It seems that ever since quarantine became part of our everyday lives, more and more people have become amateur bread-makers. And while some people prefer to play it safe with beginner-friendly recipes for banana bread, home cooks in search of a little more of a challenge have turned to experimenting with yeasted loaves. Interested to learn more about what this type of next-level baking project entails, we asked Lynsie Steele, long-time bread making teacher and owner of Vie Meal Plans, for her expert tips, and Shawn Cossette, owner of Be Just – Domestic Tools & Home Supplies, about the essential tools necessary for the task. Here are their recommendations, plus Steele’s recipe for an Italian loaf that she says is perfect for bread baking novices.
Be prepared to plan (days) ahead. “This may seem simple, but it’s amazing how many people don’t read through the recipe from start to finish before jumping in,” Steele says. This is important because bread recipes can sometimes take one or two days, with rising time factored in. No one wants to discover midway through a recipe that the bread they were hoping to have ready by dinner won’t be finished until the next day.
Consider your work surface. The best surface to work with is a cool material, like marble, granite, or soapstone, Steele advises. Make sure your workspace is flat, even, and most importantly, clean. You’ll also want to make sure it is completely dry before beginning your project.
Gather your ingredients, tools, and prep materials. Before starting, Steele recommends spreading out all of the equipment that you’ll need in front of you, while leaving yourself plenty of space to work. “Open lids and arrange spoons and spatulas so you won’t need to reach into a drawer or open a jar with a floured or sticky hand,” she says. According to Cossette, the following list will have you well equipped for whatever bread-making project you decide to embark on (note that many of these items are available via her online shop):
- Oak bread boards
- Ceramic mixing bowls
- Wooden mixing spoons
- Copper or brass measuring cups and measuring spoons
- Proofing baskets and linen covers
- Cast iron dutch oven
- Airtight glass jars with wood lids (to store nuts, raisins, dates)
- Linen tea towels
- Bread box
Follow proper flour storage and measuring protocol. For optimal freshness, experts agree it’s best to keep your flour in a large bowl or container covered with a tea towel or tight-fitting lid. This method is also key to proper measuring, Steele explains that flour must not be measured directly from the bag, because it will compact the flour and lead to inaccurate measuring. However, flour that has been poured into another vessel is aerated and light, perfect for measuring using the “dip and sweep method” detailed here.
Remember that you can always add, but you can’t take away. According to Steele, you should always reserve 1/2 to 1 cup of flour from the initial dough recipe to use to flour your work surface. This will ensure that you don’t end up adding too much flour, which will create a tough and dry dough that is dense when baked.
Reserve the right to walk away at any time. Steele contends that bread dough responds to our energy; if you’re getting frustrated, simply sprinkle your dough with a touch of flour and leave it to rest for 10 minutes. Once you return, the gluten will have had time to develop and relax a bit, which will make mixing and kneading easier. Also, if last-minute plans pop up and you don’t have time to bake your dough, simply cover it and let it ferment in the fridge, then shape, rise, and bake it in the morning.
Carefully observe the dough’s quality. The more you bake, the better you will be at working with dough, Steele says. As you bake, she advises being conscious of how the dough looks, feels, and smells, as these are the key indicators of a dough’s quality and readiness for baking. Here, she provides a breakdown of the stages of bread dough: shaggy, sticky, soft, smooth, spongy.
- Shaggy: Once water, flour, yeast, and salt have been combined, you’ll mix the ingredients with a spatula until you begin to see the water getting absorbed by the flour. At this point, you want your dough to look “shaggy,” as in coming together in a ball with some dry bits hanging off of the exterior. You’ll notice a ribbon effect of flour streaked throughout the dough.
- Sticky: Upon turning your dough out onto a lightly floured surface, use a large, flat spatula—the kind you’d use to flip a pancake—or a dough scraper to begin the initial kneading process (bring outside edges in to the center, press, and repeat, working in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion). The dough will be “sticky” at this point as more water is absorbed by the flour. Once the dough begins to stick less and less, start using your hands surely—but gently—to knead until stickiness subsides.
