My friend Nicole left me a comment about the Pizza Roll post that got me thinking... But, instead of answering her questions in the comment section, I'm going to do a brief (can I do brief? I think I like to talk too much to label anything "brief". :) ) and very basic little lesson on bread making. Now, keep in mind that this is Yeast Bread Making 101 according to Aubri. I'm just telling you what I've learned over the years as I have made bread. So, feel free to take it with a grain of salt, or leave me a comment and let me know if I left something out!
First things first... You want to make sure that your yeast is alive. I make bread at least once a week, so I buy a Costco sized bag of yeast and put it in the freezer so that it lasts longer. Then, I have a small container in my fridge that I add to from the freezer. I will get the small container out of the fridge a few hours before I start making bread so that it can warm to room temperature. I always combine the yeast with the water (or milk), along with the sugar or honey or whatever sweetener the recipe calls for. This way, you can see your yeast bubble, and know that it's alive before you go through the trouble of putting everything together. If you think that your yeast might be old and dead, then add 1 Tbs. of yeast to 1/4 cup of warm water, and wait 5-10 minutes. If the yeast bubbles up, then it's still good to use.
Second...liquid temperature. Lots of recipes tell you what the exact temperature of the water should be. I haven't ever actually used a thermometer to take the temperature of my water. I just know that it needs to feel warm to my hand, and not hot. If the water is too hot, it will kill your yeast. The sugary/honey stuff that you add is to feed the yeast (yeast has a sweet tooth, just like me!!) so that it can bubble up nicely. If your recipe lists milk as an ingredient, it will usually instruct you to heat it up, but just make sure that you cool it down enough before adding any yeast to it.
Next...flour. I have found that bread making is all about finding a happy balance between sticky dough and heavy, hard as a rock dough. It all has to do with the amount of flour that you add to your bread. I have found that bread turns out best when you add just enough flour to make the dough manageable. What I mean is that it's one step past sticky, just so that it doesn't stick to absolutely everything it touches. Make sense?
So, I usually (gradually) add the minimum amount of flour called for in the recipe, knead it for a few minutes (actually, I let my Kitchen Aid do that part) and then check the stickiness of the dough. Then, I will add flour about 1/8 to 1/4 of a cup at a time until it gets to be the right consistency. It's okay for the dough to be a bit sticky before the first raising. Sometimes after the first raising, the dough is a bit more manageable. I usually leave out about 1/4 cup of flour, and set it aside to use while working with my dough while shaping it. So, if the recipe calls for 5-5 1/2 cups of flour total, I will add 5 cups to the dough, and leave my other 1/2 cup to use when I roll out the dough, or whatever. Get it?
Wheat vs. White.... Wheat flour doesn't have as much gluten in it as white flour does. This is why you see a lot of recipes that call for whole wheat flour AND white flour. The white flour helps in the gluten development. If you want to make a truly whole wheat bread, with all wheat flour, then add some wheat gluten or some kind dough enhancer to your recipe to get a softer, less crumbly bread. Another thing to remember when making wheat bread is that it takes quite a bit more kneading. Wheat bread dough needs more kneading to develop the gluten, so make sure to knead your wheat bread for 7-10 minutes in a Kitchen Aid type mixer, and up to 15 minutes by hand. If you have an awesome tough machine like a Bosch, you can get away with only kneading it for 5-7 minutes. Since learning about the whole kneading thing, I have started kneading my white breads for a bit longer, and I can tell a difference in my dough. I would suggest kneading your white breads for 5-8 minutes to get a nice smooth dough.
An egg wash almost always makes your bread look a little prettier. You can use an egg white whisked together with a little bit of water, or milk (maybe like a tablespoon of liquid), and just brush it over your bread dough to help it have a nice golden crust. This is optional. I don't ever do this with my wheat bread unless I'm making it into buns or something, but it looks really nice on white bread. Keep in mind that if you find a bread recipe that you really like, you can use it to make rolls or buns, pizza dough, or whatever. It's all about how you shape it!
The first bread recipe that I ever made is the recipe that I have posted for french bread. It's really easy, and hard to mess up. So, give it a try! I really do think that making good bread takes practice. So, don't be frustrated if you have never made bread and your first batch turns out badly. Just keep trying!