Why can’t we live by bread alone?
Bread is one of the most common foods worldwide. Each culture, and indeed each family, has their own favorite types and recipes. But what makes a basic bread recipe work? This is where we start getting into the fun stuff I promised!
First, all breads contain flour. I know that many people today are talking about “gluten-free” breads, but that’s a little more than we will get into today. What I am talking about is basic bread, containing flour (usually wheat) and how it works.
For basic bread, you need flour, water, yeast, some type of fat, and something to sweeten it. Sounds easy when you put it that way, right? So why are bread recipes so hard to master for some people? Let’s look at each component.
Flour will provide the bulk of the bread. This is where the gluten precursors are. Adding water to the flour is what makes the gluten and provides the strucure for the bread. Think of gluten as the building blocks for the loaf. Water also reacts with the yeast, so that carbon dioxide forms and lightens the texture of the bread. Adding a little salt to the mix slows down the yeast so that the carbon dioxide doesn’t escape too quickly and the bread “rises” faster. Without salt, the bread will still rise, but it will take longer.
Adding some type of sugar or honey to the mix “feeds” the yeast causing the bread to rise quicker also. So both salt and sweetening are optional in a recipe, depending on the results you are looking for.
Adding some type of fat to the mix keeps the gluten strands from forming into large sheets. Larger sheets of gluten will make the bread more “breadlike” while shorter strands make the texture “cakelike”.
Some recipes call for brushing the tops of loaves with butter to keep the crust from getting too hard. Adding a pan of water to the oven when baking will create a thicker, crisper crust and speed up the baking time. Again, both of these things are optional depending on what you want your end result to be.
So now that you know the basics, I recommend finding your favorite easy bread recipe. Follow the directions and pay attention to what happens at each stage, how the dough feels and looks. And what the end results are. Then start experimenting. Flour, water, yeast… and whatever else you think your bread needs. You will have the knowledge you need to adjust recipes to your own desires, as well as create recipes of your own.
I’m starting my experiments tonight — I’ll let you know how this turns out!