Dear The Practical Kitchen,
I’m a beginner baker and have been wanting to learn how to make bread for a while now, but I’m just not sure where to start. There’s so many different kinds of flours, tools, recipes, strong opinions as to whether you should use yeast and sourdough, what seems to be lots of math and percentages, and my head is spinning. What are your favorite recipes for a beginner baker?
— Where Do I Begin?
Before I give you some of my favorite recipes and some basic tools, let me give you the same speech I give anyone who tells me they’re just too intimidated to try making bread: People have been successfully making bread without fancy equipment and special flours for literally thousands of years. Okay, sure, there was that one time the Jews fled Egypt and their bread failed spectacularly, but even they found a way to style it out into matzah.
What I’m trying to say is: YOU GOT THIS.
Those people you see obsessing over dough temperature and percentages and fancy flours are trying to achieve very specific, very precise results. You? You just want to make a nice first loaf of bread. You’re a beginner baker. So don’t start by chasing perfection — half the fun is honing your skills as you go.
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, but there are some tools that will make your beginner baker journey a lot easier if you have them at the start:
Dutch Oven: While not strictly necessary for all of the recipes below, baking bread in a pre-heated dutch oven helps contain the steam released from the dough as it bakes and results in a crunchier crust. Dutch ovens are also great for making soups, stews, and deep frying — so you know, justify the cost to yourself that way.
Parchment Paper: You can use this to line a baking sheet or to pick up your shaped loaf and easily drop it into a hot Dutch Oven without burning your hands. If you don’t have parchment paper, you can always just use some PAM or sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom of a sheet tray before putting your dough down.
Bowl Scraper: A plastic bowl scraper is great for helping mix and combine your dough, as well as scraping it out of the bowl once it’s risen. You could use a spatula for this, but spatulas aren’t quite as sturdy for scooping a whole batch of dough at once the way bowl scrapers are.
Kitchen Scale: When you’re just starting out, using volumetric measurements (cups, teaspoons, etc) will yield acceptable results. However, the reason most bakers use kitchen scales is because a one cup scoop of flour can contain as little as 3.5 oz of loosely packed flour or as much as 5 oz of flour if you pack it in tightly. A standard cup of flour by weight is 4.25 oz or 120 grams, although some brands of flour differ slightly here. When you measure ingredients by weight, you remove any room for error.
If you don’t want to invest in a scale just yet, the best advice I can give you is just not to pack your flour into the measuring cup. You will end up with dense, dry bread.
Instant or Active Dry Yeast: It turns out they’re the same thing! I know! The difference between them is that active dry yeast has a little protective shell around each granule and benefits from being proofed (mixed) with a bit of warm water before you use it. If you accidentally skip this step, the active dry yeast will still work, your dough will just take longer to rise because that little shell has to dissolve before the yeast can really get to work. I prefer instant yeast because you don’t need to go through the extra step of proofing your yeast in water before using it. Just mix it right in with your dry ingredients (away from any salt) and proceed as usual. Store it in the freezer and it will stay good for a year or more.
(And, jsyk, one yeast packet contains 2¼ tsp of yeast. So if a recipe ever calls for a packet of yeast, and you have a jar of yeast and not a packet, now you know what that means.)
Sourdough: I never recommend starting your bread making journey with sourdough. Sourdough requires cultivating and feeding a sourdough starter — a mixture of fermented flour and water that produces its own natural yeast — and even the most basic loaf takes three days to make. Start with yeast doughs, and once you build up your confidence working with dough and are ready to invest a bigger time commitment in your bread making, ask a friend to give you some of their starter. But don’t start there.
So, now that you have your equipment and know a bit about why you should measure by weight and why yeast is not as complicated to work with as you thought, and why you should definitely not start with sourdough, here’s some recipes to get you started:
How easy is this to make? It says it in the name: NO-KNEAD. When you’re a beginner baker, sometimes the best recipe for you is one that tells you to leave it tf alone for a while. And that’s exactly what this recipe is. You will need a dutch oven for baking, but it’s so simple and requires absolutely no kneading.
The gluten strength and flavor develops over the 18 hours in which the dough rises before you loosely shape it into a ball (and I do mean loosely — this is a very wet and sticky dough, so just plop it on some lightly floured parchment paper and prod the dough into a round shape before baking).
Pro-tip: Use wet hands when shaping this dough. I know you always see bakers flouring their hands for kneading, but when it comes to handling wet and sticky doughs, water is actually better for keeping it from sticking to you than flour.
Another no-knead bread recipe, you say? Yep. This one is different from the Girl Versus Dough recipe in a few ways. One, it doesn’t require a dutch oven, which is great if you don’t have one. Two, it makes a truly enormous amount of dough — enough to make 3-4 small loaves (you’ll want to use your largest bowl for this dough). Three, the dough will stay good in your fridge for up to 7 days, and will even begin to develop a slightly more sourdough-like flavor the longer you let it sit.
You basically make the one big batch of dough, and then over the course of the next week, whenever you want a fresh loaf of bread, you simply use your bowl scraper to tear off a chunk of dough about the size of a very large grapefruit, shape it, let it rise, and bake it. When you’re a beginner baker looking to get familiar with handling dough, this is a good recipe to turn to.
If part of the appeal of bread making for you is the kneading process, King Arthur Flour’s Hearth Bread produces two beautiful loaves with dark brown crusts (though the lack of dutch oven for baking beans the crust isn’t as crunchy as the no-knead bread) and a tight, uniform crumb. Before I learned how to “properly” shape a loaf of bread, I made dozens of loaves using this recipe, simply dividing the batch of dough in half and stretching them into oval shapes.
It’s an incredibly forgiving dough which makes it a great recipe for any beginner baker.
Yes, really. Don’t shy away from this one.
Homemade bagels are where my own bread making journey started. The dough comes together quickly, can be made with or without a stand mixer, and is soft and smooth and easy to work with.
Plus, since this recipe only takes about 3 hours start-to-finish, you don’t have to invest a lot of time in them — just an afternoon or a weekend morning. Plus, they taste amazing.
This loose, sticky dough spends 60 seconds being spun around inside an electric mixer before getting a slow hour to relax and stretch out in a well-oiled sheet pan. Dimple it all over and top it with a saltwater brine inspired by Salt Fat Acid Heat‘s Ligurian focaccia. Then bake! If you’ve got 2 hours to spare, you’ve got time to make focaccia. Easy-peasy.
Don’t want a whole focaccia? I’ve got a great mini recipe here.
Good luck, and happy baking!