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How to bake a 'tasty loaf of artisan bread' at home, from the blogger behind Two Cups Flour

Jenn Davis
Courtesy Jenn Davis

I've been baking bread for about 20 years and enjoy sharing my passion on my blog Two Cups Flour. I learned early from my mother, moved on to cookbook recipes, and then I started creating my own. 

I've always loved working with dough. The simple pleasure of mixing, kneading, and shaping is quite therapeutic. Not to mention the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor come to fruition when that golden aromatic loaf is pulled from the oven. My favorite kitchen smell is hot bread in the oven. There's a cozy, inviting, almost intoxicating characteristic to its aroma: Once you get the hang of playing with dough, you'll be hooked for sure.

With minimal ingredients (flour, water, salt, and either a self-made starter or store-purchased yeast), you can make several loaves of bread for just a few dollars. Plus, there are the added benefits of learning a new skill, while sharing a tasty activity with your quarantine partners.

Common bread recipes can be made with bread flour, all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, and rye flour. A 5 pound bag of store brand all purpose flour usually retails for under $5. So whichever one you have in the pantry or can find at the store will work just fine. Each type of flour creates a different texture, but they can be used interchangeably. 

Making a tasty loaf of artisan bread to scarf at home is fairly straightforward once you learn a few key steps. 

The final product of Jenn Davis' Country Loaf bread recipe.
Courtesy Jenn Davis

Here are my top five tips for new bread makers 

  • Spooning out your flour into a measuring cup is the most common method. However, when making bread I prefer to weigh my flour in grams using a cheap kitchen scale. Simply place your measuring cup on the kitchen scale, calibrate the weight to read "0," and then spoon your flour into the cup until you've reached the correct weight for the recipe.
  • Check for gluten structure in your dough by performing a "windowpane test." Pinch a piece of the dough after kneading and spread it then between your fingertips. Hold it up to the light. If you can stretch the dough without it breaking to become translucent and almost see through, it's time to rest the dough.
  • Place your dough in a cold oven with the light on when letting it rise or prove. This creates a nice draft free location and a little heat from the oven light.
  • Use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of your baked bread or tap on the bottom of the loaf and listen for a hollow sound to gauge whether it's done.
  • Store your yeast breads at room temperature in a paper bag on the counter.

How to get started 

When I make a simple yeast bread, I like to use active dry yeast so I can see the yeast working from the beginning. You can use either active dry yeast or instant yeast from store-bought packages.

I add the yeast into my mixing bowl with a little bit of sugar and either warm water or milk depending on the recipe, give it a gentle stir with a hand whisk, and let it sit for about 10 minutes.

I've learned yeast likes sugar and a warm liquid around 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit to activate. A little scientific experiment to watch the liquid come alive and form frothy bubbles never gets old. Then I start adding in the rest of my ingredients using a dough hook on a stand mixer to blend then beat my dough. Don't have a stand mixer? Don't worry, that's when our hands and forearms get a nice little workout. 

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What is all this kneading for? Yeast breads rise from the air bubbles created during fermentation, while resting in a warm location. But these air bubbles require a strong structure to hold them together. That's where gluten comes into play. Working your dough, or "kneading," helps form a mesh-like structure around the air bubbles, allowing the dough to rise into a gorgeous loaf. How long you should keep up the kneading depends on the recipe.

If you decide to make your own sourdough starter, all you need is flour and water, plus a glass or plastic container to store it in. You can use any of the flours I mentioned above, and I recommend measuring the flour with a kitchen scale if you have it.

A loaf made from Jenn Davis' white bread recipe.
Courtesy Jenn Davis

Starters take about seven days to mature for baking. This is a great activity for involving the kids. Bakers like to give their starter a name, and mine is named Gerard. Maintain a feeding schedule, appointing the kids as the caregivers. Document and watch the fermentation in the jar as the starter culture strengthens.

The most important thing is to not let any of this technical stuff deter you. Some of the most delicious recipes are the simplest. Two of my favorite recipes that I've created are a White Bread that is great for sandwiches, made in a 9x5 loaf pan, that yields two loaves. Or you could try my Country Loaf: The texture mimics a sourdough loaf, without the starter, and it is baked in a Dutch oven.

I hope you feel inspired to see how many delicious breads that you can bake with only a little bit of flour and water. Now, you just need to research some great sandwich ideas.

Jenn Davis is the author behind the popular blog Two Cups Flour. A longtime home baker turned recipe developer sharing her love for all things baking with an emphasis on bread and desserts. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, she incorporates a Southern-inspired flare on her twists of classic American and European recipes.

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