How to bake perfect bread

Nothing tastes better than fresh bread out of the oven or bread machine

Nothing tastes better than fresh bread out of the oven or bread machine! Just the aroma in the house starts your tastebuds to anticipate something really delicious! Here are some tips for that perfect loaf - everytime!

Basic ingredients and what they contribute...

Yeast is the heart of the breadmaking process. It's the essential ingredient that makes the dough rise and gives home-baked bread its wonderful taste and aroma. In the yeast there are thousands of living plant-like microorganisms. When activated by warm liquid, and fed by sugar or starch, the yeast releases tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. This gas is what makes the dough rise and achieve its light texture after baking.

Water temperature (100ºF - 110ºF) is critical because it dissolves and activates the yeast and blends with the flour to create a sticky and elastic dough. Milk, buttermilk, cream or juice may be added to enhance the flavor or texture. Only warm liquids should be added to dry ingredients in a recipe because cool liquids slow or stop yeast action and hot liquids will destroy the yeast and your bread won't rise.

Sugar adds flavor and rich brown color to a bread's crust. Brown sugar, honey, molasses, jams and dried fresh fruits may also be used.

Salt slows rising time which allows the flavor of the dough to develop and strengthens the gluten, keeps air bubbles from expanding too rapidly. Never omit the salt.

Eggs add food value, color and flavor to breads. They also help make the crumb fine and the crust tender. Eggs add richness and protein.

Butter, margarine, shortening or oil add flavor and make bread tender and moist. Fat slows moisture loss, helping bread stay fresh longer. Do not substitute oil for margarine/shortening unless the recipe calls for it.

Kneading the dough...

Start by adding just enough flour to the dough and your hands to keep the dough from sticking, then pat dough into a ball, which may feel sticky. Flatten dough and fold it toward you. Using the heels of your hands, push the dough away with a rolling motion. Rotate dough a quarter turn and repeat the 'fold, push and turn' steps. Keep kneading dough until it becomes smooth and elastic. Use a little more flour if dough becomes too sticky, always working the flour into the ball of dough. The process is complete in about 4 to 10 minutes, or when the dough is smooth, satiny and elastic, and when you poke it, the dough springs back.

Resting the dough...

Cover the top of the mixing bowl loosely with a damp, clean cloth or plastic wrap sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Set the dough in a warm, draft-free place, or use bread proofer which sets the perfect temperature and humidity. Keep dough covered until it doubles in size, anywhere from 1-2 hours.

Shaping and testing the dough...

For regular bread loaves lightly flour the work surface; shape the dough into a smooth ball. Use a rolling pin to form a rectangle. Beginning at the short end of the rectangle, roll the dough tightly to make a loaf shape. Pinch the seam and ends of the rolled dough with your fingers to seal it closed. Place dough, seam side down, in greased baking pan. To determine if your dough passes the 'doubled in size' stage: Press the tips of two fingers lightly and quickly about 1/2 inch into the dough. If the impression you made stays, the dough is doubled.

Baking...

Follow precisely the recipe's directions for preheating and baking. Place the baking pans several inches apart on the center oven rack. Oven temperatures may vary, so check your loaves about 10 minutes before recipe says they should be done. If loaves are browning excessively, remove them from the oven and make an aluminum foil 'tent' to shield them, and then return them to the oven. After turning bread out of the pan, tap the bottom or side of the loaf. If it sounds hollow, the bread is done. If not, place bread bake in the oven for 5 more minutes.

Cooling and storing your bread...

Cool bread on a wire rack to prevent it from getting soggy from steam accumulating on the bottom of the pan. To keep your freshly baked bread at peak goodness: Keep it wrapped and stored in a bread box at room temperature. Seal it tightly and keep it in a cool, dry place. Keep it out of the refrigerator; cold temperature dries bread out and hastens staling. For longer term storage, freeze it in an airtight plastic bag or tin foil.

For the added touch...

Brush it with one egg or egg white beaten with a little water before you put your ready-to-go bread in the oven. If you forget to do so before baking, you can still apply the egg wash 5 minutes before the bread is to come out of the oven. For less shine but a good deep, golden-brown color and very good flavor, brush butter on loaf just out of the oven. For a loaf that's really delicious, brush the unbaked loaves with milk. It will make a slightly soft or tender crust, with a somewhat dull shine. For additional toppings, brush unbaked loaves with an egg-white wash and then sprinkle with the topping of your choice such as poppy, caraway or sesame seed, selected grains such as oatmeal or whole wheat flour or your favorite herb such as oregano.

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