For many years now I have been trying to provide my family with homemade bread. The stuff from the grocery store is full of preservatives and highly processed ingredients, and wholesome artisan bread is too expensive for the amount we go through each week. Years ago I purchased a breadmaking machine and enjoyed using that for some time. The down side was that it took 3.5 to 4 hours to make a small loaf of bread. Theoretically I’d set it up at night before going to bed, but that didn’t always work out as planned. I’d be too tired and forget. Or, I’d get woken up in the early morning hours by the grinding noise of the breadmaker (life in a small home). Several months ago my breadmaker finally broke when I attempted to make spelt bread. The recipe I was using was obviously faulty and the resulting dough was more like cement. It was so hard to churn that the metal spokes that turned the rotor of the bread machine actually tore off! I decided it was time to try my hand at making it myself.
My next venture was into the Five Minutes a Day breadmaking made popular by the authors’ two books. I tried a basic recipe of theirs from an article in Mother Earth News and decided this was the answer I needed, so I ordered the two books and went out to buy loaf pans. At first I was really happy with the technique: it was easy to mix up a big batch and it didn’t take too long to make bread. I assumed I’d get better with practice, and so tolerated the frequent mistakes. But it didn’t seem to get any easier and eventually the list of “cons” outweighed the “pros”. My kids complained that the bread “tasted funny” and refused to eat it. Even I grew tired of the yeasty smell and taste. The whole schtick behind these books is you get that “sourdough” type flavour with this technique. I like sourdough bread, but not in every loaf I make, and I found the flavour overwhelming in these recipes. I eventually found out that I could cut the yeast way down, which went a long way to getting rid of the taste, but then it also took a lot longer to make the initial batch of bread. Then there was the fact that I didn’t have enough room in my fridge to store the dough (which you make in large batches). I also could not get consistent loaves no matter how often I practiced. One day the loaf would have a good “crumb” (the texture of the inside of the loaf) and the next it would be gooey, hard, or unevenly cooked. The crusts were never soft, even in the soft-crust recipes, and the loaves cooked unevenly. This latter issue is definitely a problem with my ancient oven, but that’s what I’m stuck with right now. I got tired of the kids rejecting my loaves, and of wasting so much good organic flour (the pigs enjoyed it all very much, of course). I stopped trying and we went back to cheap, store-bought bread.
After taking a suitable break from my Five Minutes a Day failure, I felt ready to try my hand at real, old-fashioned breadmaking. The kind where you actually knead the dough. In all my years of making bread I’d never actually done this before, and felt it was time to give it a try. I surfed through YouTube to get some ideas and inspiration. It felt a lot like Googling “gardening” – way too much information and everybody seems to do it differently. I found it rather confusing and overwhelming. One person swore by using a yeast “sponge” rather than proofing yeast, others claim that yeast won’t work without sugar and yet they proof their yeast with just water. Rising times seemed to vary considerably, and when it came to whole grain breads some people didn’t use gluten, which I’ve been told is essential to get any rise from these heavier flours. There were those who knead by hand and those who knead with a mixer (I have a KitchenAid with Dough Hook, but have yet to try it on bread). I decided to start simple.
I found a beginner’s bread recipe in an old copy of Hobby Farm Home I had lying around. I followed the instructions and was very pleased to see things rising as they should, with the correct texture, etc. I was also rather surprised at how little time it took – the first rise was only 1 hour and the second 30 minutes. The bread baked for 30 minutes, so in just over 2 hours I had bread. That’s half the time of machine bread, and the same time as the Five Minutes a Day technique (when you pinch off some ready-made dough you still need to let it rest and rise for 90 minutes before shaping). For a first effort I was pretty pleased with the results. The loaves were on the small side, but the crumb was not bad (could still be fluffier, IMO). It had baked evenly and I had 2 loaves with relatively little effort. Even kneading the dough was not half as hard as I thought it would be.
However, to my surprise the bread still had a yeasty, sour sort of flavour to it and the kids rejected it. I’m not sure what the problem is, but I suspect water may be an issue – we have sulfur in our well water and though I thought I’d used spring water from the store there may have been some well water in the kettle I used to heat the water (I did this meticulously with the Five Minutes recipes but cutting down on the yeast had a much greater effect on taste). I’m going to try the recipe one more time, being careful about the water source and see if that’s the problem. And I may look for recipes that call for less yeast (I use Fleischmann’s, nothing unusual). Otherwise I’m not sure what to do except keep trying recipes until I find one, or a technique, that works for us. Rhonda Jean over at Down to Earth has some great articles about homemade bread so I think I’ll try her recipes next. I’m determined not to be dependent on store-bought bread, especially since my kids eat it by the ton and I want their food to be wholesome and healthy (plus I suspect that they eat so much of it because it contains ingredients that folks crave but that don’t provide much in the way of nutrition). I’ll keep you all posted on my progress.