• Baking bread doesn’t have to be complicated or hard, but there are a few tips to make sure the loaf you bake will turn out just right. Sure, it’s easy to go to the grocery store and buy a loaf of sliced bread. Anyone can do that, of course. Have you ever looked at the ingredient list on the back of the package? It’s full of scientific words that I can’t pronounce. At least I know what goes into my bread: flour, yeast, salt, and sugar. Pretty basic and that’s the way I like it.

    The best piece of advice I have is: Practice, practice, practice. My first loaves of bread were hard and better used as baseball bats rather than baguettes. I learned my lesson and sought to improve my baking skills. I think I’ve learned more through trial and error than in baking class in culinary school. More than anything, kneading dough by hand connects you to your food. Even though I use a mixer to knead most of the time, some days I give the mixer a break and knead the dough by hand. Not only is it a great workout, you really learn what a good dough will feel like and appreciate it more.

    For all intensive purposes, the best flour to use is bread flour. It’s high gluten and will produce good results. There are many flours out there. Once you get familiar with baking bread, you can experiment with other flours. If you want to use whole wheat to make a healthier bread, I suggest substituting half of the bread flour with whole wheat.

    Yeast: It’s alive!
    What is yeast? I’ve been teaching my daughter how to bake and she’s always intrigued by the yeast. Since I use SAF instant yeast, I don’t really need to bloom it but it’s a fun experiment for an 8 year old girl. Blooming yeast wakes it up and makes it come alive. Adding sugar to it makes it grow even faster since it’s an organism that loves to eat (and eat and eat).

    However, it can be kind of fickle.

    Yeast likes:

    Warm water (not too hot or too cold — this will kill it)

    Yeast hates:

    Salt — salt is extremely important in bread baking because it provides flavor and it helps keep the yeast in check (retards it, basically). If salt wasn’t added to the dough, the yeast would over indulge and eat too much. It doesn’t know when to stop. Salt steps in and calms the yeast down — like the bouncer at a club.
    Extreme temperatures

    For years I used Fleishman’s yeast or Red Star. Both work well, but I switched over the SAF yeast which comes in a larger package and is used by professional bakers.

    I was a given a 15 year old starter not too long ago. Quite possibly this was the best gift I’ve ever been given. Ok, so I sound a little strange, but now I can bake sourdough bread once a week and eat some of the best sandwiches and toast known to man. It’s all about the bread.

    I’m sure you’ve had sourdough. Famous for its bread, San Francisco sourdough tastes different than sourdough in Chicago. Why? It feeds on natural yeast in the air and the air in Chicago is different than San Francisco. My sourdough starter has been living here in Montana for 15 years. I’m sure it has a different taste than one created in Ohio.

    If you want to make your own starter, here is a basic one:

    Honey Starter
    1 package dry yeast
    2 1/2 cups warm water (105º-115ºF)
    2 tablespoons honey
    2 1/2 cups bread or all-purpose flour

    Combine the ingredients in a quart jar with a tight fitting lid. Seal the jar and let the mixture ferment in warm place for 5 days, stirring daily. Store in the refrigerator. Replenish the starter with water and flour in equal portions.

    Starter tips:
    It’s a commitment and fed. When you use a cup of starter for a recipe, you need to replenish what you took out by adding 3/4 cup water and 3/4 flour. Allow it to sit at room temperature for a day before refrigerating. Plan on baking bread about once a week or at least once every couple of weeks. Make sure you feed it about a tablespoon of flour and water each day or every other day.

    A sponge is a type of starter that use usually not kept around, so it doesn’t have the classic sour dough flavor. Sponges are left to grow overnight and used the next day in the loaf.

    What does Mother Nature have to do with baking bread? A lot, actually. If it’s humid and rainy, you’ll need to use more flour. If the weather is dry, then you use less flour. This a reason I don’t measure the flour when baking. By feeling the dough, I can tell if enough flour has been incorporated. This goes back to the advice — practice.

    Armed with a little knowledge and a few good recipes, you can bake your own bread that will be tastier and healthier than the ones sold in stores.

    Marcy Gaston is a writer living in Montana. She has been cooking her whole life both professionally and at home. She writes a cooking blog called Cooking Rut – http://cookingrut.blogspot.com