Every day on one of my social media accounts, I see someone in full pastry chef mode.
Cranberry orange muffins! Chocolate croissants! Fresh cinnamon rolls! Baking is our culinary salve at this moment, the only thing that comforts some of us when it feels like the world is ending.
And everyone, it seems, is especially into making bread.
Some of these people are Claire Saffitz, the baking expert who became a household name after her Bon Appétit YouTube series Gourmet Makes took off. I expect a sourdough tutorial from Saffitz’s Instagram. The rest of you? I have to say, I’m a little surprised to see you here.
For years I have extolled the virtues of developing a dough from scratch. For years I have been met with chortles, and excuses, and “But I can just buy the pizza dough from Publix.” Now, everyone is soothed by rising loaves. Everyone is making focaccia. Everyone suddenly has access to a sourdough starter.
I thought you all weren’t baking bread because you were too intimidated. Turns out you just needed the extra time and boredom that a global pandemic provides. Welcome!
After the toilet paper and the soap and the milk, there was a noticeable second wave of popular grocery store items, and among those were flour and yeast. Every grocery store I’ve been in recently has been out of or low on flour; many were out of yeast, too. Even Amazon and King Arthur Flour have had trouble keeping flour in stock recently.
The flour part I get. It’s essential for baking all manner of things, from cakes to cookies to, yes, focaccia.
The yeast part is more intriguing. If you’re buying yeast, you are dabbling in a whole other segment of baking. You are making doughs that need time to rise, pizza crust and hamburger buns and puffy pastries. I’m right there with you. My pandemic baking has so far included a dozen pita, a loaf of crusty bread, a bunch of rolls.
But I know some of you bought that yeast in a panic and are not quite sure what to do with it. I know that the first time I made a yeast dough, it did not rise at all, and the resulting bread loaf had the texture of an actual brick.
Here are answers to some commonly asked breadmaking questions, if you need them.
Should I buy active dry or rapid rise/instant yeast?
Most stores sell both versions. Active dry yeast is made up of larger granules that look and feel sort of like cornmeal. It needs to be bloomed before being used in a recipe, which simply means dissolving it in water. (If the yeast is indeed active, it’ll “bloom” in the water.) Instant yeast is a different kind of yeast that is more finely ground. It can be mixed directly into a recipe’s dry ingredients and doesn’t need to be dissolved in water. Dough made with instant yeast also doesn’t need a first rise.
Personally, I opt for active dry yeast when it’s available. I find instant yeast less reliable, and the idea that you can rush the breadmaking process is not one I support.
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Why does bread have to rise?
Making bread is not difficult, but it can be time-consuming, in that bread you start at 2 p.m. may not be fully done until 6. That’s because bread dough needs to rise, and usually more than once (especially if you’re using active dry yeast). When you’re making bread with yeast, you are engaging the fermentation process. Yeast is a living organism that feeds off sugars, creating gases that cause the bread to rise. Really delicious bread is created from this process, which takes time. Consult your specific recipe to know how long your dough should rise; typically, it’s at least 1 hour.
What does proofing refer to?
That process I just described above? That’s proofing. If your recipe calls for proofing, it’s referring to that period of rest. Most dough needs to proof more than once, including a final time after being shaped, before it’s baked. If your bread isn’t proofed properly, it won’t rise when it bakes, resulting in that bricklike texture I mentioned above. A good way to tell if your dough is the right consistency is to poke it with your finger during that final proof. If it feels puffy and the poke hole springs back nicely, it’s probably good to go.
Do I need bread flour?
Generally, no, you don’t need it. If that’s all your store has, get it. Bread flour is a high-gluten flour, which helps create more gluten in the dough. That’s helpful when making things like bagels that benefit from a good chew. But all-purpose flour works just fine in most bread/baked good recipes.
Here are some of my go-to yeast doughs.
- These pull-apart rolls. Scallions are optional but encouraged.
- This soft, sweet honey wheat bread.
- And, of course, pizza dough is a must.
- One of the easiest things you can make with flour and yeast is this very hands-off, no-knead bread:
3 cups flour (I use 1 ½ cups bread flour and 1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour)
1 packet yeast
Big pinch of salt
1 ½ cups warm water
In a bowl, place flour, yeast and a big pinch of salt. Stir, then add warm water, mixing as you add. The dough should be loose but still come together to form a big ball. If not, add a bit more water to get it to stick together.
Coat another bowl with olive oil and transfer your shaggy ball to that bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit overnight, or for at least 5 hours. This is a great thing to make in the morning and then come home to at dinnertime.
When you're ready to cook, preheat the oven to 450 degrees and place a Dutch oven (or any large, ovenproof pot) with a lid in the oven. Place the dough on the counter and turn it over a couple of times onto itself; use some flour if it's sticky. Let it rest 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, open the oven, carefully remove the lid from the Dutch oven and place the bread inside. The Dutch oven will be really hot, which will create steam as the bread bakes. Bake for 30 minutes, then take the lid off and bake for another 15 or so.
Makes 1 loaf.
Source: Adapted from the New York Times