As promised in part one, here is everything I know about baking my regular 30% whole-wheat loaf. I’ve been baking this loaf (or a minor variation) 1–2 times per week for the past 18 months. This recipe isn’t hard, but the instructions are fairly detailed. There are bread recipes out there with fewer instructions, but I’m not sure that makes them easier.
A recipe is just a set of steps that worked for somebody and then they wrote them down. I will give you my recipe, but understand that you’re probably going to need to change something based on your exact circumstances: the type(s) of flour you have, where you live (altitude, temperature, humidity), amount of free time. Your goals might be different than mine, so perhaps you’ll want to adjust my process. My goal for my process was to minimize the active time, but also the start-to-eating time. This ruled out multi-day fridge ferments common to high-hydration sourdough and no-knead recipes, and also using a pre-ferment. I wanted to reduce dishes and cleanup, so I decided to knead in my mixing bowl rather than on a floured countertop. This also meant no stand mixer or food processor. I wanted to eliminate single-use plastic, so I use a wet tea-towel to cover my dough while proofing and resting instead of plastic wrap.
This recipe is for one loaf, but note that doubling it and baking two loaves is not much more work than baking a single loaf, and then you have one to give away or stuff in the freezer.
I use an Escali Primo digital scale with a small metal mixing bowl on it to scale out my dry ingredients. This is a compromise between dumping everything straight into the large mixing bowl and scaling out everything into tiny prep bowls. This matches with my “minimize dishes” goal. I measure the yeast and salt with a ¾ tsp measure.
Bread lies between the exact science of baking and the free-for-all of cooking. Bread tends to be quite forgiving. Having so many different sets of instructions for effectively the same product makes it clear that bread is fungible. All the different steps and ingredient alterations affect the output, but less so that you might think.
Scale out and add (in this order):
- 3–4g instant dry yeast (~¾ tsp). Don’t bother with Active Dry. Instant can be added directly in with the flour, Active Dry needs to be proofed in water first (although modern manufacturing methods have made this step less important ). Active dry offers zero benefits over Instant, and is pretty much only used by home bakers out of tradition and familiarity at this point.
- 150g whole wheat flour
- 10g salt (~1.5 tsp)
- 350g AP flour. Because I live in Canada, I can get away with the regular all-purpose flour for bread baking. If you’re somewhere else, you probably need to choose a bread flour. Or use AP and adjust the hydration level down.
I use this order to avoid putting the salt directly on top of the yeast out of bakery’s superstition although it doesn’t actually matter in practice.
Mix the dry ingredients together with a bowl scraper. Add in 325g of “wet” water. “Wet” in this sense means it shouldn’t feel hot and it shouldn’t feel cold. It should just feel — wet. For an actual temperature, it’s about body temp. I get this by adding 100g freshly-boiled water to 225g cold water from my tap. And yes, I actually did the math on this. This water gives me a desired dough temperature of about 78F, as expected. You may need a slightly different water temperature based on where you live, or know that your bread might take longer to proof.
Pour the water into the bowl and mix to a shaggy mass with the dough scraper. I begin with a mixing motion, and when the dough gets stiffer I change to more of a cutting motion make places for the remaining dry flour to get into the center of the dough. Once it’s almost into a single mass, I use the bits of dry flour in the bottom of the bowl to rub off any dough from the scraper and switch to kneading by hand. It only takes 30s to a minute to knead in the bowl to get the dough into a single cohesive mass with no remaining dry flour in the bottom of the bowl or stuck to the sides. Kneading in the bowl instead of on the counter reduces additional countertop cleanup. Scraping down the sides of the bowl will also ease cleanup later.
Next step is the autolyse. Cover the dough with a wet tea towel (I use hot water from the tap) and set a timer for 20 minutes. Many recipes will say not to add salt for autolyse, but it’s trickier to knead it in afterwards by hand (since I’m not using a stand mixer) and with a dryer dough (since I’m making a sandwich-type loaf). Also, traditional autolyse doesn’t have yeast, but similarly for the salt it’s tricky to knead it in afterwards, and since instant yeast takes about 20 minutes to fully hydrate anyway nothing will happen during the short period. Some autolyse can wait for up to 1–2 hours, but I decided those were too long for me.
