I posted recently about my frustrations with trying to provide home-baked bread for my family. I started with the 5 Minutes a Day technique, but quickly grew discouraged and disappointed. I mentioned that I was going to try Rhonda Jean’s recipe over at Down to Earth, and I’m happy to say that my problems have been solved.
Turns out I was using nowhere near enough water. And therein lies the problem for beginner breadmakers such as myself. I’m the kind of gal who needs a recipe. I have no feel for ingredients, how they contribute to the final product and what ratios to use, so a recipe is essential for me. What I guess I didn’t understand (or, more likely, chose to ignore) was that breadmaking is not really suitable to rigid recipes. Turns out that the consistency of your dough will vary based on the temperature in your home, humidity, flour composition, how the yeast happens to feel that day, etc. As Rhonda Jean continually emphasizes in her articles about breadmaking, to get the right dough you need to understand how it’s supposed to feel. Her detailed photos of dough during the kneading process clued me in to the fact that my dough was not right. At the end of her required 8 minutes of kneading (a good starting point for beginners, and far longer than I’d kneaded bread before) her dough looked smooth and stretchy. Mine lacked any stretch and after only a few minutes of kneading I was sweating buckets and my arms ached. Something wasn’t right.
So, as per her instructions, I kept adding water. I even added it while kneading, using my invented-on-the-spot technique of dipping my hands in warm water and rubbing them together; I did this several times during the kneading process. Assessing the dough while kneading made it easy to correct; if things got too sloppy I simply dusted more flour on the surface, which the dough picked up as I kneaded. I was thrilled to bits when I completed my kneading time and ended up with a stretchy, smooth-surfaced dough. It rose beautifully, far more than any other dough I’ve attempted thus far. It was soft and lovely as I punched it down for the second kneading (a relatively short 2 minutes). In the loaf pan it rose far above the rim of the pan – again a new experience for me. And the ultimate test was the final result: bread with a lovely crumb, a nice crust (not too crunchy, great for sandwiches), and best of all – it tasted like bread (not some yeasty, poor imitation of sourdough). My kids actually ate it and liked it!
After following Rhonda Jean’s instructions I finally understood her emphasis on needing to feel the dough, to use one’s senses rather than a rigid recipe as a guide. With each loaf I get better at figuring out how much water to use, and how to slightly adjust with water or flour during the kneading process when I don’t get it exactly right from the start. Best of all, it now makes using whole wheat far less intimidating. My previous wheat breads were all heavy – now I know that I just need to add more water to the dough when whole grains are used – forget the recipes and just go by feel. Right now I’m doing half-and-half with whole wheat and organic white flour, but am looking forward to trying other grains such as rye and spelt. I do add gluten flour to all my recipes (Rhonda Jean suggests it even for 100% white flour when starting out, until one gets a good feel for the dough and the process), and so far I’m thrilled with the results.
A big thank you to Rhonda Jean for her wonderful advice. Finally, I can provide my family with delicious, fresh, homemade bread and ditch the store-bought for good!