Yesterday I made bread for the first time in over five years. Why? Because my kids live on sandwiches (we’ve had PB&J’s for lunch for as long as I can remember), and I am about out of bread. Sure, there are a dozen other things I could cook for lunch. But as a single mom trying to work from home and now educate my kids on top of that, I struggle to find the time to cook one meal, let alone two.
Let me start by saying I am not an expert or even an experienced bread maker. In fact, I’m just the opposite. While I do bake from time to time, it’s usually limited to brownies, muffins…and more brownies. I haven’t baked bread for at least 5 years, and even back then I wasn’t an expert.
Furthermore, my baking setup is not ideal. I have no flour, only whole wheat to grind. Since most recipes are written for bread flour or all purpose flour, this makes it a little complicated. And while I do have a bottle of yeast in my fridge, the expiration date was January of 2018.
The good thing about all this is that I’m probably just like you. If you find yourself pushed into the strange and foreign world of bread-making by the coronavirus, your situation may be much like mine. Your flour may be whole wheat. Your yeast may be old. But let’s be honest here: Desperate times call for desperate measures. This was not a test to see if I could construct a perfect loaf of bread. Rather, this is an undertaking driven by a need for survival. And while a professional baker might be underwhelmed by my results, good enough is good enough for me.
I will say it again: I am definitely NOT an expert. But, I hope that my experience and the lessons I have learned can be an inspiration to you. If I can do it, you can probably do it to.
I searched long and hard for a recipe that a) a completely inexperienced baker like myself could pull off; b) required very little of my time and no kneading; c) didn’t require eggs, milk, honey or any other ingredients that I am about to run out of; d) was soft enough to enjoy yet firm enough to slice for sandwiches, and e) that my kids would actually eat. Because let’s be honest here, it doesn’t matter how perfect the loaf is, if they won’t eat it, it’s still a failure.
I finally settled on this recipe for No-Knead Sandwich Bread.
The ingredients are simple enough:
3 1/4 cups bread flour
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast
1 ½ tablespoons Kosher salt
3 cups water
This recipe makes two loaves, but for my experiment I halved the recipe to make only one.
Several comments on the original recipe complained that the bread was too salty. The recipe calls for Kosher salt, which has coarser grains than table salt. This means they don’t pack as tightly so you get less salt per spoonful. I used about 1 teaspoon of table salt in my bread, and it seemed to be just right.
8:30 PM. With my kids in bed and less than half a loaf of bread left on my shelf, I pulled out my mixing bowl and started gathering ingredients. I mixed the dry ingredients together, then added the water and stirred it with a spoon until everything was wet. Then I stretched saran wrap across the bowl and put my ingredients away.
Time spent: 4 minutes
8:30 AM, the next morning. My dough had about doubled in size, although it was definitely a loose mass and not a ball like traditional bread recipes. The instructions said to turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead three to four times. My dough was so sticky that I had to use a rubber spatula to get it out of the bowl, and I heavily floured the counter. I didn’t so much “turn” it as roll it around a bit, but I think it got the job done.
I wasn’t quite able to “shape it into a rectangle” and turn the ends under. Rather, I mushed it into a longish ball and plopped it rather unceremoniously into my buttered bread pan. I’m not sure my bread looks how it’s supposed to at this point, but it’s the best I can do, so it will have to be good enough.
Time spent: Another 4 minutes
9:30 AM. The recipe said to let it rise for an hour, but when I checked it was barely halfway up the side of my bread pan and had definitely not doubled in size. Since my house is on the cold side, I decided to let it rise for another hour.
11:30 AM. After three hours, the bread had risen about ¾ of the way to the top. The instructions said to score the top of the loaf, but my bread looked more like batter than dough, so scoring had little effect. I preheated my oven to 450 and put the bread in to bake.
Time spent: 1 minute
12:05 PM. After 35 minutes of baking, I pulled the bread out of the oven to let it cool. I had read that cutting fresh hot bread would smash the gluten and make it have a gummy, doughy texture, so I took the loaf out of the pan and let it cool for an hour before slicing.
Time spent: 1 minute
I was very pleased with the simplicity of this recipe. It required nothing more than flour, yeast, salt, and water, and all together it took less than 10 minutes of my time. Even I can spare 10 minutes to make a loaf of bread.
The loaf smelled and tasted delicious, but was definitely not store-bought bread. It did rise, but never got that nicely rounded top. My loaf ended up shaped a little more like a brick. The crumb (interior texture) was airy and irregular like you would expect from an artisan bread, but still more dense than I would have liked. On the plus side, it sliced beautifully into thin slices that were perfect for making sandwiches.
The taste was not as sweet as store-bought bread. It wasn’t as sour as sourdough bread either, but it definitely had a hint of sourness from the overnight rise. I wondered if my kids would like it, but they ate it right up. The fact that it was new and exciting made up for any differences. I’m sure if I had let them help make it (which is totally doable with this recipe), they would have loved it even more. My daughter didn’t care for the hard artisan crust, because apparently “sandwiches are not supposed to be crunchy.” However, when we ate it with soup for dinner, she thought it was perfect.
What I’ll do differently next time:
This has been a wonderful learning experience and I am excited to bake another loaf to see if I can make it even better.
My load was much denser than I would have like. Whole wheat flour is very low in gluten, which was probably a large part of the problem. It likely would have been lighter if I had used all white flour or bread flour (which is even higher in gluten), or half white and half whole wheat. Since all I have is whole wheat flour, I am going to try to add 1 tablespoon of vital wheat gluten for every 2 to 3 cups of flour. I was lucky enough to find a package on a shelf in my pantry. Milk, honey, and butter all make for softer breads, but since those are all scarce commodities right now, I need to find a way to make bread without them.
Throughout the process, my dough seemed to be wetter than the instructions implied. My research says that too much moisture will also cause a denser crumb. Next time I am going to experiment with measuring by weight rather than volume, since the amount of flour in a cup varies depending on how loosely or tightly it is packed.
I also plan to make a savory loaf by adding a teaspoon of dried herbs into the dough. This should be delicious with soup or topped with a fried egg.
Overall I’d give my bread-making attempt a solid B+. We may not be dining on 5-star cuisine, but I am confident that I can keep my family in sandwiches when we run out of store-bought bread.