by Chef James Eckerdt (and his wife, Chef Katie Eckerdt)
So, it’s week four hundred of self-quarantine. The whole family is locked in the house together, grocery shopping trips are few, far between, inconsistent and just a general pain of a chore to get done these days. Looking around the pantry, what do you see? For my wife and me, we’re looking at an obscene amount of flour that we bought on a whim and in a bit of anxiety at the beginning of this whole ordeal. And it’s still sitting there. Taunting us. Now, what to do with it?
After taking the time to be a bit more self-reliant while stuck at home, we’re working on making more food from scratch at home, cultivating a massive garden for this year, preparing to can and preserve the abundance. Next step is homemade bread! Starting with a basic, three-ingredient rustic white bread and a simple, soft white bread that can be shaped into dinner rolls, basic loaves for sandwiches or even homemade pizza crusts.
One of the fun things about bread, is when you understand the techniques and a bit of the science behind it, the bread world is your oyster! Most simple recipes lend themselves very well to small tweaks and additional ingredients to really make your homemade bread exciting and easy to vary so you don’t get bored. Some of my favorite bread recipes end up being different every time I make them, simply because of all of the different flours, seeds, and other flavorings that I add. Some as simple as kneading flax and sunflower seeds into a basic wheat loaf, others taking the recipes we’re going to talk about here and cooking them in a cast iron Dutch oven to create a crispy crusted loaf of sourdough-like heaven.
Some of the biggest problems that I come across when baking at home in general come from the oven itself. Actual oven temperatures can vary greatly from unit to unit. It’s no big deal, but knowing whether or not your oven runs true to the dial is really helpful. For example, our oven at home runs about 5-10 degrees to hot and the oven at my wife’s parents home where we do all of our holiday meals, runs about 5 degrees cooler than the dial. Like I said, not a big deal, just adjust your dial accordingly. Figuring out your oven temperature is super simple; just put an oven-safe thermometer in your oven and check it at different temperature settings, making sure to give the oven a 5-10 minutes at the set temperature before you check the thermometer.
Another problem with home baking, is measuring. A lot of baking recipes are measured by weight. Because baking, in essence, is a science, having a small digital scale at home will save you loads of headaches down the road. Whether measuring by weight with a scale or by volume with spoons and cups, using precise measurements while learning how to bake bread will help you get used to the process. Once you’re comfortable with the straight forward recipe, experimenting with measurements and ingredients is much easier and a whole lot more fun.
Baking at home yields to some fun times and great, belly-filling treats. With temperature and humidity differences kitchen-to-kitchen, persnickety ovens, and lack of know-how, it can be incredibly intimidating. But don’t fret! Take your time and try recipes multiple times before you give up. Getting a feel for how the recipe works over a couple of trials will get you more comfortable baking faster than you thought possible. Whether you’re baking for fun, or because you just don’t feel like braving the grocery stores, baking bread doesn’t have to be daunting and can be more fun and less time consuming than you think. And don’t forget, flour is cheap! If your loaf doesn’t turn out right the first time, toss it to the birds and try it again! Who knows, once this is all over, baking bread at home may be your new normal.
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Shana Larsen and The Chefs of Ready, Set, Eat! Inc.