Whether you're new to baking bread or an old hand who's always looking for tips to make your life easier, you've got to read these nine tips straight from the bread-baking masters at King Arthur Flour.
I've been a fan of King Arthur Flour for a long time. Its recipes are second to none in terms of complete and easy-to-follow instructions, and if I may say so, its flour really is superior to the cheap store brands I used to use. I was thrilled to get the chance to pick the brain of Katie Walker, King Arthur Flour's spokeswoman and baker extraordinaire in her own right, for her top tips for bakers of bread, spreaders of butter and sandwich-makin' fools.
According to Walker, it's imperative you always read the recipe twice. This is actually good advice for anything you're making, but bread in particular can reach a point of no return. You don't want to have to throw out an entire recipe because you misread the amount of yeast to use.
It's called cooking mise en place, and it's just as vital with bread as with anything else. Measure out all your ingredients before you get started. You can put them into different containers as needed (bowls, teacups, whatever you have). This helps ensure that you have enough of everything you need before you get started and that it's ready when you are.
Baking ingredients are almost always best measured by weight (ounces, grams, etc.), not volume (cups, teaspoons, etc.). But the great thing about measuring by volume is that when you do measure ingredients together, you can use the scale's tare function to put them all in the same bowl immediately. Definitely cuts down on cleanup!
You need to know if your oven is properly calibrated and whether it has hot spots (it probably will).
You can purchase an oven thermometer for a few dollars, and it can really help you "diagnose" your oven. If your oven thermometer tells you it's hotter or cooler than it should be, you should have a technician out to recalibrate.
Once you're sure your oven is properly calibrated, you should check it for hot spots. Pretty much all ovens have hot spots. How do you know where they are? Make some toast. Just put several pieces of bread on your baking sheet, and let it ride for five or 10 minutes. When you pull it out, any darker pieces will represent your hot spots, meaning you may need to either put more delicate things in a different area or even turn your bread part of the way through baking. There's probably not much you can do about hot spots, unless you have a convection oven (where the air can circulate), since it's probably the way the oven was manufactured (that is, all ovens will have them), but knowing it can really help you know when to turn your baked goods.
Depending on how often you bake, using precut parchment or a silicone mat is a great tip. It keeps your baked goods from sticking to the pan without the use of excess fat and keeps your pans looking like new.
If you bake infrequently, use parchment. Walker recommends precut parchment for its ease of use. She also says parchment can be used multiple times before having to throw it away. If you're a hardcore regular baker, you might consider a silicone baking mat instead, which has the same effect with less waste.
Walker advocates weight measurement, but if you have to measure by volume (as many recipes require), do so correctly. With things like flour, she recommends the "fluff, dust and scrape" method. That is, after fluffing your flour, you then spoon it in and level it off.
Walker stresses how important it is to have your ingredients the right temperature. Everyone knows yeast has to be added to the right temperature of water, but if it applies to your recipe, butter should be either cold or softened as instructed, because it can affect your recipe. She recommends that any recipes calling for eggs without any specific instructions use eggs that are room temperature.
If you have them available in your area, baking classes are invaluable. Walker notes that, if available in your area, King Arthur's classes are so good she takes them herself. But if they aren't, sometimes seeing someone actually doing it or having someone there to correct you can be the best learning tool.
According to Walker, you can't be afraid to fail. You'll screw it up, sure. But think of it as a learning experience. If you give up after you mess up, you'll never really learn. Keep researching and trying.
Walker recommends beginning bakers to start with easy recipes. She actually suggested a recipe for beginners that I've made several times: no-knead crusty white bread. Ridiculously easy.
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