Sustainability Series: Making Your Own Bread
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
Tell me, sustainability seeker, do you enjoy soft and warm bread with a crispy golden brown crust, fresh out of the oven?
What if I told you that you could make this kind of bread anytime you want in your own kitchen?
Bread can be simple or complicated- depending upon your preference. There are master bakers who really have their recipe fine-tuned down to the temperature and minute, and then there are people like me who are too stubborn and impatient to follow recipes most of the time. Both ends of the spectrum can successfully make bread- I know this for a fact.
Sustenance is at the heart of sustainability. If we want to be truly sustainable we need to be able to sustain ourselves and provide sustenance for our friends and families efficiently with what we have available. Especially now, when going to the grocery store isn’t always an option and sometimes they don’t even have the ingredients we need- we need to know how to feed ourselves in a different way. Making your own bread is also more sustainable than buying it at the grocery store because the ingredients for making bread are mostly packaged in paper while pre-made bread is wrapped in PLASTIC.
Even after we get through the Corona-Virus Pandemic eating sustainably should stick with us because it is a better way to live for our own health and the health of our communities and environment. My main goal with this guide is to break bread-making down to the basics so you can understand the process and then go whichever direction suits you. Then we will get into some of the details from a non-baking expert’s point of view so you won’t have to navigate fancy terms or expert snooty-ness right off the bat. Chris and I have been making bread for years. In the Rockies it can be really challenging to get just any old bread recipe to work- this is part of why I have navigated away from following recipes. At 8000 feet and our insanely-low humidity things just don’t rise like they do at sea level (I have lived at both). We have also lived with a large variety of oven types, sizes, and ages which all affect the baking process differently. So, with these unavoidable (and welcome) challenges in mind- we proceed.
Taste of the Wind DIY- Sustainable Bread-Making Edition
The Basic Bread-Making Process Obtain the Ingredients -buy them at the store if you want to and can -be as aware of what you are purchasing as possible- source and contents -forage them from your cupboard or from your community (trade with your neighbor) or your environment you can even make your own flour
Combine the Ingredients -mix water and flour together, let sit for 30 mins* (the fancy term for this is “Autolyze”) *optional but tends to yield a better result -add salt and yeast to your flour-water mixture and mix it all with your hands –some people claim adding your DNA to the bread/fermented starter is beneficial when you go to eat the finished product, it is also helpful to memorize the texture of the dough at each step through touch so you will know whether you need to add more water or flour at each step for future loaves
Knead the Dough -flour a surface to work on, it helps if this surface isn’t super smooth so it will hold onto a little flour as you work -there are a few different kneading techniques, but the main concept is to pull it away from the mass of dough and fold/smush it back in. Don’t stretch the dough so far that it breaks. You want to maintain that stretchiness to capture the yeast gases in your loaf during your rise.
First Rise -put your dough back in the bowl and cover it with a damp towel (I don’t suggest using plastic wrap… it does the job, but single-use plastic is EVIL) -punch the dough down. Chris does it three times- at 10 min, 30 min, and an hour, other recipes I have followed have just called for 1 session of punching the bread down or stretching and folding somewhere in the first hour and a half -let the bread double or triple in size -temperature can help you out here; Warmer = a faster rise. Generally you want to aim for about 70 degrees F. Colder = a slower rise which can actually give you more flavor if you have the patience. I would not go any colder than 55 degrees F this is just too cold for the yeast bacteria to do their thing efficiently.
Shape your bread -dump your dough back out onto your lightly floured working surface -if you are making a recipe that is big enough for 2 loaves divide the dough in half now -stretch and fold it a couple of times so it will have a pile of folds on top of the dough -pat it into the shape you want and flip the dough, pile-of-folds side down, into your bowl -if your bowl won’t hold flour on the sides butter it before flouring it so your bread will not stick to the bowl (you will thank yourself later)
Second Rise -this rise is short (about an hour usually) you want the dough to about double in size again -this rise should be at a warm temperature, you can place your dough (covered again) on the stove as you are pre-heating the oven - do the poke test. If you poke one finger into your bread and it rises back at you quickly, it needs more time. If you poke it and it rises back at you slowly, it’s ready to bake, If you poke your bread and it doesn’t rise back at you- it already rose too much and collapsed. Your bread will still be ok, it just won’t be quite as light and bubbly as it could have been. -some people put their bread in the fridge for this rise (this is determined by the wetness of the dough and can be pretty darn complicated so I’m going to leave this here and let you investigate this if you would like) -you can do this rise in your baking container or in the bowl you have been using -flip your dough into the container of your choice- we like to use a dutch oven. -if you put your bread in the baking pan foldy-side up it is ready to go! If you put your dough in the baking pan foldy-side down you will want to score your loaf with a sharp knife before baking. You can make an X, or some parallel slits, or a smiley face or some intricate flowers, whatever suits your baking sense. Scoring allows you to choose where your bread will expand, otherwise it will choose and you might not like the result. The folds from your last kneading/shaping will naturally do this for you if they are facing up.
Bake it in a hot oven -let your oven come to up to the full temperature so the yeast really gets going when you put your loaf in (if you did a cold shock to your dough in the fridge or freezer during the second rise this effect will be exaggerated) most recipes call for 375 to 475 degrees. When I’m going freestyle with no recipe I usually aim for 450 degrees F. -if you have a lid/cover for your pan use it until the last 5 to 10 minutes of baking -if you don’t have a cover put a bowl of water in the oven with your bread to keep the crust from forming until the very end, pull out your steam bowl for the last 5 to 10 minutes of baking to make a nice crust Remove from the oven, cool, and enjoy*!!! Tip* - a good bread knife helps, but usually our loaves turn into what we call tear-breads because we can’t wait long enough to slice off delicious morsels. We just rip them off- we’re heathens…. we have already accepted this fact.
