Back to Basics – Whole Wheat Bread

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Whole wheat bread is our favorite around here. Rarely do I make white bread and I usually throw at least a little whole wheat flour in just about every baked good I make. To the uninitiated, baking with whole wheat flour can be fraught with issues: dry, dense bread and crumbly loaves. There are a few tricks in the trade that can make the difference between stereotypical dense, dry whole wheat bread and light, soft bread that tastes mildly of nutty whole grain goodness.

If you have never baked bread before, check out my post on white bread first. Baking with whole wheat can be just a tiny bit tricky and it helps if you are already familiar with yeast and the steps of making bread.

White whole wheat flour
When I first started baking with whole wheat, way back in the early 90s, I only had access to standard whole wheat flour. It was dark and strongly flavored and if I wasn’t careful it made heavy, overly wheaty bread.

Then I discovered a new product: white whole wheat flour. It is a different strain of wheat from regular whole wheat and it was a revelation. White whole wheat is basically albino wheat. And its flour has all of the nutrition of regular whole wheat flour with none of the bitterness. It is usually ground as finely as all-purpose flour, which helps make baked goods come out with a texture similar to white flour products.

That said, if you have traditional whole wheat flour, as long as it isn’t stoneground, your bread will turn out very similar to mine. It will, however, be a little darker and have a stronger flavor.

A word on stoneground flour
Don’t get me wrong, stoneground flour is a wonderful product. And if you are used to baking with it, it can produce lovely baked goods. But if you are a novice baker, you probably want to wait to use stoneground flour until you have at least a few loaves of bread under your belt. Stoneground flour requires a little more liquid, a longer rest time and a light hand with flour during kneading.

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Bran and its challenges
The problems most people have with whole grain baking (not just whole wheat) stem from the bran in the flour. Whole grain flour is the whole grain, ground into flour. That sounds a little obvious, but stick with me. Because you have the whole grain, you have the bran and the germ, along with the rest of the kernel (called the endosperm). White flour contains only the endosperm. The germ has lots of nutrition and a little fat (the good kind) and doesn’t really affect the texture of the bread. The bran contains most of the fiber in the grain (which we all want to eat more of) and is what can cause problems when baking with whole wheat flour.

Bran absorbs liquid slowly. This can cause an issue if you mix your whole wheat bread dough exactly as you would mix white bread dough. If you don’t build in extra time for the bran to absorb the liquid you can end up with heavy, dense bread.

One simple trick solves all, though: a rest period. Mix up the dough, including all of the whole wheat flour, and then stop. Cover the bowl and do something else for fifteen minutes. It doesn’t matter what. Wash the dishes. Start a load of laundry. Or take a rest yourself. While the dough is resting, the bran will have plenty of time to soak up all the liquid it wants. When you come back, your batter-like dough should have firmed up just a bit. Now you can proceed with the rest of the recipe without worry about adding too much flour.

That’s pretty much it. Start with white whole wheat flour, which you can find in any grocery store. Take a pass on stoneground flour until you have a little baking experience. And give the dough a rest. Now all that’s left to do is get your ingredients and your bowl ready. Just think, in about two hours you can have your very own loaves of warm, soft whole wheat bread. The butter is waiting.

Download or print the recipe.

Basic Whole Wheat Bread
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens
Homemade Bread Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves

If you don’t have 9 by 5 inch loaf pans, you can use a large baking sheet. Follow recipe directions for shaping and simply place the loaves on a lightly greased baking sheet, far enough apart so they have room to rise. Bake as directed, but for only 20-25 minutes.

2¼ cups milk
3 cups whole wheat flour (white whole wheat or regular)
2¾-3½ cups all-purpose flour, approximately
1 package instant or active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)*
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

*Be sure you don’t buy rapid rise yeast. That particular yeast only works in recipes written specifically for it. Look for instant or active dry yeast packets in the baking aisle of the grocery store.

Heat milk until very warm (120-130 degrees). It will feel very warm if you test it with your finger. If it is hot, let it cool a little before you use it. Combine the 3 cups whole wheat flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add butter and warm milk. Stir vigorously until well-mixed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 10-15 minutes. This will allow the whole wheat flour to absorb more of the liquid and help guard against adding too much flour during kneading.

