I’ve always know that the art of bread making was once common. I knew that the advent of sliced bread was still something pretty modern, but when you are little, time and history can be confusing. Sometimes it’s not until you are an adult that you begin to truly understand the timeline of human history. The first time I had ever heard of a flour bin in a kitchen was sometime after we moved in here. My dad was visiting our new house and noticed how one of the cabinets had a door pull on in a different way from the rest and he asked if it was a flour bin. My reply was a look of confusion since I had never heard of one before… a whole cabinet section just for storing flour? He explained to me what it would have been (b.t.w. it was a flour cabinet at one point in time, but isn’t any longer), and how his mom had one in their kitchen when he was growing up and how Grandma used to make their bread. Another look of confusion from me. It’s no wonder I was a long way off from making a loaf of victory bread.
Grandma used to make her own bread? Silly, to think I had no idea that Grandma might have made her own bread at one point in time, but aside from bread occasionally made in the bread maker, or by my brother-in-law who is actually a baker, I hadn’t thought much about how common that would have been in the not-so-distant past. I guess I had always just sort of assumed that my dad’s family grew up eating store-bought bread. In fact, I distinctly remember him making a comment once about buying sliced bread… I guess it never dawned on me that he might have made that comment because they hadn’t always bought sliced bread. Understanding my little back story, it should come as no surprise to you then, that I only knew how to make bread with a bread maker machine.
My interest in bread making did not start because of my dad’s comments, but because of our budget. We started to use our bread maker quite heavily after moving, and I relied on that machine for months. But one day, it “kicked the bucket” and I was clueless as how to make fresh bread without a bread maker. I had tried once before, prior to moving, but I knew it wasn’t just as simple as following a recipe. I decided I’d try again, not because of our budget since at this point things had eased up, but because we were so used to having fresh bread in the house. Well, my first loaf of bread without a bread maker was a complete flop. And my second. And third. My older sister had really started to get into bread making around this point in time as well, and she was having far more success than I. She gave me a few pointers, and yes, my bread improved, but it still wasn’t quite right. With time, I got better and better, but I knew I was still doing something wrong. And then the family would say things like “she makes really good bread,” (about my sister, or SIL who made bread with a bread maker) or “Mom, how come your bread doesn’t turn out like ___’s bread?” I mean, this went on for a long time! Finally, right around the time we went on our road trip, I just stopped making bread. I was tired of making loaves of bread that failed, and tired of the comments.
I didn’t want to give up completely, but I just didn’t have much of an interest in trying again until I felt that I had more information. Obviously, I was doing something wrong… but what? As I was starting to toy with the idea of making bread again, sometime after the new year, a friend shared a link about bread making. It was for a free e-course by Homesteading Family that taught how to correct the most common mistakes people make in bread making, and I figured “what have I got to loose?” The course was a 5-part course (though truthfully, there’s really 3 important lessons), but it took under an hour to watch all of the videos. I didn’t make bread right after watching the videos for two reasons: 1) I didn’t have time. Things were busy, and I didn’t want to screw up because I was distracted. And 2) I was a little nervous to try and fail yet again. I finally worked up the courage a couple of weeks later, and lo and behold, I made my first loaf of victory bread!
Victory bread is not some special recipe. It was simply my first loaf of truly successful bread, made by my own two hands. My bread was not dry or crumbly. It wasn’t too dense, or under cooked. Everything about it was absolutely perfect, and I cannot tell you how good it felt to finally have succeeded. Yes, I giggled, and yes, I did a happy dance. The longer I had been making bread by hand (and failing), and the more we dove into homesteading, the more of a failure I started to feel like for not being good at making a loaf of bread. It seemed that any homesteader worth their salt was good at bread making, and here I was, failing time after time. After a year of struggles last year, this was a big win for me.
The recipe I had started using was from my go-to cookbook, for a bread called homestead loaves. No, I didn’t go with this recipe for the name, but rather the ingredients. It was a simple sandwich bread, and that’s what I wanted to make. Actually, as I was making the bread, I thought for certain that I had botched it. I was worried I hadn’t let it rise properly, even after following all of the guidelines from that e-course. But the bread still came out perfectly.
I got so excited that I decided it was time to attempt making sour dough bread again. My sister had given me some starter last summer, and I had been making really dense loaves of sour dough throughout the summer, but as we reached the peak of summer, I forgot about my starter and it went bad. I even tried starting my own starter for a rye sour dough, but I wasn’t fully understanding the directions for the starter, and that combine with the heat also caused that starter to fail. This new knowledge of bread making had me feeling confident that I could try again and be successful, and I was right.
I had been wanting to make a sour dough rye bread for some time. Scott loves both rye and sour dough breads, and I had a recipe just for that. It was the starter I had attempted to make during the summer. The recipe makes a ton of starter since the whole point is to ferment your grains, so rather than using a little bit of starter and then adding a bunch of water and oil as you make your bread, the only ingredients are starter, flour, water, and salt. And even then, you are only using about a cup of water. I was drawn in by the simplicity of the recipe.
