Avram and I have a joke - with an twisted origin from something that Avram's brother Samuel's mission companion (he went to Montreal) said once about Poutine (a specialty of Canada) - that you only need three things to make a good Poutine - good Potatoes, good gravy, and good cheese. As Poutine is thick french fries covered in a gravy and cheese curds, this effectively describes the whole dish. We like to turn this into a joke about any dish. 'Pizza only takes four important things. Good dough, good sauce, good cheese, good toppings.' 'Fettuccine Alfredo only needs three important things. Good Noodles, good cream and good Parmesan.' - and so on until we get tired of the joke, which hasn't happened yet.
I'm happy to say that Bread is not in this category. In my experience you can get by with some mediocre ingredients and produce a wonderful product. Bread making is all about the method. I am the official family roll maker for my family's Thanksgivings and Christmas celebrations, and am somewhat famous in the position, if I do say so myself (and I just did). I have repeatedly been asked by various sisters for my roll recipe - and I always tell them that it isn't the recipe. I could use any old recipe lying around - and I usually do. It's how you make the rolls that makes them special. Same thing applies to bread. You can take any flour, water, salt and yeast you have lying around and turn out a great loaf - without even a recipe or four star ingredients at all.
Having said all this, I do care enough about my ingredients that I use to want to pontificate on them for a post or so.
YeastThere are two major types of yeast out there on the market, Instant or Regular. Either kind works fine, but I do prefer the regular, and I can't really tell you why. Supposedly since the regular yeast takes longer to rise, the flavor of the bread develops better. Who knows? Regardless, don't go out and buy the regular if all you have is instant. The regular comes in small balls, and the instant is more powdery. Many modern recipes assume you have instant yeast, and so will instruct you to mix the yeast with the flour. Do NOT do this if you have regular yeast. Regular yeast must be dissolved in water before mixing with flour - otherwise it will never fully activate, and your bread won't rise (and it also won't fully incorporate into the dough, and so there will be pesky little dots of yeast scattered throughout your bread. Not that I know this by personal experience, or anything....) If your recipe tells you to add the yeast to the flour first, just add it to the water, and make sure the water is warm to the touch, so the little yeasties can grow.
Instant yeast can either be mixed with water first, or mixed straight into the flour. My recipes will all call for proofing, or mixing the yeast and water, since I use regular yeast. Also this method allows you to test your yeast to make sure it is active and strong. Yeast has a shelf life, and the longer it sits, the less rising action you will get from it. Yeast is actually alive (which makes me wonder - is it alive enough to count as an animal? Should vegetarians really be eating bread? What about jello - gelatin is made from pigs and cows hooves and stuff. So can vegetarians eat jello? Mmmm, these are deep thoughts), and the best way to keep it fresh and strong is by storing it in your freezer. I just put the little jar or bag (if it's in a large bag, like you can buy yeast in from Costco, I first place it into a larger bag, so yeast doesn't leak out all over my freezer) straight into my freezer door - the yeast doesn't have moisture, so it won't freeze into a solid block, but will just remain as it was unfrozen in form and composition, and you can use yeast for any recipe straight from the freezer. If you proof your yeast and it isn't very strong, double the amount called for in the recipe.
Yeast is not like other ingredients. If you double the recipe, only 1 1/2 times the yeast. If you halve the recipe, you don't necessarily halve the yeast.
When buying yeast, take the plunge and buy the biggest container you can of it - it's much cheaper per ounce to buy a honking bag than a dinky little set of three individual use pouches.
I really don't have much to say here except use any old tap water. It's important though to add warm water - about the warmest that you can comfortably rest your hand in it - so that the yeast will grow quickly. Otherwise your dough will take forever to expand. If the water is too hot, it will kill the yeast as well (although I've never accidentally added too hot water.) It's really not rocket science - if you wouldn't put your baby in the water, whether it's too hot or too cold, then don't stick the yeast in it. Your baby - alive. The yeast - alive. Both need to grow. Just whatever you do, don't stick the baby and your yeast in the same water at the same time.
