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.

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Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

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Fall weather changes my thinking when I plan dinner, even side dishes. I turn from things like light, citrusy rice to rich, cheesy potatoes. Or at least I did today. I wanted to make a cheesy potato dish to go with the breaded, baked fish I was planning. And I wanted to make it as simple as possible, with as few dirty dishes as possible.

I decided to make scalloped potatoes like my mother used to when I was growing up. I sliced potatoes and layered them with cheese and sprinkles of flour. I poured milk over the top and baked them until they were browned and bubbly and the milk and flour had thickened into a sauce.

The only hard part about this recipe is waiting for them to bake. No cheese sauce to make, no potatoes to parboil before baking. Just cheesy, warm potatoes with a minimum of fuss and bother. My idea of a perfect side dish.

Download or print recipe here.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6-8

You can make this with your favorite cheeses. Stronger cheeses are better than mild ones, in my opinion. Use any milk you have on hand – the richer the milk, the richer your sauce.

4-6 potatoes (1½ pounds)
1½ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
¼ cup flour, divided
½ teaspoon salt, divided
black pepper, to taste
2 cups milk (I used 2%)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heavily grease a 9 by 13 inch casserole dish.

Peel the potatoes and slice them into thin, round slices. Mix the cheeses together in a bowl.

Cover the bottom of the casserole with a thin layer of potato slices – use about a quarter of the potatoes. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of flour, ⅛ teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste. Repeat with another layer of potatoes, flour, salt and pepper.

Spread 1 cup of cheese over the second layer of potatoes. Repeat the layering twice more with the remaining potatoes, flour, salt and pepper.

Pour milk gently over the entire casserole. Cover casserole tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 60 minutes.

Remove foil and sprinkle top of potatoes with remaining 1 cup of cheese. Return to the oven, uncovered, for another 20-30 minutes, until top is golden brown, edges are browned and sauce is bubbly and thick. Let potatoes rest for 10-15 minutes before serving. Leftovers reheat well.

Fried Okra

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Crispy, brown and salty – fried okra was the only way I would eat okra when I was a kid. My parents enjoyed whole, boiled okra sometimes, but I never could get past the gelatinous juices the okra exuded when it was boiled. When you toss raw, sliced okra with a little flour and cornmeal, those same gelatinous juices make a batter that browns up in the smallest bit of oil to make the crispy deliciousness that is fried okra.

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I have never really worked from a recipe to make fried okra. I usually just toss the slices with flour and cornmeal and then add water until the mix looks right. I had to pull out the measuring cups and spoons to figure out how much of everything to use this time.

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This is one recipe where more isn’t better. It doesn’t take much oil for the okra to crisp – if you add too much you end up with greasy okra. And be patient with the heat. Almost every summer I burn a batch of okra because I impatiently turn up the heat to hurry things along and then smell the mistake. Do as I say, not as I do, young grasshoppers.

Download or print the recipe here.

Fried Okra
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

¾-1 pound okra
¼ teaspoon salt, plus additional for serving
¼ cup cornmeal, approximately
¼ cup all-purpose flour, approximately
1-2 tablespoons water, approximately
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil, approximately

Cut tops off okra, and tips if they are brown or limp. Cut okra into ¼-½ rounds. Drop pieces into a large bowl as you cut them. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ cup cornmeal and ¼ cup flour. Mix well.

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Sometimes the natural moisture from the okra will be enough to turn the cornmeal and flour into a batter-like coating. If the mixture looks dry, add water, a few teaspoons at a time. The batter should stick to the okra pieces, mostly covering them. If you get too much water and the okra is sitting in runny batter, add about a tablespoon each of flour and cornmeal to thicken it.

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Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until oil is shimmering, but not smoking. Pour okra into hot pan, spreading it out into one even layer.

Cook, undisturbed, for 5-7 minutes, or until bottom is starting to brown. Carefully turn sections of the okra over, trying not to leave any of the coating on the pan. Add a teaspoon of oil, if the pan seems dry. Don’t add too much, or the okra will be greasy.