Add 2½ cups of all-purpose flour gradually, about a cup at a time. The dough will become stiff and hard to stir. Continue to work in flour until the dough is firm enough to knead. You might need up to an additional cup of flour, but try not to make the dough dry.

Lightly sprinkle a kneading surface with flour. Turn dough out of the bowl onto the flour. Flour your hands and start to knead, adding sprinkles of flour as needed. If you are used to baking with white flour only, the dough might feel a bit rougher to you and not quite as bouncy. It is supposed to feel like that.

Knead gently at first: pull the far side of the dough toward you and fold over, pressing it away from you with the heels of your hands. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat. When dough is less sticky, you can be less gentle. At first you might need to scrape your kneading surface with a rubber spatula if dough sticks. Add flour as necessary to the dough and your hands to prevent sticking. Try to add flour gradually, only until the dough doesn’t stick to your hands. Knead the dough 5-8 minutes or until it is no longer sticky. It will become smooth and elastic.

Lightly grease a large bowl (at least 3 quarts). Place the ball of dough in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. You don’t want the dough to dry out while it is rising. Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 60 minutes. I like to use the turned-off oven with the light on. It gets surprisingly warm.

While the dough is rising, lightly grease two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans.

If you aren’t sure if your dough is doubled, poke your finger into it at the edge. If the hole doesn’t fill in immediately, your dough is ready. Turn the dough out onto your kneading surface and knead briefly to press out any large air bubbles. You shouldn’t need any flour.

Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, flatten the dough into a rough rectangle about 9 inches wide (as wide as your pan is long). Starting from one 9-inch side, tightly roll the dough into a cylinder. Pinch the seam and the ends closed. Roll the top side against the surface to smooth. Turn seam side down and fold the ends under slightly. Place in pan, seam side down. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Lightly cover the loaves with a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Let rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until the middles of the loaves are about 1 inch above the tops of their pans.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees while the loaves are rising.

Bake the risen loaves for about 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and tent loosely with foil if the tops are browning too fast.

Remove loaves from the pans and cool on wire racks. Try to wait at least a few minutes before cutting into the loaves. Ideally wait until they are fully cool before slicing. You are going to want to sample your bread before it cools. I know you are. That is fine, but be very gentle when you slice the warm loaves or you will crush them.

Store at room temperature in an airtight container or ziplock bag. Homemade bread dries out much faster than commercial bread. Slice loaves and freeze if keeping for longer than a couple of days.

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Back to Basics – Homemade White Bread

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When I asked for requests for topics in the Back to Basics series I got one for basic white bread. I must admit that I don’t bake much white bread these days. We prefer to eat whole wheat, oat or rye bread. But I decided I could make a batch of white just this once. It’s all for the blog, right? I’ll endure the hardship of making (and eating) white bread for the cause.

All jokes aside, homemade bread leaves store and bakery bread in the dust. At least once in your culinary life you need to bake your own bread. It isn’t hard, you don’t need any special equipment and you will feel so accomplished. And then you get to eat the bread you made.

You can do this.
Let’s start with what you don’t need to make bread. You don’t need a bread machine. You don’t need a fancy stand mixer. You don’t need a kitchen full of gadgets. You don’t even need bread pans.

I started baking bread in college and really honed my skills after Rich and I got married. We had a tiny, barebones apartment kitchen and an oven that only had one rack. We did have loaf pans, but not much else. I baked my way through three bread books during those early days – baking was cheap entertainment. I did eventually save up for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, but only after I had baked many, many loaves of bread.

The only things you need to make yeast bread are a big bowl, a sturdy wooden spoon or spatula and a baking sheet. That’s it.

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Will your first loaves of bread be perfect? No. Will they be pretty? Probably. Will they taste fabulous? Definitely. What are you waiting for? Let’s get started.

You only need to remember a few things when baking bread: Kneading isn’t scary. Yeast is your friend. You can do this.

Yeast Bread 101
You need happy yeast to make bread rise. All yeast really needs to be happy is food, in the form of flour, and water. This recipe uses milk in place of water to make the bread softer and to help it to stay fresh longer. It also has a little sugar and salt for flavor, along with a little butter. The butter will add flavor and also help with the keeping qualities.

