I don't want to wake up with a crying hangover tomorrow, so I'm fighting the urge to intoxicate myself with pain. Instead, I make bread. Lots and lots of bread lately. A few months ago it was cupcakes, but now it's bread. Or soup. Or bread AND soup. In an effort to keep my sad idle mind on something other than hurt, I decided to write down my fool proof method for making basic white bread. Straight out of the oven smeared with butter and jam, it's my absolute favorite comfort food. And to me, there is something cathartic about the act of making bread. From kneading the dough, to uncovering a perfectly risen bowl of dough. Oh, I love all of it, and I've done a lot of it this week.
I've made this exact bread at least 100 times in my life, and I guess there's a few tricks I've learned over the years, but over all it's your basic and simple bread recipe. You'll need:
1 package dry active yeast, or 2 1/4 tsp from a jar
1/4 C warm water
2 C milk
2 Tbsp white granulated sugar
1 Tbsp shortening
2 tsp salt
5 3/4 to 6 1/4 C white all-purpose flour
softened butter for brushing
First, the water has to be the perfect temperature. A lot of people make the mistake of getting their water too hot, which can actually kill the yeast and make flat bread. The water needs to be about the temperature that you'd bathe a newborn baby in. Somewhere around 100 degrees F. Put the warm water in a bowl and pour the yeast directly into it. You'll want to very gently stir the yeast into the water to make sure every granule is saturated. It will stick to the sides of the bowl, so gently push it into the water. Let the yeast water sit while you do the next few steps. Yeast softening is CRUCIAL because it activates the yeast.
Next, in a saucepan you'll measure the milk, sugar, shortening, and salt. You'll want this mixture to be about the temp of water YOU would bathe in. Kind of hot, but not boiling. Somewhere around 110 degrees. You need to constantly stir it otherwise the milk will scorch. As soon as the shortening is almost melted, take it off the burner.
In your mixing bowl, measure out 2 cups of the flour. Pour in the hot milk mixture and mix until fairly smooth. Now you'll pour in the yeast water. Use a rubber spatula to make sure you get every bit of the yeast that might be stuck to the bowl. Mix all of it together and it should start smelling like bread!
I am lucky enough to have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer with a dough hook. If you don't have one of those, you might be doing it the old fashioned way- by hand. Mix in as much of the remaining flour as you can by hand, then dump the gooey bread into a flour surface (like the kitchen counter) and begin to knead it. Remember you are not making a bagel; you are making fluffy bread. The trick is to add in only as much flour as absolutely necessary to reach an elastic consistency. If it is still SLIGHTLY sticky, that's perfect. I usually end up using 6 cups of flour total, including what I've used on the kitchen counter. Too much flour and your bread will be dense (like a bagel).
This is my favorite part. Knead it until it is beautifully smooth, squishy, and elastic. It should still slightly stick to your hand when you pick your hand up. You don't want it wet per-say, but a little sticky. When it's like this, it's perfect and read to start rising!
Right now, turn your oven on to the lowest temp it will go. The setting should be around 190 degrees or so. Keep the oven open, and as soon as it feels warm but not hot, close the door and turn the oven off. This make the perfect incubator for rising dough, but you have to monitor the rising temp as long as the oven is on. You only want it warm, like the perfect early summer day outdoors. Shorts and tee-shirt weather. That's what you want the oven to feel like inside. If you could climb in the oven and not burn, that's how to want it for the rising dough.
Lightly grease the inside of a different mixing bowl with cooking spray and lay your perfectly formed bread dough ball inside. Lightly spray the surface of the dough with the same cooking spray to keep it from drying out while rising, or you can brush with oil. Loosely cover the bowl with a dish towel and place inside the warmed oven. Close the door and walk away for the next 60-90 minutes. When you return to open the oven, wallah! This is what your dough should look like. It should have at least doubled in size from where you started.
Your counter top doesn't need to be floured for this part. Turn the bowl upside down and let the dough plop out. You may have to slightly jiggle the bowl to make the stubborn and sleepy bottom part give up it's bed. That bread has spent the last 90 minutes in a womb, and it's very comfy and warm. It should now be soft and bubbly and maybe a little oily on the surface from the cooking spray. Perfect!
Knead the dough a few times on the counter. Tuck the sides under until you have a nice even mound, then cut it in half with a butcher knife. Now you have two perfectly even twin mounds of dough. Grease 2 eight inch bread pans, shape each mound into something that looks like a baby loaf, and put each one in a pan. Again, lightly spray or brush the tops with oil, cover with the dish towel, and stick back in the oven. It won't be as warm as when you started, but it should still be above room temp which is okay.
After they have doubled in size (again, it will take at least an hour) you are ready to remove the pans and turn the oven on FOR REAL. After the pans are removed from the oven, turn it on to 375 degrees. This is likely the step where your beautifully risen dough will fall, if it's going to happen at all. This happens because of too much movement inside the delicate air bubbles within the dough. Move the pans as gently as you can when transporting them from the oven and then back in when the oven is preheated.
Let the bread bake for 20 minutes, then rotate them for even cooking. Bake for another 12-15 minutes and then remove them. Wallah, you just made yeast bread!! Your house should smell divine by now. As soon as you take it out of the oven, brush the tops (generously) with melted butter. Run a knife along the inside of the pan to loosen any stubborn bread from the pan walls (if you did a good job greasing, this should not be a problem). Remove the bread from the pans and into a wire cooling rack.
Brush the sides with MORE butter, and then lightly sprinkle the top with garlic salt. You can also use a cinnamon/sugar mixture, garlic bread seasoning, or any ground herbs that you like. Or, sprinkle nothing at all! You now have two beautiful loaves of white bread that will last less than an hour in your kitchen. Enjoy gaining a few pounds after devouring them, but know that every calorie is worth it!! Let me know how yours turn out!