How I mastered baking a yeast bread from scratch, and saved money doing it
By Jeanne Sidner
My introduction to baking started with the home-kitchen classic that cracks open the oven door for so many – chocolate chip cookies. It was the 1970s, and most of the mums in our largely Catholic neighbourhood were busy raising big families. For the girls in my house, that meant our mother made sure we knew our way around the kitchen. At the flour-dusted table, Mum taught eight-year-old me how to make the cookies perfectly chewy with a crispy exterior. (The big secret: Always chill your dough.)
So from a young age, I was crystal clear on the power of a baked-to-perfection cookie to make people happy. Baking cookies – then brownies, cakes and pies – became my hobby and a tasty form of social currency. First I used my skills with butter and sugar to impress a series of teenage boyfriends. In time, the fresh goodies were left on doorsteps to welcome new neighbours and set out in the break room for co-workers. Baking was my superpower.
A few years ago, I became the content director for Taste of Home, Reader’s Digest’s sister magazine and website that celebrates the treasured recipes of home cooks. I’d never been more excited for a new job, but privately I worried that my baking chops wouldn’t measure up. Why? I had a secret as dark as an oven with a burned-out light bulb: While I had baked sweets my whole life, I’d never made a yeast bread from scratch.
Still, this was no time for excuses. I was a baker, now one with Taste of Home attached to my name. I may have been intimidated by bread, but it was time. I wanted in.
Getting started, I found Instagram to be a friend. A basic no-knead bread was the one I was seeing online overlaid with dreamy filters. People described it as easy, and to be honest, the thought of removing even one intimidating variable – kneading – was enough to get me to buy two kilograms of bread flour and dive in.
I gathered everything I’d need (“be prepared” is the first rule of any baking), including my mum’s trusty Pyrex. It had seen me through my first days as a baker, so I was counting on it to work its magic. I had an easy Taste of Home recipe all set on my iPad. I mixed the flour, salt, and yeast and made sure the water temperature was just right – 38 to 46 degrees – before pouring it in.
And then it happened – or didn’t happen. I followed the instructions to the letter, but my dough didn’t rise. Somehow, impossibly, it looked smaller. Sludgy, gooey, wet with a few bubbles. Sad.
Three hours later, after I’d resisted the urge to keep checking on it like a nervous mum with a newborn, a puffy dough filled the bowl. I hadn’t killed it; it was just … sleeping. A quick fold, a second rise, and then my bread went into my Dutch oven and off to bake.
Thirty minutes later, I took it out. Sure, it was slightly misshapen, but in my eyes, it was golden-brown, crusty perfection, right down to the yeasty-sweet hit of steam coming from its top.
Naturally, the first thing I did was grab my phone and hop on Instagram, positioning my beautiful bread just so in a shining stream of daylight on a wooden cutting board. No one needed to know it was my first yeast bread ever – or how close it came to getting scraped into the garbage can. The online reactions started almost immediately – heart emojis and comments like “This looks DELISH!” from my friends.
Finally I cut into that lovely brown crust and doled out slices to my husband and kids. Those slices led to seconds, then thirds, each piece slathered with softened butter and a little sprinkle of salt. I made my family perhaps happier with slices of warm, buttered homemade bread than I had with all the sweets combined.
At last, I was a bread baker – despite yeast’s best attempts to intimidate me on this first try. No more feeling inferior or afraid. Now I make bread and homemade pizza crust regularly. And I have enough confidence to start thinking (and stressing!) about my next difficult baking challenge: homemade croissants.
Image credit: Shutterstock
This article first appeared in Reader’s Digest.