When yeast is happy and fed, it grows and reproduces. And when it grows it makes the bread rise. Or rather, the yeast itself doesn’t help the bread rise, but the by-product of its digestion, carbon dioxide, does. The little bubbles of carbon dioxide, along with gluten, make yeast bread light and fluffy.

Gluten is not evil, unless you are allergic to it. That is all I’ll say on that. I’m not going to get in a debate about gluten’s nutritional role. For yeast bread, we need gluten. It forms the structures inside the bread that hold the carbon dioxide bubbles we just talked about. Without gluten, the bread wouldn’t rise.

Kneading develops the gluten in the dough. Yes, you can make bread without kneading. But to make close-grained, dense but fluffy sandwich bread, you need to knead. It isn’t hard. It can be a little messy, but it isn’t hard.

Finally, bread does not take all day to make. And you don’t have to sit around watching it rise. From start to finish, the process will take a little more than two hours. But for most of that time you can be doing something else while the bread rises. Set a timer and do other things around the house. Heck, for the first hour-long rise, you can even run errands. When I made the bread for the photos, I made the dough and then washed the dishes, ran to the store and folded a load of laundry while it rose the first time. During the second rise I washed the rising bowl, did a little housecleaning and put away the laundry I folded earlier. Make the baking fit into your schedule and you will get other things done and end up with freshly baked bread.

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The recipe below is detailed so don’t let the length discourage you. I included some pictures to help you along. I didn’t get pictures of the actual kneading process. That is hard to do and photograph yourself. I think Rich would be a little perturbed if I covered our shared camera with crusted-on dried dough. But follow the directions and you will be fine.

This recipe was the first bread I ever made. I found it in one of my mom’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks. I was home from college on Christmas break and looking for something to do. First try the bread turned out perfectly. And a baking habit (addiction?) was born.

Repeat after me: I can make bread. Then get some flour and some yeast, pull out a bowl and just do it.

Print just the recipe.

Basic White Bread
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens
Homemade Bread Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves

If you don’t have 9 by 5 inch loaf pans, you can use a large baking sheet. Follow recipe directions for shaping and simply place the loaves on a lightly greased baking sheet, far enough apart so they have room to rise. Bake as directed, but for only 20-25 minutes.

2¼ cups milk
5¾-6½ cups all-purpose flour, approximately
1 package instant or active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)*
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

*Be sure you don’t buy rapid rise yeast. That particular yeast only works in recipes written specifically for it. Look for instant or active dry yeast packets in the baking aisle of the grocery store.

Heat milk until very warm (120-130 degrees). It will feel very warm if you test it with your finger. If it is hot, let it cool a little before you use it. Combine 3 cups flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Add butter and warm milk. Stir vigorously until combined.

Add 2½ more cups of flour gradually, about a cup at a time. Dough will become stiff and hard to stir. Continue to work and stir the flour in until the dough is firm enough to knead. You might need an additional cup of flour, but try not to make the dough dry.

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Lightly sprinkle a kneading surface with flour. Turn dough out of the bowl onto the flour. Flour your hands and start to knead, adding sprinkles of flour as needed.

Knead gently at first: pull the far side of dough toward you and fold over, pressing it away from you with the heels of your hands. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat. When dough is less sticky, you can be less gentle. At first you might need to scrape your kneading surface with a rubber spatula if dough sticks. Add flour as necessary to the dough and your hands to prevent sticking. Knead the dough 5-8 minutes or until it is no longer sticky. It will become smooth and elastic.

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Lightly grease a large bowl (at least 3 quarts). Place the ball of dough in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. You don’t want the dough to dry out while it is rising. Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 60 minutes. I like to use the turned-off oven with the light on. It gets surprisingly warm.

While the dough is rising, lightly grease two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans.

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If you aren’t sure if your dough is doubled, poke your finger into it at the edge. If the hole doesn’t fill in immediately, your dough is ready. Turn the dough out onto your kneading surface and knead briefly to press out any large air bubbles. You shouldn’t need any flour.

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Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, flatten the dough into a rough rectangle about 9 inches wide (as wide as your pan is long). See the pan I was using as my guide in the picture below.

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Starting from one 9-inch side, tightly roll the dough into a cylinder.

