Straight from the hearth: Making bread is as easy as erasing your fear of yeast

Wheatfields Bakery co-founder Thom Leonard.

Wheatfields Bakery co-founder Thom Leonard.

Thom Leonard demonstrates how to make a natural leavening starter

Thom Leonard explains the importance of using plenty of water

Thom Leonard shows how to best utilize your oven for breadmaking

Pumpkin bread? No problem. Zucchini bread? Pssh, easy. Banana bread? A piece of cake.

French bread, sandwich bread, pizza crust .... um, it's easier to buy those, right?

If there's any one ingredient that strikes fear into the hearts of home bakers anywhere, it's yeast. It's the very same organism that stars in those airy breads that often seem so mysterious to home bakers who can churn out dense, cake-like loaves by the dozen. So, why the jitters?

"Because they can completely fail," says Kansas City private chef Paige Vandegrift. "If you make a biscuit, you'll at least have something to eat if it doesn't work out. But with a yeast bread, if it doesn't rise, you're stuck with this wad of flour and liquid that you don't really know what to do with."

Not exactly the type of meal you were hoping for on a cold winter's day, we're sure. But even if you've never used yeast before, it is possible to have a yummy-smelling loaf in your oven your first time out without settling for something resembling papier-mâché.

To help you, we've got two professionals, Vandegrift and Thom Leonard, co-founder of WheatFields Bakery, on hand to help take the mystery out of yeast breads. And right now is just the time to learn, says Leonard, who notes that bread is part of what he calls the current culinary mood.

"There's an interest in fundamental stuff right now," he says. "I think there's a trend in food and life in general right now to get back to the basics. Bread is part of that mood."

Plan ahead. Any yeast bread recipe will take time. Don't plan on having made-from-scratch rolls on the table for dinner if you start at 5 p.m.

The reason for all that time? Any yeast dough requires at least two rises. The rising action helps the bread develop flavor. Basically, yeast is a single-celled fungi that uses that time to eat up the sugar in the dough. When it does that, it puts out alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste products. The carbon dioxide gives yeast bread its airiness, while the alcohol adds to the bread's flavor during the time it spends baking off in the oven.

"It's like ecosystem management. It's not just making a cake, where you put the right ingredients in and don't beat it too much and bake it at the right temperature and it'll come out a cake," Leonard says. "You are having to manage time and temperature to suit the needs of another a living community of species."

Proper ingredients are essential. What can ruin your bread before you even add the flour? Dead yeast. Yeast is a living organism. If it is too old, it won't react with the warm water, and your bread won't rise.

"You can test that by putting it in a little bit of warm water with some sugar and it should foam immediately," she says of testing your yeast's viability. But be careful - you can kill perfectly good yeast by scalding it in water hotter than 140 degrees.

Flour power. Speaking of ingredients, your bread will react differently depending on what kind of flour you use, says Leonard. It's not necessary to become a flour snob - just to understand that if you buy a different kind, your bread won't be the same, even if the flour is made from the same type of wheat.

"There's a lot of difference between one mill's flour and another," Leonard says. "There's a lot of difference between all-purpose flour and bread flour. With whole wheat, there's a whole range."

You need to knead. Yes, you have to get your hands dirty. Kneading the dough is all part of creating the reaction and environment needed to get the perfect dough. The kneading motion helps the flour and water become elastic and stretchy, activating the protein known as gluten. Kneading helps the gluten in the dough trap the yeast's carbon dioxide byproduct and create a desired texture (i.e., one full of tiny holes).

"I always tell people gluten's like bubble gum," Vandegrift says. "And that when you are kneading, you are developing that gluten and you are creating those strong sheets of gluten that then can be inflated as the yeast consumes the sugars in the dough and produces gases. Those gases have to have someplace to go, and if you haven't kneaded enough, they aren't going to have the nice gluten sheets to fill up."

Or you don't ... There are no-knead recipes that have come about in the past few years, as popularized by a series of articles in The New York Times. The secret is in a very long rise time.

Though one would think a lifetime baker like Leonard would look down on the lazy man's no-knead technique, he actually thinks it's done wonderful things for bread baking - like making it less mysterious.

"I think it was great because it got people interested in making bread," Leonard says. "I know at least a half-dozen people in town who didn't make bread regularly until those articles came out in the Times."

Online chat with Paige Vandegrift

Ask chef and Merc instructor Paige Vandegrift about all things bread making in our online chat with her Wednesday, Jan. 27 from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. Log-in to submit your questions early!

Tips of the trade

WheatFields Bakery guru Thom Leonard is teaching a class on bread baking Thursday night at The Community Mercantile, 901 S. Iowa. Want in? So do we, but it's been full for weeks.

But Leonard and private chef Paige Vandegrift, who also teaches classes at the Merc, are happy to share their top tips for home bakers.

Wash your hands in water. Leonard explains that rather than adding more flour to prevent the dough from sticking while kneading, keep a bowl of water handy and get your fingers wet while working the dough.

