.  Put in a warm, dry place.  Allow to sit for at least 8 hours.  If it has lots of bubbles in it and a good sour smell, go to the next step.  Some bakers let the sponge rise and then collapse, to get a really sour flavor.

Mix in 2 cups of white flour, either using a food processor, a dough hook, or your hands.  Knead until smooth and satiny (sponge dough breads are quite easy to knead).  Shape into a ball.

Spray a bowl with non stick cooking spray.  Put the bread dough in, and spray the top.   Put in a warm dry place, cover, and let sit for 1-2 hours.  When size of dough has doubled, punch down and shape into a loaf.  Spray the loaf with cooking spray.  Cover the loaf with a towel and allow the loaf to rise until doubled, and then bake at 375 degrees for about 20-30 minutes.

I used to have a lot of recipes for rye bread, whole wheat bread and so on.  Not any more.  You can use the below listing to make any kind of bread you want.

food processor with bread dough
Food processor kneading bread dough.

Note: all of these recipes were made in a food processor.  Just put in the sponge, add the other ingredients required, turn the processor on and keep it on until the dough is well kneaded.

Rye Bread/Whole Wheat Bread/Spelt Bread/Buckwheat Bread/Bran Bread/Amaranth Bread, or any other exotic flours you might find at the health food store:

Substitute 1/2 cup of (fill i the blank) flour for 1/2 cup of the white flour.  For rye bread add 2 tsp. caraway seeds and 1 TBS instant coffee.


Pretzels:

Shape basic dough into pretzel shapes.  Put into boiling water bath with 1 quart water and 1/3 cup baking sod, for about a minute or so, turning once.  Put them onto greased baking sheets.  Brush with 1 beaten egg and bake at 475 degrees for 12-15 minutes.  You can freeze these quite successfully.  Just moisten slightly with water, sprinkle salt on, and microwave them for about 30 seconds each.

Bagels:

Substitute 1 egg for 1/4 cup of the water in these.  Shape into bagel shapes, and put in a boiling water bath for about a minute, flipping over once.  Put on greased baking sheets.  Brush with egg and add toppings, such as poppy seeds or whatever you want.  Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Pumpernickel Bread/Anadama bread:

Substitute the following for 1/2 cup of the flour:

3 TBS rye flour
3 TBS whole wheat flour
2 TBS corn meal

Substitute 3 TBS honey or molasses for the sugar.  For pumpernickel, add 3 TBS instant coffee to the dough.  For Anadama bread, leave the coffee out.

Cheese Bread:

add 4 ounces (1 cup) grated cheddar cheese to dough.

Pizza Bread:

Substitute 1/2 cup tomato sauce for 1/2 cup of the water.  Add 1/2 tsp garlic powder and 2 tsp Italian seasoning.  Add 1 cup mozzarella cheese grated, and 20 or so slices of pepperoni.