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Pinch the seam and the ends closed. Roll the top side against the surface to smooth. Here I didn’t get the rolls as smooth as I should have. I like the design at the ends, but if you want smoother finished loaves, keep pinching and rolling until your log of dough is smooth. Rising will only magnify any ridges, it won’t smooth them out.

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Turn seam side down and fold the ends under slightly. Place in pan, seam side down. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Lightly cover the loaves with a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Let rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until the middles of the loaves are about 1 inch above the tops of their pans.

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Preheat the oven to 375 degrees while the loaves are rising.

Bake the risen loaves for about 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and tent loosely with foil if the tops are browning too fast.

Remove loaves from the pans and cool on wire racks. Try to wait at least a few minutes before cutting into the loaves. Ideally wait until they are fully cool before slicing. You are going to want to sample your bread before it cools. I know you are. That is fine, but be very gentle when you slice the warm loaves or you will crush them.

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Store at room temperature in an airtight container or ziplock bag. Homemade bread dries out much faster than commercial bread. Slice loaves and freeze if keeping for longer than a couple of days.

Back to Basics – Home Canning

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I avoided any sort of canning for years. I had a picture in my head of vats of boiling water and steam clouded windows, rows and rows of jars, bushels of fruit and me, toiling over the hot stove with sweat streaming down my brow. Canning doesn’t have to be like this. It certainly isn’t when I do it. I finally ventured into canning several years ago and wondered why I had waited so long.

The first time I made blackberry jam and canned it was a revelation. I had seedless, slightly tart blackberry jam that I was unlike anything I could buy in the stores, and I could eat it in January. The canning process wasn’t hard, once I understood what I was doing. Since then I mostly have canned fruit based products that are exactly what I want – peach butter that is preserved summer sunshine in a jar, sweet-tart plum jam, spiced pear preserves and the blackberry jam, when my parents’ blackberry vines have a good year.

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Canning is not hard. And you don’t have to can huge amounts of vegetables or fruit at a time. And it isn’t a mysterious process. It basically boils down (see the pun here?) to cooking your filled canning jars in boiling water until they are germ free and vacuum-sealed.

I usually can a few jars of jam or preserves at a time. I can make the jam and can it in an afternoon. I can even make the jam one day and can it another day, as long as I heat up the jam again before filling the hot jars (so they don’t break from the difference in temperatures).

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A Note on Sources
You can find umpteen sites online that give you directions and recipes for canning. Make sure you are reading reputable sites with up-to-date information. There are a lot of unsafe and outdated canning methods out there. The National Center for Home Food Preservation, university extension services and the Ball canning site all have information you can trust. I use all of them for reference.

To Buy a Canning Kettle or Not
You need a canning kettle or other large pot that is deep enough to hold your jars and water to cover the tops of them by at least an inch. If you are using something other than a canning kettle, which comes with a rack insert, you need a rack or trivet in the bottom of the pot to elevate the jars a bit. I don’t have a canning kettle – I use my giant pasta pot with a rack in the bottom. There are kits that have a rack or jar caddy, and other canning tools. They are nice, but you can get by perfectly well with a big pot, a rack, a pair of tongs and a ladle.

I recommend canning in pint, half-pint or even smaller jars. I like the smaller jars for gift giving and so that we can finish each jar relatively quickly. If you decide to can in quart jars, you probably will want a canning kettle, since it will be tall enough to get the water deep enough. You might not want to invest in a canning kettle if you aren’t going to be canning a lot, or if you aren’t going to be canning quart jars.

Sterilizing
Most sources say you don’t need to sterilize jars for foods that are going to be processed in a hot water bath for more than ten minutes. I tend to err on the side of caution and sterilize mine anyway. Even if you don’t sterilize your jars, you need to heat them up in hot water so you aren’t adding hot food to room temperature jars, which could lead to broken jars. I have never (so far) canned a batch of jam or preserves that has molded, so I think I will stick with my method. I would rather play it on the safe side than have to throw away a batch of moldy preserves.

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A Note on Jars and Lids
Be sure to use jars and lids made for canning. Don’t reuse jars from commercial products. You can reuse glass canning jars and the threaded lid bands, but you can’t reuse the flat lids. Once they have been used once, the rubber seals won’t form a proper seal again. You can buy packages of just the flat lids if you are reusing jars and bands.

The Actual Canning Process
Wash your jars, flat lids and bands in hot soapy water.

