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.

Bread for everyone

Cinnamon rolls made with this recipe. I will take a picture of the bread and post it soon.

I haven’t done a post on yeast bread because I didn’t want to scare off any novice bakers. But I think it is time to bring on the yeast.

I taught a bread baking class this week, and while everyone there had baked at least something with yeast in it, they were eager to learn more about the process. I talked about the science of yeast, different flours, how various ingredients affect yeast growth and a host of other things.

I think the most important thing the students took from the class was that yeast bread is very forgiving – we didn’t exactly follow the recipe, the dough rose really quickly because the kitchen was warm, no one wanted to stop having fun long enough to pay attention and everyone had different ways of measuring, mixing, stirring and kneading. But in the end, we had beautiful baked goods and everyone learned a little more about yeast baking.

In the class, I used a recipe that I originally got from a Farm Journal bread book I found on the bargain table at a bookstore. I have adapted it a bit, and changed the directions to make it easier for the novice baker. I like the recipe because it is quick (which makes it ideal for a class), it teaches all the steps of yeast bread, and you can make so many things out of it. I have included directions for braided loaves, dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls.

Enjoy, and please comment if you try the recipe, or if you have any questions at all. I’ll end with the “blessing” that Rich and Calvin gave me when I left to teach the class last night – May your dough rise and may your loaves bake up golden brown.

Shortcut Sweet Dough
Adapted by The Cook’s Life
from “Farm Journal’s Homemade Breads”

 This recipe has a lot of yeast for the amount of flour, but you need this much for it to rise quickly. Experienced bakers, feel free to reduce the yeast, but you will probably lose the “shortcut” part of the recipe.

1 cup milk
2 packages active dry yeast (1½ tablespoons)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
3 3/4-4 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, approximately*

Heat milk until almost boiling, either in microwave or on the stove. Pour milk in a large mixing bowl and let cool until warm, no more than 115 degrees. Sprinkle dry yeast and sugar over warm milk. Stir until dissolved. Add oil, salt, egg and 2 cups flour. Stir vigorously for 2 minutes. Stir in enough of the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough forms. You may not use all of the flour, but the dough should not look wet. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about one minute. Lift dough and flour surface. Cover with the upside down mixing bowl and let rest for 15 minutes. Proceed with your choice of following recipes.

*For whole wheat dough, substitute up to 2 cups whole wheat or white whole wheat flour for the same amount of all-purpose flour. Add the whole wheat flour first, as the first 2 cups of flour. Mix in other ingredients and then cover and let rest for 5-10 minutes before adding more flour and kneading. This allows the bran in the whole wheat flour to soften and absorb liquid.

Braided Loaves
Divide dough in half. Set one half aside. Divide the other half into 3 or 4 pieces and shape each into a fat rope 12-15 inches long. Put side by side on counter and braid loosely. Pinch ends tightly and place on lightly greased baking sheet. Repeat with other half of dough. Be sure to leave room between the braids for them to rise.

Cover loaves loosely with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 30 minutes. Fifteen minutes into the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake 20-25 minutes, or until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with a finger. Cover with a tent of aluminum foil after 15 minutes if the tops are browning too rapidly.

Using a spatula, carefully lift the loaves onto a rack for cooling. They will be fragile while hot. Cool completely before wrapping tightly in plastic wrap or a zip top bag. Makes 2 loaves.

Dinner Rolls
Divide dough in half. Roll one half into a log and cut log in half and then into quarters. Cut each quarter into three pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball and place 1-2 inches apart on a greased baking sheet. Repeat with second half of dough. Cover balls and let rise for 30 minutes, or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fifteen minutes into the rising time. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. If rolls rose to touch each other, they might need an extra 5 minutes to bake. Cool on racks or serve warm. Makes 24 small rolls.

Cinnamon Rolls
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
2-3 teaspoons cinnamon
2-4 tablespoons butter, melted

In a small bowl, mix sugars and cinnamon together. Set aside. After the 15-minute rest, divide dough in half on a lightly floured surface. Flatten one half of the dough with your lightly floured hands to make a rough square. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out to about ½ inch thick. Drizzle with melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Roll up loosely from the long side and cut into 8-12 pieces. Place the pieces cut side up on a greased baking sheet. Repeat with other half. Let rise 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fifteen minutes into the rising time. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm or room temperature, glazed or plain. Makes 16-24 cinnamon rolls.

Vanilla Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons milk, approximately

Mix powdered sugar, vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk together in a bowl. Gradually add more milk until the glaze is the desired consistency. Add milk very gradually to avoid lumps.

Download recipe here.