To finish off yesterday’s basic ingredient tips:
Milk: Another “not required” ingredient. I leave it out a lot, as I prefer harder, crunchier crusts that you don’t get with milk in your bread. When I do use milk, I use powdered milk, since it frees you up to use as much milk as you want without worrying about the liquid vs flour ratio. Plus, powdered milk doesn’t spoil, and it really makes no difference at all to the actual bread. If real milk is used, again, count the liquid as part of your water. Milk will help create a softer texture inside the bread, and can darken and soften the crust.
Salt: NEVER LEAVE THIS OUT. Minor, but trust me, you’ll notice if it’s not there. You can experiment with fleur de sel or other fancy schmancy french salts – they do change the flavor a bit. Personally, I like plain old kosher salt.
Other stuff: Berries, seeds, cheese, anything can be added to bread. Just keep in mind the texture you want in the final bread, if you’re adding something mushy (raisins are a good example), don’t add them until just before the first rise. Stuff like cheese is better added earlier, so it melts and can flavor the whole bread.
Now, about my favorite appliance, my bread machine.
I adore bread machines. In fact, the way I got into bread baking as a hobby in the first place was by finding some old janky bread machine for $10 at a yard sale somewhere. I took it home, started playing, and was hooked.
I only use my machine for the dough cycle. I don’t think I’ve ever baked in the machine I have now, and I’ve had it for over 4 years (still running strong too!). Why use a machine instead of a mixer? Some say it rises bread better, some say it’s just lazyness. I think it’s a combo of the two. I will never pre-warm ingredients, rise, and mix them as well and as consistently as a machine can. My dough cycle ends just in time for the final shape and rise (unless I’m feeling very fluffy, in which case I’ll rise it again), and has been kneaded for at least a good half an hour. That makes my arms tired.
So obviously, I highly recommend bread machines as a good way to take some of the work out of bread baking. Just please, don’t bake in the machine. Any machine worth anything will contain a dough cycle.
What you pay for when buying higher end machines:
• Dishwasher safe parts
• Closed mixing bowl (my first one was open, which meant liquids had to be carefully placed on top of the flour or they’d seep through)
• Better handles for mixing (one of the handles on mine is permanently stuck, but that’s fairly common). Cheap machines have one, better machines have at least two.
• Programs, both pre-set and custom – Mine has a bunch of pre-sets (wheat, white, sandwich, rye, etc), but they all refer to actual baking methods. I’ve programmed my own dough cycle that contains that extra rise I like, but I still mainly use the prebuilt dough cycle
• Timer – throw all the ingredients in before leaving for work, come home to either dough just finishing up, or a fresh baked loaf of bread. You’ll pay for the timer length, almost all machines have at least a 12 hr timer. Mine’s 24.
• Baking – both shape and how well it bakes. Cheap machines bake the dough upright, like a loaf standing on its end. Better machines will bake a longer loaf. I still have yet to find a machine that bakes as well as an oven, though, and any bread baked in a machine will still have the tell tale holes in it from the mixing hands.
• See through top and light, warning when to check your dough before the final rise. Both of these are nice since you’re really not supposed to ever open the machine until the final rise is done, you want that steam and heat in there to stay consistent. That said, you always have to check your dough before it’s done. A light and glass top allows you to do this without opening the machine. I find I can’t really see through the top of mine (despite the glass), so when it beeps, I open it anyway.
It’s really not worth laying out hundreds for a fancy machine until you’ve reached the limits of a basic. $20 will get you something decent enough. If you are looking for a higher end machine, research. Every machine out there is best at something, you want the one that fits your needs. Mine’s the best for dough, not so hot at baking, which is perfect for me.
Any yeast bread recipe can pretty much be shaped any way imaginable. Just please, please don’t bake it in a bread machine, as wonderful as bread machines are (I ADORE mine), use them for the dough cycle ONLY. It’ll only take you 5 extra minutes to shape and rise the bread yourself, but there truly is no comparison.
All that said, don’t ever make sourdough in a bread machine. Sourdough starter should not come into contact with any metal until baked (although that’s something of a debate – some say you can mix with metal, so on. I figure why risk it.). If you’re making sourdough, you’re gonna be spending a good half hour to an hour kneading it by hand. But that’s fun, right?
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