The Zen of Baking Bread

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

The smell of freshly baked bread is one of the most delicious aromas I know, followed closely by freshly ground coffee and real vanilla. Smells connect us to memories and anchor us to something simple and timeless.

Bread, crusty loaf, home-baked breadHumans have eaten some form of bread since the Stone Age, when they harvested and ground grains to make a cracker-like bread cooked on hot stones.  Bread is a diet staple, prepared by combining flour and water and kneading it into a dough. There is no other recipe so humble yet so versatile.

I am a bread baker. I learned from my Grandmother and my Aunt Minnie, who taught me to feel the dough and understand its personality. They never measured, and kneading was definitely done by hand. No Kitchen Aid for those ladies!

Making bread keeps me connected to them and to myself. It’s therapy, with delicious rewards. It’s the Zen of Bread Baking.

Ancient Grains

Bread has been called the staff of life and is the most widely consumed food in the world

It has been a nutritional part of our diet for at least 30,000 years when Stone Age man discovered a food that could be stored during winter months with grains harvested in the summer. Bread was at the center of their daily lives; especially when meat was scarce.

The first bread may have been accidental, when ground grains and water were dropped onto a hot surface. Those grains included spelt, kamut, millet, barley, farro, oats and chia and they are still used to make bread today.

These grains have been minimally affected by selective breeding, unlike corn, rice and modern varieties of wheat, which are continually being hybridized.

Leavened bread can also be traced to prehistoric times. Yeast spores occur naturally, so dough mixture that was left to rest eventually fermented. A piece of dough from the previous day’s baking was often used as a base for the next day’s bread and became the first sourdough starter. 

Bread-Baking Therapy

Making my own bread keeps me connected to my Wisconsin roots, but it’s also immensely satisfying. I set aside whatever is on my mind and concentrate on the bread.  From start to finish I allow myself to feel the dough and imagine the crust and texture of the finished loaf. I do not use a bread machine, preferring a floured countertop and my hands.

kneading bread, home-baked bread, bread doughOnce you understand the essentials you can apply them to your own preferences. It’s a logical process that involves learning the science of water, yeast, flour and salt. There are some basic steps and a lot of room for improvising.

We are not a Wonder Bread family, preferring dense and chewy options over white, light and fluffy. I was raised on European breads, and shamelessly know I am a bread snob. There is no shortage of recipes to bring those memories to life.

Good bread takes time. The process should never be rushed; certain steps must be followed to achieve the best results. There are a few rules worth learning to produce bread that gives you all the feels.

Measuring is not the way to go if you are baking. Invest in a good digital scale and weigh your ingredients to get exact measurements. The only other tools you need are patience and a pair of clean hands.

Bread is a tactile experience and the more bread you knead, the more you understand my Grandmother’s assessment of bread that is ready to shape and rise: “the dough feels right.”

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

For hundreds of years breads were sold in whole loaves that were cut at home. In 1917 a jeweler named Otto Rohwedder created the first mechanized bread slicer. It was met with great skepticism; bread companies were convinced housewives would not want sliced bread.

It took eleven years to catch on, but in1928 Otto’s invention was installed in bakeries and production facilities. Less than two years later 90% of store-bought bread was factory sliced. The ensuing industrialization of the bread industry has completely changed what bread is and how it is made.

I appreciate the way things used to be. Not everything is meant to be modernized.

The Annual Pilgrimage to King Arthur Flour

Having been spoiled in Europe and Israel where you have the very best bread baked daily I continue to try new flour combinations and classes to learn techniques.

King Arthur Flour, KAF, baking bread, Susanne Skinner

Class in session at KAF

Each spring I travel to Norwich Vermont to spend a weekend at KAF, immersing myself in all things baking. It is a gift I give myself, and this year my class was Italian breads.

We worked with several types of flours and doughs and one of them was extremely wet. I was certain I had measured wrong and was tempted to add flour. The instructor assured me it was correct, and important to the finished texture of the bread.

He taught us a method of kneading wet dough that develops gluten and was unlike anything I have ever done. It was a little tricky to master the technique; but I eventually found my mojo. It was worth the effort!

Doing this created a thick crust, while retaining a soft, coarse interior. It was baked in a very hot oven for a bit longer than normal to develop the color.

One of the new kids on the block is a no-knead bread that delivers on its promise. I admit I was skeptical, but it’s become a family favorite. Once again, the trick is a very hot oven, and a pre-heated Dutch oven or similar heavy pot with a lid. A little European, high-fat unsalted butter on the finished product is all it needs.

Become a student of bread baking. It channels the Zen of ancient meditation and centers you in the now. It’s worth the effort and you get to eat your homework.

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