After another 5 minutes, the second side of the okra should be mostly browned. Gently stir the okra to break up some of the clumps. Some of the coating will fall off, which is fine. This makes little crispy bits that everyone will be fighting over when you serve it. Cook until most sides of the okra pieces are browned and crispy. Some of the larger pieces will never get crispy, but they will still be good.

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Serve hot, with additional salt to taste.

Fried okra is best right after it is cooked. Leftovers can be reheated in a dry skillet and they will be almost as good as they were the first time. I wouldn’t recommend heating leftovers in the microwave.

Flour Measuring Method – It Makes a Difference

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If you don’t bake much, or even if you do, you might not have given flour-measuring methods much thought. I was talking to one of my aunts at my recent family reunion and she mentioned that she had tried a recipe from the blog and it hadn’t turned out like she had expected. We tried troubleshooting after-the-fact and I think we narrowed it down to her flour measuring. She scooped, I sprinkled.

How do you measure a cup of flour? Scoop and level, sprinkle and level or even packed? I have even seen recipes that specify that you pack the flour in the cup, in a book no less. That is part of a series. Granted, they are those mystery novels with recipes included, but it is a long series, in hardback. Not exactly cookbooks, but still. I must say I haven’t tried any of the recipes. I just can’t bring myself to pack the flour into the measuring cup.

You might be surprised at the difference in weight between a scooped cup of flour and a cup filled with sprinkling. It could be up to a quarter of a cup, or more, per recipe. And that can mean the difference between a dry, heavy brick and a luscious, moist cake. I’m not going into the packing thing. It is just wrong, in my opinion. Can you tell it offends me just a bit? Or a lot?

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Many bakers will insist that you can’t bake accurately and get consistent results without weighing the ingredients out on a kitchen scale. I have one, and I use it, but not nearly as much as I could. And I am not going to advocate that the occasional baker go out and buy a scale. I don’t use mine very often and I make some pretty killer baked goods, if I say so myself.

It all comes down to finding out how the recipe writer measured his or her flour. If he or she developed the recipe with scoop and level, you are going to have issues if you sprinkle and level. And vice versa. Check out the introduction to cookbooks – often they specify. Or send the author a query, if you are cooking from a blog.

I use the same method to measure all the flour I use in baking. I stir the flour in my canister and then use my flour scoop or a spoon to sprinkle the flour into the measuring cup until it is overflowing. Then I use the back of a table knife to level the top. I am a little less precise with bread recipes, since I know I will have to adjust the flour amount when I am kneading the dough anyway, but I make sure I am not so slapdash when I am baking cakes, cookies or muffins.

How do you measure your flour?

Make it Yourself: Tortillas

Rich and I call ourselves “food snobs.” Not in a truffles and expensive wine way. But in that we judge the bread restaurants serve and the hot fudge sauce at ice cream shops. In a way I have ruined our taste buds with homemade bread and chocolate sauce. Not that we are complaining, but we do really like our own creations an awful lot.

I can’t count the times we have tried a new product and decided that we could make it better. Our other favorite thing is to take something we buy and try to duplicate it, with adaptations to suit it to our tastes.

I don’t know what made me decide to try making tortillas. I guess just to see if I could do it. And to make something that we like, and use only 5 ingredients instead of all the unpronounceable stuff on the ingredient label of some tortillas from the store. Try them yourself and add a whole new dimension to taco night.

Whole Wheat Tortillas
8-12 tortillas

I started with the Wheat Tortilla recipe out of “Flatbreads and Flavors” by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. Over several years I have changed the recipe and ended up with our favorite recipe. If whole wheat isn’t your thing, you can make these with all-purpose flour. But if you are feeling adventurous, buy a bag of white whole wheat flour and try ½ cup white whole wheat flour and 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour. If you like the flavor, you can try more whole wheat the next time. But trust me, you will like these as written, even if you don’t normally like whole wheat.

2 cups white whole wheat flour *
¼  tsp. salt (or slightly less)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I like canola)
¾ cup water, approximately
All-purpose flour for kneading and rolling out

Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. Sprinkle on the oil and blend it in thoroughly. Gradually add ¾ cup water. If dough is too dry to gather into a ball, add about a tablespoon of water. Form the dough into a ball and knead briefly, just until dough is smooth, adding flour as necessary. The dough should be easily kneaded, but don’t add much flour, if possible.

