Nuts & Bolts: Bread Baking Essentials

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by Amber on December 5, 2011

Today we’re talking nuts and bolts. The essential tools and tricks that I’ve found make a certain kitchen task easier, or that ensure the desired results, every time.

We spent last weekend in Washington, D.C. with family. It was a whole lotta fun, both sight-seeing in our nation’s capital and getting to know family that neither I or Baby Cousin Alycia had ever seen much of.

On Friday night, we went to eat at Nando’s, which just happens to be James’s favorite restaurant in the entire universe. While this Portuguese meets African grilled chicken chain is on nearly every street corner in London, here in the U.S., they only have locations in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

Dear Nando’s: New Jersey needs you. Specifically, Scotch Plains, New Jersey needs you. But we’ll take anything in a 30 minute driving radius. Please and thank you.

But this post isn’t really about chicken, or even Washington, D.C., really. Other than to say that when I mentioned to my aunt that I bake our weekly bread, the look on her face was priceless.

I assure you, folks: I’m not some crazy everything-must-be-homemade food Nazi. I’m the first one to order a pizza instead of making it (for me, pizza is about convenience on a random Monday night, not much else) or suggest going out for a meal. While I can and do often make my own pizza dough, I still find value in letting others do it for me too.

But when it comes to our weekly bread, I feel like I’ve finally cracked every nuance of making the perfect sandwich bread. I know exactly what goes into it, there are no preservatives, and as long as we keep it in the refrigerator, it lasts as long as store-bought bread.

Not to mention the taste. THE TASTE. Freshly made bread, be it white, whole wheat, or white whole wheat, is entirely different to that of bread made several states away in a factory. At roughly 23 cents a loaf, I kinda think it’s worth my time. And yours too.

The essentials of bread baking in my kitchen are as follows:

Good Quality Flour
A large bowl,
preferably metal or ceramic
A Dough Whisk
Good Yeast
A Pullman Loaf Pan


Flour is important.

No matter what you’re baking, if you want consistency in your results, you need to choose a flour that has a consistent protein content. The only company I know of that guarantees that protein content is King Arthur Flour.

Knowing that you’re going to get the same results every time you bake bread is priceless. King Arthur Flour is available in most stores, on their website, and even at Wal-Mart, where it is often times cheaper than more well known brands, at least in my experience. For guaranteed results, it’s worth searching them out.

Yeast – yummy little friends!

Yeast is indeed, a living thing. Yeast is what gives bread its rise, and its flavor. You don’t have to buy big sacks of it like in the photo, or even from King Arthur Flour (where I get mine). But I thought I would show you what I use. I keep it in a ziptop bag in my refrigerator, and it’s super easy to measure and see how much I have at a glance.

However, KAF says:
“WHY WE LOVE IT: SAF is easy to use (no proofing or pre-dissolving); it’s fast-acting and long-lasting, continuing to work for hours longer than “rapid” yeast. It’s absolutely reliable. AND it costs 75% LESS than supermarket active dry yeast. ‘Nuff said.

Never add water to yeast that’s above about 120F. 120F will start to kill it, resulting in an unhappy rise. At 140F it dies instantly, which means your baked good won’t rise at all. Keep in mind that boiling water has a temperature of 212F. That means the water you use in a baked good might need to be a lot cooler than you previously thought.

Having the right tools is key.

Starting out with the tools that make your task easy is, for me, half the battle. You’ll notice that a breadmaker is not in my list of essential tools. I used to think bread was way too hard, and I’d never make yeast bread without one.

Now, I’d never give up the process of kneading my own dough to a breadmaker! That’s like letting someone else use your spa gift certificate. Kneading bread dough is one of the most zen, relaxing experiences I can think of. Plus, I find that I get a much better crumb and tight loaf than a breadmaker can ever accomplish, with the right tools.

I mix my dough and let it rise in the same bowl. After I’ve turned out the dough, but before I’ve started to knead it, I re-wash my favorite metal bowl, and spray it with cooking spray. Then I’m ready to return the dough to its favorite spot once it’s silky smooth and ready to rise.

