Daily Bread
A little practice and these simple tips will help you be a pro with dough

By Betsy Oppenneer
Photos by Alison Miksch

Warm up this winter with homemade bread, the ultimate healthy comfort food. Those who regularly make bread at home know that nothing compares to the satisfaction of mixing, kneading, shaping, and baking a fresh loaf (not to mention the wonderful scent that wafts through the house as it cooks). Contrary to popular belief, baking bread can be easy and fun. Really. All you need is a bit of practice and some basic tips, starting with these five foolproof steps. Once you have your first loaf under your belt, you may wish you’d tried it sooner.

1. A living but dormant organism, dried yeast needs moisture and warmth to spring to life. Water added to yeast needs to be between 105 degrees and 110 degrees. Too cool and the yeast won’t activate; too warm and the yeast may die. Until you are comfortable recognizing the right temperature, consider investing in an instant-read thermometer.

2. Find a rhythm. Kneading causes gluten to form and incorporates air into the dough. After placing the dough on a floured surface, pull the far edge of it toward you, folding it in half. Place your fingertips on the front edge of the dough and push the dough away from you, rolling over the top of the dough and ending with the heels of your hands. Pull the far edge toward you again and push it away again. Repeat this action several times, then give the dough a quarter turn. Continue this process for eight to ten minutes, until dough becomes smooth and elastic.

3. Use flour sparingly. Using too much flour yields a heavy loaf. Add a light coating to your kneading surface only if the dough is sticking. Pat sticky spots with flour; don’t coat them. When using naturally dense whole grains, it’s especially important to keep dough slightly sticky.

4. Let it rise. Always coat rising bowls with oil (turn the dough to coat all sides) and cover with a tightly woven towel to prevent the dough’s surface from drying out, hindering its ability to rise. Wait for it to double in size, usually about 1 hour.

5. Finish well. Bread is done when its internal temperature reaches 190 degrees (insert your instant-read thermometer into the loaf bottom to test). Hard as it may be, let bread cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before cutting. Bread cut before mellowing may be gummy and will flatten when sliced.

Basic Learning Loaf

Makes 2 loaves / For a heartier loaf, you can substitute whole-wheat flour for up to 2 cups all-purpose flour.

1/2 cup water
2 scant tablespoons or 2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast
1-1/2 cups low-fat or skim milk
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil or butter, softened
2 tablespoons toasted wheat germ
2 tablespoons wheat bran
5-1/2 - 6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1. Heat water to about 110º. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over water. Heat milk to about 110º and add to yeast mixture along with salt, sugar, oil, wheat germ, bran, and 3 cups flour. Beat vigorously. Add flour, a little at a time, until dough pulls away from bowl sides.

2. Turn dough onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

3. Turn dough onto a lightly oiled work surface and divide in half. Roll each half into a 10x14-inch rectangle, then roll into a cylinder. Pinch loose edges. Place, seam-side down, into two greased 8x4-inch loaf pans. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.

4. Preheat oven to 375º. Bake 30 minutes, or until done. Immediately remove from pans and cool on racks.

Nutrition Facts Per Slice (16 slices per loaf): Calories: 97 calories % fat calories: 12 Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 18g Protein: 3g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 140mg

Oatmeal Herb Bread

Makes 2 loaves / Mix fresh herbs with a little flour to prevent them from clumping together. If fresh herbs are not available, substitute 1 teaspoon dried herbs.

2 cups low-fat or skim milk
1 cup oats
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or vegetable shortening
1/2 cup water
2 scant tablespoons or 2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh oregano
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons salt
4-5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Additional oats for pans and garnish
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cold water

1. Scald milk. Add oats, honey, and butter. Stir, cover, and cool to 110º.

2. Heat water to about 110º. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over water. Combine herbs and whole-wheat flour, then add to yeast with milk mixture, salt, and 2 cups all-purpose flour. Beat vigorously. Add flour, a little at a time, until dough pulls away from bowl sides.

3. Turn dough onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

4. Grease two 8x4-inch loaf pans. Sprinkle sides and bottom of pans with some additional oats. Turn dough onto a lightly oiled work surface; divide in half. Shape each half into a loaf. Place dough in prepared pans. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.

5. Preheat oven to 375º. Just before baking, beat together egg and water and brush over top of each loaf. Sprinkle with remaining oats. Bake 30 minutes, or until done. Immediately remove from pans and cool on racks.

Nutrition Facts Per Slice (16 slices per loaf): Calories: 104 calories % fat calories: 12 Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 9mg Carbohydrate: 20g Protein: 3g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 144mg

Anise-Orange Rye Rolls

Makes 36 / These full-bodied rolls have a delicate yet distinct flavor. Crush anise seeds with a mortar and pestle or gently pound with a clean hammer on a cutting board to release their licorice flavor.