Give it more time to rise in the winter. "Unless you can create a warm environment in your kitchen, it's going to take it a lot of time to rise because it's very cold," Vandegrift says. "You'll produce really good breads that way, breads with a lot of character and flavor, but they won't rise nearly as quickly."

Develop your kneading skills. "Some people have a natural knack for kneading and some people don't," Vandegrift says. "They have to learn it and they have to really practice it."

If you can, weigh your ingredients. "The other big thing I think people do wrong in home baking is I think they measure their ingredients by volume rather than weighing them. Everything we make is weighed. And when I bake bread at home, I have a scale that's excessively precise," Leonard says. "Measuring ingredients for bread making is asking for it to be inconsistent and asking for difficulty."

Naturally leavened bread recipes

Classic Sandwich Bread

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup milk

1/2 to 2/3 cup hot water

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) melted butter, margarine or vegetable oil

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1 packet active dry yeast dissolved in 1 tablespoon warm water OR 2 teaspoons instant yeast

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients and stir till the dough starts to leave the sides of the bowl. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased surface, oil your hands, and knead it for 6 to 8 minutes, or until it begins to become smooth and supple. (You may also knead this dough in an electric mixer or food processor, or in a bread machine set to the dough or manual cycle). Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise till puffy though not necessarily doubled in bulk, about 60 minutes, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled work surface, and shape it into an 8-inch log. Place the log in a lightly greased 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan, cover the pan loosely with lightly greased plastic wrap and allow the bread to rise for about 60 minutes, until it's domed about 1 inch above the edge of the pan. A finger pressed into the dough should leave a mark that rebounds slowly.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 35 minutes, until it's light golden brown. Test it for doneness by removing it from the pan and thumping it on the bottom (it should sound hollow), or by measuring its interior temperature with an instant-read thermometer (it should register 190 degrees at the center of the loaf). Remove the bread from the oven and cool it on a wire rack before slicing. Store the bread in a plastic bag at room temperature. Yield: 1 loaf.

Kansas Sunflower Bread

1 cup boiling water

1/4 cup white wheat bulgur

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/4 cup rolled oats

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 eggs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

2 teaspoons instant yeast

3 cups plus 2 tablespoons* bread flour

*Use this amount in the summer. In winter, you'll probably only need to use 3 cups of flour.

In a large mixing bowl, pour the boiling water over the bulgur, and let the mixture sit till it's lukewarm, about 15 minutes. Add the seeds, oats, salt, eggs, oil, honey, sugar, yeast and enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead the dough on a lightly oiled surface until it's smooth, then place it in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and allow the dough to rise for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, or until it's doubled in bulk.

Remove the dough from the bowl, shape it into a loaf, and place it in a lightly greased 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch bread pan. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and set the loaf aside to rise till it's crowned about 1 inch over the rim of the pan, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350-degree oven for 35 minutes or until it tests done, draping it lightly with aluminum foil, shiny side up, after 20 minutes if it appears to be getting too brown. Remove the pan from the oven and turn the loaf out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Yield: 1 loaf.

French-Style Country Bread

Sponge Starter (Begin 2 to 16 hours ahead)

1 cup (8 ounces) cool to lukewarm water, preferably spring water (90 to 100 degrees)

1/2 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast

1 1/4 cups (5 1/4 ounces) bread flour

1/4 cup (1 ounce) whole-wheat flour


All of the sponge starter (above)

1 cup (8 ounces) lukewarm water, preferably spring water (l00 to 115 degrees)

3/4 teaspoon active dry or 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

3 3/4 to 4 cups (1 pound to 1 pound 1 ounce) King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

To make the sponge: Stir all of the sponge ingredients together to make a thick, pudding-like mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and leave on a counter overnight or for at least 2 to 4 hours. If you're making this in a bread machine, place the sponge ingredients inside, and turn the machine on for just a few seconds to mix the ingredients together. Turn the machine off and close the cover. Let the sponge rest for 4 hours or overnight (anywhere between 2 and 16 hours is fine, the longer the better).

To make the dough: Stir down the sponge with a spoon and add the water, yeast, sugar, most of the flour (hold back about 1/2 cup to use if required) and salt. Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, to make a soft dough, 10 to 12 minutes.

Big tip: Mix ingredients together using up to 80 percent of the flour called for: It will be a loose, messy mass. Let the dough rest for 12 minutes, and you'll see it change in texture, to be come much smoother. Continue, kneading and adding additional flour as required. Overall, the dough handles better once it's had time for the flour to absorb the water while resting and relaxing. By using this method, you'll tend to add less flour and have much bigger holes in your finished bread.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container, cover with lightly greased plastic wrap and a damp towel, and let it rise until almost doubled (depending on the weather, this could be 1 to 2 hours). If you're going out, or if you prefer, let the dough rise slowly in the fridge. If your dough has been refrigerated, allow it to come to room temperature; it'll warm up and rise at the same time. After its first rise, deflate the dough gently, but don't knock out all the air; this will create those "holes" so important to French bread. Form the dough into a round ball. Place two cookie sheets atop one another, and place a semolina- or cornmeal-dusted piece of parchment paper on top. Gently place the ball of dough on the cookie sheets, seam-side down. Cover it lightly with a tea towel, and let it rise the second time until it's puffy and about 40 percent to 50 percent larger, anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes (depending on the weather, luck and magic). Slash or cross-hatch the bread with a sharp knife or lame. Dust it with a little flour.