The first time I used a dough whisk was at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center. Heck, the first time I’d SEEN one was there. I believe most of us in the class were befuddled at first by this curly-cue utensil. Susan, our instructor at that moment, said, “Just try it. You’ll get it.”

She was absolutely right. Dough whisks mix yeast dough perfectly without much sticking. You’re less likely to overmix because the dough whisk works through the flour and liquid so well, combining them easily. And it’s nice not to cover my hands in sticky dough right at the start of my baking session.

Want square bread slices? Bake it in a square bread pan!

This tip might seem a little obvious. But until I clocked the Pullman or Pain de Mie pan on King Arthur Flour’s blog, as much as I love baking our sandwich bread, I didn’t always love the uneven slices that resulted from the rounded top loaves I baked.

When I saw that square shaped pan that includes a lid to keep the top of the bread perfectly square and even too, a lightbulb went on. Make sure that you purchase a Pullman Loaf Pan with a lid, and you’ll get a perfectly square, perfectly browned on all sides loaf of bread.

Baking bread is super easy. I promise.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Terra December 5, 2011 at 8:43 AM

What fantastic tips! Thank you so much for this post:-) I just had the pleasure of working with a bread baker for a few months. He has been doing it for like 50 years. What an amazing experience:-) I love this bread pan BTW, I may need it:-) Take care, Hugs, Terra


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:29 PM

Terra, that bread pan changed my life. No joke. Thanks for stopping by!


Katrina December 5, 2011 at 8:43 AM

That bread looks mighty delicious! Thanks for the instructions :)


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:29 PM

Quite welcome, Katrina :)


Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon December 5, 2011 at 8:47 AM

What a perfect looking loaf of bread. I’m still afraid of yeast but you make it look so easy.


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:34 PM

With that shiny new oven, you’re going to have to do this. Get the pan, meet me on skype, and we’ll get crackin’.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. December 5, 2011 at 8:57 AM

I believe I am that homemade food Nazi to whom you’re referring.


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:42 PM

No food nazis were named in the making of this blog. Nor will they be! (And actually, no, I wasn’t thinking of you – at least you’ll still eat at a restaurant)


Kathryn December 5, 2011 at 9:13 AM

Baking bread is really not one of my strong points so I’m really excited to try and put this recipe into practice soon!

Incidentally, we’re off to Washington DC this weekend. Not sure we’ll be visiting Nando’s though ;)


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:43 PM

Oh Kathryn, I wish we could have timed that and met up! You’ll have a wonderful time. Make sure you take in the Sculpture Garden between the National Archives and the Smithsonian. There’s a lovely ice skating rink there. Have a fabulous time!


Kathryn December 6, 2011 at 4:02 AM

Oh thanks for the advice! We’re eating at the place in the National Archives on Saturday night so I will make sure that we arrive a bit earlier so we can take it all in :)


Jen @ My Kitchen Addiction December 5, 2011 at 9:20 AM

Great tips, Amber! I’ve often seen the Baker’s Special dry milk in the catalog, but have never tried it. Everyone seems to love it, though!


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:44 PM

Jen, I truly do love it. It’s got a completely different consistency to the stuff at the grocery store. Silkier. You must try it!


~MaryJane December 5, 2011 at 10:42 AM

Yeast =Yummy little friends…so funny! Thanks for the multiple shout outs Amber. Your pain de mie loaf is perfect and I am green with jealousy.

I am going to put in the challenge to you to make your own pizza crust at least once by the end of Jan 2012. I make mine at least once a week and it just makes an incredible difference. Feel free to challenge me back with something, maybe something British? Just nothing with mushy peas :)
~ MJ


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:51 PM

MJ – you know I do make my own crust. I’m just sayin’ that when the chips are down and it’s scrambled eggs or pizza delivery, I have no qualms calling the Papa.

But I do want you to make something British – James says you should make Rock Cakes. His recipe for it is here on the blog, at this link: http://www.bluebonnetsandbrownies.com/2008/11/09/rock-cakes-recipe/

Excuse the awful photos, it’s a very old post! We’d love to see your take on them.