Next, knead in the bowl for another 30s or so and then let rest for 15 minutes. Kneading just ensures that all the flour has a chance to come in contact with water, thus forming gluten. This happens slowly over time, or quickly with mechanical agitation. These two quick kneading and restings replace the longer 8–10 minute period of full kneading, or a 12–24h period of just waiting.
(While I said 20m and then 15m rests, my actual ranges are probably 15–30m for the autolyse period and 10–20m for the second rest.) If you do choose to do the full knead instead of the periods of kneading and resting, don’t worry about over-kneading: your arms will give out before the dough will.
Knead once more for 30s, then shape into a ball and cover. This is the bulk fermentation stage. In the summer it usually takes 90m before this step is finished, in the winter maybe 2h. I set a timer for 90m and check on it to see if it needs more time. You can set the dough in your oven (turned off!) with the light on to provide a bit of sheltered warmth. Stretch-and-folds are less important for a sandwich type loaf we’re making here, but are a good idea if you’re using a wetter dough to develop a nicer gluten cloak.
When the bulk fermentation step is done, it’s time to shape. Dust a bit of flour onto the top of the dough and a bit on your counter. Using your dough scraper get all the dough out of the bowl. Try not to leave any bits of dough in the bowl; this will make cleanup easier.
Preshape the dough into a round, let it rest for 20 minutes or so to relax the gluten, then shape into your final loaf. These steps are difficult to describe with words, so I’m just going to link to Ciril Hitz’s basic bread shaping tutorial. Boules are easiest to start with. If you’re not using a loaf pan it will probably take a while before your loaves look like what you’d get in the bakery. Bread shaping is a physical skill that needs to be acquired. You can watch lots of videos on it (I certainly did!) but you need to train your hands to make the right motions. One of the issues of being a home baker is that you only get shaping practice once a week or so. It certainly took me a while before I was happy with my free-form loaves. You can also use a loaf tin which solves some of the shaping issues, but you’re going to want to play with other shapes eventually so may as well learn.
Re-cover your proofing loaf with your wet tea towel for 45–60m, maybe longer. The dough should be marshmallowy. Soft, with a gentle spring-back, kind of like the pad of flesh at the base of your thumb when you’re making an “ok” sign. If it doesn’t spring back at all when you press it, it’s probably over-proofed. You can probably reshape it and rescue it.
To clean up your counter, scrape the rest of the flour into your bowl and rub it around to clean up any remaining bits of dough. Preventing dried on bits of dough will again ease cleanup. They should be easy to remove straight into the compost. Dough going down your drain will clog it.
Preheat your oven to 425F with a roasting tray on the bottom rack, and boil some water in a kettle. 450F gives a nicer crust but I find the loaf was a bit stale by the time we finished the loaf, so I’m happy for a slightly cooler bake. Also, ovens lie. The recipe developer’s oven lied to them, and your oven is lying to you. Take notes in your journal and adjust for next time.
Score your loaf and put it straight into the oven for 40 minutes. The scoring is more easily explained with a video. If you have a baking/pizza stone, you should probably use it (and it should be heating in your oven for an hour) I have one, but it’s tiny, and baking on a half-sheet pan easily lets me do two loaves. The debate is still out on pizza steels: I’ve heard they’re more likely to burn the bottom crust, but I have no first-hand experience with this. I’m happy with a silpat on my sheet-pan and I can fit two loaves on it.
Right after putting your loaf in, pour about a cup of water into the roasting tray. This is an important step. It significantly helps the crust. If you’re baking in a Dutch oven, the covered environment handles the steaming for you. But again, I’m baking on a half-sheet pan. I didn’t want to deal with trying to transfer loaves into a 450F hunk of metal with small kids potentially underfoot. Also going with a Dutch oven basically limits you to boules, and I enjoy experimenting with different loaf shapes.
When the timer goes, pull out your bread and cool it on a rack to avoid steaming the bottom and getting a soggy crust. Don’t cut into them yet — they’re not finished cooking until they cool.
Hope this helps. This is obviously a lot of detail, but this is how I bake bread. It takes a lot more space written out than it actually feels when baking it.
And remember: Baking your first loaf encourages you to bake more loaves.
Bake more bread.
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