January Challenge – How to Bake Bread

In the spirit of perfecting my culinary skills, I am going to tackle food-related tasks that usually leave me frustrated and/or embarrassed with the results via a once-a-month challenge this year. Frosting a cake and grilling the perfect hamburger will happen in the future, but first a basic, but a goodie – bake a great loaf of bread.

My goal for this first challenge is to find a recipe for bread that’s perfect on the side of soup or spaghetti night. I still love Angelic Bakehouse seven-grain bread for my everyday sandwich needs. I turn to North Shore Boulangerie or Rocket Baby Bakery when I want something really fancy. But nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread straight out of the oven, so here we are with January’s challenge.

How to Bake the Perfect Loaf of Bread

I tried several different recipes for basic white bread over the last several weeks. 

First up was the basic bread recipe from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. The end result here was good, but for being a no-knead bread, it sure dirtied up the kitchen! This recipe makes enough dough for four loaves, so my Kitchenaid was tied up for a week storing the dough while we tried to eat our way through finished products. Additionally, the recipe suggests a pan of water and a baking stone in the oven for a crunchy crust. I blame a lot on user error, but the end result was a little dense for our liking.

Next came the basic bread dough from Crumb, the cookbook club book. This one was much more straight forward. It did require some kneading, which I choose to do in the mixer vs. by hand. The dough comes together relatively quickly (i.e. it can be made in the early afternoon for that night’s dinner). The chew was nice and the crust was crunchy. My only hang up here was that the bread was pretty bland. I guess that’s good for flavored butter or sopping up soup, but I still wasn’t happy enough to be done with my search.

Finally, I tried a recipe from King Arthur Flour’s site, my new go-to for all FAQs on baking. I am princess-y about my flour now and will only use this brand. I’m sure a lot of it is in my head, but I feel like the baked goods I make using their products turn out lighter and more flavorful than using the store branded option. They too have a recipe for no-knead bread, but after my experience with the first bread, I passed on this option. Instead, I tried out their French-Style Country Bread. Anything that is “French-Style” has to be great, right?

Homemade Bread Recipe Tips

It sure was!! This was my favorite bread of all the options. The recipe provides enough for two loaves which is perfect for me. (Make one now and freeze or refrigerate the other loaf for later.) Though it takes a smidge more time, it only uses a handful of dishes and mostly ingredients you have around the house. The bread can taste a little bland, so unless your doctor tells you otherwise, go with the high-end of the recommended salt portion (2 1/4 tsp) in the dough.

Tips for Homemade Bread

Here are some other tips I learned along the way that will probably make any bread recipe even more delicious.

  • If you have a clean, empty water spritzer, use that to spritz water on the doors and walls of the oven for the first half of baking. Alternatively, just use a clean glass of water and your fingers to sprinkle water on the door for that same duration. Don’t try to get the walls, too, or you’ll end up with water on the dough (or so I’ve heard. 😉 )
  • Honestly, I didn’t find there to be THAT much difference between the bread on a baking stone vs. a metal cookie sheet. If you have one, by all means, use it, but if not, don’t feel like you need one. Also, if someone wants to give you one of these baguette-baking contraptions, you should definitely take it. I haven’t played around with it yet, but I think the more air you can circulate around the dough, the better.
  • That said, I did try one loaf in a loaf pan. It (obviously) had a better shape for sandwiches, but I found it didn’t cook as evenly as the free-form loaves.
  • Burning cornmeal smells like fire, so be careful not to dust the pan with too much. Otherwise that whole “make the house smell like baked bread” idea backfires. Again, so I’ve heard…

Do you make bread at home? If so, do you have a favorite recipe or other tips for us?

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