How to Bake an Amazing Loaf of Bread at Home
So from the time I arrived home from work on Friday, I set a goal of learning to make great bread from scratch.
Well, first, I love bread. And it’s not like I live in the middle of nowhere. I live right in the heart of a big city (Toronto) and there are certainly very decent loaves of bread to be had from at least a dozen spots around the city.
But while I like some of their bread, I really don’t love it, so I endeavored to find a recipe that I could use at home and that would actually produce very good to great bread.
The other piece, which is far less important but certainly a little frustrating, is that buying a small loaf of bread at the better spots in town is $5-$7. I was convinced that I could make a larger loaf for significantly less at home and not sometimes feel ripped off.
So, let’s start by saying that I’ve never really baked bread before. I think I’m a good cook, and I do make very nice homemade pizza dough. But that’s not bread and the baking process is entirely different. So, at best, I went into this weekend as a bread novice.
I looked at probably 20 recipes, realizing that, since I’m super picky, the best I could hope for was one as a base that I could modify. And I found one that’s actually a superb base.
So I should also mention that I own the Le Creuset pot in issue. I don’t own the high-temperature lid handle and I didn’t want to unscrew mine, so I’ve covered my bread with foil rather than the lid while baking. If you don’t own a Le Creuset and don’t want to buy that brand (it’s admittedly stupidly expensive) there are excellent substitutes available at big city discount and kitchen stores at a quarter of the cost. Trust me, you’ll find yourself using it for everything, not just making bread. And, yes, baking bread in it, as the receipt suggests, is easy. The bread truly pops right out of the pot, doesn’t stick at ALL.
So, what you need to do is to follow the recipe as best you can. Not only could I not use the lid, I don’t own a mixer. I always do all of my pizza dough mixing by hand. Look, to do it right, it’s admittedly a nice little workout. But I love it. There’s something very phly and elemental about making fresh dough using only your hands. And while I doubted that it would work with a bread recipe, using my hands instead of a mixer worked fine.
There is another critical change that I made to the recipe above. When you’re adding the yeast and water and salt, I feel that you really should also add a bit less than a teaspoon of sugar. It’s not only a yeast reaction thing, it adds something wonderful and not at all sweet to the bread. Trust me, you can’t taste any sugar in it.
Another note. Don’t be stingy with the oils and please do use the oils they suggest. I used corn oil (hey — corn is a vegetable) to coat the Le Creuset, a nice Tunisian olive oil on the actual loaf.
As for pouring a little salt on the loaf before baking, I didn’t do that. Doesn’t appeal to me. But I did score the loaf with a cross and then, on a later loaf, a Star of David, which actually worked really well. And when the recipe says that you need to let the loaf sit for 30 minutes on the rack before you eat it, it’s an understatement. The bread really needs 45 minutes on the rack to actually finish cooking — so please let it do so.
As for flour, I tried several variations and prefer straight-up all-purpose white flour. I made one that had some 00 flour in it (I sometimes use 00 to make my pizza doughs) and it was very interesting but not something I’d make regularly. I also don’t believe that you need bread flour. Truly your best bet is all-purpose. I used Robin Hood but can tell you that in making my pizza doughs when I’ve chosen not to use the fancy 00, the no-name brand (mine from No Frills in Canada) seems to work even better.
I never really care about what a load of bread looks like because I don’t eat bread by the loaf, I eat it by the slice. So here’s what a slice of my bread looks like.
I found that I was happier with leaving the bread in the oven just a bit longer than others might. I went for a darker golden brown and overdid it by a few minutes one one attempt. The color on the slice above is what I see as being close to perfect.
Let’s talk about cost for a second. The recipe above makes a very generous loaf, I’d say 25% larger than what you’d find in an upscale bakery. I figure the the cost of my ingredients were:
- Flour: $0.60
- Yeast: $0.45
- Salt, sugar, and oil: $0.30
So the total cost of my loaf of bread is right around $1.35. If you get your yeast at a discount place and use lesser quality olive oil, I’m confident you can make this loaf for $1.
Overall, I think that this weekend project was a great success. In just around 36 hours, I taught myself how to bake a very good bread. It’s not yet excellent, but I’ll continue to tweak the recipe over the winter to get it there. Best of all, it was really enjoyable. I listened to some classic Todd Rundgren, some more experimental Utopia, and, to honor his birthday, some Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie while I created. It was fun and I’m glad I did it.
Enjoy your own experimentation and enjoy the bread!
Postscript: Here is the bread as a very fine French Toast this morning.