People see baking your own bread as the utmost challenge for a home cook, but the fact is, people have done it for thousands of years and the recipe is really pretty forgiving. You don't have to worry about gluten formation or hydration percentages--heck, you don't even have to measure the flour!
Here's how to wing it, and come out with delicious bread every time. All the rising and baking takes a few hours, but there's only about 10 minutes of actual kitchen work involved. This procedure is adaptable to make just about any kind of yeast bread; I've used it to make dark rye studded with caraway seeds, cheesy white bread with cheddar and Parmesan, and even sweet chocolate bread.
What You Need
Whole-wheat, rye, or other type of flour (optional)
Electric mixer (optional)
Silicone baking mat or parchment paper
Pour 1 cup of water per loaf you want to end up with into a mixer bowl (or other large bowl if you want to mix and knead by hand), and sprinkle about 2 teaspoons (or 1 envelope) of yeast per loaf on top. Let stand for a minute or two.
Dump roughly 2 cups of flour per loaf on top of the water-yeast mixture (no need to be exact; you'll adjust later). If you want to make whole-wheat, rye, or any kind of alternative-grain bread, use half bread flour and half other flours. Add a good large pinch (1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons) of salt per loaf. You can also throw in any cheese, seeds, dried fruit, etc. you want in the bread at this point.
Attach the dough hook to your mixer and start mixing on low until the dough comes together. Turn the mixer to medium and knead for a good long time--8 to 10 minutes. If the dough sticks to the bottom or sides of the bowl, add a bit more flour, a handful at a time, until it doesn't stick anymore. If it starts to climb out of the bowl, stop the mixer and push the dough to the bottom of the bowl. (If you don't have a mixer, stir together the flour and water with a spoon until a dough forms and knead by hand for 8 to 10 minutes, adding flour if the dough sticks to your hands or the counter.)
Pull the dough ball out of the bowl (if it's sticky, sprinkle some flour on the counter) and shape it into a ball. Put back in the bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise until doubled. (This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on temperature, humidity, and the age of the yeast. Just check on it periodically. The dough can't over-rise, unless you leave it for hours and hours.)
Punch the dough down (basically, knead it a few times--you're redistributing the bubbles the yeast has formed), shape it into a ball again, and put it back in the bowl to rise until doubled. (It'll take less time than the first time.) This second rise is optional, but it gives the bread a tangier flavor.
Punch the dough down again, divide into pieces if you're making more than one loaf, and shape it however you want. You can stick it in a loaf pan, but I prefer hand-shaping, which leaves it a little lumpy. My favorite shape is a rough rectangle (see photo)--that way all the slices will be basically the same size. Place on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Turn the oven to 450° and preheat for 10 to 15 minutes. (The shaped loaves will rise a little during this time, ensuring they puff up nicely in the oven.)
Slash the top of the dough with a serrated knife. (I use a steak knife.) This looks pretty, and helps the loaf rise evenly in the oven. You can create a decorative pattern if you like, or just make a few lines. Doesn't really matter.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. You know the bread is done when it's a nice deep brown and it sounds hollow if you tap on it. If you like your bread really crusty, fill a spray bottle with water and spritz the oven floor a few times right before putting the bread in. (Steam makes a better crust.)
Breathe in that fresh-bread smell, impress your friends and neighbors, and enjoy!
Jason Horn is a professional writer based in Birmingham, Alabama, where he is also working on a culinary degree.
Related: How To Make Bread
(Images: Jason Horn)