We all have a favorite food that we've always wanted to try making, but haven't. Be it fear or can't find the time — no more excuses. In this ongoing series, we ask experts to help us prepare that one special dish. So prepare to roll up your sleeves and get cooking.
Whenever I need to coax our family friend Rick into doing me a favor, I sweeten the pot with the promise of a few loaves of homemade bread. It usually does the trick because, like pretty much everyone I’ve ever known, Rick gets a little weak in the knees when I offer up a hot, fresh, crusty loaf.
Rick’s a pretty accomplished guy: At 58, he’s a pilot who flies sea planes as charters and has even flown supplies from charities into hostile territories. He’s also a serious scuba diver and sailor. Recently I needed his help repairing the small sailboat we use at our summer place. I was all set to bake his favorite olive French bread when I had a crazy thought: Rick should learn to make his own bread.
I considered the risk of losing my bribing leverage, but the teacher in me felt strongly that everyone should experience the simple pleasure of bread-baking at least once — especially someone who’s always professed to wanting to learn how.
Rick took a little persuading to don an apron in my kitchen, but he gave in after I explained there’s only about 30 minutes of hands-on work in bread-making and that the rest of the time the dough is either rising or baking.
Fortunately, he trusted me. He’s known me since the 1980s, when I owned a bakery here in Connecticut. And he knows how I feel about the sublime and sensual experience of turning flour, water and yeast into the staff of life and how I can get a little geeky talking about continuing a tradition that’s been virtually unchanged for the past 6,000 years.
As I explained to Rick, once you understand the basics, there’s nothing mysterious or difficult about making bread, and you’ll find, as he did, that the results are more than worth the effort. Indeed, after biting into a slice of warm bread that he had just baked and slathered with butter, he said, “This might be one of the greatest pleasures of being human.”
While you can always pick up a loaf at the store or a bakery, making it yourself is an experience shouldn’t be missed.
There are many different varieties of yeast (active dry, quick rise, instant, fresh), and nearly all bread recipes will perform equally well with any of them. Knowing that, you should try to use the type that the recipe calls for, since that’s how the recipe was tested.
The familiar little red and yellow packets of yeast are easy to find in the refrigerated or baking section of supermarkets. Check the expiration date stamped on each package, and keep it refrigerated until ready to use. Making sure yeast is alive is a process known as “proofing,” and it’s a crucial step in bread making because if the yeast is not alive, it can’t leaven your bread.
When proofing (or activating) yeast, the temperature of the liquid added to it should be between 100° and 110°F. If you have a candy thermometer, use it. Otherwise, just run the water until it’s comfortable to the touch — neither hot nor cold (which slow down or kill the yeast).
Once activated, the yeast mixture will begin to bubble and foam. If this does not happen, the yeast could be old, or perhaps the temperature was off.
How to Knead Bread
Kneading performs an important function in preparing the dough to rise. It completes the mixing process and also allows the flour’s protein to develop into a stretchy network of gluten, which causes the bread to expand and rise.
To properly knead dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a ball. Keep a little additional flour on the side and lightly dust the dough and surface as necessary to keep it from sticking.
Use the heel of one hand to gently push the dough down and away from you. At the same time, use your other hand to rotate the dough slightly toward you, guiding the dough slowly around in a rhythmic, circular motion, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.
Continue this process for approximately 5 to 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and satiny and has a springy quality.
Rick’s Favorite Olive-Herb Bread
Makes 2 loaves
Prep time: 30 minutes
Rising time: 1-1/4 hours
Baking time: 40 minutes
Total time: 2-1/2 hours
If you’ve been intimidated by the thought of making bread at home, don’t be: This recipe takes you through each step of the process and is good for beginning bakers. The technique is basic and gives you a good foundation on which you can expand your skills and experiment with other kinds of bread.
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup water, at room temperature
1 envelope or 2 teaspoons active-dry yeast
1 cup chopped, pitted kalamata olives or other brined-cured olives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if necessary
Oil for greasing bowl and baking sheet
1 egg white, lightly beaten
- In a small saucepan, bring the milk just to the boiling point. Pour the milk into a large bowl, add the butter and sugar and stir with a spoon to melt butter and blend mixture. Add the water and let cool, about 10 minutes or until mixture is between 100° and 110°F. Add the yeast and stir to blend. Let stand about 5 minutes or until foamy.
- Stir in the olives, thyme, rosemary and salt. Add 1 cup of flour and, using a wooden spoon, mix until the flour is well blended. Add the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, and stir vigorously after each addition. If the dough is too sticky, add another cup of flour until dough is smooth and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface (big wooden board or counter) and knead until dough is soft, smooth and has a springy quality, about 5 minutes. Continue to dust with flour as needed to prevent sticking.
- Oil a large bowl. Add the dough and turn to coat with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes. During this period, the yeast will multiply and the gluten will stretch and strengthen. In the absence of oxygen, the yeast organisms break down the starch into simple sugars and produce carbon dioxide gas, which leavens the dough. The dough is ready when it springs back slowly after you gently press the puffy surface with a fingertip.
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Oil a large baking sheet. Deflate the dough by turning it out onto a lightly floured surface. No further kneading is required at this point. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Size does matter: This insures that loaves will bake in the same amount of time. Gently form each piece into a log about 15 by 2-1/2 inches and place on the prepared baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area until puffy, about 30 minutes. Brush the loaves with the egg white wash, which gives the crust a shiny, golden finish.
- Use a spray bottle filled with tap water to spritz the inside of the oven (about 8 squirts). This adds humidity, which, combined with the high oven temperature, will give the loaves an extra-crunchy crust. Immediately after spritzing, place the loaves in the oven and bake 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 400°F and bake for an additional 30 minutes or until the loaves are golden and sound hollow when the bottoms are tapped. Cool the loaves on a wire rack.
If somehow you don’t polish off both loaves right away, you can freeze leftovers for up to two weeks. Wrap completely cooled bread first in foil and then in a Ziploc bag, and freeze. Before serving, unwrap the bread and thaw at room temperature for several hours or heat the foil-wrapped bread in a 325°F oven until warm, about 15 minutes.