Still the staff of life

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 27, 2000

Of all the things my grandmother taught me to cook, yeast bread was not one of them. She made light-as-a-feather biscuits and cornbread with a golden-brown crisp crust, but that was the extent of her bread making. As the years went on I shied away from bread making more out of fear than anything else. After all, I had heard scary things about yeast breads, such as that the yeast had to be treated with kid gloves, the weather had to be just right, your house had to be the right temperature and a whole host of other instructions

Fortunately, while I was working at the Everyday Gourmet, Shirley Corriher, a cooking instructor and cookbook author from Atlanta, came and taught several classes. One weekend she taught a cooking science class. She covered the how and why of chocolate, milk, eggs, yeast and wheat flour. Not only did she teach us how to handle yeast but we learned the ins and outs of wheat flour.

Once you learn the basic chemistry of wheat flour and how it reacts when you add a liquid, yeast bread will no longer be a mystery to you.

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When you add a liquid to wheat flour, two proteins called glutenin and gliadin go to work. As you mix the dough, these two proteins grab onto each other and the liquid. As they connect and cross-connect, they form sheets of gluten. These elastic sheets trap and hold air and gases released by the yeast and enable breads to rise.

Only wheat flour contains enough of these two proteins to make good sheets of gluten. A yeast bread made with any grain that does not contain these two proteins will not rise, no matter how much yeast is used. The yeast can produce millions of bubbles of gas, but without gluten to hold them, the bubbles float off into the air.

The one-cell plant that we know as yeast feeds on simple sugars from the dough and then oozes out a liquid filled with alcohol and carbon dioxide. When this liquid touches the trapped air bubbles, it releases carbon dioxide gas and enlarges them. The dough becomes lighter and begins to rise. As long as there is oxygen in the dough, yeast will continue to divide and multiply to produce even more carbon dioxide.

Most yeast dough recipes call for the dough to be allowed to rise and then punched down. In this action, the clumps of yeast are broken up and spread so that each cell is surrounded by a new food supply. Then the dough is shaped and set aside. Because of all the well-fed new yeast cells, the bread rises faster during the second rise.

Next the loaves are placed into a hot oven and the bread rises even more. Yeast makes carbon dioxide faster as it warms. Also, the alcohol that the yeast has made from the beginning gets hot and changes to a gas, providing more gases to inflate the bubbles. Heat alone makes the gases expand, enlarging the bubbles. This last rise is called ovenspring, and it continues until the yeast gets so hot that it dies.

Soft starch granules trapped in the film bend and curve themselves around and between the gas bubbles. The dough becomes hotter, and the protein gluten film cooks and becomes firm. Then there are millions of air cells with delicate thin linings, and this is the wonderful texture of bread.

When you head to the grocery store to buy ingredients to make your bread, take your time on the flour aisle and read the labels carefully. What you are looking for is high-protein flour that comes from hard spring wheat. (See box.) This type of wheat is grown in the great northern plains and Canada. Soft winter wheat, which is grown in moderate climates, has much less glutenin and gliadin. Low protein flour is what you want to make light, tender cakes, biscuits, muffins and pie crusts.

This first recipe is a classic bread recipe. You can use it to make loaves or rolls.

Basic Yeast Bread

2 packages active dry yeast

3/4 cup warm water, 105 to 115 degrees

2 cups milk, scalded and cooled

2 to 3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons shortening

1 tablespoons salt

7 to 8 cups bread flour

Extra flour

Soft butter

In a large bowl dissolve the packages of active dry yeast in 3/4 cup of warm water. Stir in milk, sugar, shortening and salt.

Add four cups of all-purpose flour and beat well. Stir in 3 to 4 cups of bread flour. Start with the smaller amount of flour and incorporate more as needed. The dough should not be too dry, but it should not be too sticky to handle.

Remove the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. To keep the dough from sticking, continue lightly dusting the work surface with flour as you knead.

Place kneaded dough into a bowl greased with butter; turn over so the dough is greased-side up. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and set in a warm place to rise for about one hour, or until doubled. Test by pressing the dough with a fingertip. Rising is complete if the indention remains.

Punch the dough down to release large air bubbles, and then remove to a lightly floured surface. Divide dough in half to form loaves.

With a rolling pin, roll each half into a rectangle about 18-by-9 inches. With your hands, roll each rectangle up tightly beginning at the narrow end. Press ends with sides of hands and turn under. Pinch seams and overlapping ends to seal well.

