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Practicing the basics: bread

This is a very simple recipe for a loaf of bread: it’s nothing fancy and it won’t win any awards at the county fair, but it’s a great place to start. It will get you practice at assembling all of the ingredients, proofing yeast, kneading, shaping and baking, and set you up to be able to make more complicated bread recipes (or to customize this one in a hundred different ways). Plus it will fill your house with the awesome aroma of fresh bread, and nothing beats that. This loaf makes great sandwich bread or breakfast toast. Served warm and fresh out of the oven, it’s pretty amazing with dinner as well.

In a warm kitchen, I can make this bread in as little as an hour and 30 minutes: 15 minutes to mix and knead the dough, 45 minutes for a single rise, and 30 minutes to bake. Two hours is a safer estimate, however, until you get comfortable with it — and longer if you want to do two full rises.

Suggested pre-reading:

Makes 1 loaf of bread. Time required: minimum 1 hour 45 minutes, and longer if rising twice.


  • 1 1/4 cups water, heated to 100-110 degrees F
  • 1 tbsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 4 cups bread flour, plus extra flour for kneading
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

1. Use a hand-held thermometer to ensure that water is in the right temperature range. Too low, and it will take longer for the yeast to get going. Too high, and the heat will kill the yeast. Needless to say, err on the low end if you can’t be sure of the temperature.

2. Mix the sugar and yeast into the water in the measuring cup, stirring well until completely dissolved. This will take about a full minute. Set aside for a few minutes until a “head” of bubbles forms on top. This is called “proofing” the yeast — you’re looking for proof that it’s alive and busy breaking down sugars and starches into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The size of the “head” will depend on the quality of the yeast, the amount of sugar, and the temperature of the water.

3. While the yeast mixture is proofing, mix together the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. We’re applying some cooking wisdom: mix the dry ingredients together, and the wet ingredients together, then combine them. It ensures that ingredients are distributed evenly when everything is combined.

4. Add the olive oil to the yeast mixture and give it a quick stir, then pour the yeast/oil mixture into the large bowl with the flour/salt. Stir until it comes together into a slightly sticky ball, sprinkling small amounts of flour onto the dough a bit at a time. Initially we’re going to err on the side of a dough that’s too wet, because it is far easier to add more flour to a wet dough than to add more liquid to a dry dough.

5. Lightly flour a countertop or other stable flat surface and turn the dough out onto it. Lightly flour your hands and the top of the dough. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, sprinkling on small amounts of flour from time to time until the surface is smooth but not sticky and the dough bounces back. We’re doing two things in the kneading phase: adjusting the flour/water mixture on the fly while the flour is still absorbing water, and helping build a network of gluten threads throughout the dough. There is no One Right Way to knead dough, so find the way that works for you and your arm and hand strength. The key is to exercise the whole ball of dough, so folding and turning frequently are important. My kneading method (demonstrated below) is three steps repeated over and over: fold the dough over itself, push through it with the palm of my hand, then rotate it 90 degrees. Once the surface is smooth and no longer sticky, you know you’re done kneading when you can poke a fingertip about half an inch into the dough and it springs back within a few seconds. If the indentation remains, you have more work to do. This should take about ten minutes, but don’t worry if you tire out before this point: to be honest, kneading is overrated and the gluten network will still develop on its own in most bread even if you don’t knead it; it will just take longer. <add video of kneading> <add video of poke-testing dough>

Alternative to steps 4 and 5: combine the flour mixture and the oil/yeast mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached. Mix on low for 3-4 minutes until the ingredients are fully combined, then on medium for 10 minutes to knead. If the dough is sticking to the bowl, add small amounts of flour from time to time until it stops sticking (adding flour will immediately stop it from sticking, but it will start sticking again shortly afterward until the flour/water ratio is right). Kneading your dough with a stand mixer instead of by hand is certainly less romantic, but we cooks “work smarter, not harder” and you can be working on other things in your kitchen for those ten minutes and preserving your energy while the mixer does the hard work for you.

6. Optional first rise: sweep out any leftover bits of flour from the bowl, and put the dough back into it. Stretch out a piece of plastic wrap on your counter long and wide enough to cover the dough twice over, and spray it with nonstick spray to create a circle that goes out to within about an inch of the edge of the plastic wrap. Place the plastic wrap, sprayed-side down, on top of the dough in the bowl. Let it sit in a warm place until doubled in size, about 30-60 minutes. Exactly how long it will take to double in size depends on many factors, but mostly on the temperature in your kitchen: the warmer it is, the faster the dough will rise. The plastic wrap prevents the outer part of the dough from drying out while it rises — but make sure to spray it, because otherwise the dough WILL stick to it and trying to tear off the wrap will create a huge mess.

