What is better than a slice of butter-melting warm bread in the morning, the fragrance of fresh baked bread filling your home, or even better, inexpensive and healthy homemade food with no preservatives! These thoughts got me interested in making my own bread. I tried it by hand in the past, but with a busy schedule it was just too complicated and time consuming. I suspected a bread maker would make it easier and I was right! Here are some tips for other beginners embarking on adventures in bread-making.
1. Choose your Machine
The first thing to do is get a good bread maker. Before you rush out and buy one, remember all the people you know who dropped some serious cash on one that now sits unused on the counter or in the cupboard of banished appliances. Unless you know for sure you will really use it, try to find one cheap or even free. Ask one of those people that have a bread maker collecting dust if you can put it to good use (If they don’t want to give it up, ask to borrow it and make them a couple loaves, chances are they won’t miss it). You can also check out your local Thrift Store or Goodwill, most of them have shelves of gently used bread makers at affordable prices. I got mine from my local Freecycle network, and it works great. Only after you get bread-making down and use the machine frequently, should you think about buying the expensive bread machine of your dreams.
Everyone has different needs and preferences, but I was glad to get a bread maker with the horizontal loaf pan, I believe it bakes better, and I like the more traditional loaf. A delay timer is also a great tool. Waking up to the smell of fresh baked bread is a great way to start the day, and having warm bread for breakfast, slices for sandwiches for lunch, and even some left for dinner is very valuable in my house.
Check your cabinets and make sure you have all the ingredients you will need. Ingredients that will be frequently used are bread flour, whole wheat flour (I also love to use rye flour), baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, molasses, milk, butter, oil (sometimes shortening), and of course yeast. I would also recommend having wheat gluten on hand, it helps wheat breads rise, and can be added to all-purpose flour in a pinch if you run out of bread flour (the extra protein from gluten is what makes bread flour different from cake flour).
3. Read the Directions
Be sure to read the directions that came with the bread maker, the success of your bread depends on your ability to follow directions. The directions will specify what order to add the ingredients, which is usually liquids first, then dry ingredients, then yeast. I would recommend starting out with a simple recipe, you can work your way up to the really interesting ones, but get the basics down first. My directions did not mention, but I found out later, that it is best to keep the salt and the yeast separate, by adding the salt in one corner, and the yeast in a small indent in the middle. I won’t go into the science of it, if you are interested, it is a fascinating subject and you can find a wealth of information on the web, but what you really need to know is: Follow the directions!
4. Check your Dough
The people that fail at bread makers are the ones that think you can throw a bunch of ingredients in, hit a button, walk away, and come back hours later to a deliciously perfect loaf of bread. As I mentioned before, the order is important, but it is also equally important to check the consistency of the dough. Variations in the environment of your kitchen (and your sloppy measuring) can alter the outcome of the bread. Check the dough for the first 5 minutes of kneading, it should be one solid ball of dough and slightly sticky to the touch. If it is clumping or the machine is working too hard, you can add more water a tablespoon at a time. If it is too wet you can add a little more flour.
5. Walk Away
Once you have the right consistency, shut the lid and keep it shut. Resist the urge to peek while the bread maker is at work, it knows what to do at this point. In a few hours you will have a wonderful treat, fresh warm homemade bread.
Once you get the system down you can experiment with new recipes and ingredients. Right now I am working on translating an old family recipe for Swedish Rye bread for the bread maker. It’s not grandma’s homemade bread, but it sure is pretty darn good!