Place loaves, seam sides down, into two greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans. Brush lightly with butter; cover with a towel and let rise until double, about 1 hour. Bake on a low rack (top of loaves should be in center of oven) of a preheated 425-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Loaves should be golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped. Turn bread out on wire racks and immediately brush tops with butter or margarine. Let cool before slicing.


4 The addition of milk and fat produce a better-keeping loaf, but you may eliminate the fat and/or replace the milk with water.

4 For whole wheat bread, replace about half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour. You can use 1/4 cup of honey or 2 to 3 tablespoons of brown sugar instead of sugar.

4 For an herb bread, stir in 2 teaspoons of caraway seed, 1/2 teaspoon of dried sage leaves and 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg with the first addition of flour.

This next bread makes a wonderful whole-wheat loaf. The buttermilk keeps it tender and prevents the it from being heavy. You can make this recipe in less time than many because it requires only one rising. This recipe also contains a staple I keep on hand, buttermilk powder. Because no one at my house drinks buttermilk, I never have any on hand so this is the perfect answer to my problem.

Buttermilk Whole-Wheat Bread

2 packages dry yeast

3/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)

1 1/4 cups buttermilk, room temperature or 1 1/4 cups water

and 4 tablespoons buttermilk powder

1 1/2 cups bread flour, approximately

3 cups whole-wheat flour, (I prefer stone ground)

1/4 cup shortening, room temperature

2 tablespoons brown sugar or molasses

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons salt

Grease a 9-by-5-inch pan or two 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pans. In a large mixing bowl sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and stir briefly to dissolve. Set aside while allowing the butttermilk to reach room temperature, about 15 minutes.

When buttermilk reaches room temperature, pour it, along with white flour, one cup of the whole-wheat flour, the shortening, brown sugar or molasses, baking powder and salt into the yeast mixture. Blend with 50 strong strokes or at low speed in a mixer until the flour and dry ingredients are absorbed.

With a wooden spoon or flat beater on an electric mixer, stir in the remaining whole-wheat flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and when it becomes thick, work with the fingers. Allow four to five minutes for the whole-wheat flour to fully absorb the liquid before adding more flour. The dough will be slightly sticky and soft. You may wish to add more white flour to help control the stickiness.

Sprinkle flour on the work surface and turn out the soft dough. In the early stages of kneading, a spatula or dough blade will help turn and fold the dough. It will also scrape up the film of dough on the work surface.

As you knead, occasionally lift the dough above the counter and bang it down hard. Knead for eight minutes by hand or with a dough hook.

This bread does not have a &uot;first&uot; rising. If using two pans, divide the dough into two equal balls. Allow the dough to rest for five minutes. Shape into balls and press the balls into ovals the length of the pan. Fold in half lengthwise, pinch the seam and place in the pans with the seams under. Push the dough into the corners of the pan.

Cover the pans with wax paper and leave at room temperature until the dough has risen 1 to 2 inches above the level of the pan, about 50 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees about 20 minutes before baking. Bake the loaves in the oven until they are golden brown and loose in the pans, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cover with foil or brown paper if the crusts are browning too rapidly.

Remove the loaves from the oven and place on wire racks to cool before slicing.

This next recipe is my all-time favorite bread recipe. It is made in the food processor and doesn’t require any kneading. Also, it goes in the refrigerator for 2 to 24 hours, so you can make it at night and then bake it the next evening before dinner.

Italian Bread

4 1/2 to 5 1/2 cups bread flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 packages yeast

1 tablespoon margarine

1 3/4 cups very warm water, 105

to 115 degrees


1 egg white

1 tablespoon cold water

In the work bowl of food processor, mix 1 1/2 cups flour, sugar, salt and undissolved yeast. Add margarine.

Gradually add water to dry ingredients and process about 30 seconds. Add 3/4 cup flour. Process for 30 seconds.

Add enough flour to make a stiff dough. Pulse until dough is mixed. Knead slightly until smooth and elastic. Scrape dough onto floured board. Cover with plastic wrap and then a towel. Let rest for 20 minutes.

Divide dough in half. Roll each half into an oblong 15-by-10 inches. Beginning at the wide side, roll up tightly.

Pinch seam to seal. Lightly grease baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal. Brush dough with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours.

When ready to bake, remove from refrigerator. Carefully uncover dough and let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes. Make three or four diagonal cuts on top of each with a sharp knife.

Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Mix the tablespoon of cold water and egg white.

Remove bread from oven and brush with the egg white and water mixture. Return to oven and bake five to 10 minutes or until brown. Turn out on to wire racks to cool.