Since we’re on this journey together of baking bread and other yummy things, I thought I’d share a handy list of 13 tips (a “Baker’s Dozen,” if you will) that have helped keep me much more sane in the kitchen over the years. Yay, tips!
1. Instant Yeast vs. Active Dry Yeast: Instant yeast can be added to your dry ingredients directly, while active dry yeast has to be activated in a little bit of warm water (and sometimes sugar, too) before it can be added to the mix. If the active dry yeast doesn’t foam up in about 10 minutes, it’s probably old and, bummer, you’ll need to start over with fresher yeast. Instant yeast also tends to make the dough rise faster than active dry yeast does. All that said, I still prefer to use active dry yeast in most of my recipes because I’m old-fashioned like that. I also like activating the yeast so I know it’s doing its job. Some bakers will tell you that you can use the same amount of instant yeast as you would active dry yeast in recipes, but I have always gone by Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recommendation: 1 teaspoon of instant yeast = 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast. Video: Instant Yeast vs. Active Dry Yeast
2. Some Flours Cannot Be Substituted For Another: Seriously. Bread flour and all-purpose flour are sometimes interchangeable, but sometimes they are so not. Sometimes you can substitute whole wheat flour for all of the flour called for in a recipe, but sometimes that will yield a tougher, denser result — so I generally substitute up to 75 percent of the all-purpose flour called for in a recipe with whole wheat flour, but no more. Bleached and unbleached all-purpose flour can be used interchangeably, though I prefer to use unbleached all-purpose flour in my recipes because bleach in my food sounds weird (though some prefer it for cakes and cookies). When in doubt, go with what the recipe originally calls for, do some research on the interwebs or e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Video: The Basics of Flours for Bread Baking
3. Check The Expiration Dates: There is nothing sadder than going through the whole process of baking something yummy and having it fail because one of your ingredients was old and tired. Be sure to check expiration dates on your less commonly used ingredients, and even on the ones you use often. Baking soda, baking powder, yeast, nuts and even whole wheat flour can go bad or lose their oomph over time. I like to keep my flours in the fridge to extend their shelf life, and on my jar of yeast (which I also refrigerate) I’ll write the date six months from when I’ve opened it, which is when it tends to lose its freshness.
4. How to Make Your Own Ingredients That Are Often Used in Baking (I’ll add more of these as I discover them):
Buttermilk: Combine 1 tablespoon lemon juice to a scant cup of milk for every cup of buttermilk you need for the recipe. Let it sit for five minutes and voila! Buttermilk.
Cake Flour: Remove 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour for every cup you need for the recipe and replace it with cornstarch. Sift the ingredients together about four or five times and voila! Cake flour.
Bread Flour: Remove 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour for every cup you need for the recipe and replace it with gluten additive. Stir it in and voila! Bread flour.
5. How to Halve Ingredients in a Recipe: This nifty little guide is my best friend.
6. How to Keep Fruit From Sinking to the Bottom of Your Baked Goods: Give the berries or fruit pieces a good toss in a couple tablespoons of flour before adding them to the batter (this isn’t necessary if you’re adding them to a yeast bread, as they’ll stay well put). The flour will help keep them from sinking to the bottom of your muffins/quick breads/cakes during the baking process. Video: How to Keep Fruit From Sinking To the Bottom of Baked Goods
7. Less is More: This almost always applies when working with dough. The less you play with the dough after it’s fully kneaded, the better. The less flour you add to it to make it a smooth, soft, pliable, elastic, tacky (but not sticky) dough, the better. The less flour you sprinkle on a surface to knead or shape the dough, the better.
8. How to Know if a Bread is Fully Kneaded: Do the windowpane test. It’s pretty neat.
9. How to Make Dough Rise Really Well: I can’t promise you this will work every single time, but out of 10 times I’ve done it, this method has worked nine. When it’s a little cooler in your kitchen (sub 70 degrees), wrap a heating pad in a flour sack towel (or any thin towel), then turn it on low and place it on a countertop. Place your dough, in its bowl or loaf pan and covered, on top of the heating pad. That little extra bit of heat makes some serious magic happen. Don’t have a heating pad? Place the bowl/loaf pan in the microwave. That works pretty well, too.
10. How to Test Whether a Loaf Has Doubled: Usually, I eyeball it and if it looks doubled, that’s good enough for me. Other, fancier people will put a piece of tape on the side of the bowl to measure when it has doubled. My best rule of thumb, though, is this: Press two fingers about 1-inch deep into the top of the risen dough. If the indentations stay, the dough has doubled. As my old news editor would say, that’s a bingo bango.
11. How to Tell if a Loaf is Fully Baked: Take it out of the oven and give it a tap on the bottom with your fingernail. If it makes a good thwacking sound, like it’s almost hollow, it’s probably done. But to be extra sure, insert an instant read thermometer in the bottom center. For regular yeast breads, 210 to 220 degrees F is ideal; if it’s an egg or milk-based yeast bread or has a few extra ingredients in it (like nuts or veggies), aim for 200 to 210 degrees F. This does not apply to quick breads. Video: How To Test If a Yeast Bread Is Done Baking
12. How to Store Breads: If it’s crusty, store it in a paper bag and if it’s soft or enriched (baked with eggs or milk), store it in an airtight container or plastic. I almost never recommend refrigerating your breads, as it actually makes them go stale more quickly. If you want to freeze your bread, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, then tightly in aluminum foil before sticking it in the freezer.
13. Some Baking Resources I Heart:
Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum
The Joy of Baking
For Beaming, Bewitching Breads on Smitten Kitchen
Bread Baking Tips on Betty Crocker