If you aren’t sterilizing your jars, keep them hot until you are ready to use them. If you are sterilizing your jars, put them in the kettle or pot and fill it with water to cover the jars. Bring it to a boil over high heat, covered. Boil the jars in the water for 15 minutes to sterilize them. Boil the flat lids and threaded rings in a smaller pot, also covered, for the same amount of time. Throw the ladle that you are going to use to fill the jars into one of the pots.

When your jars are sterilized, leave them in the hot water until right before you are ready to use them. Lift them out of the water with tongs and drain the water out. The jars will be hot – use an oven mitt to handle the jars. Don’t dump out the hot water in the kettle – you will use it again for the actual canning process.

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Fill the jars with hot jam or preserves, leaving the headspace specified in the recipe you are using. Wipe the tops of the jars clean. Fish the flat lids and rings out of the hot water with tongs and put them on the jars. Tighten them only finger tight and put the jars back in the canning kettle or your large pot with a rack. If you over-tighten the bands air will not be able to escape and the vacuum seal might not form properly. Add hot water if necessary to cover the jars and reach an inch above their tops.

Bring the water back to a boil and keep it boiling for the time specified in the recipe you are using.

Remove the hot jars with tongs and place them on a folded towel or wooden cutting board. Let them rest, undisturbed, until they are room temperature. This will take several hours. You will hear the lids pop as the vacuum seal forms. If any of the jars don’t form a seal, which will vacuum the lid down, refrigerate and use them within a couple of weeks.

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When the jars are cool, label them and store them somewhere cool and dark. Give as gifts or open them one at a time over the months, gloating every time over your home canned, homemade jam.

Back to Basics – White Rice

DSC_0024Plain boiled rice might seem too basic for a recipe. However, I can’t tell you how many people have asked me how to cook rice. It isn’t hard to make rice, but there are several things that can trip you up.

First, since you are working with only two ingredients – rice and water – you need to have good rice. I don’t like to use the run-of-the-mill rice from the grocery store that is labeled “long-grain rice” or just “rice.” The quality can be inconsistent, which means your cooked rice can be inconsistent.

I prefer to use jasmine or basmati rice. They have more flavor than un-named, generic varieties and cook up more consistently. The jasmine has a subtle flowery, spicy flavor that perfumes the whole house when you are cooking it. Basmati smells and tastes slightly nutty, sometimes slightly reminiscent of popcorn. Both are long grain rices, sometimes extremely long. The grains are fluffy and separate easily – no gumminess.

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Be sure to buy your rice from a store that has reasonable turnover. Even white rice can get old and rancid. Give it a sniff and you will know if your rice is over the hill or not. Old rice smells sour, musty and not good. And those aromas will only intensify when you cook it. Rice is cheap. If in doubt, toss it and buy a fresh supply. If you don’t cook rice that often, toss the raw rice in a ziplock bag and store it in the freezer. You can cook it directly from the freezer.

There really isn’t a lot to cooking rice, as long as you start with a good product. You cook it in twice as much water, by volume, as rice. So one cup of rice cooks in two cups of water. Cover it while it cooks and don’t stir. That is it. Yes, it is that easy. And yes, I am including a recipe. Follow the directions and you should end up with perfect rice, every time.

Download or print the recipe here.

White Rice
From the Cook’s Life
Serves 4, easy to double

2 cups water
1 cup rice

Bring water to boil in a 2- or 3-quart pot over high heat, covered. When water boils, immediately turn the heat as low as your stove will go. Add rice, stir once and put the lid on the pot. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Watch the pot for a minute or two to make sure the starch in the rice won’t make bubbles that creep to the top and run down the outside. If this happens, lift the lid, stir once, and re-cover the pot.

Now, leave the rice alone. Don’t stir it. Don’t uncover it.

After 15 minutes, check on the rice. Lift the lid and use a spoon to pull back a small section of the rice from the edge of the pan. If there is unabsorbed water in the bottom, replace the lid and cook for another 5-7 minutes.

When rice is done, all the water will be absorbed and the grains of rice will be tender and slightly sticky, but not gummy. If rice still seems too wet, give it a few more minutes to cook.

Fluff the rice and serve hot. Leftovers can be reheated in the microwave, though the rice will never be as fluffy and moist as it is the first day.