Bread does not need sweetener. I have made many a loaf with nothing but the four basic ingredients - Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. But sweetener does help the yeast grow quickly, since they feast on the sugar, it acts as a preservative, and if you add a lot of sweetener it affects the flavor of the bread as well. For whole wheat bread I always use honey, because the flavor complements the whole wheat taste. Also, honey is sweeter measure for measure than sugar, so if you ever substitute sugar for honey you need to add more sugar. Since I make a weekly sandwich loaf, I use minimal honey - two tablespoons for two loaves. But if you like a richer bread, feel free to add more. Honey is expensive, especially when compared to using sugar, but two tablespoons a week does not add up very fast. I've been using the same large container (about $10) for about eight months, and we use it for everything - sandwiches almost daily, on cornbread, in bread baking.
If you quickly spray the measuring cup first with oil before measuring out the honey, the honey will slide right off the cup. I love spray oil - it's my best friend in cooking.
For this recipe I would recommend either using all whole wheat flour or part whole wheat, part white flour. For a white sandwich bread, I'll post a recipe soon that better works for white bread. Optimally for the best loaf, I recommend half hard white wheat flour, and half hard red wheat flour. Obviously this will not be an option unless you can grind the wheat yourself, so feel free to just use whatever whole wheat flour your store provides.
If you are LDS, odds are that someone in your ward has a wheat grinder that they would love to either lend you, or have you come to their house and use. If you aren't LDS but know anyone who is, odds are they too will have an unused Wheat Grinder in their garage. For months before getting my own wheat grinder I would periodically borrow a Sister's wheat grinder and grind two or three months worth of flour at a time. I would grind the red and white wheats separately, and then store them in gallon freezer bags in my freezer. These bags can hold a LOT of flour when filled completely! If you are going to store wheat flour for longer than a day or two, store it in the freezer - it will stay fresh tasting and retain its nutrients better this way. Even store bought wheat flour benefits from being kept in the freezer.
Even now with my own grinder I will intentionally grind more than I need, and keep the extra in the freezer, so that way when I'm whipping up something quick I can just grab the flour from the freezer, instead of having to add in the extra step of grinding it right then. I grind the red and white wheats separately, but you can also just add them straight to the hopper together, which will make a nice premixed flour, without having to add the different flours to the dough separately.
We don't like much salt. You can if you like salt a lot double the amount of salt my recipe uses.
I developed this recipe to use up food storage items, and so intentionally included dry milk. If you do not keep dry milk in the house, just substitute milk for most of the water (still proof the yeast in warm water), and you'll be fine. If you do this, warm the milk up in the microwave until it's lukewarm. Milk is important to include in a sandwich bread that you will not completely eat on the day it's made. Milk, along with honey and eggs (if a recipe uses them - this one doesn't) help preserve bread, and keep it fresh tasting longer. Bread without any of these will taste stale the next day after baking.
I only use Extra Virgin Olive Oil in my bread baking - whether it's white bread or wheat bread (although with rolls I do use butter). There is no taste residue in the bread itself, and I like how healthy it is. If you like, you can substitute any oil, or even melted butter. But I do prefer Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or at least Olive Oil.
Vital Wheat Gluten
This is probably the most specialized ingredient, and also probably the only one that you don't already have in the house. But it is NOT optional. Or I suppose it is, if you like to eat the stereotypical whole wheat bricks that are the reason people are convinced homemade wheat bread is disgusting. In Provo, where you can buy fifty pound bags of wheat in the grocery store, you can also find Vital Wheat Gluten in any grocery store. Here in Ohio, I found some organic, super expensive wheat gluten at Walmart. On my last trip to Utah I stocked up, although my Mom ended up getting me Dough Conditioner instead. This will also work, although not quite as well, but it is a good thing to keep for any yeast bread, as it will help give bread that indefinable "bakery taste" (they all use dough conditioners).
Whole Wheat Flour doesn't have as much gluten as white flour, and as gluten is what gives bread its structure to keep it risen and lofty instead of dense and yucky, you need to boost the dough a little with vital wheat gluten. This will help your wheat bread rise and stay risen. It is the miracle secret of home whole wheat baking, and it's worth buying - I only use two tablespoons per recipe, so it lasts a long time. Dough Conditioner even only needs one tablespoon per recipe. So go make the investment into edible home whole wheat products today! (The Company of Grandma's County Foods really ought to pay me to say all this. I sound like a cheesy commercial.)
There you have it - the complete tour through my bread's ingredient list. I calculated it once that making homemade bread costs about a dollar a loaf. For twice that amount you can buy white bread in the store that you can smash down into a little ball of bread mush, or you can have healthy, yummy homemade whole wheat bread.
Soon I will post the recipe and instructions themselves, and then you too can eat yummy bread all of the time.