Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Lifting Spirits and Loafing Around

When you see plastic litter everywhere, it's easy to get despondent. But it's far more productive to get creative.

Our family goes through a loaf or two of bread a week. Buying grocery-store bread, that's scores of hole-lined plastic bread wrappers a year. Dumb, unrecyclable, waste. So I thought, why not just bake bread instead? It turns out, it's so easy. And tasty, nutritious, and almost plastic-free. Plus it makes the house smell amazing.

The Web has a billion recipes. But I wanted to show you mine, for a country-style wheat bread. I'm food-challenged as a rule. If I can make this, and nail it, anyone can!

This is what you need:
  • 2 heaping cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup stone-ground wheat flour
  • 1 1/4 cups 2% milk
  • 3 Tblsp sugar*
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 jumbo egg
  • 2 1/2 tsp active yeast^
You will also need:
  • Extra unbleached all-purpose flour for mixing/kneading
  • Large glass bowl (or other heat-resistant, smooth bowl)
  • Bread pan (mine is 9"L x 4"W x 3"H)
  • Large, clean work surface like a butcher-block table

For me, the ingredients themselves are a lot of fun. The milk & wheat flour are from our local farm -- Harris Farm in Dayton, Maine. I've walked their fields and petted their cows. Harris is also where we get our eggs, "Annie's Farm-Fresh Eggs" out of Limington.

Moreover, almost all of the above is plastic-free. The only plastic comes from the lid of the milk bottle and the lining of the wheat flour. All the rest is paper, glass, and metal!

On to the recipe.

1. Heat the milk (microwave or saucepan) til it's as hot as you can comfortably touch. This will kick-start the yeast and wake it up.

2. While milk is heating, add the rest of the ingredients in the large bowl.

3. When the milk is ready, pour it into the bowl & stir with a fork for a minute until it's all combined.
At this point, the dough will be sticky & gooey. That's perfect. This is where the fun begins.

4. Preheat the oven to the lowest possible temperature (mine is 170F).

5. On the butcher-block, spread out a handful of all-purpose flour. Get your hands floury too. This is messy. Enjoy it!
6. Scoop out all of the dough from the bowl onto the butcher-block.

7. Sprinkle a little more flour on top of the dough, and all over your hands, then start kneading.

This is super easy once you know the tricks. Start by smushing the heel of one hand down into the dough like you're massaging a very tense shoulder. Push the dough forward with your palm & fingers so it stretches.
This is where the magic happens. Your kneading will start lining up the proteins in the flour to create gluten. Gluten holds the dough to itself, helps it rise beautifully, and gives it a wonderful chewy texture. Don't rush this!

Get into a rhythm. Knead with your left hand until the dough is stretched out. Fold the dough back over on itself and knead with your right hand. Many times the dough will start sticking to the table and/or your hands. When it does, add a little more dry flour to the table & your hand, pick at the stuck bits, free it all up. Do a count. "1," left-hand smush, fold, right-hand smush, "2," left-hand smush, fold, right-hand smush, "3..." Get air into the dough with each fold. Stretch it and work it. Remember to add dry flour when you need it! Don't overthink it, just a poof of flour & back in the game. Feel it all coming together.

8. After 3-5 minutes (a 100-count for me using the above method), you'll have a ball of dough that is no longer sticky to the touch, but is still moist & holds really nicely to itself.
9. Now the dough is ready to rise in the oven. Dust the bottom of your bowl with more flour, then plop the dough ball in the middle. Place a large plate on top, leaving 1/2" of airspace.
10. Put the bowl in the oven, turn OFF the oven (important!), and set the timer for 30 minutes. The residual warmth will help the dough rise.

11. While the dough is rising, grease your bread pan well with butter or olive oil. When the timer goes off, carefully take the bowl out. The dough will have about doubled in size.
12. Reheat the oven again to its lowest setting, then "punch down" the dough. Basically knead it very briefly -- 5 seconds at most -- to squish out the biggest air bubbles.

13. Transfer the dough to the bread pan, stretch it out so it's a rectangular block, and cut a 1/2" slit in the middle. (The slit isn't just for looks. Without it, the bread could rise so high that it breaks and deflates, leaving a dense & disappointing loaf!!)
14. Turn the oven off again. Moisten your fingers with tap water and run along the top of the dough just so it's a little slick. Then put the pan -- uncovered! -- into the oven & set the timer for another 30 minutes.

When the timer dings the 2nd time, your dough will look like this:
15. Leave the pan in the oven, and turn the oven on to 350F. Turn the timer on for another 30 minutes. (If your oven heats to 350F very fast, check the loaf after 25 minutes instead of 30. Ours takes forever to heat, so 30 minutes is perfect.)

16. When the timer dings its 3rd time, you're done! Bread!
Total time: 1 hr 40 minutes. Total time that you had to do anything: ~10 minutes. So easy.

There really is nothing like the smell of fresh-baked bread. It's doubly sweet when you baked it yourself. "How do I keep it fresh?" you ask? Well, it fits perfectly into one of those handy store-bought bread bags stuffed into various nooks & crannies in all of our houses!

The fight against plastic pollution seems hopeless. But it's really not. It doesn't require one massive overwhelming rethink about how we live our lives. Just a whole bunch of tiny manageable ones. Once in a while, pick something that you use that's plastic, and use less of it -- or find an alternative. Tell your friends, share the word. Heck, share a loaf of bread.

Change the game!

* This will not make the bread too sweet. The sugar will be food for the yeast, which will devour it and make the bread rise fast & flavorfully.

^ You can also use a pre-made yeast packet. Pre-made packets hold about 2 1/4 tsp. I use 2 1/2 because I like to err on the side of more rather than less. Don't skimp. Give it enough to rise.


  1. great recipe! Thanks.

  2. Hey Harry! I love your breadmaking post! Thanks so much for the comment on my blog -- it was so nice of you to reach out. Hopefully I will get the blogging bug back soon!