- Soft: After kneading for a few minutes, your “sticky” dough will begin to soften. If it starts offering resistance at any point, simply dust it with flour or cover it with a damp tea towel and let it rest for 10 minutes. When you come back to it, you’ll notice that it is more supple and easier to knead. Continue kneading for three to five minutes, or until your dough gets tough again. Allow it to rest for a final 10 minutes.
- Smooth: After the last rest, continue working your dough (outside edges in, working in a circular motion) until your dough ball feels smooth like the side of your cheek. It will not stick at all to your work surface at this time. Place it in a clean bowl and cover it with a damp tea towel to have its initial rise, about one to two hours.
- Spongy: After the first rise, carefully turn out your dough, making sure that your surface is lightly floured and that you remove the dough from the bowl intact. Seam side up, flatten it out gently with your hands and knead for 30 seconds, bringing outside edges in and rotating in your clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Place the dough/loaf seam-side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover it again with your tea towel (make sure it’s still damp) and allow the dough to have its final rise, about one to one-and-a-half hours.
Bear in mind that no real mistakes happen while bread-making. The key to bread baking is to have fun with it, Steele says. “Sure, your first few tries the loaves might be misshapen or a bit on the tough side,” she acknowledges, adding, “But that’s nothing a slathering of butter and a bit of flaky sea salt can’t fix.”
Lynsie Steele’s Italian Loaf
Yields 1 loaf
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk or unflavored, unsweetened nut milk
- 1 cup water, plus ½ cup reserved for later
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil, olive oil, or melted butter
- 2 Tablespoons agave, honey, or sugar
- 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (1 packet) or 2 tablespoons baking powder/baking soda or 1/2 cup sourdough starter
- 3 1/2 to 5 cups flour (as needed, begin with minimal amount)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 sheet parchment
- 1 sheet plastic wrap or 1 damp towel
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
Begin by gently combining milk, water, oil, and sweetener. Sprinkle the top of the mixture with yeast until covered evenly, and mix to combine. Add 3 1/2 cups flour and mix until incorporated. Continue adding more flour until your dough reaches the “shaggy stage” (watch this video tutorial for tips). Add salt, mix slightly, and turn out onto a lightly floured work surface.
With a dough scraper, begin by working in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, bringing the outer circle of the sides of the dough into the middle. Continue until the dough begins to come together and is no longer sticking to your scraper. Lightly flour the top of the dough, press gently and quickly into a circle with your hands, and repeat the same movement, pulling the outer edges in and using the heel of your hand to press into the center. Remember to work in the same direction as you did before with the dough scraper. Once the dough begins to give resistance, flip it seam-side down on your work surface, sprinkle it with flour, and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, flip the dough over again and repeat the same process, working in the same direction, until the dough begins to feel soft and smooth around the outside, like the side of your cheek. Using the side of your hand, create a trench down the middle of the dough lengthwise (seam-side up still), and fold one half over on itself. Pinch the seam at the fold to seal it, and place the formed loaf seam-side down on a piece of parchment. Cover with a wet towel or a piece of plastic. Allow to rise for one to two hours. At the end of the rising/proofing process, preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
When ready to bake, remove the towel or plastic wrap and sprinkle the top of the loaf with water. Top it with sesame seeds or everything bagel seasoning. Using a serrated knife that has been dipped in water, make three incisions, half an inch deep, along the top of the dough. Place the loaf in the oven for 20-30 minutes at 425 degrees, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue to bake until it is hollow-sounding when tapped/knocked and golden brown, about 20 more minutes. Remove the bread from the oven and allow it to cool for two hours (if you can wait that long). Slice and enjoy.
Photograph courtesy of Vie Meal Plans. TSG Tip 367 from Lynsie Steele of Vie Meal Plans in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Shawn Cossette of Be Just in Charlottesville, Virginia. Vie Meal Plans and Be Just are featured in The Scout Guide Charlottesville.