Breadmaking can be a daunting craft, but the rewards are unbelievably sweet.
There is no feeling more wonderful than working smooth dough between your fingers, feeling it slowly transform as it gains strength and grows.
To transform four basic ingredients – flour, water, salt, and yeast – into the food that has been the core of the human diet for thousands of years is nothing short of miraculous!
Not everyone shares quite the level of bread obsession that I have (I even have a tattoo of wheat on the back of my arm), but I truly believe that everyone should feel empowered to give bread baking a try.
That’s why I’m here to break down the craft, so that you can start in your very own kitchen – today!
Bread is unique in that it is simultaneously so simple that anyone can make it, and so complex that you can continue learning for a lifetime.
It’s helpful to start by doing a little bit of reading – the process will be much less intimidating if you understand the roles of yeast and gluten from the beginning. But the only way to really learn is to get your hands down in the dough.
It won’t take long before you get the feel for the process and are ready to mix things up. Thankfully we’ve got plenty of fun recipes for you to try when it’s time to expand your repertoire!
Before You Start
First, learn the basics of how to equip your kitchen for baking bread, from the tools you need now to the luxury items that can stand to wait.
Have you ever wondered how to differentiate instant, active dry, fresh, or natural leavening? We’ve broken down the differences, and even made a helpful comparison chart so you’ll never get them mixed up again. Check out our guide to yeast.
It’s the thing everyone’s talking about, but what does it actually do? Learn more about gluten, the magical protein that’s got people everywhere up in arms.
While kneading by hand is a great way to get a workout, and a relaxing method for getting to know your dough, sometimes a mixer proves necessary.
Working butter into brioche is hardly a task worth attempting without the aid of a sturdy dough hook. Our guide to the best mixers on the market today can help.
Feeling It Out
Nothing beats the complex flavors of slow fermentation, especially when leavened with the yeasts found naturally in the air. These kinds of breads are not only tasty, but also are potentially healthy! They are a type of fermented food item that may help aid a healthy gut microbiome.
Learn how to make crusty breads like your favorite artisan bakery from the comfort of your own home.
What gives brioche its tender crumb, and how does challah manage such a soft crust? Learn about the magic that happens when butter, eggs, or sugar are added to bread’s basic four ingredients in our piece on enriched dough.
You’re getting your hands dirty – but are you hurting or helping your dough? We break down the purpose of kneading so that you can cater your technique to the needs of your dough.
The options are endless when it comes to shaping your bread – the only limit is your own creativity. Read about a few basic shaping techniques that can set you up to make the most beautiful loaves in town.
Starting with the Basics
Keep it simple at the beginning and you will soon hone your craft, and feel ready to branch out into a variety of delicious shapes and styles.
This basic bread recipe is perfect for making sandwich loaves and dinner rolls, or adding all kinds of flavors, sweet or tart, salty, herbal or savory.
It’s great for those new to bread making, and those who’ve been baking for years.
As a starter loaf, it offers plenty of ways to expand your creativity.
Try substituting one cup of flour with whole grain varieties like whole wheat, spelt, barley, rye, or semolina to mix things up. Knead in roasted garlic, raisins, nuts, or your favorite add-ins.
The simple recipe is delicious with some spices added, like you’ll find in our Twisted Cinnamon and Cardamom Loaf.
Cooking by the Numbers…
Step One – Mix
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast until well combined. Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients to pour in the water.
The water should be around 100°F. It needs to be warm enough to activate the yeast, but not so hot as to kill it. Since your body temperature is around 98°F, the water will feel just the slightest bit warm to the touch.
Step Two – Combine
Using a bowl scraper or your clean hands, slowly pull the flour mixture into the water to work the ingredients together. As the water soaks into the flour, it will form a shaggy dough.
Alternatively, you can mix them together with the dough hook attachment on a stand mixer.
Step Three – Knead
If mixing by hand, turn the shaggy dough onto a clean counter and knead for 10 minutes, until it forms a smooth ball. If it feels very sticky, you can add a little bit of flour at a time.
If you are using a stand mixer, mix on medium speed for 7 minutes.
When the dough is well kneaded, you should be able to successfully perform a windowpane test.
As instructed in the posts referenced above, and others in our baking category, you should be able to stretch a small piece of dough between your fingers to form a translucent “windowpane.” This is how you know it’s ready.
If you’d like to mix in some extra ingredients, add them in the last minute of kneading.
I love adding chocolate and freeze-dried strawberries for a nice combination of sweet and tart. Candied almonds are another favorite of mine.
Step Four – Rest
Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let the dough rest at room temperature for about an hour, until it doubles in size.
If it doubles in less than an hour, punch the air out and let it rest for the full hour.
Step Five – Shape
Shape into whatever configurations and designs you’d like.
Whether a sandwich loaf, a braid, or a basic boule (round), this dough has boundless options!
Step Six – Proof
Let proof at room temperature until it shows the signs that it is ready for the oven. When you touch the surface of the dough with the tip of your finger, the indentation should slowly return to place.
While your loaf is proofing, preheat the oven to 375°F.
Step Seven – Bake
When the loaves are fully proofed, bake for 25 minutes. The crust will take on a light brown hue, and when you tap the top of a loaf it will sound hollow.
Using a thermometer, take the temperature of the inside of the bread. When done, it will read between 180 and 200°F.
Let cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing.
Mixing It Up
From sandwich loaves to cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, hand pies, and more, this dough will quickly become the most useful in your repertoire. So many tasty treats start with our basic brioche recipe.
A quick knead and a simple shape, followed by a long refrigerated rest – you’ll be amazed at how much flavor this simple technique is able to evoke.
This hearty loaf of dark rye packs loads of flavor and nutrients, too. Plus, the shorter rise time means it can be mixed and baked all in the same day.
You’re well on your way to becoming the next master bread maker. Did you ever think it would be that easy?
Let us know whatever lingering questions you are dying to have answered. Share them in the comments below!
Photos by Kendall Vanderslice, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details.
*Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Kendall Vanderslice
Kendall’s love of food has taken her around the world. From baking muffins on a ship in West Africa and milking cows with Tanzanian Maasai, to hunting down the finest apfelstrudel in Austria, she continually seeks to understand the global impact of food. Kendall holds a BA in Anthropology from Wheaton College and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, and has worked in the pastry departments of many of Boston’s top kitchens. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Kendall helps to run a small community supported bread bakery and writes about the intersection of food, faith, and culture on her personal blog, A Vanderslice of the Sweet Life.