Baking bread is one of those “gotta have it” skills for a self-sufficient life. Even if you still buy bread, the ability to turn out a loaf without getting sweaty palms from the thought is a darn useful thing to be able to do. I am not sure why something so simple and so much fun has been made to seem complicated. Maybe it was a conspiracy by the Wonder Bread people.
There are a couple of important points. The first is that your ingredients matter. If you have any way to do so, get a grain grinder. I have two. The first is a hand mill. It’s a good mill and does the job but it’s a lot of work. It was so much work for me that, after struggling with it for a year, I broke down and got a Nutrigrain electric mill. It isn’t perfect. It’s electric and it’s very loud but it’s so fast that I put up with the noise. I almost always make my bread with 1/2to 2/3 whole wheat flour. The rest is King Arthur flour. I am particularly fond of white whole wheat flour that I buy in bulk from our co-op. It is amazing how inexpensive whole wheat is when you consider what you pay for a small sach of flour. Whole wheat flour has all the oil and wheat germ still in it. It is better if you refrigerate or freeze it if you don’t use it right away.
Yeast must be fresh too. I buy my yeast in a hard brick. I keep it in the original packaging in my freezer until I have to open it. Then, I transfer it to a covered dish and keep it refrigerated. I go through a lot of yeast. If I am using milk, I use a powdered milk but I do not use the box stuff from the supermarket. I use Provident Pantry dry milk in #10 cans. I get this by the case from Emergency Essentials. It is really expensive but I keep three to four cases on had all the time as part of food storage.
What follows is my favorite bread recipes. Let me say before I start that these are more guide than recipe. If I have a bit of left over oatmeal from breakfast, I put that in my bread. I might pop in almost any leftover cereal. You can use any sweetener. I have used honey, maple syrup and molasses with perfect results. If you use black strap molasses, the bread will be dark and heavy and bitter and you will need to feed it to the pigs.
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of yeast over 2 cups warm water. If the water is too cool the yeast won’t proof. Too hot, the yeast will die. You want it comfortably warm, a bit warmer than a baby bottle. Add 2 tablespoons of honey to this and stir it just to mix the honey, then leave it alone for about 5 minutes. The yeast should start to get foamy. This tells you it is still good and healthy. Now add 2 tablespoons of canola oil, 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 cups of flour. A purist will use a spoon but I use my Kitchen Aid with a paddle blade. You want want to mix this really well. You are developing the gluten. Now add the 2 tablespoons of raw wheat germ and 1/2 cup dried milk powder. Now I switch to the dough hook on the mixer and begin to add flour, a cup at a time until the dough looks right. If you are doing this on a dry day, you will use less flower than you will on a damp day. It’s a question of feel. When the dough is properly kneaded it should feel smooth and soft and not too heavy for it size. It should be soft but firm. If too much flour has been incorporated, the loaf will not rise well and will be dense and heavy. It is better to ere on the side of less flour than more. It will take about 5 to 8 minutes to knead the dough with a machine, 10-15 to do it by hand. Now for my big confession: I hate to knead bread. I know it’s supposed to be meditative but I hate to meditate too. I get antsy and anxious and my mind wanders to all of thing I could be doing if I DIDN’T HAVE TO KNEAD THIS STUPID BREAD. Wrong attitude, I know.
Now transfer the dough to a bowl greased with butter. If you use oil, the bread can absorb it, cover it wih a wet towel and put it someplace to rise where you won’t forget about it. I usually set my timer because I will forget about it as often as not. It’s not the end of the world. If you find something that looks like it’s trying out for a a part in a horror movie, just punch it down and go on with the second rise. Your bread might develop a sour dough taste but you may like it a lot. After about an hour, when the dough has doubled, punch it down and let it rise a second time. If you don’t have time, you can forget this rise but your bread will have a better texture if you let it rise twice.
After the second rise, divide the dough in two and shape into loaves. I use the smaller, 8 inch pans. Grease them well, especially in the corners. Let dough rise in the pans, then put them in a 375 degree oven and let them bake for about 25-30 minutes. I always brush my loaves with butter as soon as they come out of the oven because we like a soft crust. Let the loaves cool completely before you wrap them for keeping. That is assuming you keep them around that long. If my kids are home, they slice off large hunks, toast it then slather it with good butter and homemade raspberry jam. I scold them but always have a slice too.