Tuesday, May 21, 2013

1-hour Homemade Bread vs. a bread mix

I saw an ad for a new bread mix from Fleischmann's and I was compelled to give it a try. I really don't know why. I mean, I make bread all the time. I don't need a mix. But something about the ad I saw made me want to check this one out.

So I picked up a box for $2.99. The total weight was 14 ounces, and there were three packages - one with the flour mix, a standard packet of rapid rise yeast, and 1-teaspoon-packet of sugar. I didn't measure or weigh the flour, but based on the total  weight of all the contents it would have been about 3 cups.

I followed the instructions as though I didn't know how to make bread.

Directions were pretty simple - mix the yeast with very warm water, let it sit for a few minutes, then add the flour and mix it in. That's where I ran into a little trouble. The instructions said to stir until the dough came together in a ball.

Well, actually, the instruction about "very warm" water was also problematic. I know a lot of people who have murdered whole civilizations of yeast by reading "very warm" and then using the hottest water they can get from their tap.

Your body temp is about 99 degrees if you're average and healthy. If you stick your finger in 99-degree water, it doesn't really feel hot or cold. At about 110 degrees, it's comfortably warm. You could put your hand in it and leave it there. At 120 degrees it's very warm verging on hot. It's also verging on yeasticide. The hot water from my kitchen faucet goes up to at least 140 degrees, which is hotter than you'd want to put your hand into.

The lesson here: shoot for a little less than "very warm" and your yeast will be just fine. If you shoot past that very warm state, you risk killing the yeast.

Back to the stirring, though. I have to say that stirring bread dough with a spoon isn't all that easy. It would have been easier to dump the dough onto the counter and knead it. I mean, even if you don't know how to knead, mushing it around a bit would probably have been more effective than trying to stir it.

The next step was to put the dough on a greased pan and then form it into a round or oval. Again, it would have been easier to form the dough into a ball and then put it on the pan. But whatever. I followed directions and made sort of a lumpy round loaf.

The loaf rose for a short time, as instructed, then went into the oven. Easy enough.

The resulting bread wasn't awful, but it wasn't stellar, either. It was a little sweeter than I prefer, no doubt due to the added sugar and malted barley flour in the mix. It was also a little bit dense.

That denseness could be fixed by letting the dough rise a little longer and relying on the feel of the dough rather than relying on the clock. The sweetness - well, that's just the type of bread it is. Not really my cup of tea for an everyday bread, but some folks might enjoy the sweetness.

My biggest objection, really, is the price. If you're going to bake bread once a year, it's probably fine to buy a mix like this. But if you want to make bread more often, a jar of yeast and a bag of flour doesn't cost all that much.

And another slight objection is the instructions. This could have been a better loaf, structurally, with a slight change in the directions. If the whole idea was to make a bread that wasn't kneaded (I'm guessing because that would be hard to describe on the box) the dough could have been folded a few times. And shaping it first, then moving it to the pan, makes more sense to me.

But then I had another idea.

I decided to make a similar bread without the mix. I used Red Star Platinum yeast. Not because I wanted to use a competing brand, but because it's what I happened to have in a packet. I also changed the "stir with a spoon" instruction to something that is easy to do and easy to explain, and I changed the rising instruction to something that works better.

Still the same basic game plan and something that would have worked on the box instructions just as well as what was there.

I know one if the objections to making bread (unless you plan on doing it often) is that most recipes call for bread flour. So I made this one with all purpose flour. I also didn't use all the additional ingredients that were listed on the package - no malted barley flour, no gluten, no nothing. Just plain old unbleached white flour.

Like this.

1-Hour(ish) Bread

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup warm (not hot) water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 package Red Star Platinum yeast*
3 cups (13 1/2 ounces) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Drizzle the olive oil on a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a medium bowl. Stir and let it sit for a few minutes until the mixture is foaming.

Add the flour and salt. stir until you have a dough. There might be dry spots, but that's fine.

Dig your hands in, and form the dough into a ball.

Now it's time to do what I've dubbed "air kneading."

Pick up the dough, hold an edge in each hand, and pull to stretch it. At this point, it's not going to be very stretchy - it will tear more than stretch, but that's okay, just pull it a few inches. Fold the dough in half, turn it 90 degrees, and stretch it again. Keep stretching and folding until the dough begins to get smoother and stretchy. You can keep going as long as you like, to develop the gluten, but for this recipe it's fine once it smooths out.

Form the dough into a ball and place it on the baking sheet.

Cover the dough with plastic wrap and set aside until the dough rises, feels sort of puffy, and if you gently press a fingertip into the side of the dough, the indent remains or it comes back very slowly.

Depending on how warm your kitchen is, this can take anywhere from 30-45 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap.

With a sharp knife, slash the dough as desired, and bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes until the dough is nicely browned and it sounds hollow when you thump it.

Let the dough cool completely on a rack before slicing.