Plenty of people prefer baking their own bread, and not just for the sake of freshness, good taste and heavenly aroma; it is also healthier (you decide what ingredients go inside) and quite cost-efficient.
Anyone can master the skill with a bit of practice. And while you can certainly prepare and knead the dough yourself, for ease and convenience I would recommend investing in a bread machine. If you happen to own one but aren’t using it, then give it another try. And if you don’t own one, then you might consider making this purchase. Look for them when they’re on sale at $60 to $70. At this price, I trust it will be a good acquisition. Let me elaborate.
Years ago we bought a bread machine, but used it only sporadically. The bread came out good, though not amazing, and it had an odd, rectangular shape that resembled neither baguette nor toast. After the initial thrill my enthusiasm died down, and eventually I gave up home-baking altogether. The bread machine got stashed away somewhere in the basement.
Fast forward to summer 2011, I stumbled upon the book “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell – a groundbreaking, vast and very informative study about nutrition and its implications for health, weight and general well-being. I must confess, reading this book has changed my life. From the first few chapters already I realized that the way we were eating was, well, really terrible. I suddenly became interested in everything related to health and nutrition, and gradually started adjusting our grocery list and cooking habits towards more plant-based, more whole grains and less, much less processed foods. In this context it became obvious that enriched white flour, too, needed to be cut from our diet. In our home the main culprit was bread, particularly white toast. Apparently there is a saying along these lines, too:
“The whiter your bread, the sooner you’re dead.”
The logical step was to switch from white to whole wheat. The change, however, proved disappointing. Somehow, whole wheat bread just didn’t taste as good.
Step two then was to taste-test several types of toast. We found two brands with fairly palatable whole wheat options but – naturally – these were also a tad more expensive. Yet it was not the cost that turned me off, but their mile-long ingredient list – 14, to be exact – with about half of them not sounding too good. Glucose-fructose (aka: high-fructose corn syrup) was among them, too.
Step three: dig out the old bread machine and start baking again. This time I only used the “dough” setting. When the dough was ready, I placed in on a baking sheet or in a pan, let it rise and then baked it in the oven. I discovered with sadness that bread baking isn’t exactly straight-forward business: baking with whole wheat was a whole lot different! Some breads turned out reasonably good, others were total failures – speak: like bricks. The 100% whole wheat ones especially were heavy and dense and coarse. They tasted alright, but were far from satisfying.
Practice Makes Perfect
The science behind it is that whole wheat flour contains slightly less gluten, since it is made from the entire wheat kernel (bran, germ and endosperm), not only from the endosperm. On top of that, the sharp bran and germ particles cut through the forming gluten bonds and thus inhibit the dough from rising properly. There are solutions, and they’re fairly simple – though I found them the hard way, after about two years of learning, testing and tweaking:
(1) do not go 100% whole wheat, but mix in some all-purpose flour
(2) add more water, make the dough moist
(3) add more yeast, about double the quantity you would use for white flour, and
(4) give it enough time to rise
Finally, if you want an authentic-looking toast, it would be a good idea to buy a special pan for that. I bought this one from Amazon: Long Loaf Pan
This is my “perfect recipe”, which consistently yields wholesome, tasty toast bread that looks quite presentable, too! One of these loaves usually lasts us 3 to 4 days.
Set the bread machine on “Dough” and add the following ingredients to the pan, in this order
2 ½ cups water
¼ tsp sugar
1 tbsp salt (or less, to taste)
4 ½ cups flour (mix 1 cup all-purpose + 3 ½ cups whole wheat)
2 tsp granulated yeast
Turn on the machine and let it do the work (it should take about 1 ½ h), while you take care of other things, relax or go out for a nice cup of coffee.
When the dough is done
Turn on the oven for 3 minutes at 350F, then turn it off again.
Line the bread pan with parchment paper
If the pan is cold, stick it in the oven during those 3 minutes to warm it up. The dough doesn’t like temperature shocks.
Pour dough on a floured surface (your table or a big cutting board). Sprinkle with flour and knead a little to squish out the air bubbles, and shape it into a longish loaf. The dough will be soft and elastic, but not runny.
Place dough in the bread pan and press it down and towards the edges to mold it in shape.
Place pan in the oven and let rise for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours. Its volume will more than double.
When dough has risen above the rims of the pan, turn on the oven at 325F and bake for 55 minutes.
When the bread is done, take it out of the oven, remove from pan and let it cool.
Enjoy your professional-looking, amazingly-tasting and super-healthy toast!
- to coat the pan you can also apply PAM spray, or coat with butter and flour like in the good old days. On the other hand, parchment paper is practical because it can be reused for up to three-four bakes.
- other bread recipes recommend baking at higher temperatures (350F to 450F). I found, by experimenting, that a lower temperature, i.e. 325F, yields a finer, more toast-like texture.
- of course you might use a different brand of flour, and every oven is different, so you will need to experiment a bit with the rising and baking time
- home-baked bread should be kept in a cool and dry place, and should be eaten within 3 to 4 days. Since it has no preservatives it gets stale faster, and in warm and humid weather it might become moldy.
I store it in the fridge in summer.
Is it worth the trouble?
I chose to bake bread at home because I wanted my family to eat better, cleaner, more nutritious food. The cost was not a factor. Nowadays we buy flour and yeast instead of ready-made bread. We also buy fresh fruits and vegetables, mainly those that are in season and not too pricey, dry legumes instead of canned ones, and we rarely buy meat. Our grocery expenses didn’t go up, they actually decreased slightly.
But one day I got curious, wondering: how much does a home-made bread actually cost? This is what I calculated based on the current prices for flour, yeast, sugar, salt and electricity:
Cost estimation for one 16-inches long toast loaf
Flour, 4 1/2 cups
Sugar and salt
Yeast, 2 tsp
This may not seem super-cheap but, then again, where can you buy decent toast bread these days?
Here in Canada the loaves have shrunk and shrunk over time and are more like 12-inches now, though they’re being offered at the same price as before: between $ 2.50 and $ 3.50, depending on the brand and the store where you buy it.
I do understand that the price of flour has gone up, as has the production cost. But, honestly, those tiny toast loaves you see in grocery stores now look ridiculous! Not to mention their consistency, which is more like foam. If you squish a store-bought toast slice, you can make it paper-thin without too much effort. Not so with the home-baked toast. I wonder whether the cost wouldn’t go down if they would leave out all those funny-sounding ingredients and would use only flour, water and yeast?
Finally, to conclude the debate whether bread baking is worth the trouble:
In my opinion, the answer is YES. Baking bead at home is absolutely worth it, and using a bread machine will significantly minimize the effort.
I have always liked writing but, being a mother of two and working full-time, it's not easy to find time for my hobbies.
I love nature and I'm committed to healthy cooking and clean, environment-friendly living. Oh, and I love coffee.