The Flour: there is a HUGE variety of flours. Local flours are better for freshness and for your community. Flours that have to be refrigerated are even fresher. If freshness is your goal you can even buy whole wheat berries and make your own flour from those. University Wyoming Extension is doing projects with Ancient Grains, they help farmers around the state grow and harvest grains like Einkorn, and Spelt. They have these flours available at certain events and are working on expanding processing and markets for these grains that suit Wyoming’s growing environment. You can learn about the project here: https://www.uwagec.org/neolithicbrand/about/
The Leavening: If you have access to yeast great! Dry-activated yeast is easy-to-use and stores for long periods of time in the fridge. If you don’t have access to yeast don’t worry. You can make a variety of “quick-breads” with leavening agents like baking soda, baking powder, even beer, or kombucha ferments. With these agents the action of the rise happens in the oven so these breads are often referred to as quick-breads because they don't require rising times like yeast breads. If you still want to use yeast, but you can’t or don’t want to buy it you can catch some! Yeast is everywhere in our world you just need a little bit of it to land in your starter. You can also use an existing yeast culture often called “levain” or “sourdough starter.”
I have one from the Hampton Family in Worland, WY that was started in 1926. These starters do require feeding if you want to maintain them yourself. This can also get complicated and difficult if you get busy or go on vacation. This is why I always keep a backup in my freezer- because I have killed a LOT of sourdough starters…. This also means I always have one to give away to friends and family. When you need to discard some starter and replace it with fresh flour and water you can make all sorts of awesome goods: sourdough pancakes, sourdough naans, sourdough banana bread, sourdough cinnamon rolls etc. At that rate, it seems weird to call it discarding, better to just consider it routine enjoyment? Let me know if you would like some of the @sourdough1926- yes this starter has an Instagram handle….and no, I didn’t create it.
The Tools: Remember in last-week’s sustainability series edition when I said you are going to need some bowls if you want to have a sustainable kitchen? Well this is one of those things you are going to want some of those BOWLS for. I suggest Ceramic or Wooden bowls. Metal is thought to kill wild yeast cultures and other good fermenting bacteria. Chris has this beautiful grooved ceramic bowl that holds flour in the grooves- great for bread making! He found it at a thrift store after years of looking for one, so he is pretty proud of it. Wooden bowls hold flour nicely too. Steep sides are ideal for rising dough. Shallow sides allow the bread to rise outward instead of upward and make for flatter loaves. Part of making bread is using your hands! Get your hands all sticky and doughy and floury and enjoy making a mess! This part of the process has to contribute to flavor and our own sanity- where is the fun in letting a mixer do all this for you. Plus, kneading dough can actually be a great upper body workout and is also great for moisturizing your hands . The Time: if you are following a recipe or not, the time varies- it just does. A lot of factors play into this; the temperature and humidity in your kitchen/house, the wetness of the dough, the attitude of the little yeast bacteria on that given day…. I have just found it easier to use recipe times as starting points and listen to the dough. Look for the result you are after using the texture (most importantly the stretchiness) and the amount the bread has risen- rather than the time that the recipe states.
Crust Tips and Tricks: If you find that scoring your loaf is nearly impossible because the dough is sticking to your knife, pop your dough in the freezer for a couple minutes and sharpen your knife then dip it in flour. If you want an extra shiny crispy crust try brushing with egg white (I also use the yolk for a nice browned/yellow-orange zero-waste effect) for the last 5 to 10 minutes of baking. If you want to make your bread easier to remove from your pan sprinkle corn meal in the bottom of the pan before you put your dough in. For wheat breads and sweeter loaves oats and/or bran sprinkled on top add a very nice element to the crust. You can also do this with nuts, seeds, and spices in the loaf or just on top. Forethought: if you don’t like having to plan so far ahead to have fresh bread at a meal consider freezing dough. Go for those 2-loaf recipes and when it comes time for the second rise, shape your loaves, put one back in the bowl and one into the freezer. Then all you have to do next time is pull the dough out, let it thaw and rise, then flip it into your baking pan and go!
Recommended Bread Books: For the recipe-oriented- Bread Alone Flour Water Salt Yeast Follow hashtags on Instagram like #sourdoughrecipes #yeastbreadrecipes etc. For the trial-by-fire oriented- Pinterest Instagram Consult your Starter or Yeast and the Force! Whether you are a by-the-book person or a bake-by-feel person, write down what you do, your rising times, your temps, customize your own bread process to figure out what works best for your kitchen. The environment varies by kitchen- there are SO many variables including the microbes present in your starter and in the air, so getting a handle on the variables you CAN measure can help you gain an understanding of the process in your own setting. Then you can use what you learn and observe to adjust existing recipes- when you do follow recipes- for better results.
If your bread doesn’t turn out, don’t waste it! Make bread crumbs for a casserole or croutons for a salad or a pizza crust- I challenge you not to throw any misfit bread loaves away. Let me know what you come up with, I would seriously love to hear about it! If all this just is too overwhelming or doesn’t sound like something that you want to try keep in mind that we have a couple of really awesome local bakeries in town. Solstice Acres and Golden Prairie Bakery are the ones we have tried and we LOVE their products. As always, let me know what your bread-making tips and tricks are. I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do LOVE bread and I LOVE making stuff with my hands. I will be attempting to make more flours out of seeds from weedy species this summer so stay-tuned for progress on that project.
Happy Sustainable Baking and Enjoying!
- Chris and BJ