Preheat your grill to high. Place the bread (on the doubled-up cookie sheets) on the grill, and close the cover. Immediately reduce the heat to medium (400 degrees), and allow the bread to bake for 25 minutes, or until it's well-browned. Reduce the heat to low, and carefully place the bread directly on the grill. Continue to bake until completely done, about 5 minutes.

For regular (oven) baking: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Slash the bread, spritz water into the oven with a clean plant mister, and place the bread in the oven. Reduce the heat to 425 degrees and spritz with water every few minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking. Bake the bread for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until it tests done. Yield: 1 large round bread or two medium breads, 10 to 12 servings.

Pizza Crust

2 teaspoons active dry yeast or instant yeast

7/8 to 1 1/8 cups lukewarm water*

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

Use the lesser amount in summer (or in a humid environment), the greater amount in winter (or in a dry climate), and somewhere in between the rest of the year, or if your house is climate controlled.

2 teaspoons active dry yeast or instant yeast

7 to 9 ounces lukewarm water*

7/8 ounce olive oil

12 3/4 ounces King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

*Use the lesser amount in summer (or in a humid environment), the greater amount in winter (or in a dry climate), and somewhere in between the rest of the year, or if your house is climate controlled.

If you're using active dry yeast, dissolve it, with a pinch of sugar, in 2 tablespoons of the lukewarm water. Let the yeast and water sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, until the mixture has bubbled and expanded. If you're using instant yeast, you can skip this step.

Combine the dissolved yeast (or the instant yeast) with the remainder of the ingredients. Mix and knead everything together - by hand, mixer or bread machine set on the dough cycle - till you've made a soft, smooth dough. If you're kneading in a stand mixer, it should take 4 to 5 minutes at second speed, and the dough should barely clean the sides of the bowl, perhaps sticking a bit at the bottom. Don't over-knead the dough; it should hold together, but can still look fairly rough on the surface.

To make pizza now: Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and allow it to rise till it's very puffy. This will take about an hour using instant yeast, or 90 minutes using active dry. If it takes longer, that's OK; just give it some extra time.

To make pizza up to 24 hours later: Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 45 minutes at room temperature. Refrigerate the dough for 4 hours (or for up to 24 hours); it will rise slowly as it chills. This step allows you more schedule flexibility; it also develops the crust's flavor. About 2 to 3 hours before you want to serve pizza, remove the dough from the refrigerator.

Divide the dough in half, for two pizzas; or leave it whole for one pizza.

Use vegetable oil pan spray to lightly grease the pan(s) of your choice. Drizzle olive oil into the bottom of the pan(s). The pan spray keeps the pizza from sticking; the olive oil gives the crust great flavor and crunch.

Place the dough in the prepared pan(s). Press it over the bottom of the pan, stretching it towards the edges. You'll probably get about two-thirds of the way there before the dough starts shrinking back; walk away for 15 minutes. Cover the dough while you're away, so it doesn't dry out.

When you come back, you should be able to pat the dough closer to the corners of the pan. Repeat the rest and dough-stretch one more time, if necessary; your goal is to get the dough to fill the pan as fully as possible.

Allow the dough to rise, covered, till it's noticeably puffy, about 90 minutes (if it hasn't been refrigerated); or 2 to 2 1/2 hours (if it's been refrigerated). Toward the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Bake the pizza on the lower oven rack till it looks and feels set on top, and is just beginning to brown around the edge of the crust, but is still pale on top. This will take about 8 minutes for thinner crust pizza; about 10 to 12 minutes for medium thickness; and 12 to 14 minutes for thick-crust pizza. If you're baking two pizzas, reverse them in the oven (top to bottom, bottom to top) midway through the baking period.

To serve pizza immediately: Remove it from the oven, and arrange your toppings of choice on top. Return to the oven, and bake on the upper oven rack for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned, both top and bottom, and the cheese is melted. Check it midway through, and move it to the bottom rack if the top is browning too much, or the bottom not enough.

To serve pizza up to 2 days later: Remove the untopped, partially baked crust from the oven, cool completely on a rack, wrap in plastic, and store at room temperature. When ready to serve, top and bake in a preheated 450-degree oven, adding a couple of minutes to the baking times noted above. Your goal is a pizza whose crust is browned, and whose toppings are hot/melted.

Remove the pizza from the oven, and transfer it from the pan to a rack to cool slightly before serving. For easiest serving, cut with a pair of scissors.


AnnaUndercover 13 years ago

Mmm, zucchini bread! So good. Thanks for the recipes!

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