My original starter failed for three reasons. The first was that it was really hot out, and heat changes the productivity of all yeast, something I knew, but I didn’t know what to do about. The second is that the directions confused me because I didn’t fully understand how bread making works the amount of cups of flour it tells you that you will use to make the starter and the amount of cups I actually used were not the same. The third reason is that I missed an important direction… When the directions tell you that you need to transfer your starter to a clean bowl each time you add to the starter, for some reason, I didn’t think that step might be important. But I was understanding things differently, and I was ready to give it a try again.
Since I didn’t want to use any of my mixing bowls permanently for my starter and I needed a lot of starter to make this bread, I bought two utensil crocks from Wal-Mart to make my starter in. (I couldn’t find a link to my exact crock, and I noticed that they haven’t restocked this particular crock. Note that mine is ceramic, NOT metal, plastic, or glass. Glass would probably be fine for something like this, but ceramic is your best bet.) I found out that my crocks were just shy of being big enough to hold the amount of starter that the recipe makes, but after my first batch of bread, I realized I didn’t want to make three loaves of sour dough at a time, so I pared my recipe down a bit and make two loaves instead, and there is plenty of room in the crocks to hold the amount of starter I need and leave some remaining for me to continue my starter until I’m ready to make more in the next few days. To cover my starter, rather than buying cheese cloth or something else along those lines, I had some new, inexpensive flour sack towels from Wal-Mart, and I cut one of those up into four squares. That way I’m not draping an entire towel over my crock, and if a square gets dirty, I can just wash it and I have a back up (or 3) on hand.
I realized that the homestead loaves didn’t make quite as big of a loaf as I would like for our family, so I increased the recipe by a little bit to make loaves that rise nicely above the top of the pans. If you follow the recipe in the picture I have in here, just know that your loaves will not be tall, and will barely rise above the top of the pan. In order to increase my loaf size, I first increased the amount of liquid, “sugar” (I used honey from our bees), and yeast, by about 1/4, and then added my flour in the same manner that is recommended in the e-course.
For the homestead loaves, as I said, I realized that I didn’t want 3 loaves of bread at a time, so I decreased the recipe. The recipe calls for 2 quarts of starter, which is about 8 cups, so I decreased it to a generous 5 cups, as well as decreasing the salt, and added the flour as directed in the e-course. I discovered that the consistency of the two different types of dough is completely different. One is light and stretchy, and the other is quite dense. The homestead loaf is easy and fast to knead, and I can do the kneading right in the bowl most days, but the sour dough rye takes much longer to knead, and needs to be kneaded on my counter top. It also feels stickier when it is finished being kneaded than the homestead dough.
I wasn’t successful with my first batch of sour dough bread because I started making my dough too late in the day. After I got started at about 2 in the afternoon, I realized that the recipe said that it could take 4-12 hours for the dough to rise! I’ve come to find that it doesn’t always take as long as 4 hours for the bread to completely rise, however.
I also don’t pay too close of attention to bake times, and go more by smell and look. While there is science behind bread making, I get why it’s called an art. You can’t base your bread making on specific times and hard numbers. There has to be flexibility since the weather can change everything. It really is an art.
If you have tried making bread before but failed miserably, or can’t quite get your bread right, or if you have never made bread out of intimidation, I highly recommend that you sign up for that e-course. (No, I’m not affiliated, I just found it super helpful.) I was really starting to give up hope that I’d ever be successful in making my own bread, and this information turned everything around. I’d tell you her steps, but I think it’s much better to watch a video and listen to her explain it… sometimes things are more easily understood when you can watch the process. Eventually, you’ll get comfortable enough with the process of making bread, and you won’t need to do all of the tests for consistency, because you’ll know just from touch and site.
If you are looking for more bread making information, Carolyn of Homesteading Family does offer a more advanced bread making course that teaches about making more complicated kinds of breads that I have not checked out. It might be worth checking out for some of you (though it does come at a cost). And I know that Melissa K. Norris also has a lot of info on bread making on her site, as well as a book and some classes where bread making is taught more about. Laurie from Common Sense Home also has a book that teaches about bread making that I’d be interested in getting at some point in time.
We like to use homestead loaves (which is like a nice sandwich bread) for a lot of our eating… sandwiches, plain, or with a bit of butter. Gosh, I’ve eaten a half a loaf of bread in one sitting while still warm, so be careful! It’s almost like eating a fresh donut without icing! As for the sour dough loaves, we love using that to eat with soups or meals that contain meats. It makes a great turkey sandwich, and I’m waiting to get my hands on some hard salami and sharp cheddar again to make an amazing sandwich! And now that I know what I’m doing for the basics, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m teaching the kids how to do this, too!
I’ve got some linen awaiting use in my sewing room for making bread bags with, but I haven’t had the time to work on them yet. I’m hoping to do that soon, and when I do, I’ll be sure to share more info on that 🙂
How many of you make your own bread? Do any of you have memories of a mother or grandmother making bread? Have you ever seen a flour drawer/cabinet? Does your house have one? I’d love to hear about it!