Let dough rest 30 minutes, covered with plastic wrap. Then divide dough into 12 pieces for small tortillas, or 8 pieces for large tortillas. Roll the pieces into smooth balls.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat until very hot. Or use a griddle. No greasing necessary. A regular pan will work too, if you don’t have cast iron, but the cast iron makes a great tortilla, if you have it.

On a lightly floured surface, using a floured rolling pin and generous sprinkles of flour, roll out a ball of dough until it is as thin as you can make it. You are aiming for between 7 and 10 inches across, approximately. Rolling from the middle to the outside instead of all the way across the dough will help you keep the tortillas closer to round. Mine are often weird shapes, but they are tasty anyway. Keep a light dusting of flour on top and under the dough and turn it over frequently so it doesn’t stick. Don’t be afraid to use lots of flour. You can always brush it off later, before or after you cook the tortillas.

Place the tortilla in the hot pan and cook for 45 seconds. The bottom surface should be speckled with brown spots. Turn the tortilla over with tongs and cook the second side for 45 seconds. Adjust the heat if it takes longer or the tortillas start to burn.

Once you get the hang of it, you should be able to roll out a tortilla while another one is cooking.

Stack the warm tortillas on a plate and cover with a cloth towel as you cook them. Serve warm. Or cool in a single layer on racks and place in a zip-top bag as soon as they are cool. These freeze beautifully.

*White whole wheat flour is available in most major grocery stores. King Arthur Flour and Hodgson Mill are two name brands.

Download the recipe here.

A Word on Whole Grains

I know, I know, whole grains. Some of you are going to stop reading right now. But if you bear with me I will tell you the secret of getting all the fiber and nutrients of whole grains without the “graininess.”

Several companies make a white whole wheat flour that is easy to find at major grocery stores. Trader Joe’s has their own brand, though I haven’t personally tried it. King Arthur Flour has a good one. And here in St. Louis we can get Hodgson Mill, which is also good. In most grocery stores the white whole wheat flours are right next to the other flours in the baking aisle. You don’t even have to venture into the health food aisles.

White wheat is an albino form of wheat and isn’t bitter like traditional whole wheat can be. The white whole wheat flours are usually ground more finely than traditional whole wheat flours for a smoother texture. If you are just starting out adding whole grains to your baking, start by substituting white whole wheat flour for about a quarter of the all-purpose flour in the recipe and see how you like it. You can substitute for more of the all-purpose flour each time you bake if you like the results.

Other Whole Grains

Check out the other whole grain flours in the health food and organic sections of the grocery store. You can get barley, oat, rye, spelt, quinoa, rice, buckwheat and many other flours. Start with small amounts until you see if you like the flavors.

You can add whole grain flours to pancakes, quick breads, cookie dough and breads. Really, the possibilities are endless. Buy a bag of white whole wheat flour and try a little in a recipe. My Buttermilk Pancakes are a great way to ease into whole grain cooking. I use almost all white whole wheat in them, and you would never know. Trust me! And let me know how whole grain baking works for you.

A Word on Measuring Flour

If you don’t read a lot of cookbooks, you might not realize that there are almost as many ways of measuring flour as there are recipes. When I was growing up, my mother scooped her measuring cup into the flour canister and then leveled the top with a knife. As I started exploring more recipes, a lot of them called for spooning the flour into the measuring cup and then leveling the top with a knife. And I have even seen a few recipes that called for packing the flour into the cup, which seems like sacrilege to me! I haven’t tried any of those recipes, since it seems like there could be quite a range of packing styles, which could lead to a failed recipe if I don’t pack it like the author.

The long and short of it is, your flour measuring style could change your results when you bake. The difference between spooning the flour and packing it is several ounces or even a quarter cup. When you are baking bread it might not matter as much, since you can adjust for the flour when you are kneading the dough. But for cookies, brownies and especially cakes, it could mean the difference between a new favorite and an abject failure.

Unless I note differently in the recipe, I measure flour by first stirring the flour in the canister, spooning it into the measuring cup and leveling the top with the back of a table knife.