Baking bread is hard
I’ve been trying to bake bread recently, and having little luck. I use King Arthur Flour, but moved from Unbleached White All-Purpose and Whole Wheat to Unbleached White Bread. Bread flour mixes better, rises better, and bakes better; but I’m still screwing something up, and not quite getting the rise I need. Problems occur with both sourdough starters and artificially cultured Red Star yeast.
The key to bread lies in exactly the same place as beer: patience. That and a measure of warmth. I was never giving the dough time to rise, and never in a warm enough place. A cold counter with an hour of time doesn’t double the bulk at all, and several hours only finds me with inactive yeast. Starting with cold water doesn’t help either; a warm oven doesn’t help much in that case.
I started using a bread machine to make the dough, but not cook it; while rising, the machine warms the bucket, facilitating rising even better than a warm oven. Leaving it for too long (i.e. all day) makes it melt and turn to useless, alcoholic mush though! So I have to actually be there, and be patient, while being lazy; one day I must learn to do this by hand, a task I outright fail at when I try.
Once the dough has risen in the bread machine, I put it back on dough cycle for a few seconds, and sprinkle in a little more flour. This thickens the dough, and makes it easier to handle. it also punches it down and kneads it into a ball, which I can throw into a loaf pan. Doing this loses me a little dough, but gives me warm dough that will rise in my oven; while the oven’s off the pilot lights keep it warm, but not warm enough to initially heat dough.
Actually letting the dough rise above the edge of the pan produces excellent results. The loaf to the right was not allowed to rise flush; instead, it only reached about to half an inch below the edge. Baking accelerated fermentation and heated the trapped gas for the first few minutes, raising it to the edge of the pan. The result? A relatively flat, dense loaf. I use it for sandwiches but it does feel a little rough and heavy going down.
I allowed the loaf to the left to rise just a little bit above the edge of the pan, by maybe a half inch. This achieved splendid results; the bread crowned as it began to bake, and came out lighter and fluffier. Next time I may allow slightly more of a rise; eventually, though, the dough becomes soft and weak and falls apart. Good bread flour helps with this, along with the extra addition after the first rising and the additional kneading to form strong gluten chains.
For a special touch, I placed the loaf back in the oven for a few minutes to finish. When I removed it from the pan it still had a little to go, with a soft, moist bottom indicating a doughy interior. I placed the loaf back into the oven to bake a little longer. I also splashed the oven with water every few minutes during baking, more frequently after the oven preheated; a pan of water sat at the base the whole time as well. I also preheated the oven with the loaf in it, to take advantage of the extra rising period.
All in all, baking bread takes patience, time, and effort. I use a sourdough starter I made at home, along with cultured yeast like SAF-Instant to give extra rise. Eventually my sourdough starter will take off on its own; I may simply need more patience for this. The bread machine helps, both with warmth and with mixing the ingredients better; I don’t strictly need it, and hate the way stuff comes out when baked in it.