Melissa @ Baking For The Boys December 5, 2011 at 1:29 PM

Looks great! You and I are opposite on the pizza dough/bread baking front. I make my pizza dough (thanks to you) every week and don’t mind buying the loaves. My husband finds it ironic that I rarely bake bread or feature it on the blog since I was a bread baker for years.


Amber December 5, 2011 at 2:52 PM

So funny! You know, Melissa, it’s just one of those things. Once I got all the bits and pieces I wanted that make my version of perfect sandwich bread, I just don’t enjoy store bought as much. And I find it wayyyy to sweet. Even the Non-HFCS brands.


Bonnie K December 5, 2011 at 3:01 PM

I’ve never seen that bread pan before. I may just go back to baking bread. I wasn’t happy with the large, difficult to handle ones from the bread machine I had.


Amber December 5, 2011 at 3:05 PM

Bonnie, that was my problem too. That pullman loaf pan is a game changer, seriously.


~MaryJane December 5, 2011 at 3:53 PM

Well now, I’ve eaten rock candy, and chocolate rocks and kraut bierock, so onward to rock cakes! I’ll give ‘em a try tomorrow at home and then start working on Halley to make them part of a blog.

You all are soooo lucky to have pizza delivery. The closest I get is when my husband brings me a plate of pizza on the couch. ;)


Delishhh December 5, 2011 at 4:24 PM

Love the square pan – i don’t even us a pan making bread – like the rustic feeling :) Very nice tips!


Amber December 6, 2011 at 12:19 PM

Ewa, I’m far too OCD for that ;)


Delishhh December 6, 2011 at 12:24 PM

HA that is pretty funny! I am with other things but not bread :) When i was living in Asian all the bread looked like yours :)


Always Wright December 5, 2011 at 9:02 PM

It’s been years since I’ve baked bread. I’ll try some again soon and I’m sure your wonderful tips will come in handy! I love that Pullman Loaf Pan!


Amber December 6, 2011 at 12:20 PM

Thanks so much! That loaf pan is the greatest thing since – forgive me – sliced bread ;)


Tracy December 5, 2011 at 9:23 PM

These are all such great tips! I haven’t yet mastered making our own sandwich bread, and now I’m inspired to give it another try. I’ve been wanting to try recipes with dry milk but can’t use KAF’s since they process with peanuts/nuts…but I will definitely try the grocery store version. Can’t wait!


Amber December 6, 2011 at 12:22 PM

That whole nuts situation with KAF makes me sad, but I’m sure you’ll have beautiful results with the grocery store version too.


Sunny Hernandez (@foryourpiesonly) December 6, 2011 at 12:37 AM

I’ve always wanted to make my own bread and this post has me thinking I just might be able to!

A silly question though…how do you gauge when your water is “90-100F”? Did you use a thermometer the first time you did it?


Amber December 6, 2011 at 12:25 PM

Sunny – when I went and took classes at King Arthur Flour, they indeed used a thermometer (a simple digital meat thermometer stuck in the water) to show us the temp, and then they made each of us stick our finger in the water and memorize how it felt. It’s much more tepid than you would imagine.

Start out with a meat thermometer and measure the temp of your water. Keep doing that, but also *feeling* the water too. Eventually you won’t need the thermometer, you’ll know by touch.


Jenny G December 6, 2011 at 9:33 AM

I”ve always wanted to make bread and now I think I can.


Amber December 6, 2011 at 12:26 PM

Jenny, I KNOW you can do it! Feel free to email me if you need help along the way. Amber at bluebonnets and brownies dot com.


JennyMooMeow December 7, 2011 at 6:31 PM

I think the bread pan and dough whisk will soon come to my house. Thanks for the tips!


Rachel @ Not Rachael Ray December 8, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Helpful post! I love that square loaf of bread…might be adding that to my Christmas list!


Jamie | My Baking Addiction December 8, 2011 at 5:28 PM

Love this post, Amber! Oh, and I’m totally buying that square pan – perfect for the OCD in me!


How do I sell online December 12, 2011 at 2:12 AM

Those breads looks delicious. It’s been a while since I’ve baked bread but will definitely go straight to my kitchen tonight.


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