After the dough doubles, place in on a lightly floured surface and knead it 3-4 times to knock the air out of it. This is called “punching down” the dough. The longer the dough rises, the more time the yeast has to make interesting flavors. But generally speaking dough that is more than double in size has trouble supporting itself and is more likely to collapse during baking. The first rise buys us some extra flavor-development time, but at the end we’re going to deflate the dough so that it can do its final rise in the shape we want it to be and go straight into the oven after rising.

7. Shape the dough. If you intend to bake it in a bread pan:

  • Spray the inside of the bread pan with non-stick spray. Teflon alone will probably not be good enough to stop the bread from sticking to the pan as it bakes.
  • Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, and shape it into a cylindrical log approximately the length and width of the inside of the bread pan.
  • Place the shaped dough inside the bread pan. Make sure that the dough is curved, not flat, on top, with the high point in the middle. This makes sure that as it completes its final rise and lifts above the top of the bread pan it doesn’t spill over the edges.
  • Stretch out a piece of plastic wrap on your counter long and wide enough to cover the top of the bread pan plus an extra three inches on each side, and spray it with nonstick spray to create a rectangle just slightly larger than the top of the bread pan. Place the plastic wrap, sprayed-side down, on top of the dough so that the sprayed area is centered on the dough.
  • Let dough rise until doubled in size, approximately 30-60 minutes.

If you intend to bake it as a naturally-shaped loaf instead of in a bread pan:

  • Prepare a baking sheet (half-sheet size) with either parchment paper or by spraying the top with non-stick spray. Parchment paper is a much better option here: the non-stick spray, once baked, will leave residue on the baking sheet that is difficult to remove. If you don’t have parchment paper, try to limit the area sprayed to just the area where the bread will be sitting.
  • Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a rectangle about 12 inches wide and 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Roll up the dough into a 12-inch-long cylinder. Pinch closed the end of the dough, and then place the dough on the prepared baking sheet with the pinched-seam facing down. This is an important step that bread bakers often skip. As bread dough rises, it will expand in the easiest direction available to it. In a bread pan, it can only go up, but on a baking sheet it will tend to expand out rather than up — leaving you with a wide, flat loaf of bread. Rolling out and rolling up the dough aligns the gluten strands so that it will tend to expand more evenly both up and out.
  • Stretch out a piece of plastic wrap on your counter long and wide enough to cover the top of the bread plus an extra three inches on each side, and spray it with nonstick spray to create a rectangle just slightly larger than the bread. Place the plastic wrap, sprayed-side down, on top of the dough so that the sprayed area is centered on the dough.
  • Let the dough rise until doubled in size, approximately 30-60 minutes.

8. While dough is rising, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Make sure to check the oven temperature with an oven thermometer, and let the oven preheat for an additional ten minutes after it reaches the right internal temperature so that the walls of the oven can preheat (and not just the air inside the oven). Start pre-heating early, so that your bread dough isn’t over-rising while you wait for the oven to pre-heat.

9. Remove the plastic wrap from the top of the dough. Using a sharp knife (like a paring knife), make diagonal slashes across the top of the loaf, about an inch apart and half an inch deep. The slashes help the bread to expand and release water vapor as it bakes.

10. Place the loaf on a center rack in the oven, and bake for 30 minutes. If you’re comfortable that your oven is at the right temperature, then 30 minutes is a reliable cooking time. If you are less sure about your oven, then you can use a hand-held insertion thermometer to check doneness: a fully baked loaf of bread will register 190-200 degrees in its center.

11. Remove the bread from the oven. Immediately move the loaf from the bread pan or baking sheet and place on a cooling rack to cool. When it comes out of the oven there is still water vapor trapped between the bread and the bread pan or baking sheet; if the water vapor remains, it will make your bread soggy on the outside. Moving it to a cooling rack lets the water vapor escape.

Let the bread sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. Bread definitely does “carryover cooking” so the extra 15 minutes will ensure it’s baked all the way through.

Some options for messing with this recipe once you are comfortable with it (though the variations are almost endless):

  • Substitute other sweeteners for the sugar. You can do a 1:1 substitution for brown sugar, molasses, or maple syrup. Or use 2 tbsp of honey.
  • Use other types of flour. This can be a bit tricky, since other kinds of flour may have less (or no) gluten, may be heavier, or may require more or less liquid. I will often make this basic recipe with 2 cups bread flour and 2 cups whole wheat flour, increasing the water to 1 1/2 cups and adding two tablespoons of vital wheat gluten. Don’t be afraid to experiment; just take good notes and expect that it will take a few iterations before you get it exactly the way you want.
  • Toss in some dried herbs with the flour/salt mixture. Thyme and oregano work great. If you add carroway seeds, it will smell like rye bread (whether you use rye flour or not). Grated parmesan cheese is also a great and interesting addition to this recipe.
  • Do the first rise overnight in your refrigerator. The cold will cause it to rise very slowly, giving lots of time for flavor development. Then in the morning take the dough out of the fridge and let it come back up to room temperature before you shape it for the second rise.

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