1/2 cup water
2 scant tablespoons or 2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast
2 cups low-fat or skim milk
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup honey
2 cups rye flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange peel (1 medium-large orange)
2 teaspoons crushed anise seed
4-6 cups unbleached flour
Oil for brushing finished rolls (optional)

1. Heat water to about 110º. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over water. Heat milk to about 110º and add to yeast mixture along with oil, honey, rye flour, salt, orange peel, anise seed, and 1 cup unbleached flour. Beat vigorously. Add flour, a little at a time, until dough pulls away from bowl sides.

2. Turn dough onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

3. Turn dough onto a lightly oiled work surface; divide into 36 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Place balls in a well-greased, 14-inch deep-dish pizza pan or two well-greased 10-inch round cake pans. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.

4. Preheat oven to 375º. Bake 20 minutes, or until done. Immediately remove from pans and cool on a rack. For a soft, shiny crust, brush top of rolls with oil.

Nutrition Facts Per Piece: Calories: 99 calories % fat calories: 17 Fat: 2g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 18g Protein: 3g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 126mg

Betsy’s Big Bad Breakfast Buns

Makes 16 / Try these for a splurge. Soy flour conditions the dough, keeping it light. Be especially light-handed with the flour to get a nice, fine-grained texture.

16 slices per loaf)
1/4 cup water
1 scant tablespoon or 1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
1 cup low-fat or skim milk
3 tablespoons butter, softened
3 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup soy flour
3 cups whole-wheat flour
2-3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

16 slices per loaf)
1-1/2 cup raisins
1-1/2 cup pecans
3 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup light brown or turbinado sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange peel (1 medium-large orange)
1 heaping tablespoon cinnamon

16 slices per loaf)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2-3 tablespoons low-fat or skim milk

1. Heat water to about 110º. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over water. Heat milk to about 110º and add to yeast mixture along with butter, beaten eggs, salt, ginger, soy flour, whole-wheat flour, and 1 cup all-purpose flour. Beat vigorously. Add flour, a little at a time, until dough pulls away from bowl sides.

2. Turn dough onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

3. While dough is rising, prepare filling. In a food processor, finely chop raisins and pecans. Add remaining filling ingredients and pulse until mixture forms a crumbly paste.

4. Turn dough onto a lightly oiled work surface; roll into a 20x20-inch square. Spread filling evenly over dough. Roll dough into a 20-inch cylinder. Pinch loose edges. Cut into 16 equal pieces. Place buns, cut side down, in two well-greased 9x13-inch baking pans. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.

5. Preheat oven to 375º. Bake 20 minutes, or until done. Immediately remove buns from pans. Cool on a rack for 20 minutes. Lay a sheet of waxed paper under rolls. Combine confectioners’ sugar and milk until syrupy, and drizzle over buns.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 372 calories % fat calories: 31 Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 52mg Carbohydrate: 59g Protein: 8g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 198mg

Curried Apple-Coconut Bread

Makes 1 large braid / This beautiful bread makes a good accompaniment to all meats and most vegetables. You can substitute 2 cups whole-wheat flour for the all-purpose flour for an extremely tasty result, but you won’t get the same vibrant yellow color. Unless the apple skins are tough, I like to leave them intact for additional fiber.

1/2 cup water
2 scant tablespoons or 2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast
1 cup low-fat or skim milk
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup turbinado or light brown sugar
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons salt
5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup finely chopped tart apple
1 cup currants
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1 egg
1 tablespoon cold water

1. Heat water to about 110º. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over water. Heat milk to about 110º and add to yeast mixture along with beaten egg, butter, sugar, curry, salt, and 3 cups flour. Beat vigorously. Add apple, currants, and coconut. Beat to combine. Add flour, a little at a time, until dough pulls away from bowl sides.

2. Turn dough onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

3. Turn dough onto a lightly oiled work surface and divide into thirds. Roll each piece of dough into a 22-inch-long rope. Lay ropes side by side. Braid ropes, starting in the center and working toward both ends. Pinch ends together and tuck under. Carefully lift braid and place on a parchment-lined or well-greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.

4. Preheat oven to 375º. Beat egg with water and brush on braid. Bake 45 minutes, or until done. Immediately remove from baking sheet and cool on a rack.

Nutrition Facts Per Slice (36 slices per loaf): Calories: 113 calories % fat calories: 22 Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 16mg Carbohydrate: 19g Protein: 3g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 138mg