I made my first loaf of bread in grade 4, long before home economics classes would commence. My teacher, Miss Drake, was a hippie at heart, and we learned all kinds of things that we might otherwise not have ever had the chance to do. I certainly didn't learn bread-making in home-ec.
For many years, when the kids were both at home, I used to make bread twice a week, 7-8 loaves at a time plus, of course, pizza for the Friday night's supper. I used to buy yeast in a large can, and had the whole process down to a science. Into the bread sponge would go any compatible leftovers like potatoes, carrots, oatmeal... Every batch was an adventure.
The best way to get good at making bread is to do it often. People can tell you all about knowing when the bread has been kneaded enough because of the way it responds when you press your thumb into it. But nothing is more gratifying then to suddenly realize as you eat a piece of warm bread out of the oven slathered in butter that this time you automagically knew when the bread dough was kneaded enough, and bowled it for rising, without thinking about it. (Believe me, this is a milestone!)
When I first started making whole wheat bread, I was not terribly impressed with the taste. It lacked something. The problem was that I was merely substituting whole wheat flour for white flour in my recipes. Bleh! I discovered that I needed to add just a little more salt. Not a whole lot, but some. Where I would use a tsp of salt for a batch of white bread, I needed 2 tsps if the bread was entirely made with whole wheat bread, or 1 1/2 if it was going to half and half white flour and whole wheat flour.
My recipe? The basic French bread:
- 2 tbsp dry yeast
- 2-1/2 cups warm water
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 6+ cups flour
- 1 to 2 tsp. salt (depending on the type of flour(s) used)
- 1 tsp. oil
Oil a bowl, and your dough; put the dough in the bowl, cover and set to rise in a warm place. For me, this is inside the microwave after using it to heat a cup of water for 1 minute.
Let the dough rise until doubled in size, usually 45 to 75 minutes. Plenty of time to clean up the prep area, have a cup of tea and move a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer (yeah, I had a routine).
Once the dough is doubled in size, turn it out on your kneading surface, punch the dough down and knead it for a few turns, and shape it back into a ball. Throw a cloth over it, and get your loaf pans ready. A light coating of oil to help the loaf slip out readily at the end of the baking time is nice. Some people use cooking spray. Sometimes I would use a cookie sheet and make a proper French loaf or baguette, and sprinkle a little cornmeal on the sheet.
Now, divide the dough up for the loaves. The dough will not fill up the loaf pans at this point, and you can also make buns, or put some aside for pizza dough.
Put the covered loaf pans in a warm place to rise until the dough fills the pans, about 1/2 an hour or so. Preheat the oven to 375 F. When the oven is completely heated up, uncover the loaf pans, and put them in the oven. If the oven is crowded, after about 15-20 minutes you will want to rotate the pans so that they bake evenly.
They're done when you hear a hollow sound when you thump them. That takes between 30-35 minutes. Times depend on your oven and how hot it actually gets relative to how hot/cold it is in your kitchen and the levels of humidity.