Smile Politely

Baking Bread Is a Revolutionary Act

“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” – Julia Child

I know, I know. Baking bread seems like something almost akin to sewing your own jeans or building your own car — why bother? There are people around here who can do that for us, and it’s true. If you live here in Champaign-Urbana, you have access to transcendent, locally-owned and operated bakeries. (They’re not true boulangeries, because they sell pastries in addition to their breads, but they’re the closest you’ll come to a boulangerie in this burg.) There is nothing like a fresh, real baguette from Mirabelle. Pekara’s ciabatta is inspiring. Bread — it truly is the staff of life!

Here’s the thing, though: While these local bakeries do really excellent specialty breads (boules, challahs, baguettes, ciabattas, etc), it can be hard to find a really solid, working-class, not-too-exciting-but-damned-dependable-and-really-that’s-how-it-should-be sandwich white or wheat to put in one’s child’s lunchbox or to toast for one’s afternoon cinnamon/sugar toast. Sadly, many of us opt for purchasing “bread” encased in those skeevy plastic bags at the grocery store because we think it’s faster, or cheaper, than baking our own. It usually is. But really, people — we all know that ain’t bread, no matter how you dress it up. It hasn’t been real bread since the turn of the century, when the baking of bread in the U.S. went from small local bakeries (and homes) to big regional factories.

So. Be a rebel. Bake some bread.

I often hear from people — strong people, tough people, people who jump out of airplanes or get up on stage in front of thousands of people — that baking bread intimidates them. They’re scared of yeast, they tell me; they’re freaked out by its perceived unpredictability and the time and management it can occasionally require. While I definitely concur that yeast is alive and is to be respected, it is certainly not something worth avoiding. Oh, to the contrary.

Baking your own bread — and I’m going to just go ahead and say that, in my opinion, bread made primarily by a bread machine does not offer the same physical, psychological, olfactory and gustatorial benefits as the kind you make with your own two hands — is truly a revolutionary act. It’s easy to do, it provides the baker with a lot of pleasure, it’s alchemically, scientifically and magically fascinating, and the end result tastes a million times better than anything you can buy at the grocery store. Plus, it’s cheap, and you know what’s in it.

I started baking bread for the same reason I started gardening: When you’re broke, it’s to your advantage to have access to cheap food that’s good for you. When I was fiercely pinching every last penny several years ago, I baked all of my family’s bread, four loaves at a time. These four loaves would last us about a week. I would usually make them on Sundays, keep one out, and put the rest in the freezer. It was good, solid sustenance that everyone loved. Now that my schedule is different and my kids can devour a loaf of bread between them at lunch and another at dinner, it’s hard to keep up, but it’s still something I do when I can. In fact, just writing this is putting me in the mood. Let’s bake bread, y’all.

As with any DIY job, you need some solid, basic tools. Here are my bread tools:

  • Liquid and dry measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • A couple of bowls, one quite large
  • Wooden spoons
  • Electric mixer (handheld, standing, whatever)
  • Clean dishtowels
  • Loaf pans (you really can’t ever have too many loaf pans — mine are Pyrex and were bought at a yard sale)
  • Oven

See? Real, tactile, basic tools to make real, tactile basic bread. Now you need real ingredients to make your real bread.

Flour: I use unbromided/unbleached/organic white flour for my white bread. You can use whatever you want, but just know that the bleaching and bromiding add a lot of chemicals to flour from wheat that’s endured pesticides. You can buy good, clean flour in bulk locally at Common Ground Food Co-op or Strawberry Fields, among other stores.

Yeast: my mom always used those red and yellow Fleischmann’s packets, but I buy yeast now in bulk and keep it in the freezer. Much less expensive that way.

Sugar: again, you can use whatever you want, but I like the unbleached cane sugar. Also buyable in bulk.

Salt: Go ahead! Buy that in bulk, too!

Fat: The recipe I use calls for shortening or lard. That’s right, lard. I recommend good lard, if you can find it, or shortening that is not an evil, partially-hydrogenated fat made from suspect ingredients. Spectrum makes a good shortening.

Now here’s a very basic recipe, adapted from The More With Less Cookbook, a cookbook my mother cooked from often when things were tight (and even when they weren’t). I’ve used this recipe for ten years and have passed it along to countless bread newbies. It’s also versatile — you can use it to make hamburger/hotdog buns, dinner rolls, etc:

In a small bowl, dissolve four teaspoons yeast (or two of those packages) into ½ C warm water (Warm! Not hot!) with 1 ½ teaspoons sugar. While it proofs (gets bubbly and yeasty-smelling, takes just a few minutes), combine the following in a large mixer bowl:

  • ½ C sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ¼ C lard or shortening
  • 3 C warm water

And then:

  • Yeast mixture after it proofs

Then add 5 C flour and beat with your electric mixer for three minutes. Stir 6 more cups of flour in by hand, or, if you happen to have a stand mixer, switch to your dough hook. (Your arm, if you’re doing this without a stand mixer, is going to get tired, but stay with it. I’ve done this both ways and love both.)

Turn the dough onto a floured counter and knead for five minutes. Knead with vigor! Punch the dough! Kneading is important! Everyone develops their own signature kneading technique after awhile, but if you’re really lost, you can start here or visit YouTube for a visual. This whole process, from ingredients through kneading, takes about half an hour.

Place the dough in a greased bowl (use your shortening or butter), turning once, the cover and let rise in a warmish place for a half-hour while you go check your email and pay a few bills. Return, punch dough down, turn over, and let rise again until it doubles in size, about 1.5 hours. Run errands, do laundry, play a game with your kid, write in your journal, take a nap.

Return to the kitchen. Take the dough out of the bowl, knead again for a few minutes, then shape into 4 loaves and place into your greased loaf pans. Cover loaves with damp cloth and let rise in a warmish place for another 1.5 hours. Go to the gym, make more food, work on a project, visit a neighbor.

Return to the kitchen. Get your oven to 350 degrees and bake that bread for 30–35 minutes. Your entire domicile will smell of baking bread — bread that you made with your own two hands!

When it’s done, remove from the oven, pop out of loaf pans, and cool on wire racks.

Go ahead and give in to the urge to eat some while it’s still hot — it’s really good that way.

Besides, you made it yourself.

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